Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Father Brown and others

A little while ago, I was one of the people interviewed for a forthcoming BBC radio 4 programme about Father Brown, the legendary priest-detective created by G.K. Chesterton, and the real-life priest, Father O'Connor, who inspired Chesterton to dream up his character. If I'm brutally honest, I'm not absolutely sure why I qualified to be interviewed, as I can't claim to be an expert on Chesterton. So it may well be that I don't feature in the final edited version of the programme, but the experience has prompted me to look again at the Father Brown stories.

I was interviewed by the former minister Ann Widdecombe, who has now become something of a media celebrity (although I must admit I have never watched Strictly Come Dancing!) One of the points I made to her, which I'm not sure she found totaly interesting, was that, in writing about Father Brown, Chesterton used the short story form, not the novel form. I'm sure this was conscious decision on his part, and a wise one, since I don't think that the pungent, atmospheric and sometimes fantastical style of the stories would have worked if they had been much longer. Julian Symons made the point that the Father Brown stories are rather rich, and that to digest a large number of them in one sitting is too much to contemplate. I agree, but like Symons, I do admire both the character and many of the stories.

At the time he wrote about Father Brown, Chesterton regarded his detective stories as rather less significant than most of his other writing, for example on theology and politics. In fact (shades of Conan Doyle) he abandoned the character for years before returning to him, largely, it seems, for financial reasons. Yes I think it is safe to say that Chesterton is now better remembered for his contribution to the crime genre for anything else.

This isn't uncommon. GDH Cole and his wife Margaret regarded the detective stories as trivial in comparison to their work in the field of politics and economics. "Nicholas Blake" saw himself as a poet, first and foremost. And there are other examples. But popular fiction, and certainly detective fiction, can have a surprising longevity.


Anonymous said...

Martin - Thanks for your perspective on the Father Brown stories. I think you and Symons have a point that those stories really are best as short stories. They tell compelling stories without being too much for the reader. Interesting, isn't it, that Chesterton thought of one part of his writing as most important but history remembers him for something quite different.

The Passing Tramp said...

His Father Brown stories do reflect the hand of the first-rate literary artist, in addition to being often quite clever.

Chesterton still rates highly as a Catholic thinker, and the Father Brown stories certainly are a part of that general area (some people rank The Man Who Was Thursday as his best genre work).

The Coles likely are much better remembered for their place in the history of English socialism than for their detective stories. I think they accurately gauged that they were more influential in the former effort.

C. Day Lewis became poet laureate, but it does seem like his poetry doesn't get so much attention today.

I suspect Dorothy L. Sayers gets vastly more attention for the Lord Peter tales than for her "straight" work. It's the same too, I think with Michael Innes and certainly Leo Bruce.

Anti-mystery snobbery caused some to be defensive about their genre work. "We didn't talk about Ngaio's mysteries," a friend from the New Zealand theatre world recalled, making it sound like a regrettable vice.

Dorte H said...

vegetableduck has more or less expressed what I thought when I read your post - many of the great crime writers felt they ought to write more serious literature, but their readers remember them for their excellent crime fiction. Why not aim to imitate Dickens instead? Our Mutual Friend is a brilliant literary work with a nice mystery included.

Fiona said...

I shall look out for the broadcast with interest, Martin! I heard Ann Widdecome speak at a WI conference recently and was very impressed; I didn't know previously that she has written several novels including a crime story (and I haven't watched SCD either). I thought your observation about her not being interested in Chesterton's choice of the short story form was very acute - I can understand that not everyone appreciates there is a major difference whereas you are obviously conditioned by the amount of editing you do.

The Passing Tramp said...

Margery Allingham wrote a "straight" multi-generational family saga novel too as I recall, The Galantrys, I think. Has that ever even been reprinted? If only it had a nice murder in it, like a Barbara Vine....

And of course there were Agatha Christie's "Mary Westmacott" straight novels, which I imagine would be forgotten today had they not been written buy Agatha Christie.

And there are Georgette Heyer's Regency romances, which are not exactly "serious" lit but were something she personally took more seriously than her detective novels. Where her husband plotted her mysteries, she did extensive research for her Regencies, to make sure she got every last historical detail right.

John Street began his writing career writing about modern European politics and only later devoted himself exclusively to mystery. He even wrote several conventional novels, The Worldly Hope, Mademoiselle from Armentieres and The Alarm (the latter often is classified as a mystery, erroneously, in my view).

Elizabeth Ferrars wrote several straight novels before turning to mystery. She commented self-deprecatingly that she did so because she realized she had nothing deep to say in her books!

I think some mystery writers were frustrated straight novelists. They had some talent for spinning tales (no small thing in my view), but insufficient urge or ability to write "serious" literature.

And back then there was more doubt that the two things could be effectively combined, though people like Anthony Berkeley Dorothy L. Sayers and Raymond Chandler called for doing so and tried to do so in their own work. did they succeed? Are Malice Aforethought, Gaudy Night and The Big Sleep great novels? They certainly have lasted longer than many "straight" novels from the day (who reads A.J. Cronin now?).

Malice Aforethought has been in and out of print over the decades, but Sayers has been pretty much continuously in print since the TV series revival of Lord Peter from the late 60s/early 70s and Chandler since he first was published, over seventy years ago.

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, it really is interesting, I think.
Curt, quite right.
Dorte, terrible confession - I haven't read OMF, though I've read quite a bit of Dickens and am a fan. Shame on me!

Martin Edwards said...

Fiona, very interesting. I didn't know Ann W had written crime.

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, pertinent points as ever, thanks. I don't know The Galantrys.

Fiona said...

Having checked Ann's titles on Amazon I can't find one that fits the crime genre, so it must be her forthcoming book.

I must say I was disappointed by the poor reviews of her work. She was such an entertaining speaker that I assumed her writing would be the same, but there are criticisms of plot, characterisation, dialogue and turgid descriptions.....suddenly I have lost interest in reading anything by her!