Mysteriously silent on the subject of how to solve a mystery

June 30, 2009 at 8:03 am 5 comments

fatherbrownG.K. Chesterton (author most notably of the Father Brown mysteries among other religious tracts and philosophical texts) has, for some time, been held very high in my esteem based on very little other than this quote: “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” For what man, I wondered, could possibly be anything short of fascinatingly funny if he wrote those words? Indeed, Mr. Chesterton is quite humorous and occasionally even Wildesque with his wit (“Journalism largely consists in saying ‘Lord Jones Dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.”). But for all this his Father Brown stories still hit a stumbling block and that is Mr. Chesterton’s inability to form a cohesive narrative.

Each Father Brown story consists mainly of a new protagonist appearing, some mysterious thing happening, Father Brown being sort of in the background, then coming forward and Father Brown immediately solving the whole thing after remarking seemingly random things like “And was the mail delivered? Oh, I see…” Often enough, Father Brown’s friend, former Master Criminal and current ineffectual private eye Flambeau is on hand to play frustrated Watson to Brown’s unaccountably omnipotent Holmes. Each story is short, utterly mysterious and then neatly tied up in the most confusing manner possible. The reader is most often left jumping up and down in frustration (rather like Flambeau on more than one occasion), and being unable to figure out how Father Brown happened upon the conclusion that turned out to be spot-on correct.

According to the back cover of the Wordsworth Classics edition of his Complete Father Brown Mysteries, “Father Brown solves his mysteries by a mixture of intuition and sympathetic worldliness in a totally believable manner.” In should be duly noted that if one feels compelled to describe something as occurring “in a totally believable manner,” more often than not that is not the case. Were the something to happen in a totally believable manner, one would feel no compunction to comment on it. It would just happen. And in a believable manner. Father Brown most definitely does not solve things in a totally believable manner but rather in a manner so unexpected and out-of-the-blue that one wishes for the taciturnity of Sherlock Holmes to make everything clear or at the least some clues and/or build-up to make you feel less blind-sided by Father Brown’s epiphanies.

Mr. Chesterton, while being an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable writer, is only able to successfully construct the first two thirds of a mystery: the set-up and the mystery/event itself. His inability to pull off the final third (solving said mystery) puts a damper on the stories and really makes them only tolerable one or maybe two at a time. Reading more than two stories where Father Brown utterly inexplicably solves another one (“How do you do it, Father Brown?!”) successively really only becomes redundant and maddening.

On the bright side, this makes The Complete Father Brown Mysteries the absolutely perfect subway book. Subway books, by my estimation, must be a) a relatively easy read (you don’t want to be attempting Joyce on the subway); b) easily divided into digestible sections (so you don’t get off on some gripping climax); and c) pleasant (why torture yourself with Moby Dick at the end of a long day’s work?). The Father Brown stories are all three and, as a bonus, they are the perfect book ends for the day. Reading one on the way into work and one on the way out allows for just the right amount of time between the stories so any residual aggravation from the morning’s story’s conclusion is long gone by the evening.

On the whole, Mr. Chesterton is an undeniably enjoyable author and the Father Brown stories are nice little pieces of fluff to wile away some time on the subway. Just be careful that you don’t turn to them on a rainy day and expect to read them all through a wet afternoon. You will almost undoubtedly come away quite exasperated and pawing at your bookshelves for a mystery that does make sense. (Doyle anyone?)

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Entry filed under: Classics, Mystery. Tags: , .

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  June 30, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    ‘It should be duly noted that if one feels compelled to describe something as occurring “in a totally believable manner,” more often than not that is not the case. Were the something to happen in a totally believable manner, one would feel no compunction to comment on it. It would just happen. And in a believable manner.’

    TOTALLY!

    And also, I am so disappointed to hear that G. K. Chesterton’s novel didn’t live up to his cheese comment! I love that quote :)

    Reply
  • 2. Corey  |  July 1, 2009 at 6:33 am

    Indeed!

    In Chesterton’s defense, his writing did live up to the cheese quote (he’s constantly saying similarly funny things), but the story sadly didn’t! It made me realize how hard it is to be a truly good writer because you have to combine good writing with good plot to truly be considered a good writer. Poor old Chesterton!

    Reply
  • 3. The Age of Awesomeness « Literary Transgressions  |  July 2, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    […] surprised Edith Wharton pulled it off or to suggest that she didn’t actually (in reference to Corey’s post on G. K. Chesteron being […]

    Reply
  • 4. Fairy Tale Friday: Ghosts! « Literary Transgressions  |  December 18, 2009 at 12:14 am

    […] in any real substance or narrative flow to really entice me. In fact, they reminded me a lot of the Father Brown stories. Edwards had the set-up and the mystery part down pat, it was just the endings that were often […]

    Reply
  • 5. The Cormoran Strike novels | Literary Transgressions  |  February 16, 2015 at 7:21 am

    […] the G.K. Chesterton approach, where the intro and crime itself are spot-on, only to flounder at the crime-solving part. Then […]

    Reply

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