Detective fiction was among the literary areas in which Chesterton excelled, identified most readily with his creation of Father Brown. John Young, a Melbourne-based philosopher who contributes frequently to The Defendant, offers this comparison of Father Brown with Sherlock Holmes.
Fictional detectives come in all shapes and sizes, a contrast evident in regard to the two detectives I wish to compare in this article.
Sherlock Holmes: “He was rather over 6 feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hook-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision” (A Study In Scarlet, chapter 2).
Father Brown: “… 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” (The Blue Cross).
Their methods were quite different too. Holmes belonged to the footprints and cigar ash school of detectives; Father Brown’s approach was psychological. Holmes’ pride in his ability is in contrast with Father Brown’s humility. When Dr Mortimer described Holmes as the second highest expert in Europe, Holmes was intensely annoyed that he was not accorded first place (The Hound of the Baskervilles, chapter 1). Father Brown approached a crime by reflecting that he himself, in similar circumstances, might have done the same thing as the criminal.
Holmes belongs to the tradition started by Edgar Allan Poe in what is seen as the first detective story: The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Poe’s detective, Auguste Dupin, employs logic and excludes emotion. This might be labelled the Thinking Machine method of detection.
But as Chesterton remarks, a machine is a machine precisely because it can’t think.
Watson assures us that Holmes was not in love with Irene Adler; that his cold nature would not admit that emotion (A Scandal in Bohemia). And after Mary Morstan brought her case to them, Watson exclaimed: “What a very attractive woman!” and Holmes replied: “Is she? I did not observe” (The Sign of Four, chapter 2). Holmes’s personality is such that we find it quite credible when he keeps the faithful Watson in the dark until the last page. This also has the advantage of keeping the reader in the dark, while giving him a hint of the solution. In The Redheaded League, for example, when Watson asks why Holmes wanted to see the shop assistant, Holmes replies: “I didn’t want to see him; I wanted to see the knees of his trousers”.
Yet Holmes comes out as a much more attractive personality than the above observations would indicate, a fact we owe to the genius of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. So when Conan Doyle tried to kill him off, there was a storm of protests, with one woman writing to the author: “You beast!” The story, The Final Problem, concludes with Dr Watson saying that he will ever regard Holmes as “the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known”. (Whether by coincidence or not, that is what Plato says of Socrates at the conclusion of his dialogue Phaedo.)
Chesterton had high praise for the Sherlock Holmes stories.
“… Mr Conan Doyle’s hero is probably the only literary creation since the creations of Dickens which has really passed into the life and language of the people, and become a being like John Bull or Father Christmas” .The Quotable Chesterton, p. 323
But he also says: “Sherlock Holmes would have been a better detective if he had been a philosopher, if he had been a poet, nay, if he had been a lover” (Ibid.)
Edgar Allan Poe started a new genre of fiction with The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and subsequent writers have created a great variety of detectives. Holmes and Father Brown, so different from each other, are two of the most memorable.
Launching a Father Brown Board Game
A group of board game enthusiasts in Croatia – led by Nikola Bolsec, president of the Croatian Chesterton Club – has created a board game inspired by Chesterton’s Father Brown. Called Father Brown Investigations: The Death of Sir Percy Coldwell (website), the game uses Father Brown’s methods of deduction and insight into the human person to find the criminal.
The game involves up to six players who, at the outset, are confronted with a crime scene. They receive investigation resource cards to gather the evidence to solve the mystery.
While the aim is to make a case against a suspect before other investigators, one of the players could be acting as the “arch-villain” Flambeau. This player misleads opponents and wins by preventing the other players from completing the investigation.
The release of the game hinges on the success of a fund-raising campaign called Kickstarter, which has a target of US$30,000. Any reader of The Defendant interested in hearing more about this venture is invited to contact the Editor.