Saturday, September 14, 2013


I am reading some of Chesterton's Father Brown stories again, with general enjoyment. "Again" may be an inaccurate claim.  None of The Incredulity of Father Brown seems familiar, so I doubt I had read it before. I noticed a strand of intellectual flaw in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries that I find showing up in milder form in GKC. We marvel at the cleverness of the detective in discovering the one solution - overlooked, counterintuitive - that the others cannot see. It's great fun, and Chesterton uses it to make the repeated point that our standing assumptions, the cultural ruts which guide our thinking, are often flawed and misleading.

Doyle has a similar intent, though he tends more to draw our attention to physical details we have missed rather than cultural assumptions.

Yet when one sits back and looks at such things, they suddenly look less reliable.  Holmes wants some information about the origins of a goose and can't get it by direct questioning. But the man has a sporting newspaper and a particular cut of beard, so Sherlock knows what to do. "When you see a man with whiskers of that cut and the Pink 'Un protruding out of his pocket, you can always draw him by a bet."

Always.  Really?

Father Brown does not express such certainty in the several conclusions he makes along the way to solving the theft or the murder, but the difference seems mostly stylistic.  Brown is a humbler, less-forceful person than Holmes.  But he makes observations about the character and tendencies of millionaires, or those who dabble in Eastern religions, or bolsheviks, or those who express particular heresies that he asserts are pretty generally true.  Once you know it's there, you see it pop up in half the stories. 

This hasn't ruined either set of stories for me, and I hope not for you.

I am undecided whether this occurs because the genre was new and some of the rough spots hadn't been sanded down yet, or because this idea of piercing the veil and seeing hidden things clearly was especially popular in English culture of the era.


james said...

Everybody likes to see the way the world works behind the scenes, and how an outsider can move in that world successfully. And this type is more fun than the type of stories where the detective unveils esoteric knowledge of poison at the last moment, or where the murderer's plan involves split second timing.

Jim Cambias said...

I think there are three reasons for this phenomenon you notice.

1. In Pre-WWI Britain (with the attitude lingering into the 1920s), people really did think that way. Social class was obvious, behavior closely tracked with social class, and even if it wasn't true, everyone believed that it was. Even arch-Fabian George Bernard Shaw implicitly believed that Professor Higgins could identify people's class, occupation, and residence by their accents -- and that it would take a major project to disguise a lower-class girl's origins.

2. Mystery story readers tend to be middle-class, and as such have a slightly Aspergery approach to the world. They're really good at understanding and manipulating things -- machines, concepts, numbers, etc. -- but not nearly as good at manipulating and understanding people. (That's the marker of the upper class: they DO understand how to use people, and for centuries carefully trained their children to do so.) Mysteries like Father Brown or Sherlock Holmes stories present the (mostly middle-class) reader with the fantasy that the world of humans is as understandable and controllable as the world of things.

3. It's a storytelling shortcut. You can't explore the personality and motivations of all the characters in a 10,000-word mystery story. The characters have to be stereotypes and caricatures for the plot to move efficiently along. The better sort of mystery writer (Sayers, especially) doesn't rely on stereotyped characters -- at least, not as much.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Jim, your explanations ring true.