Category: Book Review

Book Review: The Innocence of Father Brown

Note: A version of this review appeared in 2009

This is the first Father Brown short story collection by G.k. Chesterton. Father Brown was in many ways a continuation of what Chesterton wrote in his classic Orthodoxy. 

The intellectuals of Chesterton’s time viewed the orthodox Christian as superstitious and weak-minded. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy, asserted his vision of orthodoxy was entirely different: conscious, sensible, winsome, and wise. 

Two years after writing Orthodoxy, he wrapped it in a Cossack and embodied it in the person of Father Brown, a physically unremarkable and humble priest, who uses his wisdom, common sense, and experience as a confessor to solve even the most baffling crimes.

It should be noted that, contrary to what many people have said, Chesterton was not a Catholic at the time he wrote the first Father Brown stories from 1910-1914. That conversion wouldn’t happen until the 1920s. However, he already knew the priest who would facilitate his confession and Father John O’Connor was the basis of the character.

To enjoy Chesterton’s books, you have to appreciate a couple of things. First of all, many are unlike any detective stories we read today.  While there’s plot and action, the main focus is the puzzle, not character development. Outside of Brown and his friend Flambeau, most of the characters remain flat. They’re stereotypical Frenchmen, Calvinists, Rich Men, and Atheists. They’re there to provide their piece of the puzzle and then get on with it.

 There’s also not any sense of danger or mayhem. There’s little violence onstage, although Chesterton can come up with some quite ghastly ways to kill a man.

This is a battle of wits between you and Father Brown, and most of the time you’re going to lose quite badly. The plot unfolds to reveal the puzzle, Father Brown solves the puzzle and the story ends, often abruptly.

What carries the stories is Chesterton’s voice which I find delightful, even when reading a book over one hundred years after the time. Chesterton uses his prose like a painter uses paint, true artistry that’s understandable to a modern reader.

Father Brown is a fun character. When he speaks, he says something important. Brown was the first in a long line of unlikely detectives that would include Charlie Chan and Inspector Columbo: the last person in the world that the criminal would be worried about finding them out. But somehow, he solves the case with a completely unexpected solution.

There are a total of twelve stories in the collection, each constituting a different mystery. Several stood out to me:

The Blue Cross: The first Father Brown story and perhaps his most iconic tale. When Chesterton originally published this short story in 1910, readers must have been shocked to see Father Brown emerge as the hero. Through the whole of the mystery, the focus had been on a police detective following him. But the makings of the great detective were in place. He would hang back as a background figure until stepping forward to solve the case. When that first story was published in September 1910, a literary star was born.

The Invisible Man: This was a fitting case, because it not only provided an extraordinarily surprising solution, but also an insight on how Father Brown surprised so many with his observations.

The Three Tools of Death: This is the first Father Brown story I heard an adaptation of, and after reading it, I appreciate it more. The solution is a gigantic surprise. It’s also a reminder that many descriptions Chesterton gives at the start of the story convey what the popular view of a character is, not necessarily what the person is really like. 

The Sign of the Broken SwordThis had to be my favorite in the collection. To give you an idea of how different these stories are from modern mysteries, the entire case takes place on an entirely different continent from where the mystery occurred, and no witnesses are questioned. The story centers around a simple riddle. 

Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest?

From there, the case proceeds to a startling conclusion, all without leaving a forest an ocean away from the scene of the crime.

On the negative side, the Honour of Israel Gow was absurd. Chesterton was trying to make a point about his perception of Calvinist legalism, but it fell a little flat. The solution in the Wrong Shape was not the right shape of Chesterton’s best Father Brown stories, but it was still passable.

Overall, I found the stories enjoyable and would encourage others to read them. You can read the entire book online or you can buy it on Amazon. (affiilate link.)

Book Review: Dragnet Dailies Septemer-November 1952


Dragnet was not only a radio program, a TV program, and a movie in the 1950s, it was a pop culture phenomenon that not only led to spin-off novels and board games but a daily newspaper strip that spanned from 1952-1955.

