Chesterton On Detective Fiction

“A policeman, stupid but sweet-tempered, and always erring on the side of mercy, walk s along the street; and in the course of his ordinary business finds a man in a Bulgarian uniform killed with an Australian boomerang in a Brompton milk-shop.  Having set free all the most suspicious persons in the story, he then appeals to the bull-dog professional detective, who appeals to the hawk-like amateur detective.  The latter finds near the corpse a boot-lace, a button-hook, a French newspaper, and a return ticket from the Hebrides; and so, relentlessly, link by link, brings the crime home to the Archbishop of Canterbury. ”  --"Duties of the Police"

G. K. Chesterton in one of his earliest reflection on detective fiction, his 'A Defence of Detective Stories" (1901), held that detective fiction acted as the modern urban equivalent of historical epic romances, such as the Iliad or The Song of Roland:

We may dream, perhaps, that it might be possible to have another and higher romance of London, that men's souls have stranger adventures than their bodies, and that it would be harder and more exciting to hunt their virtues than to hunt their crimes. But since our great authors (with the admirable exception of Stevenson) decline to write of that thrilling mood and moment when the eyes of the great city, like the eyes of a cat, begin to flame in the dark, we must give fair credit to the popular literature which, amid a babble of pedantry and preciosity, declines to regard the present as prosaic or the common as commonplace. . . . A rude, popular literature of the romantic possibilities of the modern city was bound to arise. It has arisen in the popular detective stories, as rough and refreshing as the ballads of Robin Hood.

He also argued that detective fiction required certain important conventions, both moral and generic. For example, in his 1920 "Errors about Detective Stories" he pointed out that detective fiction depends upon opposite dramatic conventions from that of a Greek tragedy:

. . . it by no means follows, from the nature of the problem, that a good mystery story will make a good play. Indeed, the two things in the abstract are almost antagonistic. The two methods of concealment are exactly contrary, for the drama depends on what was called the Greek irony - that is, on the knowledge of the audience, and not ignorance of the audience. In the detective story it is the hero (or villain) who knows, and the outsider who is deceived. In the drama it is the outsider (or spectator) who knows, and the hero who is deceived.

In other words, the convention assumes that the audience wants to not initially be in the know. Chesterton in his 1925 "How to Write a Detective Story" went on to set out more clearly several principles for the writing of a well-done detective story, and these include the notion that detective fiction is to offer the reader the satisfaction of discovery that, once revealed, makes sense from the context and plot; that that solution once uncovered follows from a particular way of creating the characters; and that it must in the world of the story the truth, not a dream or illusion:

1. "The first and fundamental principle is that the aim of a mystery story, as of every other story and every other mystery, is not darkness but light. The story is written for the moment when the reader does understand, not merely for the many preliminary moments when he does not understand. The misunderstanding is only meant as a dark outline of cloud to bring out the brightness of that instant of intelligibility;"

2. "The second great principle is that the soul of detective fiction is not complexity but simplicity. The secret may appear complex, but it must be simple; and in this also it is a symbol of higher mysteries."

3a. "Thirdly, it follows that so far as possible the fact or figure explaining everything should be a familiar fact or figure. The criminal should be in the foreground, not in the capacity of criminal, but in some other capacity which nevertheless gives him a natural right to be in the foreground."

3b. "Generally speaking, the agent should be a familiar figure in an unfamiliar function. The thing that we realize must be a thing that we recognize; that is it must be something previously known, and it ought to be something prominently displayed."

3c. "We reach the stage of suspecting such a character by a very rapid if unconscious process of elimination. Generally we suspect him merely because he has not been suspected. The art of narrative consists in convincing the reader for a time, not only that the character might have come on the premises with no intention to commit a felony, but that the author has put him there with some intention that is not felonious."

4. "This I should call the fourth principle . . . . It rests on the fact that in the classification of the arts, mysterious murders belong to the grand and joyful company of the things called jokes. The story is a fancy; an avowedly fictitious fiction. We may say if we like that it is a very artificial form of art."

5. "Lastly the principle that the detective story like every literary form starts with an idea, and does not merely start out to find one, applies also to its more material mechanical detail. Where the story turns upon detection, it is still necessary that the writer should begin from the inside, though the detective approaches from the outside. . . . a tale has to be founded on a truth; and though opium may be added to it, it must not merely be an opium dream."

Chesterton further explored these ideas in his 1930 "The Ideal Detective Story." In particular, he looked at the psychology of crime and character, as well as reader and story:

The detective story differs from every other story in this: that the reader is only happy if he feels a fool. . . . . The essence of a mystery tale is that we are suddenly confronted with a truth which we have never suspected and yet can see to be true. There is no reason, in logic, why this truth should not be a profound and convincing one as much as a shallow and conventional one. . . . The side of the character that cannot be connected with the crime has to be presented first; the crime has to be presented next as something in complete contrast with it; and the psychological reconciliation of the two must come after that, in the place where the common or garden detective explains that he was led to the truth by the stump of a cigar left on the lawn or the spot of red ink on the blotting-pad in the boudoir.

He also argued that good detective fiction increases the reader's belief in a world of moral absolutes and consequences:

Nor need there be anything vulgar in the violent and abrupt transition that is the essential of such a tale. The inconsistencies of human nature are indeed terrible and heart-shaking things, to be named with the same note of crisis as the hour of death and the Day of Judgment. They are not all fine shades, but some of them very fearful shadows, made by the primal contrast of darkness and light. Both the crimes and the confessions can be as catastrophic as lightning. Indeed, The Ideal Detective Story might do some good if it brought men back to understand that the world is not all curves, but that there are some things that are as jagged as the lightning-flash or as straight as the sword.

   Discussion Questions

  • How do the detective stories by Chesterton that you have read observe the characteristics he sets out? Do they sometimes violate them?

  • How would characterize Father Brown? Why is he both mild-mannered and yet prone to strong moral outbursts?

  • John Peterson has suggested that Chesterton's detective fiction rather than being about the simple solving of a fictional puzzle is about "pattern rejection," that is the intuitive sense that the pattern being offered is not the right one--something is out of kilter. Do you find this to be true?

  • How does Father Brown act to condemn at various turns the criminal or the class of people surrounding him?

  • How does Chesterton's use of color, physical place and description, and his openings and closings act to embroider the (moral) meaning of his stories?

  • For that matter, what are the predominant ethical and philosophical issues that the stories touch on?

Chesterton on Father Brown and his Origins

“In Father Brown, it was the chief feature to be featureless. The point of him was to appear pointless; and one might say that his conspicuous quality was not being conspicuous.  His commonplace exterior was meant to contrast with his unsuspected vigilance and intelligence; and that being so, of course I made his appearance shabby and shapeless, his face round and expressionless, his manners clumsy, and so on. At the same time, I did take some of his inner intellectual qualities from my friend, Father John O'Connor of Bradford, who has not, as a matter of fact, any of these external qualities. He is not shabby, but rather neat; he is not clumsy, but very delicate and dexterous; he not only is but looks amusing and amused. He is a sensitive and quickwitted Irishman, with the profound irony and some of the potential irritability of his race.”--Autobiography


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding