Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Father Brown: The Essential Tales by G. K. Chesterton

Last summer I read The Man Who Was Thursday, and loved it. It was probably the best thing I read that year. It was also my introduction to Chesterton. Supposedly, many people know of Chesterton because of his Father Brown stories. I had never heard of these stories until I read Jonathan Lethem's introduction to Thursday. So when I recently spotted this on a shelf in the bookstore, I snatched it up and ran out. I went back and paid for it a few days later. Damn this conscience of mine.

I always find it hard to review collections of short stories. For one thing, I started this at the very first of the year, reading a story or two in between other books that I read. As a result, some of the stories are a bit fuzzy to me. But some I remember quite vividly, such as 'The Secret Garden', 'The Sins of Prince Saradine' (which reminded me of portions of Thursday), 'The Head of Caesar', and 'The Man in the Passage'. While the stories in this collection were all mostly good, these few were a cut above the rest.

Chesterton's mysteries are not of the two-minute variety. The reader is not intended to solve the mystery on their own, although often the facts are all right there in plain view. As with Thursday, the writing is excellent. Sometimes I would write down passages that jumped out at me, often I would not. Here is one that I noted: "The mind of the little priest was always a rabbit-warren of wild thoughts that jumped too quickly for him to catch them." Another that caught my eye: "I could see the librarian's great legs wavering under him like the shadows of stems in a pool; and I could not banish from my own brain the fancy that the trees all around us were filling softly in the silence with devils instead of birds."

Interestingly enough, Father Brown is really not the main character in any of these stories. In fact, in many of them, he doesn't even show up until over halfway through. Father Brown is normally seen through the eyes of others, and even then, Chesterton does not provide extensive details of his appearance. He is short, has a round face, wears glasses, and of course dresses in the attire of a Catholic priest, but that's about all Chesterton gives by way of description. This is intentional. For, it is not the look of the priest that is important, but his knowledge of the human condition. After all, who better to look into the hearts of men than a priest, to whom men routinely bare their souls?

So far, Chesterton is batting 1.000

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