Friday, July 18, 2014

"It Is a Negligible Affair, a Chip in Porridge, an Eloquent Sermon on the Old Text"

By G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936).
John Lane Co.
1911. 334 pages. $1.30
Collection: 12 stories (first published, 1910-11).
Online HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.
(1) "The Blue Cross"
(2) "The Secret Garden"
(3) "The Queer Feet"
(4) "The Flying Stars"
(5) "The Invisible Man"
(6) "The Honour of Israel Gow"
(7) "The Wrong Shape"
(8) "The Sins of Prince Saradine"
(9) "The Hammer of God"
(10) "The Eye of Apollo"
(11) "The Sign of the Broken Sword"
(12) "The Three Tools of Death"
We've confined ourselves to several contemporary appraisals of G. K. Chesterton's book:
[Full review] It is probably trite to say that Gilbert Keith Chesterton is the master of paradox. But the temptation is irresistible in the case of a man who, after using the paradox to excellent effect in the discussion of philosophy, orthodoxy, heresy, politics, men, women, and things in general, applies it successfully in the construction of detective stories.
G.K.C. has performed this last feat in the volume before us. It is paradoxical enough to have a great thief turn into a great detective (though we must hasten to say that the reformed Flambeau, once "roi des Apaches" in Paris, acts in these stories the role, not of Sherlock Holmes, but of Dr. Watson). It is paradoxical enough to have great crimes which puzzle the most skillful among the police authorities solved by a little priest whose innocence is set down as his most distinguishing characteristic, and who on his first appearance is described as having "a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling," and "eyes as empty as the North Sea," as not seeming to know "which was the right end of his return ticket," and as being one who "might have provoked pity in any one."
But the mysteries which Father Brown encounters and explains are more paradoxical still. Each one of them on the face of it seems either an impossibility or the product of black magic. But when the little priest has given the clue, the explanation of each one seems as easy as lying.
Father Brown's power is apparently a compound of shrewd common sense, a deep knowledge of human nature and the human soul, and a kind of mystic insight. These stories have a quality—a Chesterton quality—which quite differentiates them from the ordinary detective story. You may like the quality or you may not; if you want to feel convinced when you have finished such a story that you could have provided the solution yourself if you had only thought of it, you will perhaps not care for these. But they are vastly entertaining, for all that, and excellent specimens of literary craftsmanship at the same time. Which is in itself something of a paradox for detective stories. — "The New Books," THE OUTLOOK (December 16, 1911)
[Review excerpts] It is not likely that this volume will either add much to or detract much from the reputation of its author. It cannot enhance his fame, inasmuch as everybody knows that he has done infinitely better work aforetime; it cannot hurt his reputation very gravely because everybody knows of what better work he is capable. It is a negligible affair, a chip in porridge, an eloquent sermon on the old text, ne sutor ultra crepidam.
It might almost be allowed to go without saying that the book, for what it is worth, is extremely clever—Mr. Chesterton could not for his life produce any literary work which was not. But much of it is the sort of performance which recalls Samuel Johnson's famous epigram about a woman preaching: "It is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not well done, but the wonder is that it should be done at all."  . . .
. . . he [Father Brown] is mainly differentiated from his obvious parent, Sherlock Holmes, by his sacred profession, by the circumstances that he is short and stout instead of long and lean, and that he doesn't dose himself with chloral. The parentage comes out very strongly in several places [in the book] . . .
. . . All the stories are interesting, for the simple reason that the most experienced reader of the class of fiction to which they belong could not guess the solution of any one of them until its final page is reached.  . . .
. . . It may seem somewhat ungrateful to grumble at work so cleverly done, but the grumble is justified by the memory of the infinitely finer stuff Mr. Chesterton has given us on his own particular lines, and by the reflection that Sherlock Holmes has had so many other imitators who, without a tithe of Mr. Chesterton's ability, have done the trick almost as well as he. — Henry Murray, "Gilbert-Conan-Chesterton-Doyle," THE BOOKMAN [UK] (September 1911)
[Full review] Mr. Chesterton has conceived the cleverest variant of Sherlock Holmes we have yet seen. The miraculous analysist in these stories of mysterious crimes is a humble priest who has been made wise in the ways of wickedness through the confessions of criminals.
For friend he has a superhuman virtuoso in crime from Paris, who, being converted and becoming a detective, seems suddenly to lose all his versatile faculties and so furnishes the necessary foil and confidant of Father Brown.
The situations are in the highest degree original—to say that Mr. Chesterton is their author is to say as much. But we are not led through the steps of detection as skilfully as we were with Conan Doyle, and there is little or no excitement of the chase.
Mr. Chesterton has succeeded, however, by his virtuosity in words in creating an enveloping air of evil and invisible forces working through the human brain, which grows darker as the book advances to a kind of gruesome and ghostly climax. — "Current Fiction," THE NATION (November 2, 1911)
Variety of esoteric killings in London and vicinity solved by portly little padre with umbrella attachment. - "Invisible Man" alone worth price of admission with "The Wrong Shape" and "The Flying Feet" [sic] runners-up. - Verdict: None better. — "The Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (December 26, 1936)
- Nick Fuller's story-by-story assessments are on the GAD Wiki HERE.
- Previous ONTOS articles concerning G.K.C. are HERE and HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

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