God’s Detective: The Everlasting Goodness of Father Brown

God’s Detective: The Everlasting Goodness of Father Brown
Mark Williams as Father Brown, a Catholic priest who happens to be good at solving crimes, in the BBC TV series "Father Brown." (BBC)

When British journalist Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton began writing his Father Brown detective stories around 1910, the genre was dominated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his seminal creation, Sherlock Holmes.

The character of Holmes, which remains prominent today in the form of hit television shows, movies, and a million pastiches and homages, was the quintessential thinking machine and walking computer. Doyle’s “tales of ratiocination” (to borrow a phrase from Edgar Allan Poe, the inventor of the modern detective tale) uphold the scientific method and rationality as the primary components of any criminal investigation. All other elements are discarded in favor of pure calculation. In “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” (1924), Holmes makes clear his disdain for the supernatural or anything other than rational when he quips, “The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”

Chesterton (1874–1936) took a completely different tack when he created his own detective named Father Brown. While ghosts and the supernatural do not make appearances in the Father Brown stories, Brown is a Roman Catholic priest with an abiding appreciation for the inexplicable mysteries of life and fate.

Where Holmes uses deduction to collar his crooks, Father Brown often relies on intuition and his experiences as a confessional priest. Holmes is a cold and aloof aesthete who cares about solving puzzles above all. Father Brown is a warm and humble investigator of the human psyche as well as the human soul. Holmes follows clues and builds his case from there; Father Brown examines the heart and traces sin back to its source.

Holmes does not always collar his criminals, but he rarely if ever absolves them of guilt. Like Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, Father Brown faces off against his own arch-villain, the French master thief Flambeau. However, Father Brown makes a friend of Flambeau in the later stories, whereas Professor Moriarty and Holmes never cease their deadly cat-and-mouse struggle.

In contrast to the lean, hawk-like Holmes, Father Brown is described in “The Blue Cross” (1910) as a man with “a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling.” Whereas Holmes immediately commands respect in his stories, most observers are quick to disparage the provincial priest as the embodiment of dull-witted and staid rural life. This always proves to be a miscalculation, for in all of the stories, the Essex priest gets the better of his opponents without ever breaking a sweat.

Chesterton and Joy

There have been many surprising champions of Chesterton and his work, such as the dour Prague author Franz Kafka, who once remarked that Chesterton was “so happy that one might almost believe he had found God.”  Chesterton may not be as famous as Conan Doyle to most readers, but to Anglophone Christians he is arguably one of the most beloved and quoted writers in any genre.

The joy and deep faith of the Father Brown stories are no accident. Chesterton, arguably the 20th century’s most famous British convert to Roman Catholicism, likely based Father Brown on Father John O’Connor, the parish priest who played a decisive role in his conversion from Anglicanism.

 English author G.K. Chesterton in the garden of his home in Beaconsfield, England. (Keystone/Getty Images)
English author G.K. Chesterton in the garden of his home in Beaconsfield, England. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Many have also argued over the years that Father Brown is nothing more than the literary doppelgänger of Chesterton himself. Like his fictional creation, Chesterton, a rotund and rubicund fellow, appreciated reason and rationality but did not deify them like his favorite enemies, the Jacobins, did during the French Revolution. Indeed, Father Brown, in stories like “The Miracle of Moon Crescent” (1924), upholds reason as part of the correct theology of the Church, but not the sum total.

Through these God-given talents, humans can learn to see the divine design in all things, Father Brown says in “The Blue Cross,” the most anthologized tale in the Father Brown oeuvre. Father Brown’s perception of God’s ever-present hand makes him especially perceptive of other people.

This quality is what makes the Father Brown stories so unique. Whereas most detective stories adhere to a type of scientism that places forensics, mathematics, and elements of chemistry and biology at the forefront, Chesterton’s most enduring creation centers on the humanities and the human condition.

In Father Brown tales, the thoroughly metropolitan flavor of the Holmes stories is replaced by elements of “Merrie Olde Englande,” with the simple pleasures of village life and the common sense wisdom of the local priest. One of Chesterton’s most famous phrases—“In Catholicism, the pint, the pipe, and the cross can all fit together”—offers a neat summation of his many novels and short stories, chiefly the Father Brown stories. The Catholic Chesterton saw medieval England as the high point of Anglo-Saxon civilization. He wrote the Father Brown tales to invoke those halcyon days, despite the fact that all the Father Brown stories take place in the age of telephones and automobiles.

The Father Brown tales, which were collected in six compilations between 1911 and 1936, offer a pleasant diversion to the mass anxiety of our contemporary world and the often bleak cynicism of most detective fiction. More to the point, Chesterton’s everlasting creation offers a literary alternative to the rampant scientific materialism of our lives.

 The series of detective stories with a more humane hero than Sherlock Holmes.
The series of detective stories with a more humane hero than Sherlock Holmes.

Constant discussions about mechanical matters are, as Chesterton knew, the pale spawn of technocracy. Humans were not created to be technocrats nor to serve science. We still long for mystery and the unknown, and the Father Brown stories, as well as the cozy BBC series from 2013 starring Mark Williams as the priest-sleuth, serve as a reminder of that eternal truth.

Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in New England.