Friday, January 28, 2011

The Best of Father Brown

by G.K Chesterton
Various editions

To talk about the "best" of Father Brown suggests that somewhere there's a "worst" of Father Brown, or at least that there's some stories about this character that really aren't that good. If those stories exist, I have yet to find them.

Father Brown is the hero of G.K. Chesteron's mystery stories. He is a small, unassuming Roman Catholic priest who seems to be so innocuous that he's ready to fade into the background and disappear. Yet what makes Brown unique is that he has an unusually clear insight into the depths of human depravity. If I didn't know that Father Brown was a Catholic, I would've assumed he was a Calvinist.

Each mystery in this collection story has a seemingly unsolvable crime as its starting point. The local justice officials are stumped, yet somehow this overlooked little priest jumps to the right conclusion. He is embarrassed to explain this unique talent, but you finally learn that Father Brown puts himself into the mind of the criminal, imagining what base desires motivate him and how that conforms to the known facts. With this information, he deduces who the culprit must be.

While it's fascinating to see who Father Brown fingers as the culprit, it's also intriguing to see what he does with the villain once he learns who that is. He doesn't always turn the culprit in. As a priest, Father Brown's first concern is with the sinner's eternal soul and not with temporal punishment. When he can he extracts a confession and repentance from the criminal. As a priest, he's then obligated to keep this confession confidential according to Catholic church rules. While I'd have to take issue with this approach - repentance doesn't necessarily mean that there's no penalty - I do have to admire the overwhelming concern shown for the spiritual well being of even the most vile offenders. There's a lesson that we could all learn better.

The Father Brown stories are great mysteries full of interesting characters told by a master writer. The best part about it is that if you like these stories, there's plenty more Father Brown books to read after this one.

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