In GAD We Trust – Episode 7: The Father Brown Stories of G.K. Chesterton [w’ John @ Countdown John’s Christie Journal]

In GAD We Trust

This week on my Lockdown Podcast In GAD We Trust, the cream of G.K. Chesterton’s stories about his crime-solving Roman Catholic priest as selected by John who blogs at Countdown John’s Christie Journal.

It went like this: John earmarked his ten favourite Father Brown stories, I read them, and we picked through their finer points, looking at the genre principles Chesterton was deploying, and the wider prospect of Brown as a character, his stature in comparison to some other Great Detectives, and what influence we think the earlier stories may have had on the forthcoming Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

Except that I accidentally read only nine of John’s choices — I did read 10 stories, don’t worry, I have a Maths degree and would almost certainly have noticed if I was one short — but hopefully that won’t disrupt things too much.  We also get into some fairly spoiler-rich details, too, so I’ll provide below the times that our look at each story starts for anyone wishing to skip over anything they’ve not yet read.

Okay, I think that’s it; click here to open the audio in your browser, or use the player below…

Skip to the following times (h:mm:ss) for each story in order to avoid — or find! — spoilers:

‘The Secret Garden’ (1910) – 0:09:26
‘The Hammer of God’ (1910) – 0:12:54
‘The Sign of the Broken Sword’ (1911) – 0:19:33
‘The Eye of Apollo’ (1911) – 0:24:24
‘The Honour of Israel Gow’ (1911) – 0:33:54
‘The Strange Crime of John Boulnois’ (1913) – 0:41:09
‘The Oracle of the Dog’ (1923) – 0:46:47
‘The Dagger with Wings’ (1924) – 0:58:08
‘The Miracle of Moon Crescent’ (1924) – 1:02:43
‘The Blast of the Book’ (1933) – 1:05:37

Thanks are due to John for suggesting this and getting me to spend some more time with Chesterton, to Jonny Berliner for providing the music, and to you, the audience, for being, y’know, the audience.

John would also like it known that he has a spare copy of the first collection The Innocence of Father Brown (1910) which he’s willing to post free of charge to anyone in the UK who might be inspired to try Chesterton for themselves.  Contact him via his blog here if you want to be in the running, and the winning name will be drawn out of a hat next weekend.

Hope this finds you and your loved ones safe and well, see you for more podcastin’ in a fortnight.  In the meantime, all episodes of this podcast can be found on the blog here, on iTunes here, and on Spotify here.

24 thoughts on “In GAD We Trust – Episode 7: The Father Brown Stories of G.K. Chesterton [w’ John @ Countdown John’s Christie Journal]

    • Also, excellent choice of stories. Very interesting to see that Queer Feet is not included. I think that story is a tad over-rated. Very happy to see the under-rated Honour of Israel Gow in the list. I love the macabre tone and the meta bit about Father Brown drawing several conclusions from a single set of clues is hilarious. Also while I don’t like the first story Blue Cross much, without it the shocking conclusion of the Secret Garden is not felt. Both stories should come as a pair.

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      • ‘The Queer Feet’ I remember as having a wonderful piece of reasoning — I believe I may even have called it the finest piece of ratiocination in the genre — but that getting lost in the mire of everything else. And ‘The Blue Cross’ is interesting, but feels more like a joke that only Chesterton finds funny when you get to the unmasking. However, I’m also not the world’s greatest Chesterton fan, so not the best person to judge.

        Bodes well that you approve of John’s selections, though.

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    • The podcasts are an every-other-Saturday thing. Everything else is text-based. One podcast episode take up the storage space of approximately 50 text posts, and is only likely to be a “during lockdown” thing becuase I’ll run out of storage room otherwise 😁

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks. I’m glad to hear that, as I’m a reader, not a listener 😀

        If you don’t mind me asking, what plan do you use through wordpress? I’ve been thinking on and off for years about going dotcom through them just for increased storage. Once I pass the 50% mark of my free stuff then I’ll get serious. But I’m always interested to hear what others do…

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        • Oh, whatever the cheapest one was — it was very much an experiment to see if it was worth having for the additional content you can upload (podcast, etc). Haven’t regretted it.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Enjoyed the podcast immensely and, you may be surprised to hear, don’t find myself disagreeing with all that much you have to say about Chesterton. I do think he had more of an impact on the Golden Age than you suggest, and I would submit it’s possibly because you are taking something basic and essential for granted.

