All detective stories work on two levels. The first is within the story itself. The detective tries to solve the crime, while the criminal tries to conceal it. The second is how the story is read. The reader is in the role of the detective, and the author is the criminal. A fine balance has to be maintained. Make the mystery too easy and it is boring. Too complex and people give up. The best authors lead the reader along by the nose. They drop just enough clues to keep the reader on the path without letting them figure out where it leads. The Best of Father Brown, like any good mystery, works on multiple levels. G.K. Chesterton isn’t just writing crime stories. He’s commenting on the way they work, and why they are so appealing to the human psyche.
Chesterton was a writer in 19th century England. Father Brown, his most famous character, stands in opposition to the other great fictional detectives of the time. He is a small and unassuming Catholic priest without the larger than life quirks of his peers. There is no larger storyline that connects his investigations. He is not engaged in an epic battle with an arch-nemesis, like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. As a detective, his greatest skills are empathy and humility. In The Secret of Father Brown, which doubles as a director’s commentary from Chesterton, Brown tells an interviewer that he solves crimes by thinking like a criminal. Everyone has the capacity for evil inside of them. Even the worst criminals aren’t hard to understand. They are just like us. It doesn’t take a genius to figure them out. Just someone who knows themselves.
The other detectives in the Father Brown stories are too clever for their own good. Dr. Orion Hood, the “eminent criminologist and specialist in moral disorders” in The Absence of Mr. Glass, is a send-up of Holmes. Near the end of the story, Hood creates an elaborate explanation out of a few fragmentary clues to solve a murder that never happened. What was supposed to be the great reveal turns out to be a big joke. “You are a great poet! You have called an uncreated being out of the void,” Brown laughs as he tells Hood. “How much more godlike than if you had only ferreted out the mere facts! Indeed, the mere facts are rather commonplace and comic by comparison.” The same thing happens in The Mistake of The Machine, where Brown’s friend Flambeau, the Watson figure in many of his stories, arrests the man he thought he was the victim.
Brown lives by Occam’s Razor. He looks for the simplest explanation, not the most complicated. The first question he asks is why someone would want to kill the victim, or steal the treasure. The second is what would be the easiest way for them to do it. The trick is looking beyond the most attention grabbing clues. Brown solves the mystery of The Secret Garden by asking why someone would cut the head off his victim. The killer is not a psychopathic genius whose motivations are tied to a Freudian explanation from his childhood. He has an agenda anyone can relate too. His brutality has a purpose.
Chesterton’s genius comes in creating simple answers to complex questions.
“A crime is like any other work of art. Don’t look surprised; crimes are by no means the only works of art that come from an infernal workshop. But every work of art, divine or diabolic, has one indispensable mark — I mean, that the center of it is simple, however much the fulfillment may be complicated.”Most of his stories present the reader with a seemingly unsolvable paradox. A theft occurs in a building with only one way in and out, and every person inside accounted for. A woman is murdered in a closed passageway, and each of the other people in it describes the murderer as looking completely different. Someone sneaks past a building being guarded on all sides, with none of the guards the wiser. The psychological principle of inattentional blindness runs through most of Chesterton's work.
Humans can only pay attention to so many things at once. Count the number of passes the white team makes in the video and you will miss the truly bizarre thing happening. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to see what’s right in front of your eyes. The answer to a Father Brown mystery is often in the first page. Chesterton creates a mystery box and hands you the key to open it. Then he puts on a huge show to make you forget you have it.
A thing can sometimes be too close to be seen, as, for instance, a man cannot see himself. There was a man who had a fly in his eye when he looked through the telescope, and he discovered there was a most incredible dragon in the moon. And I am told that if a man hears the exact reproduction of his own voice it sounds like the voice of a stranger. In the same way, if anything is right in the foreground of our life we hardly see it, and if we did we might think it quite odd.The mystical is one of his favorite ways to mislead the reader. A dog that barks during a murder doesn’t have supernatural knowledge of the murderer’s identity. The fact that he was barking, though, is the clue Father Brown uses to solve the crime. A man dressed up like an Arabian sorcerer uses the appearance of the supernatural to disguise a basic theft. A curse passed down seven generations doesn’t murder the heir to an estate, but the idea of the curse leads Father Brown to the killer. Brown doesn’t believe in either mysticism or materialism. There are spiritual forces in the world, but we still have free will. A curse only has the power we give it.
Chesterton was commenting on the times he lived in. The seemingly rational society of Victorian England, which was in the process of shedding its ancestral faith, was producing increasingly irrational people:
People readily swallow the untested claims of this, that, or the other. It’s drowning all your old rationalism and skepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition. It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are. Anything that anybody talks about, and says there’s a good deal in it, extends itself indefinitely like a vista in a nightmare. And a dog is an omen, a cat is a mystery, and a pig is a mascot, and a beetle is a scarab.Humans are a storytelling animal. We are wired to create larger explanations out of unconnected events. We are all detectives in the great mystery of life. Who are we? Where did we come from? What is the point of it all? Every human society comes up with answers to these questions. The highest value in our society is personal liberty. Everyone is free to come up with an answer that works for them, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. As Anthony Kennedy, the most influential justice in the Supreme Court, wrote in a famous case from the early 1990s: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
So how do we define our concept of existence? Science promises us answers, but all it does is create more questions. It's hard to know where the line between fact and fiction is in string theory. Many of the greatest minds of our day think we are living in a giant simulation. If we are in a simulation, who is doing the simulating? And have they left us any clues as to why? We have circled all the way back to the beginning. Maybe the answer to our questions isn’t that complicated. Maybe it was right in front of us the whole time.
For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.
- Romans 1:20-22