Confessional As Crime School: Detective Father Brown

Father BrownRecently I’ve read some of the Father Brown mysteries written by G.K. Chesterton.  Father Brown is a little priest at whom no one, upon meeting, would look twice– if even they noticed him the first time.  But in his unassuming way, Father Brown is a master at solving crimes, helped by his keen eye for detail, his sound judgment of character, and his vast knowledge of humanity’s dark side acquired during years spent taking confessions.

Author G.K. Chesterton was an Englishman who wrote in a wide array of genres in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including poetry, Christian philosophy, literary criticism, and fiction.

Chesterton often used humor to make comments on the folly of society.  As a supporter of the Church, he often found himself at odds with other wits and philosophers of his time, most especially George Bernard Shaw.  One of my favorite Chestertonian anecdotes concerns a short conversation between Shaw (who was thin) and Chesterson (who was decidedly not so):

Chesterton:  To look at you, Shaw, one would think there was a famine in England.

Shaw:  To look at you, Chesterton, one would think you caused it.     :)

I gave the Father Brown stories a good go, reading several stories, but I found them too cute by half.  Sure, there are some nice turns of phrases and some gentle sniping at society’s vapidity, but the mysteries that should act as the engines of the brief tales do not make for particularly page-turning drama.  Also, I personally did not find the characters very alluring, not even Father Brown.  I have a suspicion that what might make more interesting reading would be one of thoses “wit and wisdom of…” collections of Chesterton and/or Father Brown.  For, truly, there are pearls of witty wisdom in the rough (going) of the stories.

I suppose part of the conceit of the character of Father Brown is that he is quiet, boring, unnoticeable, and supposed to be uninteresting.  But, at least in the stories I read, this makes for a rather dull main character.  There’s none of the astounding panache of say, a Sherlock Holmes.  So I can’t say these are stories I’d put at the top of my recommendation list to my friends, though some people adore this character, and I know he was portrayed by one of my favorite actors, Alec Guinness.

In one story, there was something that struck my fancy however:  a famous French crime solver makes an appearance, on the trail of a talented and notorious criminal.  At one point, for lack of any better leads, the crime solver decides to investigate anything unusual he sees.  This leads him on a trail from one unusual thing to another, to another.

I think I might like to spend an entire day in this manner.  Starting out in the morning with the first unusual thing I see, investigating, and then moving on to the next unusual thing– allowing the day to take me in this manner any which way it will.  Who knows what sort of day that could make?  An entire day filled with noticing and appreciating the normally unnoticed weirdness and beauty of our daily lives.

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