Category: Book Review

Book Review: The Innocence of Father Brown

Father Brown, as best I can tell is the second among the Great literary detectives, right after Sherlock Holmes. In some ways, Father Brown was a continuation of what Chesterton wrote in his classic Orthodoxy. 

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

Two years after writing Orthodoxy, he rapped it in a Cossack, 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 unlik e any detective stories we read today.  While there’s plot and action, the main focus is the puzzle, not character development. Outside of Brown, most of the characters remain very flat. Either they’re stereotypical Frenchmen, Calvinists, Rich Men, or 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. If you like your detective fiction hardboiled, well, I’ll be honest, this isn’t Pat Novak.

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 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 an incredibly fun character, who when he speaks, he says something important. Brown was the first in a long line of unlikely detectives that would include heroes such as 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 were exceptional 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. As through the whole of the mystery, the focus had been on a police detective. But already, the makings of the great detective were in place. He would often 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 even more. The solution is a gigantic surprise. It’s also a reminder that many of the descriptions, Chesterton gives at the start of the story, he’s giving the readers what the popular view of a character is, not necessarily what the person is really like.  You may leave the story with an entirely different view from popular opinion.

The Sign of the Broken Sword: This 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 actually questioned. The story centers around a simple enough 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, I thought the Honour of Israel Gow was slightly absurd. I think Chesterton was trying to make a point about his perception of Calvinist legalism, but it fell a little flat. I also thought 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.)

Review: Nightwatch

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 indispensible 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 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 pastich 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