A detective story first published in the monthly magazine The Storyteller in October 1910, and subsequently in the collection The Innocence of Father Brown (1911).
Father Brown attends a dinner party held by the chief of the Paris police, Aristide Valentin. The party is interrupted by the discovery in the garden of an unidentified corpse that is dressed for dinner but whose head is completely severed from its body. Besides entries from the house, the garden is bounded by three high walls offering no access to the outside. It is quickly established that the murder weapon is a saber forming part of the dress of one of the guests that is found outside the house. Suspicion falls on Valentin’s guest of honour, Julius Brayne, an American millionaire and financial supporter of religious institutions. Brayne’s sudden, suspicious disappearance and the discovery of dollars on the body support this theory. The next morning, a second head is recovered from a Parisian river, although its body is missing. The body in Valentin’s garden is identified as Arnold Becker, the twin of a recently guillotined German criminal. Various questions remain: What was Brayne’s motive? Why was such an ostentatious method of murder used? and How did Becker manage to enter the sealed garden without being seen? Father Brown realizes that the second head belongs to Brayne and that the body and head in the garden do not match. It was Brayne who was murdered in the garden; his head and the saber were then thrown over the garden wall and Becker’s head substituted. Furthermore, Brown explains that the second head is not that of Arnold Becker but that of his twin brother, executed the previous day. The murderer must be somebody with access to the guillotine— Valentin himself, who, while demonstrating to Brayne his ability with the saber in the garden, beheaded him from behind. Valentin’s motive is ideological; as an atheist determined to do anything to break “the superstition of the cross,” he wished to prevent Brayne making a substantial donation to the Church of France. The story ends with Valentin’s suicide by drug overdose.
“The Secret Garden” was the second story (after “The Blue Cross”) to feature the amateur detective Father Brown, a character based on a friend of Chesterton’s, Father John O’ Connor. The story belongs to the subgenre of the “locked room mystery,” in which a crime appears to have taken place in impossible circumstances (the genre takes its name from the frequently employed mystery of a murder victim found alone in a room locked from the inside); here, the locked room is the sealed garden. Critics of detective fiction have noted that the locked room genre makes particular use of paradox, and the form is particularly suited to Chesterton’s approach to detective fiction, which uses the devices of the genre to illustrate a moral insight. “The Secret Garden” reinforces a central argument of the Father Brown stories, that as a Catholic, Brown is more sensitive to the nature of evil than nonbelievers, an argument represented by the explicitly stated theological contrast between the two detective figures of the story, the Catholic Brown and the atheist Valentin, whose rationalism paradoxically makes “mercy even colder than justice.” The seemingly impossible crime also encapsulates the wider concern of the Brown stories with the nature of miracles. The solution to the mystery is seen not as a materialist explanation for this miracle but rather as a process of demystification. This underlies the ideological stance of much of Chesterton’s detective fiction—that spiritual truth is characterized by simplicity and the clarity of faith, as opposed to the complexity and obfuscation of bad religion and superstition.
Chesterton, G. K. The Innocence of Father Brown. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Finch, Michael. G. K. Chesterton: A Biography. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1986.
Kayman, Martin A. “The Short Story from Poe to Chesterton.” In The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction, edited by Martin Priestman, 41–58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Sweeney, S. E. “Locked Rooms: Detective Fiction, Narrative Theory, and Self-Refl exivity.” In The Cunning Craft: Original Essays on Detective Fiction and Contemporary Literary Theory, edited by Ronald G. Walker and June M. Frazer, 1–14. Macomb: Western Illinois University, 1990.