Single strips have surfaced. Lewis Lovehaug (aka Linkara) did a review of an Australian Dragnet comic book which appears to have been made up of several edited newspaper strips. A few strips have appeared on various blogs around on the Internet. There does seem to be disagreement on the start date with many websites indicating 1953 as the start date, but this appears to be inaccurate. As best I can tell, it started in June 1952 and continued through May 1955.

This book collects an entire storyline from September 22-November 8, 1952. The overall plot is a good, standard Dragnet story about a search for a drug ring with the first clue coming at the scene of a drug-related accident.

The story features Frank Smith as a young police officer rather than the middle-aged character we came to know on TV. The Dragnet strip began in the interim period between the time Barton Yarborough (who played Friday’s first partner Ben Romero) died and when Ben Alexander was cast as Frank Smith. Clearly, the idea of having Friday with a younger partner appealed to Jack Webb. In addition to the newspaper strip, on a radio show, a young Martin Milner was cast as Friday’s partner Bill Lockwood for a month, but it didn’t work out, with Milner entering the military during Korea foreclosing the possibility. The newspaper strip Frank Smith does have a resemblance to Milner with a touch of Jimmy Olsen thrown in. The one plot complication is Joe Friday having a young partner makes Joe Friday going undercover as a college student seem silly. Smith would have been a more natural fit.

The art is decent with a fair likeness of Jack Webb as Friday. To be honest, it’s tough to tell how much of the mediocrity in the art has to do with the art and how much of it has to do with the quality of the scan of the material.

If you’ve read other collections of major newspaper strips, such as those published by the American Comics Library, this will probably not be all that impressive. Collections of major strips are often carefully restored. The collections are readable public domain comic strips of fair quality.

In addition, the price of $7.99 for a 42-strip story is a bit steep. Still, if you want to enjoy Dragnet as a newspaper strip and want to own a physical book as opposed to downloading them online then you may enjoy this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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Book Review: The Case of the Crime King

The Case of the Crime King was Richard Deming’s second original Dragnet tie-in novel for the original 1951-59 TV series.

The book focuses on Lt. Joe Friday and Sergeant Frank Smith’s efforts to break up a robbery ring. The case begins with the arrest of a clever criminal who Friday and Smith catch and send to prison.

Word begins to leak out of prison that about a new statewide gang with plans to accumulate a fortune and use the money to get one big score that will leave them living like kings. Friday and Smith are sure their man is behind it, but proving it is another matter.

The stakes have never been higher in a Dragnet case file as the lives of thousands and the freedom of millions depend on Friday and Smith stopping this criminal gang’s plot.

Like in his first effort, The Case of the Courteous Killer, Deming manages to capture the spirit of Dragnet, only telling a more complex case. In many ways, the case calls to mind the 1954 Dragnet film which focused on a gang-related investigation, only there are no out-of-character moments for Friday or Smith and we get a more satisfying resolution. The criminal is genuinely clever and the narrative remains at a strong level throughout. Unlike The Case of the Courteous Killer, there’s not really a sag in the story.

Worth noting is that The Case of the Crime King acknowledged the existence of steamier sides of life and Los Angeles that the 1950’s series avoided as it includes references to prostitutes and the criminals use an adult movie theater as an alibi. Neither aspect is written about in a salacious manner, but it does signal a slight shift that would be seen in the 1960’s revival.

On October 5, 2019, a review was held in the City of Boise, in and for the County of Ada. In a moment, the results of that review:

Verdict:

I will say that while this book was a fun read, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the Case of the Courteous Killer. That case had a killer who came after Sergeant Friday and put him in peril. Here the criminals are dangerous but far more methodical. It also had less of Smith’s humor, which disappointed.

If you love Dragnet and you like mysteries of this era Dragnet: The Case of the Crime King is a worthwhile read and at $2.99 in the Kindle Store, it’s a great deal. It’s a well-written case that was probably better than most of the episodes aired during the original series’ final season.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

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Book Review: Night Watch

Note: A version of this review originally appeared in 2009:

What would happen if the immortal detectives, Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown met with a brutal murder to solve?

This is the fascinating question posed by Rev. Stephen Kendrick’s 2001 Book, Night Watch. The plot of the story is that Sherlock’s Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, the British’s government’s most indispensable man as Sherlock Holmes described him, calls his younger brother in to investigate a murder. The rector of an Anglican Church is found dead in his church, with his body mutilated. The prime suspects: leaders of the world’s major religions who’d gathered in Britain for some inter-religious dialog. Father Brown is serving as an interpreter for a visiting Italian Cardinal.

