There is an obvious connection between the Catholic priest-detective Father Brown and the Catholic priest-detective Father Blackie Ryan. Since Father Brown came first, we will look at him first, and move on to Father Ryan on Wednesday.
Before we consider the real Father Brown, we have to dispose of the imposter who has recently begun a series on PBS. I watched the first two episodes with anticipation, but they were travesties. If they had not stolen the titles from Father Brown stories (without taking anything resembling the content), and if the main actor had not been so physically wrong for the part, and if they had called him Father Green or Father White, then these first two episodes would have been pretty good versions of typical British detective drama. But as Father Brown stories . . .
This bovine actor in no way resembles Father Brown, the clucking hens and stock police detective that follow him around are no substitute for Flambeau, and the plots are unrelated to the originals. As Nero Wolfe would say, “Pfui!”
Let me know if they get better, because I won’t be watching.
Now, let’s turn to the real Father Brown.
G. K. Chesterton’s friend Father John O’Conner, in a discussion of one of Chesterton’s upcoming publications, convinced him that his conclusions were wrong. He did so by quoting to Chesterton facts about criminal behavior that shocked him to the core. Far from being innocent of evil, Father O’Conner was well versed in it from hearing the confessions of criminals. This was the genesis of Father Brown.
Let’s look at an excerpt from The Sins of Prince Saradine. Father Brown and his friend Flambeau are vacationing in a small boat, on a small river in England, when they are awakened by a full moon shining through the foliage on the overhanging river bank:
“By Jove!” said Flambeau, “it’s like being in fairyland.”
Father Brown sat bolt upright in the boat and crossed himself. His movement was so abrupt that his friend asked him, with a mild stare, what was the matter.
“The people who wrote the mediaeval ballads,” answered the priest, “knew more about fairies than you do. It isn’t only nice things that happen in fairyland.”
“Oh, bosh!” said Flambeau. “Only nice things could happen under such an innocent moon. I am for pushing on now and seeing what does really come. We may die and rot before we ever see again such a moon, or such a mood.”
“All right,” said Father Brown. “I never said it was always wrong to enter fairyland. I only said it was always dangerous.”
As you may guess, the experiences which follow would not properly fit into a child’s fairy tale.
Father Brown was not a detective, despite the genre into which he has been placed, and despite the fact that he solves crimes. He is a priest. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less. He sometimes aids the law and sometimes ignores it. His notion of justice refers to a higher power than the courts, and he often finds the criminal as worthy of his attention as the victim. He comes to his understandings by intuition rather than ratiocination. He is more concerned with the soul than the body – even though there are plenty of bodies lying around in a typical Father Brown story.
If you want to know the real Father Brown, you should start with his oldest stories, found in The Innocence of Father Brown, and in the Dover edition Favorite Father Brown Stories. You may hate them; you may love them. Either way, they will be unlike any other detective stories you have encountered.