What I’m Reading: Father Brown: The Essential Tales by G. K. Chesterton
G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories are more somber than the exploits of other favorite detectives found in short fiction.
Sherlock Holmes may frequent opium dens and chase criminals through the underbelly of London, but he does so with narrator Watson acting as the wholesome, middle-class buffer to cushion the reader’s experience. Hercule Poirot relishes the mental workout crime provides for his “little grey cells,” but amuses us with his taste for the finer things in life and his interactions with bumbling sidekick Hastings. Mma Precious Ramotswe solves some dark cases, but much of her work revolves around the mysterious but harmless foibles of her clients and neighbors.
Father Brown has more in common with Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe, the gritty gumshoes who take the world’s evil to heart and always keep what people are capable of in mind. Father Brown is, in many ways, alone. As a Catholic priest, he sits behind a screen and hears dark confessions of sin which he can share with no one; he has no wife, no sidekick, no reliable colleague. He has come by his criminal acumen in the most unpleasant way imaginable, and takes no pleasure in this skill he never worked to develop.
But still further, Father Brown is unlike the rest. These are also all detectives by trade who make crime into a livelihood. People come to Father Brown, but it is to ask for his services as a man of the cloth—someone has died; a husband and wife need counseling for reconciliation; a priceless relic needs to be transported to Westminster Abbey. Only one man, Flambeau, relies on Father Brown for his crime-solving abilities with some regularity.
This does not make for the typical detective caper. Chesterton writes beautiful mystery, but there is a gloomy quality that hangs over these stories, reminding you that evil is evil and we should wish none of these things ever happened. This genre relies on readers wishing for more crimes—but reading Father Brown stories marks the first time I wish, with Father Brown, that no crime had been committed at all. I think this is why Chesterton includes some stories where the worst is suspected but a happy accident or misunderstanding is the real cause. These stories have all the intensity of a typical mystery, but resolve happily; no wrong was done. We breathe a sigh of relief with Father Brown, thankful for this rare gift.
Father Brown also has a habit of providing criminals with the opportunity to repent, which is not something most detectives can offer those they capture. Whether it ends in execution, imprisonment, or rehabilitation, story after story sees wicked men and women choosing Life thanks to being foiled by the moon-faced Roman Catholic. This is the most unique feature in these stories. No matter how vile the crime, Chesterton and Father Brown ask the reader to see the criminal as God sees him—a soul that can be saved no matter what the crime.
I find Father Brown to be a compelling reminder that when the church is functioning well, it takes into account the sins of the flock and loves the flock all the same. It reminds me that even without a single confession of sin or admission of guilt made public, I can love my peers and students better by acknowledging our shared fallen nature and then practicing virtue together.
As a community of learners, this means that students are free from posturing. They know that we know none of them are perfect. When they do well, it can be celebrated more joyfully, because we all know success takes great effort. When they fail, they can heal more quickly, because we all recognize that failure isn’t an unforgivable sin.
I imagine that when a student plagiarizes, for example, it is most important that they repent and are shown that they are still welcome in the school’s community despite their violation of the school’s rules. This demonstrates that their dishonesty, though harmful to themselves and their relationship of trust with their instructor, is not enough to jeopardize their place in the school, though it may result in other consequences. Weakness of character can be chastened and overcome, as Father Brown demonstrates, when those in the wrong are presented with a deep and undeserved grace.
It is my hope that with this attitude toward those who transgress, a school can train up students who do not fear the light, not because they have not sinned, but because they know a return to truth is always better than continuing in the darkness of deception. Like Father Brown, may we always concern ourselves more with the souls in our charge than with settling the score on any human terms.