    Being referred to so often as the “Prince of paradox,” I think it’s easy to overlook how strong the idea of central paradox is to Chesterton’s work, and how much more so it is in his work than in that of those who came before him (I’m thinking primarily of Doyle, of course). There are some unexpected surprises in Doyle, but with Chesterton it is so much more than that— nearly every story is designed to turn our world upside down; the sense of “if we had just looked at the whole problem from a different angle” is at the core of every story. Indeed, it is very often the basis of theological condescension: “You non-believers are so susceptible to fall for this (or that).” And it’s far from consistently convincing. But the idea of a central paradigm shift that suddenly makes all clear was Chesterton’s specialty, and it was carried over as a genre specialty pleasure in the works of Carr, Christie, Queen, Berkeley, and others (and the distinct lack of it in Talbot’s Rim of the Pit— despite that novel’s many excellences— I consider particularly illustrative).

    And— I apologize for getting on my old soapbox again here— Chesterton is perhaps also the strongest illustration of the problem of both the terminology and even the concept of “fair play.” Because the difference between Chesterton’s stories and those of the GAD novelists is ultimately only one of degrees of sufficiency, not of essential nature. As in a Carr or Christie novel, there are indications of the truth, and also indications of the falsehood of other theories. These are clues, just like those in the more complex and thorough GAD novels. Some of the clues aren’t as deductively conclusive, but note that even in novels with the most painstaking deductive reasoning, the solutions to the mysteries— like those those of Chesterton— are ultimately abductive chains, connecting the dots of the individual conclusions reached (sometimes through deduction reasoning). So, arguing that a whodunit solution— Chesterton’s, Christie’s, Carr’s, or Rhode’s— is “fair play” is far more analogous to arguing that some food is “tasty” than that it “meets nutritional standards.” Because nutritional standards can be set and measured— “all the clues necessary” cannot (though people speak as if they can be).

    For me, the counterexample that always comes to mind is Carr’s The Crooked Hinge. As fun a read as it is, the “special quality” of the culprit is insufficiently clued to seem retrospectively satisfactory to me. But how much more evidence would be needed to make it sufficiently “fair”? Hell, even a signed note from his physician describing his condition wouldn’t “prove” anything (as neither does the confession at the end of the novel, either— people have lied before in confessions, as have physicians in signed medical statements). Somewhere on the spectrum of clueing sufficiency there would surely be enough indications of the truth (and clues discounting other possible explanations) to provide satisfactory inevitability for me— but then is my taste to be the final arbiter of what constitutes sufficient clueing?

    I just see Chesterton taking less time for (and interest in) disproving counter theories. Other than that, I find his plotting no essentially different than that of the Golden Age writers. And though there were a few influential Doyle stories in terms of plotting (“Red Headed League,” “The Valley of Fear,” “The Problem of Thor Bridge”), I find that Chesterton stories far more frequently provide the “molecules” of great GAD novels and neo-GAD works. “The Sign of the Broken Sword” is of course the basis for The ABC Murders (and oddly enough I consider Chesterton’s short story more richly and interestingly clued!). “The Honour of Israel Gow” (what a cheekily forthright title!) foretells the surprise beneficence in The Seven Dials Mystery (it’s not all that similar, admittedly, just the idea of an apparent menace surprisingly turning out to be benevolent— okay, so its a crappy example). I feel “The Eye of Apollo” provides the central idea for the (vastly superior, IMO) Jonathan Creek episode The Tailor’s Dummy (and another Creek episode takes the plot of “The Three Tools of Death” as a central plot point). And what else is your beloved “Blast of the Book”— multiple purely fabricated impossibilities made more credible by one carefully created one— but the core plot of Till Death Do Us Part? There are many other examples, but I was just thinking offhand from the ones you were discussing.

    I agree with your general assessment of the stories. “Secret Garden” is terrific (and particularly “bounteous”— almost a novel crammed into a short story). “Hammer of God” is a good story (though I’ve personally always found it very transparent). You already know what I think of “Sign of Broken Sword”— I like not only the central “build a forest to hide a leaf” deception, but also both the broken sword clue, as well as the behavioral discrepancies of the two Generals. I also agree it’s a very sad story, but I like that. There’s actually a lot i I like in “Eye of Apollo,” but I’ll admit it’s logistically ludicrous (a valid complaint for a fair amount of Chesterton, I’ll admit). “The Honour of Israel Gow” is likewise ludicrous, almost more the basis for a party riddle than a story, but it’s still a fascinating solution idea. “The Strange Crime of John Boulnois” I skipped on your podcast, because I don’t remember it. I’ll give it a read (or re-read).

