What Father Brown can teach us about the Ten Commandments

Kenneth More as Father Brown

I have often meant to read some of GK Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, having watched a few adaptations on TV, but had never got round to it. Now Ignatius Press has produced Father Brown and the Ten Commandments, edited by John Peterson, so I have seized my chance. Detective stories are generally seen as leisure reading for a mind at rest; not so these ten intriguing and exotic situations in which the small, podgy, unprepossessing priest finds himself.

Chesterton was not so much interested in plot or character (though he certainly handles these aspects with ease) as in sin: the secret vice that might drive a man to murder and the psychological make-up of the criminal. As Father Brown points out, “You must remember, in a murder case, the guiltiest person is not always the murderer.” Dostoyevsky would have agreed with him.

I do recommend these humorous and original reflections on the Decalogue to readers who are looking for holiday reading with a light touch but which is not therefore merely light-weight. As well as being written in his inimitable style, they all show shafts of Chestertonian wisdom and insight, such as (in The Eye of Apollo): “The one spiritual disease: thinking one is quite well”; or (in The Resurrection of Father Brown), GKC’s humorous dig at freemasonry: “Alvarez…the head of any number of lodges and temples of initiation of the sort that in such places clothe even atheism with something mystical.”

As always with Chesterton, he sets himself resolutely against the zeitgeist, the gods of the age. His opinion of feminism is summed up in this succinct description: “[she possessed] a frigid fierceness (peculiar to the modern woman)”. This, incidentally, is of a story published in 1911; however, I think the phrase “frigid fierceness” well describes the attitude of some contemporary feminists.

There is also a wonderfully funny description of what today we would describe as “the cult of celebrity”: “[She] was one of those people to whom the word “radiant” really does apply definitely and derivatively. That is, she allowed what the papers called her Personality to go out from her in rays.”

Chesterton is so quotable that I could go on all day. I will content myself with a last apercu on the part of Father Brown (in The Strange Crime of John Boulnois): “The little sins are sometimes harder to confess than the big ones – but that’s why it’s so important to confess them.” You won’t find Inspector Maigret or Hercule Poirot saying that.