Warning plot spoilers
Now I’m a huge murder mystery fan, especially when they are lighthearted and more concerned with solving a puzzle then blood and gore. So, the TV series Father Brown, set in idyllic British countryside during the beautiful 1930’s has been a joy to watch. I love the glamorous Lady Felicity who is a true scream queen. The blundering Father Brown with his surprising modern views and stewed observations of human behavior. And the typically comical stupid detectives who fail to see beyond the obvious. Therefore, when I set out to read the Scandal of Father Brown by G.K Chesterton (written in 1935-the last of Chesterton’s short story collection) I was interested to see if the books where as good as the show
Unfortunately, they are not!
My main problem with the book is it is a collection of short stories and I’m afraid, (for me) a good murder mystery does not work as a short story. There are many reasons for this….
- Lack of misdirection
The reader is given so little information, the chance for red hearings, miss-information and fully formed characters is completely lost. Meaning that the ability for the reader to solve the crime is made a lot simpler. For instance, in The Green Man when the lawyer asked how the vitamin died it does stand out as an odd question to ask for a sailor he has been told has drowned. Also, in The Point of the Pin, Father Brown observing a person leaving a house he had no business being at was also a big clue as to who the murderer was and where the body would be. But again, these are easy clues to spot, as given the length of the story the reader is given so little and is on the lookout for anything that can help them solve the mystery.
- Long winded
The fact that these stories are all short though does not make them condensed. In fact, the lyrical style in which Chesterton has chosen to write is constantly annoying, as he is a writer who is not concerned with his word count. In fact, he is a writer who seems to constantly ask himself why use 1 word when 20 will do. For instance, instead of saying that a character is married he writes “it was accepted, sometimes romantically, sometimes resignedly, by those whom American satire has named the sob sisters, that she had already married a very worthy and respectable business man of the name of Potter. It was even possible to regard her for a moment as Mrs Potter, on the universal understanding that her husband was only the husband of Mrs Potter”
- Slow pace
Neither does having a short story make them fast pace. The Crime of the Communist is probably the worst for it, for as soon as the reader is told the murder was done with poisoned matches we know who it is. And yet the story continues for several pages in order to spell it out to the reader (making you feel like you are being talked down to) and also giving Chesterton a chance to talk politics. (we will come to this issue later). The one story that goes (almost) against this slow pace is The Insoluble Problem as this contains the charming Falmbeau, whose fast talking, fast cars and fast actions only highlights how slow and almost uninterested Father Brown is in the whole idea of catching a criminal. In fact, in the Pursuit of Mr Blue, Father Brown appears for the vast majority of the story to be more interested in playing a fairground game then solving a crime and never catches the criminal anyway-only succeeding to guess how he got away.
- Loose ends
Having a short story murder mystery also means there is little time to tie up the loose ends and instead the readers is often left with a lot of unanswered questions For instance in the Green Man, we are never really told why the sailor was dressed like a pirate, where did he go when the captain was murdered, did his observe it? If so why did he stay quiet? In the Quick Man we are never told how the victim found out the murderer was on the take, or why his Scottish enemy was visiting his local pub yet didn’t say a word to him.
- Overused formula
Having a collection of short stories together also means it was pretty easy to figure out Chesterton’s mystery formula early on. He would present you with a scene and ask all the wrong questions and make all the wrong assumptions and then Father Brown would come along and see through all the misdirection and confusion. For instance, in the Blast of the Book, we have the word of one man telling a story and presenting us with an idea. Once the reader questions if any of what he says is true it’s pretty easy to unravel. Two of the stories even use the same theme of judging a person by their appearance as the solution to the mystery. In the Scandal of Father Brown, a man is assumed to be a romantic poet and a lover as he is handsome and in the Pursuit of Mr Blue a man is assumed to be a murderer because he is hideous.
My other problem with the Scandal of Father Brown is I personally find a lot of Father Browns assumptions a a little hard to swallow. For instance, that a woman in her 40s would not be too old, wise and weathered to fall in deep love and not want to return to her loving loyal husband. Also, that a murderer would be able to pass off his poisoned matches so easily, by someone just forgetting to return them.
However, there was some elements of this collection I appreciated and even quite enjoyed. My favorite stories in the collection where The Blast of the Book, as this was completely different to the others – being more of a horror mystery, were noone was hurt and nothing was stolen. I also enjoyed the Point of the Pin as this was more in the vain of a complex murder mystery, with several suspects, red herrings, a supposed suicide and a missing body. While The Insoluble Problem was my favorite for its lightheartedness, being fast paced, the imagery of an old man hanging from a tree with a sword through his heart on a dark and stormy evening and the description of several interesting characters, such as the powerful red headed woman and the artistic brother in law and even the world famous jewel thief – who we only see right at the end “Flambeau and Tiger Tyrone looked at each other with steady eyes and exchanged something that was almost like a military salute.”
I can also appreciate that Chesterton was not (like Father Brown) really interested in the mystery element of the story, and instead was using his stories as a way of explaining his point of view on life, religion and politics. Reading these stories reminded me of being in church or a school assembly when a fable or a parable would be read to teach an important life lesson. Whether that be not judging a person by their appearance (The Scandal of Father Brown and the Pursuit if the Blue Man). Not to jump to conclusions in The Quick One and The Insoluble Problem. Pride comes before a fall in the Blast of the Book. And money is the root of all evil in the Green Man and the Point of the Pin.
There is also some very modern moral points made along the way, that helped to endured me to Father Brown. Such as when Father Browns calls out a character on there racism “Well, there was a Dago, or possibly a Wop, called Julius Caesar. He was afterwards killed in a stabbing match; you know these Dagos always use knives. And there was another one called Augustine, who brought Christianity to our little island; and really, I don’t think we should have had much civilization without those two.” Or the human rights idea that all men matter: “You matter. I matter. It’s the hardest thing in theology to believe… We matter to God – God only knows why.”
However overall I found The Scandal of Father Brown boring, slow paced and preachy and I will not be reading it again