The Wisdom of Father Brown (by GK Chesterton)

Browsing through my Kindle, wondering what to read next while on holiday with my family, I spotted GK Chesterton’s ‘The Wisdom of Father Brown’. Long out of copyright, this is one of the books I downloaded free for my Kindle from Project Gutenberg, probably some years ago.

Father Brown is a quiet, unassuming Roman Catholic priest with a tremendous gift for intuition and logical deduction. This volume, as with the others about this delightful man, is a series of short stories. So it was ideal to pick up and put down again when I had a few minutes to myself.

There are twelve chapters in this book, in which Father Brown demonstrates his ingenuity in a wide variety of cases. I read a paperback edition some years ago and had remembered the gist of first one: ‘The Mysterious Mr Glass’, although I had forgotten most of the details. But I didn’t have any memory at all of most of the others.

Rather than classic crime fiction as I understand it, these stories present Father Brown as an unlikely friend and solver of problems. There aren’t many clues, and in some cases no dramatic exposé of a criminal. Instead, Father Brown prevents tragedies, and saves innocent men from prison (or worse - this was written early in the 20th century when there was still a death penalty in the UK). He also helps to unravel unsolved mysteries from the past.

However, the various ‘cases’ tend to rely on local knowledge and insights, and the outcomes could not really be worked out by a modern reader. Occasionally I had a hunch about something which turned out to be correct, but without any certainty or detail. The ‘hunches’ may even have been due to subconscious memories, as I’m sure I’ve read this book at least once before.

Some of the stories are rather long-winded, particularly the introductions. In a couple of chapters, perhaps because I was tired, I had to read the first couple of pages three times before I could get into the story. Politics and intrigue are not my thing, and there’s a fair amount of them in more than one of the chapters. But there’s something very compelling about Father Brown, who is a delightful person, and that’s what kept me reading. The conversations, if (inevitably) old-fashioned, are believable, and the characterisation is generally good.

As a warning, chapter nine is extremely ‘politically incorrect’, with some of the worst racist words used - probably not intended to offend, but still shocking. The chapter itself is about boxing, a subject I know little about, and frankly that story made no sense to me at all. I hope that modern editions have edited or even removed this chapter.

The other eleven stories, however, are well worth reading if you like this genre of short stories.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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