Sunday, May 20, 2007

What Can Brown Do For You?

Father Brown, that is.

I recently finished listening to an audio podcast version of The Innocence of Father Brown, by G. K. Chesterton, available at, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I wish that volunteer, non-professional reader Brian Roberg had read with a good bit more expression and verve, but the wit and wisdom of Chesterton's detective priest come shining through nevertheless.

For those who've never been introduced to the good padre, Father Brown is the Catholic Church's answer to Peter Falk's Lt. Columbo. The priest's perfectly ordinary appearance and perpetually distracted and disheveled manner cause both criminals and clients to habitually underestimate him. Even his last name is nondescript, and the reader or listener never learns his first one. Here's how Chesterton describes his appearance in the very first Father Brown story, "The Blue Cross:"

he had a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea; he had several brown paper parcels, which he was quite incapable of collecting. . . . He had a large, shabby umbrella, which constantly fell on the floor. He did not seem to know which was the right end of his return ticket. He explained with a moon-calf simplicity to everybody in the carriage that he had to be careful, because he had something made of real silver “with blue stones” in one of his brown-paper parcels.
(The complete collection of all 51 Father Brown short stories in a very attractive HTML edition is available for online reading here or as a downloadable archive here).

This completely unremarkable exterior conceals a remarkable, razor-sharp intellect, however, that Father Brown always displays without boastfulness or braggadocio. "I could paraphrase any page in Aquinas once," he says in a moment of exasperation in his second story, "The Secret Garden," but at another time he modestly explains his detective skills by pointing out what he has learned hearing confessions:

"Oh, one gets to know, you know,” he added, rubbing his head again with the same sort of desperate apology. “We can’t help being priests. People come and tell us these things." . . . "Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?"

In his debut story, Brown exposes the master criminal Flambeau by acting unreasonably in order to demonstrate the primacy of reason in a universe ruled by a loving and reasonable God:

. . . reason is always reasonable, even in the last limbo, in the lost borderland of things. I know that people charge the Church with lowering reason, but it is just the other way. Alone on earth, the Church makes reason really supreme. Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God himself is bound by reason. . . . Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star. Look at those stars. Don’t they look as if they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don’t fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’”

(As an aside, I believe the principle that "reason is always reasonable," was the real focus of Pope Benedict's Regensburg address, but that point got lost in all the "Pope slams Islam" headlines. If only the reporters would read Chesterton!)

Thanks to Father Brown's influence, Flambeau eventually gives up his life of crime and becomes a private detective, frequently Father Brown's partner in crime-solving. At the end of "The Invisible Man," Father Brown has a long private conversation with the postman-turned-murderer. Brown and Chesterton are often just as interested in the spiritual state of the criminal as they are the solution to the crime.

Father Brown weighs in on political matters as well as spiritual ones. Here's a classic exchange on socialism from "The Flying Stars:"

“I won’t have you talking like that,” cried the girl, who was in a curious glow. “You’ve only talked like that since you became a horrid what’s-his-name. You know what I mean. What do you call a man who wants to embrace the chimney-sweep?”

“A saint,” said Father Brown.

“I think,” said Sir Leopold, with a supercilious smile, “that Ruby means a Socialist.”

“A radical does not mean a man who lives on radishes,” remarked Crook, with some impatience; and a Conservative does not mean a man who preserves jam. Neither, I assure you, does a Socialist mean a man who desires a social evening with the chimney-sweep. A Socialist means a man who wants all the chimneys swept and all the chimney-sweeps paid for it.”

“But who won’t allow you,” put in the priest in a low voice, “to own your own soot."

These are mysteries in the classic sense. The solution to the puzzle is everything. What little violence there is often takes place before the story begins and is only described indirectly or after the fact. If you want gunfights and car chases, it's best to look elsewhere. If, however,you want keenly crafted conundrums enlivened by a sly sense of humor and a dash of moral and spiritual reflection, Father Brown just might be your man.

What can Brown do for you? Find out today.

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