This isn't a novel, but rather a collection of 12 short stories: "The Blue Cross," "The Secret Garden," "The Queer Feet," "The Flying Stars," "The Invisible Man," "The Honour of Israel Gow," "The Wrong Shape," "The Sins of Prince Saradine," "The Hammer of God," "The Eye of Apollo," "The Sign of the Broken Sword," and "The Three Tools of Death."
Father Brown is an unassuming little Roman Catholic priest. He doesn't look like a very bright man, but, in each story, he always notices and figures out things that others don't. In "The Blue Cross," the story in which he is introduced, he appears to have been naively fooled into trusting a man who will rob him.
In most of the other stories, he happens to be in the area when a murder is committed and not only figures out who the murderer is, but also, in the more perplexing cases, how the murder was committed. For instance, in "The Hammer of God" a man's skull has been smashed by an incredible blow. Father Brown figures out who was capable of striking such a blow and how such a blow was even possible when the murder weapon was only a small hammer.
In some of the stories, Father Brown deals with thievery and thefts. Flambeau, a recurring character, is a gentleman thief in several of the early stories and an amateur detective and Father Brown's admiring companion in later stories.
After finishing the first story in this book, I had high hopes that, like Maurice Leblanc's Arsene Lupin, Chesterton's Father Brown would be another wonderful Project Gutenberg find for me. I enjoyed the reveal at the end of the first story, when Father Brown proved himself to be less naive then he appeared and explained the reason behind all the strange things he'd done and the actions he'd taken to protect the sapphire cross he carried. When Valentin, head of the Paris police and “the most famous investigator of the world” showed up again in the next story, I assumed that meant he would be a recurring character. The idea of a mystery-solving pair consisting of a priest and an atheist detective seemed interesting to me, and I wanted to see how two men of such differing beliefs would manage together. Then I got to the end of that second story, and my hopes were dashed.
I still feel that Father Brown and Valentin would have made a more interesting pair than Father Brown and Flambeau. The revelation about Valentin came out of nowhere (unless his atheism was supposed to be a clue, in which case the entire story just plain makes me angry), and seemed, to me, to be an easy out for Chesterton. Rather than having to deal with potentially complicated future conversations between a religious man and an atheist, he simply took the atheist out of the picture. I didn't see Flambeau as much of anything beyond a constant reminder that Father Brown's way of doing things lead to people doing the Right Thing.
And what was Father Brown's way of doing things? Well, in cases that didn't involve the police, his way of doing things meant not necessarily even contacting the police. In at least one of the stories, he left it completely up to the murderer to turn himself in. In another story, Father Brown figured out how Flambeau set up one of his thefts and could probably even have arranged for the police to catch him. Instead, he told Flambeau to give up his life of thievery and return what he stole. And Flambeau did.
I've read that Father Brown's actions were in keeping with his profession, but that didn't mean they made for satisfying reading, at least not for me. I don't know that I would have minded as much if all his cases had involved thievery, but they didn't. I wasn't really comfortable with Father Brown figuring out how a murder had occurred and not always telling the police about it. In at least one story, there was no guarantee that any of the authorities ever found out what truly happened. In “The Sins of Prince Saradine,” for instance, there didn't seem to be any indication that the person at the root of the crime would ever be punished by the law. Maybe that didn't matter to Father Brown, but it mattered to me.
After finishing the first story in the book, I saw Father Brown as an interesting character, one I could potentially like quite a bit. I came to like him less and less, however. His lack of interest in helping to see that secular justice was carried out bothered me, as I've said. I also felt that the way Chesterton wrote about him sometimes made him seem a bit creepy and unnerving. For instance, in “The Wrong Shape” he had several moments when he seemed a bit...off. Below is a good example. By the way, the "it" he's referring to is a knife.
"It's very beautiful," said the priest in a low, dreaming voice; "the colours are very beautiful. But it's the wrong shape."
"What for?" asked Flambeau, staring.What he was actually doing, I guess, was divining that the knife would become an instrument of murder. Or something. Except, at that point, he had no way of knowing any of that and was just having some kind of dreamy, creepy moment while holding a knife.
"For anything. It's the wrong shape in the abstract. Don't you ever feel that about Eastern art? The colours are intoxicatingly lovely; but the shapes are mean and bad—deliberately mean and bad. I have seen wicked things in a Turkey carpet."
"Mon Dieu!" cried Flambeau, laughing.
"They are letters and symbols in a language I don't know; but I know they stand for evil words," went on the priest, his voice growing lower and lower. "The lines go wrong on purpose—like serpents doubling to escape."
"What the devil are you talking about?" said the doctor with a loud laugh.
Flambeau spoke quietly to him in answer. "The Father sometimes gets this mystic's cloud on him," he said; "but I give you fair warning that I have never known him to have it except when there was some evil quite near."
"Oh, rats!" said the scientist.
"Why, look at it," cried Father Brown, holding out the crooked knife at arm's length, as if it were some glittering snake. "Don't you see it is the wrong shape? Don't you see that it has no hearty and plain purpose? It does not point like a spear. It does not sweep like a scythe. It does not look like a weapon. It looks like an instrument of torture."
In another story, Father Brown was at the scene of a murder and hinted at the true murder weapon, “with an odd little giggle.” That giggle kind of creeped me out. I don't think it was nervous laughter as a result of being around the dead body. I think he was just amused at the clever little hint he had given everyone...which seemed an inappropriate thing to be giggling over at the scene of a gruesome murder.
Overall, while I found several of the mysteries to be interesting, they didn't always end in ways I found satisfactory. Because I also didn't really like Father Brown, I doubt I'll be reading more of Chesterton's Father Brown stories.
- The Murder at the Vicarage (book) by Agatha Christie - Those who'd like another mystery starring an unlikely amateur detective might want to try this, the first book in Christie's Miss Marple series.
- The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar (e-anthology) by Maurice Leblanc - I've linked to the free Project Gutenberg e-book version. Those who enjoyed Flambeau's antics as a gentleman thief might want to try one of Leblanc's Arsene Lupin books. This particular one is a collection of short stories. Lupin is a master of disguises and takes pleasure in advertising his crimes before he commits them. I have written about this book.
- The Nine Tailors (book) by Dorothy L. Sayers - Book 11 in Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series. In this one, church bells play an important part. The "nine tailors" are a pattern of bell ringing. I added this one to the list because it's a mystery with a church element, and because I discovered that Sayers wrote The Mind of the Maker, a book about the human and divine creative process that might interest Chesterton fans who don't mind reading non-fiction.
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (book) by C.S. Lewis - I thought this might be a good read-alike for those who enjoyed Chesterton's mix of religion and fiction. Lewis also wrote several theological works, for those who don't mind non-fiction.