    I was saddened to hear about the problem with “The Oracle of the Dog.” Like John, I had no idea. Still, it is actually the kind of clue I most like… a behavioral discrepancy clue. And though I don’t think it’s right to say that all poets act alike, etc… I think it might be justified to make those kind of generalizations about certain types of animals (if the generalizations were true, which this one evidently is not). And that kind of thing can be well done even with humans and professions— the solutions of Christie’s Three Act Tragedy and Five Little Pigs are both based somewhat on those kinds of generalizations. And the retrospective inevitability of the solution to And Then There Were None is largely based on taking the culprit’s occupation into account (that’s what I consider one of the REAL clues of the novel, unlike the three rather wonky ones he confesses). As I wasn’t familiar with the nature of summer houses, that aspect does qualify for me as a “specialized knowledge” clue, and such clues I consider vastly inferior (if you don’t understand why, I’ll gladly explain on request).

    I share your opinions about both “The Dagger with Wings” and “The Miracle of Moon Crescent.” I think neither is without merit, but they’re both pretty highly overrated, IMO. And I too like “The Blast of the Book” too, though— perhaps especially now when employment is so tough— I find it it difficult to believe that anyone would risk their job just to show their boss his faults. Also, how did he break the window without the Professor hearing?

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    • I don’t know how to do justice to the full scope of your wonderful comment, Scott, so I’ll pick one key point and build from there.

      When you say that you “see Chesterton taking less time for (and interest in) disproving counter theories”, I would say the exact same thing except from the other perspective: he doesn’t take the time for it because his schemes are so rickety that they wouldn’t withstand any scrutiny. With Carr and Christie and Rhode and Talbot and Doyle, etc., there seems to be an obsession with pouring over the faults in their plans and their schemes: look at The Hollow Man, for one, which (rightly) has holes picked all the way through it. Chesterton always gets a pass, mainly because the excuse of the paradox seems to pass as an elixir for all his ills.

      My contention about Chesterton’s contribution to the genre comes exactly from the perspective that very little of what he wrote was any use to anyone following him. I suggest from a plotting perspective that most of Chesterton’s ideas only work in those precise plots…and even then they don’t work half the time 🙂 Something like ‘The Wrong Shape’ relies on Father brown being so staggeringly undescriptive in his assessment of the crucial piece of paper in a way that no writer following would ever dare to try and get away with. He was doubtless having a great time, and some of these really do stand up, but where Berkeley and Christie and Rhode and Freeman were playing with what the form would allow, or how much specialised knowledge you could get away with while still appearing “fair”, Chesterton just wants a shock and for you to move on. If anything, he’s the full stop at the end of the Edwardian and Victorian writing model of Doyle and his ilk than he is the opening door onto the Golden Age.

      Which, I thin, might upset a few people as a perspective on the man and his work…

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  2. I used to like Father Brown’s stories when I was twenty. I haven’t revisited them, though. I recall reading two or three for the second time and being less than impressed.

    I’ve seen a mention to “The Crooked Hinge” in the comments. The huge problem with that novel is that the clueing depends on, let’s call it “flawed external knowledge “. Instead of presenting clues about x on the very pages of the book , Carr dropped references that he expected the reader to link to an erroneous interpretation of a real life event. Really gripping novel, but a bit of a train wreck.

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    • That was pretty much my experience of Father Brown, Andrés, and in part why I was so intrigued to do this when John suggested it. And while I’m not in love with everything here, I was pleasantly surprised to really enjoy the ones I did enjoy, and don’t regret buying a nice set of the stories to read them again — I’ll certainly read more. And possibly hate them all 🙂

      As to The Crooked Hinge, I’ll say what I always say: Carr dropped the ball on a couple of key moments, and it’s defintiely insufficiently clued in the way that Scott means. It would have been so quick to fix, too — consider that out victim is, I believe, standing in sand when he’s attacked, and think of the marks in would have been interesting to find there. Alas, Carr suffered from John Rhode-itis sometimes in how quickly he could churn out and book and not consider the final details that would have made ti perfect. It’s almost like he was human or something.

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  3. With regard to the query about “milk and soda”, I’m not sure if there was ever an actual drink of that description, but given Chestertpn’s dislike of soft drinks it probably is just meant to give an idea of what the character who drinks it is like. (See the poem by GKC which starts “Feast on wine or fast on water…” to get the point of this.)

    Have you read “The Innocence of Father Brown” in the edition with annotations by Martin Gardner?

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    • Martin Gardner the mathematical puzzle guy? No, I had no idea such a thing existed.

      Thanks for the pointer to the “Feast on wine” poem — I happen to agree with the last two lines…!

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      • Gardner did annotated versions of several books, including Alice in Wonderland, The Hunting of the Snark and The Man Who Was Thursday (which some people think is Chesterton’s masterpiece).

