Father Brown is first introduced to readers as a kindly, clumsy little priest who prattles naively about the valuables he's toting, and keeps dropping his umbrella.
But appearances, G.K. Chesterton reminds us, are deceptive. "The Complete Father Brown Stories" brings together the complete collection of stories about the kindly, eccentric detective who has an uncanny cleverness that nobody guesses. Chesterton wraps each story in his warm, sometimes entrancing writing and a very odd assortment of crimes.
Father Brown is a pleasant little Roman Catholic priest living in England, who seems just to be a nice little old man on the outside. But when a crime is committed -- or seems to have been committed -- Father Brown begins pottering around in search of clues, and unravels the very surprising truths of the matter.
Not just factual truths, but the truths of human nature and theology. Some of the mysteries that confront him are seemingly simple crimes, while others are baffling to the point of impossibility. And some of the stories (such as man who claims he's going to be attacked by a demonic force) seem to have a supernatural basis, but Father Brown's common sense always wins.
Chesterton's mysteries are often ignored next to Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, which is odd when you consider his uncanny knack for making mysteries that were a lot simpler than they appeared to be, or else had some sort of bizarre twist at the end. Both kinds of mysteries show up in these short stories, but only occasionally can readers guess what is going on, until Father Brown spells it out with some little detail of human nature.
The mysteries are usually written very casually and a little humorously, but with an oblique wall of clues that don't make sense until Father Brown reveals the motives. And Chesterton's crowning achievement is a writing style is absolutely exquisite ("Over the black pine-wood came flying and flashing in the moon, a naked sword"), something that not many mysteries have.
And Father Brown is a likable little guy, who looks like an "innocent goblin" and doesn't have to overwork himself to solve mysteries. It's his shrewd brain and rather childlike straightforwardness that carries him through, and his innocuous appearance hides a shrewd knowledge of crime and evil ("The reliable machine always has to be worked by an unreliable machine.... I mean Man").
"The Complete Father Brown Stories" brings together some truly memorable mystery stories, with solutions much simpler than they seem.
on January 13, 2004
The mystery story is exemplified by the Sherlock Holmes stories. Those who haven't read them will probably know much about them from the way they have (justly) been added to the public imagination. So a good way of describing the Father Brown stories is to compare the two, as the images of Holmes are probably known to all.
Holmes is a private detective. As such, his main objective is to solve the crime. Father Brown is (obviously) a Catholic priest. His objective is to serve God by trying to better society. These two goals say a lot about how they go about solving crimes. Unlike Holmes, Brown gets close to crimes by accident (yes, that's a big suspension-of-disbelief) - as they happen amongst the families and coworkers of friends. He does not seek to "catch" the crook for the police but rather to find out what happened. At times, he lets the criminal go - and unlike the grumpy Holmes his speech (full of philosophical discussions) and actions reek of a love of humanity.
Holmes solves by logical deduction. Brown solves by a combination of intiution and a deep insight into character and circumstance. As such, the crux of many of the stories is psychological. Others rely on assumptions that people make about, say, people subservient to them. The Brown stories are therefore great satires of the early 20th century London society.
This edition has 18 stories - a quite eclectic collection and very recommended if you haven't encountered Brown before. The first one (the Blue Cross) introduces him marvelously as one of the great detectives.
on April 2, 1999
Father Brown turns out to be cleverer than everyone had supposed in the first story because ... well, I'm not giving anything much away, but if you are afraid of even small details, skip to the next paragraph immediately. To proceed: Father Brown knows more than anyone could have suspected about crimes because he's been listening to crminals' confessions, week in, week out, for decades. It is as a result of this (and this alone) that he manages to thwart the villain.
A neat idea, no? The trouble is, Chesterton abandons it immediately and uses the more boring device of making Father Brown very clever and wise. Then, a few stories later, Chesterton makes the plunge, converts to Roman Catholicism, and Father Brown becomes not only clever and wise (although you have to wonder about that), but irritating beyond belief. Nobody is safe around him. No comment, however innocent it may seem on the surface, escapes without a lecture from Father Brown (who speaks more and more like one of Chesterton's essays with a few extra "dear me's"). The lectures attain whatever persuasivenes they have because no other character is allowed to behave rationally with Father Brown in the same room.