The murder and its solution are fantastic. However, the story is dragged down because of some errors in Kendrick’s writing mechanics and also because Kendrick’s story was frequently derailed from the story to Kendrick’s religious agenda. In part, the book was written to back up Kendrick’s assertions in Holy Clues: The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes which seems to suggest that in Holmes later days in became someone who could best be described as “spiritual and not religious.” Unfortunately, the author seemed to work too hard on this angle, which distracted from the main point that readers who weren’t enthusiasts of Universalism picked the book up the for: a murder mystery.

Kendrick’s treatment of Holmes, Watson, and Brown was good, but in places uneven. I found some of the conversations between Holmes and Watson not entirely believable and out of place in a mystery novel. Kendrick’s Holmes was a cut below Doyle’s in solving the case, and Kendrick tried a cheap out by simply saying that Doctor Watson’s accounts had been exaggerated or unrealistic. To be fair, Kendrick is hardly the first author of a Holmes pastiche to use that out. What Arthur Conan Doyle created in Holmes was a bit of a mental Superman, and like Superman, it’s very hard to come up with a worthy opponent for him. So, it’s far easier to move the character closer to reality.

His portrayal of Brown, while not having the flair of G.K. Chesterton, and leaving the character a little flat was still essentially the same orthodox Catholic priest that readers have come to know and love. Given that Kendrick, as a Unitarian Universalist, comes from a completely different theological perspective than Chesterton, he deserves to be commended for not trying to tamper with the character, as some interpretations have tried to change Brown into their vision of what a Christian should be rather than the character Chesterton created.

Of course, in a two-detective story, one detective usually draws the short straw, and Brown clearly has the back seat to Holmes. However, in Chesterton’s books, Brown off hung around in the background until coming forward to the solution to the crime.

Kendrick’s deserves credit for the audacity of it all. He’s the first author I know of to try and bring these giants of detecting onto the same stage. And he produces an interesting, albeit not completely satisfying tome. Here’s hoping that others will follow Kendrick, and this isn’t the last Holmes-Father Brown crossover we see.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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Book Review: The Norths Meet Murder

This is the first Mr. and Mrs. North mystery novel by Richard and Frances Lockridge and was published in 1940. It would start a Mr. and Mrs. North mystery franchise that would include numerous books, a play, a movie, more than a decade on the radio, and two seasons on television.

Pamela North gets permission from her landlady to host a party in a vacant apartment upstairs. However, the Norths were shocked to find a naked body in the bathtub. (I guess the Lockridges figured if it worked for Dorothy Sayers…)

The police are called in and Lieutenant Weygand of the NYPD proceeds to investigate. One of the in the most surprising thing about the book is that for most of it, the Norths have very little to do with the proceedings. The bulk of the book is Weygand carrying on an investigation, making very little progress, and then coming for a visit to the Norths, during which Pam gives Weygand a helpful clue or hint to carry the investigation forward.

The Norths had actually been created by Mister Lockridge for some light comedy short stories and this book tosses them into the middle of a murder mystery, so that’s why they aren’t sleuthing.

The story avoids being stupid or annoying at any point, but at the same time seems to ride a tide of okayness throughout. The only annoying thing is the Lockridges’ habit of expositing dialogue and by that I don’t mean something that summarizes some information that’s too tedious to review. (ex: She spent four hours discussing her hat.) But rather information that could just as easily be quoted, (ex: He told her that he would be back tomorrow.) They do this a lot.

However, the book gets really good in the last couple of chapters when Pam decides to throw a dinner party for the suspects and finally realizes who the murderer is. It was a surprisingly tense and suspenseful climax that’s a really nice payoff for the entire book.

Overall, it’s not bad. While all the supporting characters are flat, the leads are enjoyable enough. If you listened to the radio show or watched the TV shows and were curious about how the Mr. and Mrs. North mystery franchise got started, this will give you the answer. Still, I have to imagine that given the sheer number of books in this series that there were better books in it than this one.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

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