Friday, September 16, 2005

Father Brown: A Contrary Perspective

So often when I turn to a biography of Chesterton or an encyclopedic synopsis of his strange little sleuth Father Brown among the annals of detective fiction, I encounter adjectives like “inconspicuous,” “innocent,” “simple,” “nondescript,” “ordinary.” That ambience, so widely perceived concerning the ecclesiastical crime solver, has mystified me from the very first Father Brown story I ever read (“The Eye of Apollo,” I believe). In none of the stories have I ever envisioned an ordinary, simplistic Father Brown. From the instant he is introduced in any story, he obviously (I think) is an observer already deep, deep down in the evolving plot—ahead of the writer, in fact. He may look like a typical Catholic priest of his day; he may not say much that makes sense on the surface; his expressions of logic may come across as absent-minded, meaningless or, at best, irrelevant to the story. But to classify him as bland and removed from reality is to miss his very spirt, I uphold.

Perhaps it’s because we all know he’s a genius. A genius in the guise of a simpleton cannot exist for very long once his genius is recognized. I’ve tried to approach successive Father Brown stories afresh, as a reader unfamiliar with his brilliance. It just doesn’t work. The instant the cherub-faced man wearing the collar is mentioned—perhaps noticed in passing as a coffee-sipping diner at a café—we understand that the investigation is underway and is in the best of hands.

Five collections of Father Brown short stories were written from 1911 to 1935. They never fail to intrigue me—and Father Brown himself is never one iota less than intriguing.


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