The annoying bigotry of Father Brown

Having originally read them some years ago, I have recently been re-reading some of G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” detective stories. For those who aren’t familiar with them, they date from between 1911 and 1935 and centre on the eponymous Catholic priest who, in spite of the descriptive effort put by Chesterton into convincing you that he is an obscure, modest, nay humble, soldier of Christ, seems to have no trouble finding and solving mysteries of Byzantine complexity at every turn in his life, not to mention persuading those actually involved in the mystery to accept his involvement, as opposed to just telling him to go away and let the police deal with the matter. Okay, that’s perhaps a cheap shot given that practically every detective story not involving a professional police officer does much the same – as someone once said, why haven’t the police arrested Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote, given that whenever she turns up somewhere, someone dies? However, it is an indication of some of the problems with Father Brown that this is actually one of the more minor criticisms one can make.

The overwhelming impression of the Father Brown stories is of a series of perfectly good plots and an acceptable main character ruined by the author’s inability to suppress his personal prejudices. It’s fair to say that this was the overwhelming impression I got when I first read them, but having come across a volume of stories by chance, thought I’d give them another go and see if anything much had changed. It hadn’t. Chesterton is still obsessed by the wish to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular over atheism and the sort of thinking that nowadays one would probably refer to as “New Age” (superstitious beliefs, magicians, Satanists and new religious movements have a tendency to turn up quite a lot in Father Brown’s world). He is also still anti-Semitic.

The first of these should be preaching to the choir as far as I am concerned, and I’d certainly be perfectly happy to read about a Christian detective scoring off atheists and showing up crazy belief systems for what they are. The problem is partly the way that Chesterton hammers home his message so relentlessly at every turn. It distorts plots, because every story has to somehow work in the superiority of Christian belief over other beliefs. This often involves, for example, Father Brown showing that a murder is just a perfectly ordinary murder, done for the usual motives, and not, as all the other characters think, perpetrated by some dark occult force. This is fair enough once or twice, but when it happens time and time again it becomes absurd and unrealistic. When people die in mysterious circumstances, the usual question raised is – “Accident, suicide or murder?”, not “Accident, suicide, murder or the working-out of an ancient family curse/revenge of an adoptive brother with magical powers/ act of demons?” Modern people may have some silly beliefs, but they aren’t half as daft as Chesterton seems to think.

Chesterton’s preaching also distorts his characters. Father Brown himself is tolerable, although one might grumble at the author’s tendency to make the sun shine out of the good padre’s fundament. However, the other characters tend to become merely straw men who exist solely for Father Brown to knock down (and who, to make the task easier, defend their points of view fairly feebly). To this end, they often behave in quite incredible ways. In one story, Father Brown, serving a stint on a South American mission, is visited by an atheist American journalist. Practically the first thing this guy does is start ranting at the locals outside the mission church that they are all completely backward and dominated by priests. Even in a world of colonial empires where people believed in the inferiority of “natives”, I refuse to believe that the first item of business for a new arrival in a colony was to tell a bunch of people who couldn’t speak their language anyway how shit they all were. Again, in another story, Brown reveals that the man who everyone thought was under threat from an evil and murderous stepbrother was, in fact, said stepbrother, who had already murdered the real man and hidden the body. However, this will come as a less than a total surprise to most readers, given that the character, rather than coolly sticking to his story, has spent half the story banging on to Brown about white magic and the wheel of time in a manner that would make anyone with half a braincell conclude he was batshit crazy and probably dangerous to boot. Ironically, at one point Father Brown solemnly says that he can believe the impossible but not the improbable. Physician, heal thyself.

The anti-Semitism in the Father Brown stories is pretty pervasive. It’s not like the odd casually racist remark that you find in many of the mystery novels of those writing at about the same time as Chesterton (Conan Doyle in the early days, later on Agatha Christie or Dorothy L.Sayers). Jewish characters often turn up and are never portrayed favourably, there is an emphasis on Jews as exploitative capitalists or dangerous revolutionaries and some flat-out lies are peddled (“they (Jews) were the only people who weren’t persecuted in the Middle Ages”). There are hints of a disturbing sympathy with Fascism – one character comments of a politician: “I never understood the Fascisti until he made that speech about Italy.” Yeah, I heard that they made the trains run on time myself. Chesterton apparently believed that there was a Jewish problem in Europe to which the formation of a Jewish state was the solution, which has led some Zionists to defend him. This possibly tells you all you need to know about Zionists.

In a sense, these politics of Chesterton sum up why he should never have written detective fiction. It wasn’t just that he held views I, and probably most others, disagree with – it was that he couldn’t set them aside for the sake of the story. For all I know, other detective writers may have been anti-Semites, racists, card-carrying Nazis, may have had all kinds of nasty opinions – but they didn’t use their work as a platform for their views. Detective stories are about a mystery, a solution to that mystery and the person who solves it. They aren’t primarily about the writer’s opinions and Chesterton went too far in making them just that. He was a Christian apologist and political thinker, who in the end, just didn’t respect the form he was writing in enough to leave it be.

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