Biblical Principles in Detective Fiction
Father Brown stands apart from most other priests in that he has been an inspiration for hundreds if not thousands of murders.
Of course, the murders have all been fictional. And the priest, for that matter, is fictional as well.
When G.K. Chesterton created his famous priest-detective, he changed the course of an entire literary form. Instead of the super sleuth of the Sherlock Holmes type, we suddenly had the underdog detective, who seemed almost insignificant himself, but certainly over-matched by his opponent. However, Father Brown quietly solves the crime every time though everyone else is baffled by it.
Chesterton had befriended a priest named Fr. John O’Connor, who proved to be the model of the Fr. Brown character. What Chesterton noticed about Fr. O’Connor was that almost no one else noticed him or took him seriously. He was dismissed as being naïve and too innocent for this world. But Chesterton had conversed with the priest long enough to know that this “innocent” knew more about evil than most people could ever imagine. The world tends to overlook the fact that a man who sits in a confessional all day might learn a thing or two about the criminal mind.
And thus was born Chesterton’s most popular creation. The first book of Father Brown stories, The Innocence of Father Brown, appeared over a hundred years ago. Chesterton would write over 50 stories featuring this inauspicious priest. Half the stories were written before Chesterton became Catholic! It would be Fr. O’Connor himself who eventually received Chesterton into the Church.
G.K. Chesterton loved detective fiction, but he also loved the divine mysteries of Catholicism. Not surprisingly, he found a connection between the two. In my own reading of Chesterton, it occurs to me that there are four Biblical principles that form the basis of good detective fiction.
The first is: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
Chesterton says that when a banker is found stabbed, and a notorious thief is found standing over him holding a bloody knife, we can be sure that whoever is guilty of this murder, it won’t be the notorious thief with the bloody knife. He is too obvious a suspect. No. The killer has to be the last person we suspect. If the story is well-managed, we should have “a real moment of disturbance when the minister of the banker’s church is summoned before his bishop and charged with the crime” And “another moment of pleasing emotion” when the crime is pinned on the bishop himself!
The judgment at the end of any sensational detective story is, says Chesterton, “like the judgment at the end of the world; it is unexpected.”
The second is: “Seek and ye shall find.”
Chesterton says humanity “hates the idea of anything being hidden—that is, it hates the idea of anything being successfully hidden. Hide-and-seek is a popular pastime; but it assumes the truth of the text, ‘Seek and ye shall find.’” The pleasure of the mystery story, the reason why they are so popular, is all connected to that “moment of passing from not knowing to knowing.”
The third Biblical principle, and one that Chesterton excelled at more than any other writer of detective fiction, is: “Love your enemies.”
Father Brown not only seeks till he finds. He tracks down sinners in order to forgive them. But that is the mission of the Church: to hunt down sinners, to find them out, to make them confess their crimes… in order to forgive them. Father Brown always solves the crime, but he often lets the criminal go, because he’s more interested in saving his soul than in punishing him. And the Father Brown stories may be unique in the genre of detective fiction in that it is the only series where the arch-enemy of the detective ends up becoming his chief ally and sidekick. Because Father Brown completely wins him over. Loving our enemies does not mean crushing them; it means converting them, turning them into our friends. It’s because we care about the truth that we want to bring all men to the truth. And bringing men to the truth brings us to a fourth Biblical principle for the detective story. Perhaps the most important one.
“The truth shall set you free.”
Not only does the criminal need to confess his crime, but we need to be released from the mystery. We need to know the truth. Anything that keeps us separated from the truth is the work of evil.
It is not God but the devil who wants to keep secrets. Father Brown says: “The true God was made flesh and dwelt among us. And I say to you, wherever you find men ruled merely by mystery, it is the mystery of iniquity. If the devil tells you something is too fearful to look at, look at it. If he says something too terrible to hear, hear it. If you think some truth unbearable, bear it.”
There is a joy in solving the puzzle, because there is a joy in the truth. Or as Chesterton says, there is “a joy in the right realization of things.”