The voluminous literary output of the great English writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) included poetry, biographies, political and theological works, literary criticism, novels—and detective stories, which he penned with all the enthusiasm and literary skill he brought to his other writings.
Chesterton, throughout his career, was as interested in writing about mysteries as he was in simply writing them. He was the first prominent author to treat the detective story as if it was a “serious” form of literature, analyzing it thoroughly and seriously in many essays—although always with the poetic whimsy that marked most of his work. It has been said by more than one mystery historian that Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective story, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle popularized it, and Chesterton defined it, a summation that comes pretty close to the truth.
The accounts of how Chesterton first came to launch his series of “Father Brown” mysteries are numerous and generally contradictory. According to one story, he dashed off the first Brown story on learning from his literary agent that The Saturday Evening Post in America was in the market for detective stories—while another version has him writing the inaugural Brown tale for his own amusement during a visit to relatives. Whatever the truth of the matter, it’s certain that Chesterton’s fascination with the detective story began well before he started writing about Father Brown. He had read and enormously enjoyed Doyle’s Holmes stories as a boy, and had already dabbled in (largely humorous) mystery-writing with a series of stories published in the British magazine The Idler in 1904 (collected in 1905 as the book The Club of Queer Trades).
In both his theological books and his literary criticisms, Chesterton loved to use the paradox as a means of conveying truth, and the paradoxical potential of the mystery story undoubtedly played a large part in attracting him to the genre. For him, the following interchange from Doyle’s “Silver Blaze” summed up the detective story’s appeal:
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
Chesterton was typically paradoxical in his creation of a detective. His mystery-solving priest Father Brown was awkward but keenly observant, a good and simple man with extensive knowledge of the depth and deviousness of evil. The character was based on Monsignor John O’Connor, a Catholic priest and close friend of Chesterton’s; in the early days of their friendship, the author was shocked when he came to realize the intimate knowledge of crime, vice, and diabolism that the priest had gained in the exercise of his duties. As Chesterton explained in his autobiography, he deliberately made Brown much more outwardly comic than his real-life counterpart, in order to create a contrast between the priest’s outward clumsiness and inner wisdom: “I permitted myself the grave liberty of taking my friend and knocking him about; beating his hat and umbrella shapeless, untidying his clothes, punching his intelligent countenance into a condition of pudding-faced fatuity, and generally disguising Father O’Connor as Father Brown.”
The “pudding-faced” Brown gave rise to a new type of fictional detective, the disarmingly innocuous sleuth. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, with her mousy demeanor masking her intimate knowledge of human corruption (gained from a long life in a small town), was one of the most successful print imitators of Brown; the later stage and television character Lt. Columbo also owed a debt to Chesterton’s character, one openly acknowledged by Columbo’s creators Richard Levinson and William Link.
The Father Brown stories were more than just detective tales, however; they also provided a vehicle for Chesterton’s religious, social, and philosophical ideas. He was always just as concerned with making a telling point about human nature as he was about revealing “whodunit”—but this is not to say that the stories weren’t effective mysteries; on the contrary, Chesterton’s plotting was invariably ingenious, and his stories, along with Doyle’s, came to be regarded almost as founding documents by most of the British detective novelists who arose during the between-wars period. When the Detection Club, made up of England’s leading mystery writers, was created in 1930, the first President was appropriately Chesterton himself.Dan Neyer
Introduction © 2016 by Dan Neyer