George Orwell (in "Notes on Nationalism") writes that Chesterton: "... was a writer of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda. During the last twenty years or so of his life, his entire output was in reality an endless repitition of the same thing, under its laboured cleverness as simple and boring as 'Great is Diana of the Ephesians'. Every book that he wrote, every paragraph, every sentence, every incident in every story, every scrap of dialogue, had to illustrate beyond possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or pagan." ... Orwell is dead right, I'm afraid. Both Father Brown and Chesterton NEVER SHUT UP.
A pity, because underneath the heavy varnish of propaganda, there are some fine detective stories. Perhaps they are *all* fine detective stories (underneath the varnish). Chesterton's devices are varied and brilliant and he knows how to build atmosphere. A few of the stories (mostly pre-Catholic ones - "The Queer Feet" is the best) are just GOOD, period. All in all this book should be more widely read. But enter at your own risk.
Considering the age of these short stories they still hold up extremely well. The stories themselves are, for the most part, not your typical set up/murder/solution type of story. A lot of them are of a very esoteric nature. They just do not come across as "traditional" at all. Having said this, they are very entertaining, and when read in order it is interesting to see the growth of peripheral players who come and go through different stories.
These are all short stories complete in a series of volumes with everything contained in this one e book. It is well worth getting.
on September 19, 2008
There are some characters or stories whom everybody knows. Even those who have not actually read the works have at least heard of Sherlock Holmes, or War of the Worlds, or The Lord of the Rings. There is one fictional "detective" who may not be quite as well known as Holmes (although he comes close), but has certainly delighted generations of readers. In a sense, Father Brown is the antithesis of Holmes. While we are made aware, at every turn, of Holmes' brilliance, of Brown we are told: "He had a face round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea; he had several brown-paper parcels which he was quite incapable of collecting." (p. 10)
Yet despite his harmless appearance, Brown correctly fingers the criminal in every case. (This appeals to my love of people or things which are much more capable than they appear.) But another thing which appeals to me about Father Brown is that his religious faith, which seems to be such a handicap to his opponents, is one of the keys to his success. Time and again, a sceptical criminal underestimates him, and tries to trip him up with mystical mumbo-jumbo, on the assumption that anyone dumb enough to believe in God will fall for any old line. But it is precisely because he believes in God that Brown will not fall for "any old line." A sceptic may, on a dark and stormy night, in a creaking old house, have a hard time maintaining unbelief in vampires and goblins. For a Christian, such creatures cannot exist. (In fact, a survey taken a few years ago showed -- much to the surprise of the surveyors -- that Christians are much less likely to believe in assorted "paranormal phenomena" than are self-avowed atheists.)
So perhaps you can understand the pleasure I take in reading the Father Brown stories: Brown is successful, not in spite of his faith, but because of it. The Complete Father Brown collects all of the Father Brown stories in one (large-ish) volume. The only problem now is remembering to stop reading before the sun comes up.
on May 1, 2004
This book compiles some short detective stories, with an unlikely protagonist, a priest. Father Brown is a rather quiet main character, unpretentious but remarkably assured. He uses logic in order to solve his cases, and he makes abundant use of good judgment and sound sense. Father Brown has an unique "worldly shrewdness", that probably stems from the fact that he spends many hours each day listening to the sins of other people. As a result, he is more or less acquainted with the bad side of human beings.
Father Brown is considered by many "the second most famous mystery-solver in English literature", the first being Sherlock Holmes. To tell the truth, I prefer Father Brown to Sherlock Holmes: he might not be as showy as Conan Doyle's character, but he is far more likeable, and his stories seem more likely to be real. Moreover, Chesterton's Father Brown doesn't just chase criminals, he allows the reader to learn about some interesting themes that were important when these stories were first published, but that also are important now, for example the relationship between faith and reason. He manages to that because he doesn't merely want to "catch the criminal", he also endeavors to understand human nature, and the reasons why a criminal becomes one.
