Monday, May 8, 2017

My Least Favourite Catholic Priest

I was just looking for a particular book on my shelves, and I came across my omnibus of Father Brown stories-- feeling, once again, my familiar twinge of guilt at never having been able to get more than a quarter of the way into the compendium. After all, I'm supposed to be the G.K. Chesterton dude.

It's a sign of how much I dislike the detective genre that I can't even bring myself to read Chesterton's detective fiction. 

It just seems so restrictive to me. Drama can be anything, and horror can be anything, and comedy can be anything, and science fiction can be anything, but detective need to have a body (for some reason, anything short of murder is considered tepid), and you need to have a circle of suspects, and you need to have a suspect who seems guilty but isn't, and you need to have a killer who doesn't seem guilty but actually is. You need to have a detective who's somehow eccentric. And all the characterization, atmosphere, dialogue, etc. etc. is only so much wrapping-- it's all just a conundrum dressed up as a story.  This last is the thing I dislike the most. A detective story is only incidentally a story.

If "the detective story is the normal recreation of noble minds" (a gold star for anyone who can tell me what film this line is quoted in, sans internet searching), I'm glad I have an ignoble mind.


  1. Séamus (Australia)May 8, 2017 at 6:44 PM

    I'm afraid I have to differ....I find the likes of Agatha Christie very entertaining. Some may say it's not great literature but I do find them enjoyable. And sometimes Christie's characters' train of thought can be just as deep as Faulkner or Woolf or George Eliot. I think only one that I read seemed too stupid to be in print at all.
    The Fr Brown stories are entertaining enough. I prefer them to Chesterton's longer stories(I could really get nothing out of NOTTING HILL, THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY or MAN ALIVE) But of his fiction, somehow THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, for me, is definitely the best written.
    Yes, it's unfortunate that we need murder victims for all this, though a lot of the victims in stories like this are not that innocent. But I suppose the main desensitization is the time they were written: Although it was only the art deco era, it's like a whole universe away from us today. At the time they were written.... In Christie's case.... Writing for people who remembered one or two World Wars perhaps a local murder- death actually had bit more dignity, compared to all the young lives butchered in the trenches. Certainly, people were hardened then.
    For me it does have deeper meaning also. Every person holds so much mystery, no matter how much we knew them. We see that in Christie and Chesterton's characters. Some are based on real people AND THE MIRROR CRACKED FROM SIDE TO SIDE was based on the experience of a real actress, who, however didn't kill someone in real life. And probably the recurrence of the poem was due to the author's own love of poetry

    1. Well, I think the mystery of each individual can be evoked without having them thrown off trains and drowned in ornamental pools! I get that I'm a minority here. Chesterton was a big fan of detective fiction, so was the W.B. Yeats. But I'm afraid I'll never take to it. I think my principle objection is that there's SO MUCH of it.

  2. I might never have approached Chesterton at all, had I not eased into his style by reading Fr. Brown. This is not, I hasten to add, a protest that *you* should like detective stories by him, or by anybody else. I do, at times, quite enjoy the mystery genre myself. The formulaic structure is rather comforting for what it is--it's like knowing you get 14 lines in a sonnet. All the same, and with sincere respect to the healthy opinion of Séamus (and Yeats. . .and Chesterton), I agree with you entirely in disliking the constant need of a corpse. Séamus makes a very good point in saying "every person holds so much mystery," and it's not that I don't see the entertainment (and at times, deeper) value in the unraveling of secrets of those who can no longer speak for themselves. I suppose one could make a case that a good detective story is, if only in a small and individual way, about the truth, which is what everybody in his right mind is going around looking for anyway. A detective story gives one the satisfaction of seeing at least one truth brought clearly to light.

    But, as I was saying--yeah, does somebody always have to die to make it a really satisfying story? I went through a phase where I was slightly addicted to mystery TV shows--I liked the atmosphere (in the British ones, mostly), I liked the hunt after the truth, and the twists and turns, the red herrings, but after a while, I could scarcely stand the morbidity involved, both in the bizarre deaths, and the twisted motives of the killers.

    To give Chesterton his due (like you were going to think ill of him otherwise!), I can think of at least five of the Fr. Brown stories that aren't murders. Though, since "The Resurrection of Fr. Brown," has the little priest himself as the victim, I'm not how sure it counts even as a mystery; perhaps a sort of weak espionage tale. So four, anyway, that aren't murders. It sticks in my mind that I might be missing one or two.

    1. I did not know you were so knowledgeable about Father Brown! I can "dig" all the points you make, and I do understand the whole British country house aesthetic. Also a good point about the hunt for truth. You can't have much relativism when it comes to a corpse stuffed in a postbox.

      I can't be too self-righteous about the morbidity. I have some downright ghoulish tastes myself. I've read a lot about serial killers, and bizarre deaths, and stuff like that. (But I do feel bad about that and I'm going to try to avoid it.) But sometimes, I object to it when it comes to fiction. My objection may be more aesthetic than moral. It IS more aesthetic than moral! I wish Sherlock Holmes had been the last literary detective, and I wish he had perished in the Reichenbach Falls...

      I think the thing I can understand most in your comment, though, is the familiar structure. That is what I like about horror, the "properties"-- bats, wolves, moonlight, shadows, taciturn locals, etc. etc. People say, "I don't like horror, it's too creepy", but for me it is entirely comforting! The children of the night, what music they make!