G.K. Chesterton Crime Omnibus

For anyone who reads detective fiction at all, G.K. Chesterton and his creation Father Brown are such an important, established part of the furniture as almost to go unnoticed. (What inhabitant of London actually bothers to look at Nelson's Column or – as in one famous Chesterton story – the doings of a postman?) The 49 tales collected in The Father Brown Stories are so cosily familiar that you forget they're the work of a fine and gaudy stylist. Even when dictating stories at high speed to pay the rent or finance his political magazine, even when resorting to the most unlikely contortions of plot, Chesterton outperformed his rivals by sheer style, wit and energy.

Father Brown remains forever familiar; the author's other detectives have gone mysteriously into eclipse. Between the beginning of the century and 1936 he produced enough short crime and pseudo-crime stories to fill ten books, only half of them concerned with the famed cleric. The complete list runs:

With the publication of this omnibus volume, the whole lot is now deservedly back in print. A couple of rarer items, the short stories 'The Donnington Affair' (1914) and 'Dr Hyde, Detective, and the White Pillars Murder' (1925), swell the present book to 40 stories. Read and enjoy.

G.K.Chesterton reckoned that the true heart of crime fiction lay in the short story, and for his kind of detection (and his kind of detective) he was perfectly right. Though it's the literary development of his ideas which keeps the stories glowing and singing, the core in almost every case was a surprise punchline, a turning of all the reader's ideas upside-down.

Of one preliminary principle I am pretty certain. The whole point of a sensational story is that the secret should be simple. The whole story exists for the moment of surprise; and it should be a moment. It should not be something that it takes twenty minutes to explain, and twenty-four hours to learn by heart, for fear of forgetting it. The best way of testing it is to make an imaginative picture in the mind of some dramatic moment. Imagine a dark garden at twilight, and a terrible voice crying out in the distance, and coming nearer and nearer along the serpentine garden paths until the words become dreadfully distinct; a cry coming from some sinister yet familiar figure in the story, a stranger or a servant from whom we subconsciously expect some such rending revelation. Now, it is clear that the cry which breaks from him must be something short and simple in itself, as, 'The butler is his father', or 'The Archdeacon is Bloody Bill' ...

– 'On Detective Novels' (from Generally Speaking, 1928)

The transformation of stories from one-punch, 'sting in the tail' trivia to something more lasting depended on specialities of Chesterton's own. His epigrams and paradoxes have a teasing attraction, as when Mr Pond declares (quite correctly, it turns out) that a villain's plot failed because – and only because – his minions obeyed him implicitly. His alliterative style and artist's eye for the patterns of light on clouds, water and landscapes helped work up a fine dramatic atmosphere: 'The stormy sky above the heath had changed from grey to purple, and from that to a sort of sombre Indian red which only brightened at the horizon to a single scarlet strip of sunset. Against this background the black and bizarre outline of the tree had really the appearance of something more mystical than a natural object; as if a tree were trying to walk ...' ('The Honest Quack', in this collection).

Bored with timetables and alibis, he made the 'metaphysical' or 'spiritual' clue his trademark: at one point Gabriel Gale deduces an appalling truth about a man from the expression with which he watches raindrops slide down a window. Chesterton's ability to give detective tales a broader philosophical perspective is well known; they could also be strengthened by cold political fury. His well-connected Horne Fisher, the 'man who knew too much', has been described as a secular Father Brown. The difference is that while the priest has an answer for everything, the insider from the corridors of power knows too hopelessly well that in politics there's no answer to anything ... except perhaps revolution.

A final Chesterton hallmark, which at times got the better of him, is the 'happy surprise' ending... seen at its best in Brownian tales like 'The Honour of Israel Gow', whose atmosphere grows blacker and blacker until the last and grisliest discovery proves – when interpreted by Father Brown – that no actual crime has been committed. The formula became an obsession: the whole of the farcical The Club of Queer Trades consists of these non-crime stories. Four more are conflated into Chesterton's nearest approach to a detective novel, Manalive (1911) – a profoundly irritating book for those expecting crime fiction, with its symbolic non-crimes and impossible evidence. Some stories here have this kind of shape: Four Faultless Felons is theoretically built around it, but there the non-crimes tend to veil other and unexpected crimes. Like every surprise in detective fiction, the happy surprise remains effective as long as the reader isn't expecting that surprise....

All the Chesterton preoccupations can be found in this book. Herewith a micro-biography of the author and a note on each included collection:

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in 1874 and died in 1936, after thirty years as one of Britain's best-known literary figures. Initially trained at the Slade School as an artist, he soon moved into journalism and wrote about 100 books during his lifetime, beginning with comic verse (Greybeards at Play, 1900) and witty essays (The Defendant, 1901), and going on through biography, literary criticism, novels, poetry, theology, politics, plays ... the posthumous Autobiography appeared in 1937. Besides the famous detective stories, the best of his novels are highly recommended: The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), The Ball and the Cross (1910) and The Flying Inn (1914). His output continues to rise even today, with new collections from his copious newspaper essays being assembled at intervals by enthusiasts. There's even a Chesterton Society, publishing the worthy (if occasionally humourless) The Chesterton Review.

