G.K. Chesterton’s perspicacious priest is 100 next year. Sinclair McKay says that he is more colourful and insightful than any of today’s TV detectives
A chap murdered by an invisible man? A decapitiated Scottish laird with the fillings stolen from his skull? A poet, hypnotised into committing suicide? Who could deal with such curious and baffling crimes?
There’s only one possible answer: an amateur sleuth who specialised in the bizarre and diabolical long before Mulder and Scully; a detective long due for a comeback: G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown.
Although the 52 short stories in which he featured never go out of print, this stumpy black-clad figure with his umbrella, face ‘like a Norfolk dumpling’ and passionate outbursts of anger in the face of dumb superstition, is weirdly neglected today. Why, for instance, is Father Brown not a part of that eternal ITV Holmes/Poirot/Marple television detective roster? It’s Father Brown’s 100th anniversary this coming year, and it’s about time he became a proper TV star.
In 1910, when the first Father Brown tales were published, G.K. Chesterton was already a literary whirlwind, a ferociously energetic writer who disguised his true depth with technicolour prose.
Some of Chesterton’s novels, such as The Man Who Was Thursday, perhaps do not hold up so well now. But the Father Brown stories were, in their own modest way, works of genius. Influential too: Evelyn Waugh and Alfred Hitchcock were among their eager followers. One of Father Brown’s quotes is used as the title of book three of Brideshead Revisited — ‘A Twitch Upon The Thread’.
Father Brown was inspired in part by Chesterton’s good friend Father John O’Connor, a priest in Yorkshire. The central idea was that no other figure was better suited for solving crimes. In one story, the cornered murderer, having listened to Father Brown’s explanation of how he worked out the sinister truth, cries out: ‘How do you know all this? Are you a devil?’
‘I am a man,’ replies Father Brown, ‘and therefore have all devils in my heart.’ Rather more engaging than ‘leetle grey cells’, non?
The great pleasure of Father Brown is that he represents a step away from the icy inductive logic of Sherlock Holmes. There are still clues, though they do not just stand there as facts; it is how they are interpreted that counts. And the interpretations are frequently paradoxical. On the other side of Father Brown are the sleuths of Agatha Christie — Marple and Poirot — who, while understanding crimes of passion, have nothing in the way of passion themselves. Conversely, Father Brown has an innate, unstoppable optimism; whatever one’s beliefs or non-beliefs, as a narrative device it is very clever.
In ‘The Honour of Israel Gow’, Brown and his friend Flambeau are investigating the macabre case of a dead laird, and the fact that all the religious pictures in his castle have been defaced, with the name of God and the halo of Jesus removed. As a storm rages around Glen Gyle, the immediate terrified suspicion of all those in the castle is diabolism; but Father Brown is wiser than that. (Incidentally, if you don’t want to see the results, look away until the end of the paragraph.) In fact, the laird died of perfectly natural causes. And his mute, batty manservant was merely obeying the terms of the will, that he should inherit all the laird’s gold — even down to the fillings in his dry skull, and all the gold leaf on his Biblical illuminations.
The crimes in Father Brown are often set in an expressionistic world of preternaturally gathering dread. ‘The scattered houses stood farther and farther apart in a broken string along the sea-shore; the afternoon was closing in with a premature and partly lurid twilight; the sea was of an inky-purple and murmuring ominously. In the scrappy back garden of the McNabs, which ran down towards the sand, two black, barren-looking trees stood up like demon hands held up in astonishment.’ That’s Scarborough for you!
In ‘The Insoluble Problem’, after an old man has been found hanged grotesquely in his dressing gown from a tree in his garden, ‘there was a thrill of thunder in the air, but now no more stirring of wind or breeze; and even the colours of the garden seemed only like richer shades of darkness. But one colour still glowed with a certain dusky vividness; and that was the red hair of the woman of that house, who was standing with a sort of rigidity, staring, with her hands thrust up into her hair.’
It is all perfect gothic reading, I’d venture, for all those boys who have been rather left out of the current girly craze for ‘Twilight’. When it comes to atmosphere, Chesterton is never one for holding back. And the meaty moral lessons make him pretty ideal for young readers.
On top of this, the character has an exceptionally rare quality in a detective: he makes speeches that we can chew over for days. ‘What we all dread most,’ Brown says in ‘The Head of Cæsar’, ‘is a maze with no centre. That is why atheism is a nightmare.’ Hold on, you might find yourself thinking — that’s a preposterous analogy! What is true, though, is that, in a traditional detective tale, we require the sleuth to be the moral centre of that maze.
And even for atheists, the priest’s way of looking at the world is invigorating. Very often Father Brown solves the crime through simple perspective. ‘I think there is something dangerous about standing on these high places even to pray,’ he says to a murderer at the top of a church tower in ‘The Hammer of God’. ‘Heights were made to be looked at, not to be looked from... one’s soul may fall if one’s body doesn’t.’
What really makes the stories so satisfying is Father Brown’s insistence on looking for the rational explanation in seemingly irrational, supernatural events. When all other characters are frightened of curses, and revenants, it is only Father Brown who can see through these scares. ‘You attacked reason,’ he tells one character. ‘That’s bad theology.’
So why have the stories been so rarely adapted for the screen? Yes, there was a 1954 film with Alec Guinness, and a 1970s ITV series with Kenneth More. But the sheer colour and verve of these tales — ‘The Doom of the Darnaways’, ‘The Sins of Prince Saradine’, ‘The Vampire of the Village’ — would knock all today’s detective dramas into a cocked hat. I would suggest casting Martin Clunes as Father Brown, even though he is rather tall. I can’t think of anything I’d like to see more on BBC1 of a Sunday night.