How G. K. Chesterton Changed My Mind about Detective Stories

I try to stay open to books in genres and styles that I don’t often read, but one genre that I routinely avoid is the mystery genre. Part of my problem with mystery stories is that they’re almost impossible to read more than once, and part of it is that very few of the mysteries I have read have really grabbed me. I tried the Nancy Drew series as a young girl and had to force myself through the last half of The Secret of the Old Clock. I started to read The Bungalow Mystery hoping to have better luck with that one–I read about three chapters and then promptly forgot about it. Even Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie failed to keep me interested long enough to find out who the killer was. I had all but given up on mystery stories until recently, when I took a peek inside G. K. Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown.

Guys, I might have finally found a detective that I like.

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If you haven’t heard of him, Father Brown is a fictional priest/detective who made his first appearance in 1910.* He’s the star of dozens of Chesterton stories, four of which I have read and can heartily recommend.

Part of what I like about these stories is those great poetic descriptions Chesterton loves: his “dark violet distances” and his “diamonds that seemed to set the very air on fire all round them” suite my taste for ornate prose very well.

Another part of it is the humor: not that the characters are constantly saying funny things (although they do that sometimes too), but rather, the stories I’ve read have the air of a farce while also remaining serious, if that’s possible. The situations are so bizarre and they are described in such a light, almost playful sort of way that you can’t help but laugh. In many ways, these stories remind me of the venerable P. G. Wodehouse.

Last but not least, we have Father Brown himself: unlike most fictional detectives, who use science or their uncanny powers of observation to solve crimes, Father Brown relies instead on his knowledge of human nature, garnered through years of serving both the highest and the lowest in society. I suppose part of my beef with detective fiction has to do with its tendency to focus on events, locations, and methods rather than on characters. Because this detective makes the person the main object of his investigations, I received him much more warmly than I ever did Nancy Drew or Hercule Poirot. Besides, he has none of the arrogance that other famous fictional detectives (Sherlock Holmes, for example) possess. He’s kindly and agreeable, but also self-effacing: despite being brilliant enough to solve crimes that have even the police baffled, he never takes himself very seriously. Since hubris seems to be a hallmark of fictional detectives, this one is a breath of fresh air.

So far, I’ve only read the first four stories in the book: “The Blue Cross,” “The Secret Garden,” “The Queer Feet,” and “The Flying Stars.” I do plan to round out the collection (heaven knows when, though), so watch out for that review. 😉


* That places him twenty-three years after the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes and ten years before Hercule Poirot.

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9 thoughts on “How G. K. Chesterton Changed My Mind about Detective Stories

    1. I’ve heard the same from lots of people. This is the first I’ve read of Chesterton’s fiction, but I’m hoping to read plenty more in the future.

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  1. Thank you: very interesting and enjoyable!

    Among interesting things is your saying, “In many ways, these stories remind me of the venerable P. G. Wodehouse.” I had not made that connection myself. But in an Oddest Inkling guest post on 12 September 2014, I look at Wodehouse in the background of Dorothy L. Sayers’ first detective novel and Williams’s War in Heaven.

    Try to catch up with Sir Alec Guinness’s 1954 portrayal of Father Brown (based on “The Blue Cross”) someday and see what you think – I like it a lot. (The “Father Brown” Wikipedia article has links about how important this was in his life, too.)

    I’ve been a Sherlock Holmes fan since I don’t know how young, and later greatly enjoyed discovering Sir Hugh Greene’s anthologies of stories by contemporaries of Conan Doyle and Chesterton. Wikipedia has an article on the first of these, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. A lot of stories by those authors, featuring those detectives, being out of copyright are available online – and read aloud at LibriVox.org: I’d especially recommend Andy Minter reading Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados stories, there, and I’ve enjoyed various of the R. Austin Freeman stories about Dr. Thorndyke there (though I see there’s one by a favorite reader, Nicholas Clifford, I haven’t caught up with yet!). LibriVox has a lot of Chesterton, too, if you feel inclined to try more of his fiction by ear: I enjoyed The Man Who Knew Too Much (1922) non-Father Brown mystery stories, that way.

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    1. You’re welcome. I’m glad you liked it!

      I looked up that article on The Oddest Inkling and it was very interesting. Usually when I think of Wodehouse, I think of comedy: I never realized he had such an influence upon mystery writers!

      Thanks for all the recommendations, especially the Father Brown movie. I love classic films, so I’ll keep an eye out for that one.

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