Analysis of G. K. Chesterton’s The Blue Cross

“The Blue Cross” appeared in The Storyteller magazine in September 1910 and heralded the first appearance of G. K. Chesterton’s most famous and enduring creation, Father Brown. The story, and the five further stories that followed at monthly intervals, were combined with six more Father Brown stories that appeared in Casell’s Magazine to create The Innocence of Father Brown in July 1911. Because of the popularity of the stories, the publication of The Innocence of Father Brown was widely anticipated, and it received gracious reviews. Negative criticism focused on the inability of the character of Father Brown to support an anthology of stories. Many critics have identified a lack of consistency in the character across a number of stories, and others have criticized the stories for their perceived lack of substance. However, the popularity of the first collection ensured that Father Brown continued for a further 37 stories, providing Chesterton with an enduring and profitable character. Father Brown never received the literary or creative recognition afforded to Edgar Allan Poe’s or Arthur Conan Doyle’s detectives, but during the early 1900s he was considered second only to Sherlock Holmes. The adaptation of “The Blue Cross” into the 1954 film with Sir Alec Guinness as Father Brown and the mid-1970s TV series ensured that the character’s influence was felt by modern detectives such as Columbo and Father Dowling. If detectives are “identified by their methodologies or approaches” (Kayman, 44), as Martin A. Kayman claims, Father Brown’s unique and unusual style of detection makes him a very distinctive detective. There are two principles that simply but effectively distinguish Father Brown from other detectives: Father Brown is an invisible and innocuous figure, and he has an innocent knowledge afforded by his role as a priest.

A reader could be forgiven for thinking that “The Blue Cross” introduces a cynical and flawed French detective rather than Chesterton’s innocuous priest detective. The narrative follows Valentin, the chief of Paris Police and “the most famous investigator of the world,” as he tracks Flambeau, the bold and daring “colossus of crime.” At the crucial moment of capture, after Valentin has followed Flambeau by a number of unusual clues, it is revealed that another detective figure, Father Brown, has outsleuthed Valentin and, without prior knowledge of Flambeau’s criminal behavior, has anticipated and thwarted the villain’s crime. Unlike Holmes or Poirot, Father Brown is not a pretentious or ostentatious great detective. Instead, he is a scruffy, overlooked, and underestimated priest. He is introduced at the beginning of the story as a subject for pity. Valentin describes him as having “a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling” and “eyes as empty as the North Sea” (2001, 5). Yet his appearance and vocation causes Flambeau to underestimate him, allowing Father Brown to leave outrageous clues for Valentin to follow and to ascertain the true nature of Flambeau’s criminal intentions by testing his tolerance. Father Brown reasons that an innocent man would express annoyance if he found salt in his coffee and express outrage when overcharged, while a man with something to hide would not. When Flambeau drinks his salty coffee and pays an exorbitant bill, Father Brown knows something is wrong, manages to identify Flambeau’s technique for theft, and uses it against him. Because Father Brown has remained so inconspicuous, when he reveals his denouement Flambeau is left “stunned with the utmost curiosity” (2001, 25).

Flambeau’s astonishment turns to disbelief when Father Brown reveals what Joseph Pearce has termed his “innocent wisdom” (2001, 92). While Father Brown initially knows nothing of Flambeau’s criminal plot, he displays an intuition for criminal behavior. Father Brown explains, “Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?” (2001, 25–26). In his autobiography, Chesterton provides an explanation for the origin of “The Blue Cross,” the Father Brown character, and in particular, the concept of innocent wisdom. Chesterton describes his surprise that his friend, Father O’Connor, should have a more detailed knowledge of criminal behavior than he, because the generally accepted opinion of priests was that they knew nothing of real-world transgressions. In Chesterton’s own words, “That the Catholic Church knew more about good than I did was easy to believe. That she knew more about evil than I did seemed incredible” (1937, 328). When enlightened on a point of vice and crime by Father O’Connor, Chesterton describes a “curious experience to find that this quiet and pleasant celibate had plumbed those abysses far deeper than I” (1937, 326). What ultimately distinguishes Father Brown from other detectives is not his religion but the benefits his religion affords him. Through the practice of reason that he considers essential to theology and the personal experience of confession that provides intimate knowledge at a distance, Father Brown is able successfully to reconcile intuition and reason. Consequently, Father Brown predicts and manipulates both the criminal and the detective but does so unobtrusively.

Similarly, the stories themselves are distinctive by not being unusual. There are no razor-wielding orangutans or pigmy assassins. Crimes, when they do take place in a Father Brown story, have the most commonplace explanation but often the least-expected outcome. In “The Blue Cross” Chesterton introduces an ingenious and plausible detective in a tale that is no less amazing because it is so easily comprehendible.

Chesterton, G. K. Autobiography. London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1937.
———. The Best of Father Brown. London: Dent, 1987.
———. Father Brown. London: Penguin, 2001. Coren, Michael. Gilbert: The Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton. London: Cape, 1989.
Father Brown (1954). Directed by Robert Hamer. Written by Thelma Schnee and Robert Hamer. Columbia Pictures, 1954.
Pearce, Joseph. Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996.
Sullivan, John, ed. G. K. Chesterton: A Contemporary Appraisal. London: Paul Elek, 1974.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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