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  4. I couldn’t listen to all of the podcast because I haven’t read all the stories. Personally my relationship with Chesterton’s writing is pretty fraught; I think he’s often an amazing writer but his ideologies are guaranteed to get on my wick. See The Oracle of the Dog, as mentioned, where Father Brown rants about humans (particularly those non-believing sorts) pushing their interpretations of animal behaviour, before… giving an interpretation of animal behaviour as the truth. Riiiiight. It’s been a while, so I may be exaggerating. But I don’t think I am.

    All that said, I would also agree with the idea that you’re under-representing his contributions to the genre… there may not be many material influences you can find in the writing of those he inspired. (Though I think the framing of the miracle problem as miraculous, and the heavy atmosphere used for this in some stories, are definitely present in Carr). But I agree with the focus on re-framing the situation, which is very key to GAD. And more broadly, I wonder if some of these writers would even have taken to detective fiction if it wasn’t for Chesterton? Chesterton presents puzzle-ish problems in a way that a writer would enjoy writing. Surely inspiring a potential writer to start writing in the genre would be considered as being “of use” to those following?

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    • I suppose my contention would be that I don’t mean exclusively his ideas, but his general approach as well. Consider how many detectives were simply a renamed Sherlock Holmes in the wake of Holmes, or who operated on the principle of that character — first and foremost and always a detective, with little heed paid to their extraneous interests beyond that they simply know what the author needs them to know in order to solve the mystery.

      Practically every detective that followed in the Golden Age (Poirot, Wimsey, Burnley, French, Alleyn…I’m not going to be able to list even a representative sample) is in that mould: they’re detectives who alos have odd facial hair or an unusual habit, but they are first and foremost detectives. Brown isn’t like that, he’s more in common with the cozy Specialist Detective who owns a wool shop and keeps encountering wool-based mysteries, his profession away from detection comes first, and the solving of the crimes is almost incidental to his character. Sure, the notion of justice and mercy are present in Chesterton, but he wasn’t the first to display these on the pages. Plus. Conan Doyle is arguably much more fun to read than Chesterton (though, of course that’s pure opinion) and I see much more of Holmes in the medico detection of Rhode and Freeman, and in the obsession over detail in Croffts and Rees, and in the swift reversal of situations you find in Christie, than I do of Chesterton in any of them.

      No doubt Chesterton’s atmosphere had an influence on Carr, but so would have Collins and Gaboriau and Horace Walpole — hell, Carr and Leblanc have more in common in their actual writing than do Carr and GKC. I know I’m kicking against received wisdom, and I’m fine with people disagreeing with me, but I promise I’m not just being contrary for the sake of it 🙂 I simply don’t see the claims about this steering influence that, I feel, are repeated purely because they’ve been said before. People enjoy his work? No doubt. People who went on to write influentially in GAD enjoyed his work? Sure. Not the same thing as having a large influence over the genre, however.

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      • Jim, I grant most of what you say. Certainly about the nature of the detective— I love your idea of the specialist detective who owns a wool shop and keeps encountering wool-based mysteries (I almost feel that way about the long-running TV series NCIS— are there really so many murders involving Navy personnel that it requires its own department? I suppose so because there is a real NCIS, though I don’t think it speaks very well of the Navy!). But of course, the only implausible thing about the Father Brown stories in that respect is the idea that, as with Jessica Fletcher, a person not employed in any aspect of law enforcement would run into so many crimes. For, unlike with the case of the wool industry, all crimes can easily be regarded as morality-related. That is, it’s still just as remarkable a coincidence that Father Brown runs into so many crimes, but it’s not at all remarkable that he’s able to link those crimes to his profession (it’s presumably a bit tougher for the wool shop owner). And we should remember that, although Poirot was a private detective, Miss Marple was not (and there are other such examples)

        And I will grant you the pass we give Chesterton due to the “elixir” of paradox. His schemes are indeed often very “rickety” in the form he presents them. He was certainly not (and clearly did not attempt to be) a precision plot mechanic, and indeed very few of his stories I consider to be in of themselves masterpieces. Still, I consider many of them to be the “seeds“ of the Golden Age.

        Let’s take the very example you gave, the altered paper of “The Wrong Shape.” I’ll grant that he was being somewhat undescriptive of it, though in my mind not “staggeringly” so. For, before the equals sign (my terminology for being pre-denouement — the only point before which information must be offered to be deemed “fair” in the mind of readers [and I don’t think I have to point out that I’m using quotations marks around that particular word to signify a distinction between accurate truth and subjective perception]), he does point out that the “wrong shape” consisted of having a “sort of edge snipped off at the corner” and that the words on the paper were: “I die by my own hands; yet I die murdered!” I do wish he had removed some ambiguity there by initially describing the words on the paper in their own “paragraph”— a full line spacing after the colon— and had presented them without quotation marks. (And what of the final quotation mark? I’m still confused about that part). But I do see it as clueing that narrows possibilities much more than an awkward walk suggests that a man has no legs!

