Chesterton remarked that the “detective story differs from every story in this: that the reader is only happy if he feels a fool”.
Chesterton’s detective is a clumsy, amiable little Roman Catholic priest with “a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling”. His appearance in the stories is so unobtrusive that spotting him in the story is almost like a game of hide and seek with the readers. He seems to be lurking in the shadows somewhere. But don’t get taken in by his humble exterior. He had been keenly observant all this while and proceeds to display startling flashes of brilliant understanding. He has such a deep understanding of the psychology of the criminal mind which he gained while listening to confessions in his capacity as a Roman Catholic priest.
In “The Secret Of Father Brown” G K Chesterton revealed the process through which Father Brown arrives at the clear insight and solves the seemingly insoluble paradox
“I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done,and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was……
I try to get inside the murderer. . . . Indeed it’s much more than that, don’t you see? I am inside a man. I am always….inside a man, moving his arms and legs; but I wait till I know I am inside a murderer, thinking his thoughts, wrestling with his passions still I have bent myself into the posture of his hunched and peering hatred; till I see the world with his bloodshot and squinting eyes, looking between the blinkers of his half-witted concentration; looking up the short and sharp perspective of a straight road to a pool of blood. Till I am really a murderer.”
Chesterton created Father Brown as a contrast to Sherlock Holmes. That, in my opinion,is quite a burden to carry. This is what Father Brown has to say regarding the “Science of Detection”
Science is a grand thing when you can get it; in its real sense one of the grandest words in the world. But what do these men mean, nine times out often, when they use it nowadays? When they say detection is a science? When they say criminology is a science? They mean getting outside a man and studying him as if he were a gigantic insect: in what they would call a dry impartial light, in what I should call a dead and dehumanized light. They mean getting a long way off him, as if he were a distant prehistoric monster; staring at the shape of his ‘criminal skull’ as if it were a sort of eerie growth, like the horn on a rhinoceros’s nose. When the scientist talks about a type, he never means himself, but always his neighbor; probably his poorer neighbor. I don’t deny the dry light may sometimes do good; though in one sense it’s the very reverse of science. So far from being knowledge, it’s actually suppression of what we know. It’s treating a friend as a stranger, and pretending that something familiar is really remote and mysterious”
Father Brown, though an admirable character, is weighed down by the burden of Chesterton’s rhetoric and theological message. Unlike the brilliant logician created by Doyle in Sherlock Holmes whose sole aim is solving the mystery, father Brown as a subtle evangelist of the Catholic faith has to not only solve the crime and catch the criminal but also hopes to redeem the criminal.
But unfortunately, Chesterton not only totally fails to extend this honorable and charitable attitude towards non-Christians but reveals himself as a downright bigot in “The Wrong Shape” where just the presence of a Hindu Yogi is enough to infuse the environment with “evil”.
This, unfortunately, did not go down well with me.
Besides the didactic and theological aspect so overshadows the narrative that the mysteries get flimsier and the reader gets impatient thereby making it more and more difficult to get into the stories.
So, if this was the collection of the “best” stories by G K Chesterton, then you are not going to find me reading the rest of the stories.