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
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:
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;"
"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."
"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
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
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:
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.
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
do the detective stories by Chesterton that you have read observe the
characteristics he sets out? Do they sometimes violate them?
would characterize Father Brown? Why is he both mild-mannered and yet
prone to strong moral outbursts?
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?
does Father Brown act to condemn at various turns the criminal or the
class of people surrounding him?
does Chesterton's use of color, physical place and description, and
his openings and closings act to embroider the (moral) meaning of his
that matter, what are the predominant ethical and philosophical issues
that the stories touch on?
on Father Brown and his Origins
Father Brown, it was the chief feature to be featureless.
of him was to appear pointless; and one might say that his
quality was not being conspicuous. His
was meant to contrast with his unsuspected vigilance and intelligence;
being so, of course I made his appearance shabby and shapeless,
round and expressionless, his manners clumsy, and so on.
At the same
time, I did take some of his inner intellectual
from my friend, Father John O'Connor of Bradford,
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
dexterous; he not only is but looks amusing and amused.
He is a
sensitive and quickwitted Irishman, with the profound
some of the potential irritability of his race.--Autobiography