Father Brown and the Ten Commandments
Selected Mystery Stories by G. K. Chesterton
Anyone familiar with the work of G. K. Chesterton will know that he regularly uses the sword as a symbol for all things Christian, from the Faith itself to the power of a nation unified by righteousness and devotion to God. It is, then, a delightful irony of his work that he would endow one of his most beloved and famous literary characters not with a sword, but with an umbrella. Yet so he did. At first sight, Father Brown could not be expected to strike most readers as someone destined to distinguish himself as a champion in spiritual combat for the truth. Short, nearsighted, his cassock worn and faded, and sporting a shabby umbrella, who would suspect the doughty warrior hidden under this unlikely exterior? The new collection of Father Brown stories, Father Brown and the Ten Commandments, demonstrates, however, what those who already love him have come to expect, that anyone who fails to sense the intelligence behind the nearsighted eyes is likely to find his own faulty grasp of a situation defeated by the keen observation and logic of this quiet and persistent priest.
John Peterson has compiled this collection of eleven Father Brown mysteries, which are loosely unified by their connection to one or the other of the Ten Commandments; and at least two of them do involve swords, though not employed by Father Brown. The reason for eleven stories rather than ten is the result of a desire to recognize the fact that the Catholic numbering of the Commandments is not the only one. Indeed, in their totality, Fr. Brown’s escapades began prior to Chesterton’s conversion from Anglicanism to the Catholic faith, and continued for some time after. The stories in this latest volume first appeared in print beginning in 1911 with the latest, “The Scandal of Father Brown,” dating from 1933. Regardless of the specific commandment connected to any of the stories, they all generally tend to illustrate fairly well that most of the time a particular commandment will be broken ultimately because someone has already violated the first commandment prohibiting the worship of any god but the Lord. The sinner has become his own god, and therefore thinks himself justified in flaunting the divine law. The first story is a case in point. In “The Eye of Apollo,” which accompanies the commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” there are any number of objects offered for worship. At first glance, the connection to the commandment would appear to concern a great golden eye surrounded by the rays of the sun, the focus of worship for the priest of a new religion who calls himself Kalon. As the story progresses, it nevertheless becomes clear that the supposed priest actually worships and therefore covets the money he hopes to acquire from a woman, Pauline Stacey, whom he has attracted into his cult. It is this desire to improve his own circumstances through money that leads him to murder her after, he believes, she has changed her will in his favor. Pauline herself, however, is interested in the new religion not primarily as a source of religious inspiration, but as a symbol of her own worship of the power of the human will to triumph over nature. Kalon’s insistence that a member of his religion can look directly at the sun without fear appeals to her sense of superiority over the laws of nature, even as she goes nearly blind in the process of trying to live according to what she believes. While self-desire, murder and the worship of money know no particular time, the worship of the human will and its ability to triumph over nature has an eerily contemporary feel. Its origins, of course, lie in the intellectual changes that occurred in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe. Nevertheless, those trends have continued their assault on any concept of the natural order, and certainly against our need to submit to it, into our own day. The result is that the character of Pauline Stacey with its “frigid fierceness,” even though something of a Chestertonian caricature, is easily recognizable in the twenty-first century and is proof, if any were needed, that the illness of modernity was already far advanced when Chesterton wrote the story.
The confusion reigning in modern society concerning even the most basic concepts of natural law is one of the things that makes Peterson’s latest organization of the Father Brown stories so appealing, welcome, and timely. The Ten Commandments are an embodiment of the very natural law that modernity has chosen to reject. Peterson points out in his introduction that Chesterton was the first author of detective fiction to give pride of place to the sinfulness of an offense, rather than to its status as something simply illegal. Consequently, Father Brown is likely to consider certain kinds of sins against God to be far worse than many crimes which only represent an infraction of the secular law. There was a time in the not too distant past, however, when most people assumed that the law of the state ought at least to have some connection to the natural laws imprinted by God in the human heart, when even the laws of the state recognized the need to set aside a day to honor God above all things. Perhaps it seems too much to hope that many readers of the Father Brown mysteries might be led to make these kinds of associations. But one should never underestimate the ability of Chesterton’s joyful common sense to cut through the miasma of modern secularist fog, for if Father Brown does not wield a literal sword, his use of the sword of Truth has not been found wanting.