Tag Archives: The Man Who Was Thursday

G.K. Chesterton and his Unstoppable Father Brown

Yes, I finally finished reading the complete collection of Father Brown Mysteries written by G.K. Chesterton over a period of twenty-five years.  I downloaded the collection onto my Kindle and over the past two months have been dipping in and out of the stories.  Certainly the collection has its high points (The Blue Cross is the first story and a great way to start) and its low points but throughout the collection I found deliciously pithy humor, intelligent observations, and uncanny detective work, all coming from the same source: the quiet, nondescript Father Brown.  The man gets around, and gets his man, every time.

My favorites were the Flambeau mysteries, where Father Brown matches wits against the charming and gifted burglar, Flambeau.  Tricky and sly Flambeau may  be (in one story he invites a policeman to am English pantomime, fully intending to use the show as a ruse for beating the poor copper silly and fleeing the scene of his latest jewel thievery) but he is no match for Father Brown.  No stray hair or broken plate or dust-binned cruet set escapes Father Brown’s eagle eye and the bad guy always gets named, if not necessarily caught.  Justice is not the point here: protecting the innocent, preserving the jewels, and being RIGHT are what counts.

Chesterton was a great writer and a prolific one.  He wrote over one hundred books, hundreds of poems and short stories, five plays, and thousands of newspaper essays.  There is a very active society — the American Chesterton Society — devoted to promoting the reading of his works and the adoration of his personae: as their website states in no uncertain terms:

G.K. Chesterton was the best writer of the 20th century. He said something about everything and he said it better than anybody else. But he was no mere wordsmith. He was very good at expressing himself, but more importantly, he had something very good to express. The reason he was the greatest writer of the 20th century was because he was also the greatest thinker of the 20th century.

I’m not willing to sign onto the “best writer of the 20th century” proclamation but I will say that Chesterton provides great reading, always witty and smart and big-hearted.  He was a contemporary of both George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde and his ability to turn out funny and accurate aphorisms is every bit as wondrous and wide-ranging as theirs. In writing his fiction, Chesterton placed his nugggets of wisdom and wit in the mouths of his characters, sprinkling the bits liberally amidst all the players.  Not only is Father Brown wise but other characters are allowed their moments in the sun as well.

I enjoyed having the Father Brown mysteries on my Kindle, which I carry with me.  Stuck at the doctor’s office or waiting in the car, I could easily turn to Chesterton for a little relief and escape.  During my year of reading a book a day, I read Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, a classic that I also highly recommend as Chesterton 101.

One Crazy Week of Days

Yesterday I read The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton, written in 1908.  This is a crazy book about a policeman seeking to stop an anarchist cell from murdering the Russian Czar and setting off the overthrow of government and civilized life everywhere.  The symbolism is deeply religious and the fight clearly drawn between conservatism and liberalism (the good guys are the conservatives).  And yet the book is completely readable and entertaining and thought-provoking because Chesterton writes well. He mixes great deadpan humor with absolute slapstick and throws in plenty of pondering about meaning of life and other heavy stuff. He also has enough plot twists to make a reader dizzy; perhaps he tries to use the dizziness to scare us away from the anarchy he reviles.

We have to remember that in the time when Chesterton wrote anarchists were very visible and active, having recently killed Czar Alexander II of Russia, the empress Elizabeth of Austria, President Sadi Carnot of France, the prime minister of Spain, and King Umberto I of Italy.  Anarchy was not living in a crummy house and going through trash for food; it was violent overthrow of governments, what we today call terrorism.  Taking the book from its placement in a pre-car, pre-phone, pre-World War history and reading it from a post 9/11 viewpoint, turns it into a pretty scary book.  Does the parallel continue to work when we consider how Chesterton portrays the fighters against anarchy? They are intelligent enough on their own but bumbling fools when they are together.  You decide if the novel reflects our times and the “fight against terrorism.”

Chesterton is known today for his maxims and the book is full of great quotes.  For example,  Through all this his root horror had been isolation, and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally.  It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two.  But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.  That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy. Now that is true, very true, but also really funny.  And even more true and funny when you have one child and then decide to have another one: you do not then have two children, you literally have two thousand times the laundry, the food on the floor, the trips to the grocery store, and the minutes it takes for bedtime to finally arrive.

But Chesterton is not interested in children: he is interested in souls and the saving of them from the perils of chaos. He makes a good argument for the fight against anarchy (and terrorists) by writing a truly anarchic (crazy) book.