The Annotated Innocence Of Father Brown, by G.K. Chesterton
This is less of a book in a unified sense than it is a collection of short stories, but as far as collections of short stories go it is certainly an enjoyable collection involving a selection of series about a nearsighted Catholic priest and detective named Father Brown. It is striking to note that Chesterton, who later became a major apologist for Catholicism, was not a Catholic when he started writing the series. But it is a hazard when one writes sympathetic main characters who have different belief systems that one may end up adopting the worldview of one’s protagonist and that appears to be what happened here. This particular volume includes the stories that made up the first of the five books of the Father Brown series, which have some connection between stories but are more or less independent of each other. This particular selection of stories contains annotation by Martin Gardner, who does not claim to be a Catholic or even a Christian but rather a theist, and the result is that the annotations frequently contain questions about the view that Chesteron had towards Jews and blacks and others, even Presbyterians, who the author/narrator does not view as being genuine Christians.
This book begins with an introduction to the Dover edition and an introduction by the annotator, and is about 250 pages or so in total. Included in this volume are twelve stories with Father Brown: “The Blue Cross,” “The Secret Garden,” “The Queer Feet,” “The Flying Stars,” “The Invisible Man,” “The Honour Of Israel Gow,” “The Wrong Shape,” “The Sins Of Prince Sardine,” “The Hammer Of God,” “The Eye Of Apollo,” “The Sign Of The Broken Sword,” and “The Three Tools Of Death.” Throughout the stories the annotator not only includes some of the details that Chesterton uses to show his creativity as well as his surprising knowledge of the criminal argot of the time, but also show the annotator’s unhappiness with the attempts by the author to sum up the plot at the end of some of the stories, as well as the way in which information is withheld until the very end to show the cleverness of Father Brown and to deny the reader the chance to anticipate the story, which seems to be a general fault with detective stories in general anyway. Some of the stories feature recurring characters, most notably the reformed thief Flambeau, but Father Brown is at the center of all of them.
There are indeed a great many problematic aspects of these stories for contemporary readers. And in this initial collection of stories, especially the first story, Brown’s attempts to pass himself off as inoffensive and clueless person end up making him seem either too naive to be the clever sort of detective that he is or so clever that he ends up looking like someone engaged in entrapment. Later on we see that while Brown does appear to be a bit of a space cadet that he pays a close deal of attention to people who are not used to being paid attention to and the result is a high degree of thoughtful insight into various matters of crime as well as secrets. Brown’s worldview (and ultimately Chesterton’s as well) includes a high degree of psychological insight as well as a focus on Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and those characters who are atheists and hostile to Christianity seem to come off rather badly indeed, which makes these books a bit of a difficulty for those who are opposed to the author’s Christian worldview and a real test of the belief system of the reader.