Sunday, April 22, 2007

G. K. Chesterton – ‘Father Brown: Selected Stories’

This is an Everyman edition from the ’50s (reprinted in 1963) and it has a curiously ambivalent introduction by R. A. Knox, a friend of Chesterton known to have some pretty fixed ideas about what constitutes proper detective fiction. Of the Father Brown stories he says, ‘the didactic purpose tends to overshadow, and even to crowd out, the detective interest’ (p. xvi). By ‘didactic purpose’ he doesn’t mean (as I first imagined) that Chesterton uses the stories to impose his Catholicism on his readership. One of the best stories here, ‘The Blast of the Book’, delights in making us think that a supernatural solution is inevitable, before elegantly pulling the rug out from under us. Drawing perhaps on M. R. James for the diabolical item, the book which must not be opened (but who can resist?) and having a side swipe at Conan Doyle’s Spiritualism into the bargain, Chesterton gleefully has his unassuming Catholic priest explain his lack of foreboding: ‘You see, I am not superstitious’ (p. 340).

No, the ‘didactic purpose’ of which Knox complains is the strangeness of Chesterton’s world, and the shapes into which he will stretch it to get his effects. Nearly every story has an intense and unreal description of a landscape, as if to say: ‘see how nature reacts to wrong doing’. The same devices are used over and over again: the word ‘silver’ appears in most stories, because it gives a certain impression of heightened reality. It is used as shorthand for a visual extreme (white, dazzling) with a hint of the supernatural (the villain of ‘The Dagger With Wings’ makes out that his victim only died because he was shot with an improvised silver bullet). In two stories dwellings are overhung with storm clouds while the sun shines on the surrounding murder-free suburbs. The other side of this strangeness, and the reason why it is effective, is the exaggerated normality of some characters. Father Brown himself is the obvious example, but there are others, and Knox objects to Chesterton’s use of this device to hide clues:

There is something artificial in a convention which allows us to say that nobody has entered a house when in fact a postman has entered it […]. There is something top-heavy about a society in which a fellow guest is indistinguishable from a waiter if he cares to walk in a particular way. (p. xvi)

Maybe I don’t care enough about the integrity of detective story plots, but this strikes me as unfair. Many of these stories achieve their effects through mistaken identity, and it doesn’t seem at all beyond the bounds of reality (let alone Chesterton’s skewing of it) that a criminal might want to disguise himself by posing as a postman or a waiter. If a moral point is being made that such people are unjustly ignored, what of it? And if clues are left undeclared, what of that? The atmosphere is the important thing.

I do agree with Knox when he says:

it may reasonably be maintained that a detective story is meant to be read in bed, by way of courting sleep; it ought not to make us think – or rather, it ought to be a kind of catharsis, taking our mind off the ethical, political, theological problems which exercise our waking hours by giving us artificial problems to solve instead (p. xv).

For years I had the habit of falling asleep to Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, and would be hard put to think of a better way of drifting off. This partly works, of course, because the films are so bad it doesn’t matter how you mistreat them: watched in 10 minute chunks, with gaps of consciousness in which you doze off before half waking and pressing ‘stop’ on the remote, they don’t lose a thing. With his repetitions Chesterton sometimes gives the same impression of flippancy, of insubstantiality. Here is the opening paragraph of ‘The Honour of Israel Gow’, as impressive as it is meaningless:

A stormy evening of olive and silver was closing in, as Father Brown, wrapped in a grey Scotch plaid, came to the end of a grey Scotch valley and beheld the strange castle of Glengyle. It stopped one end of the glen or hollow like a blind alley; and it looked like the end of the world. Rising in steep roofs and spires of seagreen slate in the manner of the old French-Scottish châteaux, it reminded an Englishman of the sinister steeple-hats of witches in fairy tales; and the pine woods that rocked round the green turrets looked, by comparison, as black as numberless flocks of ravens. This note of a dreamy, almost a sleepy devilry, was no mere fancy from the landscape. For there did rest on the place one of those clouds of pride and madness and mysterious sorrow which lie more heavily on the noble houses of Scotland than on any other of the children of men. For Scotland has a double dose of the poison called heredity; the sense of blood in the aristocrat, and the sense of doom in the Calvinist. (p. 95)

1 comment:

Richard said...

"the films are so bad it doesn’t matter how you mistreat them" Sacrilege! The films are 'strordinary things!

The BBC did some rather good audio adaptations of Father Broon stories with Andrew Sachs as the man himself. They're not quite so 'strordinary as Nigel Bruce, but still worth a listen.

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