        And more to my point, the concept of the entire meaning of a written document being changed by the removal of a small bit of the paper, less than the length of a word, was then taken by Christie and turned into a central clue of her novel Lord Edgware Dies! And Christie uses a perhaps an even closer variation of it elsewhere, in which an apparent suicide note is undeniably the handwriting of the deceased, but a “wrongness” of the shape indicates a contextual alteration of intent.

        That’s what I mean by Chesterton providing the seeds of the genre. For, I see him much like the guy who says “let’s create a small lever-controlled catapult to launch small projectiles toward our enemies,” and leaves it to his successors to perfect the Smith and Wesson. He’ll have a story in which a wild-gray-haired opera singer gives himself an alibi for murder by having his butler apparently sing an aria to a crowd via strapping a phonograph to his back (I’m picturing Harpo Marx in Monkey Business), and wearing a gray yarn mop-head to cover his bald pate. Carr, Christie or others would come up with more deceptive audio technology, point out that the concert was carefully designed so that the sun was behind the apparent singer, and that the opera singer had two wigs. That is, they would take care to make the deceptions more subtle and believable. But the core was provided by Chesterton.

        And I really believe that most of his psychological points are marred only by exaggeration. It is admittedly rather ridiculous to assume that “of course” a poet would walk in a garden for two hours. But if that same idea were offered as possibility or probability (“I suggest he may have been walking in the garden, lost in thought. Poets are often like to do that kind of thing, you know”), I think it would seem far more acceptable to you and to me.

        The same is true, I believe, of your much-hated “The Invisible Man.” I don’t care for the story much myself— I think it’s rather vastly overrated— but I‘m convinced the core psychological point of it holds. No, I don’t believe many people would say that no-one else had entered a room if a maid, waiter, or postman had been there— the total erasure of them from memory is exaggeration. But it’s true that such people are easily overlooked or not paid attention to, and it’s not at all matter of class snobbery. I can’t tell you how many times a member of my dining party (including myself) at a restaurant has said something to the effect of “oh, you need a spoon… I’ll call our waitress… which one WAS our waitress?”

        Now before you start suspecting that my social circle consists entirely of class-snobs, I’ll point out that many of us have worked as waiters and waitresses. We don’t believe that these people who serve us are less important than we are, or have lives less full or interesting. However, we do forget their faces at the restaurant, nonetheless. Why? In the first place because all entities are least conspicuous— and least memorable— where they seem to belong. Sure we’ll easily remember a server with a particularly outstanding feature, whether positive or negative (I must admit to being able to remember a waitress with incredible legs). But for the most part, a woman in a waitress outfit does not stand out in our mind— or hold in our memory long— because she belongs in that setting and is fulfilling her function. A woman in a waitress outfit on the beach, on the other hand… well you get my point.

        In addition, we have other intents and interests at that moment which do not concern noticing and registering the details of our surroundings. We are in conversation with friends. When our server asks us what we want to order, we concentrate on that issue. And then we return to our conversation with our friends. Thus, not snobs, but merely human beings who pay attention to that which is most important to us at that moment. And so, the only flaw I see in what Chesterton is doing in “The Invisible Man” is his exaggeration and extension of “incongruity” to “invisibility”— which I believe is his sense of metaphor.

        Those are just a couple of examples. I believe his stories abound with such plot ideas and psychological notions— at least one per story— the plot ideas often “rickety,” the psychological notions exaggerated. But employed with more care and detail, I believe they serve as the building blocks of The Golden Age.

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        • I can’t do justice to your comment, Scott, and so again I apologise, but I suppose the key thing I’d like to make cl;ear is not that I believe GKC had no influence on the Golden Age — that way lies madness — but that his influence seems (to me) to be rather over-stated.

          Maybe I’m building up a straw man argument in my own mind, and clearly it’s a matter of interpretation, but I didn’t want to leave you with the impression that I’m saying there’s nothing the Golden Age owes to GKC — that’s not true. He absolutely did some stuff that carried forward, I just feel it was much less influential than the publication of The Cask, say.

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          • You might be right about GKC’s influence being overstated, and I wouldn’t know about The Cask (yes, I actually haven’t read it!). I certainly wouldn’t suggest that he was influential in any other respect than providing many of the “plot molecules” that were later employed in more intricate (and logistically viable) GAD novels… but I do believe he did that.

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