The Club of Queer Trades, as already remarked, is a collection of Happy Surprise stories in which apparent villainies conceal unlikely virtues. These six pieces are linked by the ramshackle device of the Club itself, membership of which requires the invention of a completely new means of earning one's living. Connoisseurs of the genre will note that the most plausibly bizarre of these vocations was reworked by Agatha Christie as an episode in her Parker Pyne Investigates (1934).

The Man Who Knew Too Much stars all-knowing Horne Fisher in the title role. The detection is Chestertonian, but its setting strikes present-day readers as surprisingly 'modern': corrupt politics, conniving police, and again and again Fisher's refrain of 'I know too much.... I told you before that I had to throw back the big fish.' In other words, the murderer can't be jailed – not a man in his position – the Government might fall! The eight stories move on through increasing gloom to actual civil war and apocalypse. As a kind of bonus, four extra shorts of a more conventional sort (omitted in some reprints) round out the collection.

The Poet and the Lunatics (eight stories) is rated higher than the Father Brown stories by several critics. Its Gabriel Gale is the ultimate 'spiritual detective', whose approach was outlined elsewhere in The Man Who Was Thursday: 'The work of the philosophical policeman ... is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed.' Gale is just sufficiently off-sane or over-sane to empathize with mad states of mind; fond of standing on his head to clarify the brain, he flips story after story upside-down in a blaze of flamboyant rhetoric.

Four Faultless Felons has no Great Detective: the four novelettes are linked by a common thread of crimes which seem far worse than they are – as explained in a Prologue and Epilogue describing, by way of eccentric afterthought, an informal society very nearly as daft as the Club of Queer Trades. Watch for familiar Chestertonisms like the close interest in insanity (by which he'd felt threatened when a young man), the pot-shots at scientists (from the viewpoint of a Catholic convert), and the fondness for red-haired women (his wife's hair was brown, but some say red-brown). Another foible is less harmless: as in all too much other pre-war crime fiction, one or two references to Jews must be passed over in wincing remembrance that acceptable clichés used to be different.

The Paradoxes of Mr Pond has brilliant moments, including the rueful epigram 'The word brilliant has long been the most formidable weapon of criticism....' Mr Pond himself can be rather an old bore, but these eight stories are witty and amusing as ever, and the first ('The Three Horsemen of Apocalypse') is something of a classic. It was praised by Jorge Luis Borges.

Of the two extra shorts, 'Dr Hyde, Detective, and the White Pillars Murder' is distinguished by the most outrageously 'up-front' of all Chesterton's psychological clues, and 'The Donnington Affair' by being, unusually, both an uncollected Father Brown story and a collaboration. Sir Max Pemberton, who at the time made a habit of setting such challenges to mystery authors, wrote the first part for the October 1914 issue of the now wholly forgotten magazine The Premier. By prior arrangement, proofs of part 1 were sent to Chesterton, who enthusiastically introduced Father Brown to kick apart Pemberton's narrative and seize on the tiniest fragments as clues, producing a suitably unlikely solution in time for the November issue.

This is a collection for dipping into and savouring in small doses; like the Father Brown omnibus itself, it may produce stylistic indigestion if gobbled up in a few sittings. Chesterton's lurid intensity and highly coloured but flat characters are reminiscent of two things he was fond of all his life: toy theatres, and the Robert Louis Stevenson of New Arabian Nights. He remains the only writer of short detective stories whose collected works can be ranked with those of Conan Doyle – which is achievement enough for anyone. Bon appetit!

Afterthoughts, 2005

This omnibus was timed for appearance in 1987, when Chesterton – in those days of the fifty-year rather than the seventy-year rule – first fell out of copyright. I was not the only opportunist. Quite independently, a slimline version appeared from another publisher, selected and edited by Marie Smith: Thirteen Detectives (Xanadu UK and Dodd Mead US, 1987), whose eleven stories represent all the collections in my own contents list plus the same two singletons. Smith makes up her count of thirteen detectives by including several Watson figures in the reckoning: 'Horne Fisher and Mr. Bain' in this story, 'Horne Fisher and Cuthbert Grayne' in that one.

Like Marie Smith, I passed over the fantastic whimsies of Tales of the Long Bow (1925) because the detective element seemed too tenuous. Neither of us located the unpublished Father Brown story 'The Mask of Midas', which Chesterton wrote on his deathbed in 1936 and which finally appeared in The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Volume XIV: Short Stories, Fairy Tales, Mystery Stories – Illustrations (Ignatius Press, 1993). It is not good.