The author of these mystery stories was Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936), a renowned English writer who wrote them between 1911 and 1936. His stories are as popular now as they were then, mainly to to the fact that Chesterton's style is compelling and refreshing, eminently readable and witty. Thus, these stories appeal not only to those who want to read a good book written in an exceptionally good english, but also to those who want to do exactly that without having to exhert themselves.
On the whole, I think this collection of short stories is worth buying and reading, not only once but many times. I highly enjoyed it, and I strongly recommend it to you :)
on July 4, 2001
In the genre of the finely crafted English detective story, Chesterton's "Father Brown" stories are wholesome and stimulating detective tales surpassed by few others, except perhaps Doyle's legendary Sherlock Holmes. In contrast to the arrogant Holmes, however, Chesterton's protagonist is rather quiet, unassuming and modest, and makes an unlikely hero - a catholic priest. Father Brown's simple manner makes you quick to underestimate him, but the startling flashes of brilliance that spill from beneath his humble exterior soon make you realize that he has a firm grasp on the truth of a situation when you are as yet frustratingly distant from it. His perceptive one-liners make it evident that he has a clear insight into something that you see only as an apparently insoluble paradox.
Chesterton has been called the "prince of paradox", and the Father Brown stories are a clear testimony of his fondness for paradox. Ultimately it is not just crimes that Brown must solve, but the paradox underlying them. In fact, not all stories are crime stories - among them are mysterious situations that do not involve criminals, and it is the perceptive insight of Father Brown that is needed make apparent contradictions comprehensible by his ruthless logic. Father Brown is not so much concerned with preserving life or bringing a criminal to justice as he is with unravelling the strands of an impossible paradox. In fact, Chesterton's conception of Father Brown is itself a paradox - both a cleric and a crime-fighter, a priest and a policeman, a representative of God's mercy and an instrument of God's justice, a proclaimer of forgiveness and a seeker of guilt, a listener in the confessional and a questioner in the interrogation.
How a priest could possibly play the role of a detective is explained in the first story, "The Blue Cross". Brown apprehends the confounded criminal Flambeau and explains that his knowledge of the criminal mind is due in part to what he's heard at the confessional booth "We can't help being priests. People come and tell us these things." When Flambeau retorts "How in blazes do you know all these horrors?" Chesterton allows his humble priest to attribute his insight into human depravity to his experience as a priest: "Oh, by being a celibate simpleton, I suppose, he said. Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil."
But both Chesterton and Father Brown have insight into much more than just human depravity - they are both champions of Catholic orthodoxy. This gives the Father Brown stories a depth not found in Brown's compatriot Holmes. In the course of Chesterton's stories, we are treated to philosophical discussions about catholic theology, such as the relationship between faith and reason. We do not merely meet an assortment of cobblers, blacksmiths, magistrates and generals, but atheists, legalists, secularists, pagans, Presbyterians, Puritans, Protestants and Catholics, all with varying and vying affections for superstition, naturalism, rationalism, scepticism, agnosticism, materialism, anarchism, nihilism, or cynicism. Along with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton was one of the few writers in the twentieth century that made an important contribution to English literature that was stamped by Christian principles instead of the prevailing secularism of the day.
Readers who do not share Chesterton's theological convictions will not concur with all his insights, but they must concede that they are enjoyable, profound and stimulating. Somewhat surprising is the occasional use of blasphemous expletives such as "O my God", although generally from the mouths of others than Father Brown himself. And Brown does seem to degenerate more and more into a mouthpiece for Chesterton, with a sermonizing tone not present in the first stories.
But on the whole these are exemplary models of the English crime short story. The Penguin edition contains all the stories from all five of Chesterton's published Father Brown collections. Among my favorites are "The Blue Cross", where Father Brown follows a mysterious trail of clues and engages in some bizarre behaviour and fascinating theological discourse to apprehend Flambeau. "The Hammer of God" is also an outstanding whodunnit, as Brown solves the murder of a man who has been crushed by a huge hammer outside a church, seemingly the recipient of a divine thunderbolt of judgment from heaven. In the process Chesterton shares some thought-provoking insights, such as the memorable: "Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak." Also unforgettable is "The Blast of the Book", which recounts the mysterious disappearance of five men whose only crime was to open a seemingly magical book. Father Brown is quick to unravel the paradox by explaining it as the work of an ingenious prankster.
