The influence of Father Brown

Father Brown : selected stories by G.K. Chesterton is an interesting little volume. Published by Wordsworth Classics, it contains 18 short stories from across Father Brown's career (1911-1935), selected by Monsignor Ronald Knox (also a crime writer) as being his most ingenious cases.

They are psychological detective stories. Father Brown's nearest relation in the world is (according to the preface) Sherlock Holmes, but I think that he is, in fact, much nearer to Maigret (although Simenon's Maigret is much better written) or even Inspector Morse. I can't say that I really enjoyed them. Many of the backgrounds to the stories are outlandish, even unbelievable; and Brown's own teasing out of the strands of the crime is often equally unlikely. They are often unfair to the reader (particularly the reader, who reads crime fiction because they enjoy solving a puzzle) with clues only being presented by Father Brown in the final denouement. Sometimes it is even the case that Father Brown has specialist knowledge which makes him the ideal person to solve the crime - again this is not presented to the reader "fairly" early on.

So, I'm not a big fan, and I won't be rushing out to read more Father Brown. However it is worth any genuine fan of crime fiction spending some time on these little stories. Although I don't think they are particularly well written, or for that matter outstanding specimens of the genre, they have been enormously influential. Compare, for instance, Chesterton's 1911 tale The Blue Cross with Simenon's Seven little crosses in a notebook, where an identical method is used to hunt the criminal (much more clever and believable in Simenon, but indubitably used first in a Father Brown mystery). Read many of these mysteries, and you will feel you have read them before, because subtle elements from them have been used elsewhere. Odd really, that a crime story collection that left me feeling so underwhelmed, should have been so influential on at least one (Simenon) of my favourite writers.


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