Father Brown's tongue never fails to produce profound paradoxical gems such as "The point of the pin was that it was pointless." And: "I never should have thought he would be so illogical as to die in order to avoid death." It is Brown's unique perspective that allows him to see what others do not see. When his compatriots are awed at the eloquence of a magistrate's thundering sermon in "the Mirror of the Magistrate", Father Brown remarks: "I think the thing that struck me most was how different men look in their wigs. You talk about the prosecuting barrister being so tremendous. But I happened to see him take his wig off for a minute, and he really looks quite a different man. He's quite bald, for one thing."
With the finely crafted prose, depth of theological insight, and brilliant combination of perception and paradox, Chesterton has created in Father Brown a noble and enduring character, a worthy successor to Sherlock Holmes and in some respects his equal and superior. The Father Brown stories are unquestionably worthy of their designation as classics.
on December 8, 1998
The notion of a priest-detective seems inherently paradoxical: forgiving sin vs. seeking out the guilty, mercy vs. justice, the confessional vs. the interrogation. But G.H. Chesterton was fond of paradox, and in these stories he's generally successful in presenting a character whose pastoral experience combines with his detective instincts to ensure that TRUE justice is done.
I first read the stories as a Catholic high school student, when I accepted the author's religious assumptions without question. But when I read the book again as a formerly Catholic adult, I was pleasantly surprised: Father Brown is (usually) unsanctimonious and free of legalisms regarding sin. Furthermore, he distinguishes between someone whose sin arises out of a fundamentally generous spirit (like Flambeau), vs. those who sin from coldly selfish motives based on greed or arrogance.
Chesterton is a memorable writer, if prone to excesses of purple prose; but when he's at his best, nobody comes within a mile of him. And, while his plots can be far-fetched, he works them out with great ingenuity and thoroughness. Some of the stories should be read with tongue firmly affixed in cheek, but they're fun, memorable, and thought-provoking.
on September 15, 1997
In this Penguin Books selection, G. K. Chesterton spins fantastic worlds of menace around his winsome hero Father Brown. Across these landscapes the Roman Catholic Priest of Essex plods as an amateur detective with a wisdom unmoving as rock. He plods and the wicked flee; he embraces and they are captured.
The internationally notorious criminal, Flambeau, is one who finds his career foundering upon that rock. The penitent thief eventually serves Father Brown as his sometimes ally and confidant. But, it is Brown alone who strikes like lightning into the darkness of the souls he encounters. They are burnt, but we are illuminated.
The reader finds gratification more by plodding along like Flambeau at the side of his mentor, than by racing to discover the story's secret. In these 49 graceful tales, Brown teaches us that evil has not the power to evade as truth has to pursue.
In the hands of a lesser talent, the unlikely combination of cleric and detective may have only been a gimmick to amuse a passing audience. We are grateful that through the unrivaled style of Chesterton, the beloved Father Brown will remain forever a favorite of mystery fiction.
on June 21, 2004
Other authors may have excelled in the detective story, but it was G.K. Chesterton who elevated it to a higher intellectual and literary level. His writing combines wit, humor and whimsy with deep insights into psychology, philosophy, and even theology. While others viewed the detective story as a mere entertaining puzzle, G.K. treated it as a serious art form, with potential for symbolism and allegory. Father Brown is one of the classic fictional detectives of all time, a character more "real" than many living people. How wonderful to have all the Father Brown stories under one cover! Keep this volume by your bedside or near your favorite armchair, so you can dip into it on a rainy weekend, before you go to bed, or at any time you like. All confirmed Father Brown devotees must have the Penguin COMPLETE FATHER BROWN, and those who have not yet discovered this detective genius could find no better way to become acquainted with him.