There’s a “transcendental Sherlock Holmes” that’s well over a hundred years old, and he’s a delight for our modern era.
Father Brown | 02
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This is The Good List — I’m Tsh Oxenreider.
This is a work of art.
I think it was in some magazine in the early 2000s, I’m not quite sure, but I know it was early on in my marriage because these were things I was thinking about to the hilt. I’d read in some popular home magazine that along with things like a lamp on the nightstand next to the bed, fluffy towels, and extra toothpaste, another “must have” for a guest bedroom is a collection of short stories. Even though we lived in a one-bedroom apartment in our first shared home after the wedding, I still ingested voraciously any and all homemaking tips, because it was my belief at the time that that was my primary job once Kyle put that ring on my finger.
So, in these pre-Pinterest days, I’d tear out pages from magazines and collect them like an analog pinboard. And on one of those well-meaning articles, it said that a collection of short stories on the guest bedroom nightstand was better than any thick novel you could give your overnighter, because they’d most likely never have time to finish the book you give them to start. But a collection of short stories… well, that’d give your guest the chance to read one or two stories, start to finish, without being left hanging.
Well, that magazine failed to turn me into the domestic goddess I was never destined to be in the first place, but it did turn me on to short stories. I had a degree in English, so I’d read a short story here and there, but it was always assigned to me, and it was a one-off thing: an assignment to read a story by Flannery O’Connor, one by Poe, another one by Virginia Woolf. Or I’d come across one published in a magazine, so I’d read it over my lunch break. But I’d never opened up a collection of short stories until reading this little one-off magazine tip. And so, I tried one out: I went to a used bookstore and found a collection of short stories from a novelist I loved, Maeve Binchy. And I loved it. And it’s been a mainstay of my reading repertoire ever since.
Short stories are great, yes, for the reason mentioned by this magazine tip, but really because it invites us into a story in one sitting. In one equivalent of a novel’s chapter, we get characters, setting, and a plot’s exposition, rising action, climax, denouement, and resolution. We get conflict, and we get a theme. All tightly woven and threaded onto a few pages. As a writer, I’m impressed; it’s usually harder to say something short than something long. But it allows us to enjoy a fully fleshed-out story without wasting our time. It’s like storytime, for adults. I’m a fan. And I’m a devoted fan of a particular collection of short stories I want to introduce you to.
I knew about GK Chesterton since high school, when I first heard about him from my youth pastor at church. I then read snippets of some of his non-fiction work, like Orthodoxy and Everlasting Man, but mostly because I wanted to seem smart and brag that I’d read Chesterton (between you and me, my 16-year-old brain was mostly confused). Over the years I grew to appreciate his wit, mostly; he was genuinely funny, and I knew he was a thoughtful, smart guy, so I appreciate his marriage of humor and genius. But he still seemed like someone to put on a pedestal: one of the great British writers of the 20th century, to be admired from afar more than a writer whose works belonged on my nightstand. And I’m a bit ashamed to say this idea remained true well into my adulthood.
I eventually read some of his non-fiction work in full (very, very slowly), and loved his take on things. I loved that some of my other favorite writers, such as CS Lewis, Agatha Christie, and Neil Gaiman, cited him as one of their favorite writers and influenced their own work. He was a very prolific writer, having written some several hundred poems, 200 short stories, 4000 essays, 80 books, and several plays. Starting in the early 30s until his death in 1936, he also delivered over 40 talks per year on the BBC. In my doing research a few years back for a trip for entrepreneurs I lead every summer, called Literary London, I discovered that Chesterton wrote an essay about Indian Nationalism in 1909, and it was said, “Gandhi was thunderstruck by the article. He immediately translated it, and on the basis of it he wrote his first formulation of a specifically ‘Indian’ solution to his country’s problems. Thus you might argue, not quite absurdly, that India owed its independence …to an article thrown off by Chesterton in a half hour in a pub.” My point is that GK Chesterton, while a great writer in his own right, was such an influence for other great people, that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly just how far a reach is his influence. At his funeral, it was said, “All of this generation has grown up under Chesterton’s influence so completely that we do not even know when we are thinking Chesterton.”
But as great a thinker and philosopher and influencer as he was, it’s his collection of short stories about an unassuming man that are my favorite, and what I want to tell you about.
I’ll be right back, right after this short break, to talk about this work of art you should know.
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Father Brown is Chesterton’s famous character in 53 short detective stories. He is a fictional Roman Catholic priest and amateur detective, and while not as well-known as Sherlock Holmes, his claim to fame is his ability to solve mysteries using his intuition and a keen understanding of human nature, thanks to his main vocation in the priesthood. What’s great about Father Brown is his ordinariness that adds to his ability to solve the crimes he just so happens to run into a weirdly large amount of time for being a priest (vs. an official police detective). He’s not noticable, he’s unassuming, and in fact, most characters in these stories brush him off as quaint, naive, or flat-out unintelligent. But he’s quite the opposite.
Father Brown is this quiet priest whose real gift is observation: he studies his fellow human beings and notices details most walk by. This is true of a lot of famous literary detectives, of course, but what makes him stand apart is the fact that he’s a priest, and therefore notices the soul beneath the surface. In one of my favorite stories, The Blue Cross, Father Brown tells the criminal mastermind Flambeau that he knew he wasn’t a real priest because, “You attacked reason. It’s bad theology.” And Flambeau had completely brushed him off as a simpleton because of his occupation as a village parish priest, to which Brown replies, “Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?”
Chesterton’s brother, Cecil, noticed GK’s fascination with detective stories, both reading and writing, and after having written The Man Who Was Thursday, one of GK’s detective novels, said about his brother that he was logically destined to write philosophical detective stories featuring some kind of “transcendental Sherlock Holmes.” And that’s a great way to describe Father Brown.
So why should you read Father Brown mysteries? Here’s a few of my reasons:
- It’s just damn good writing, and that’s fun. It’s nice to immerse yourself in a story that’s well-written, and Chesterton’s up there as one of the best writers of the 20th century. I love so many of his sentences.
- He’s funny. Sure, it’s humor of a somewhat bygone era, but that’s what makes me appreciate it all the more. It’s not cute, or sarcastic, or meme-ish, or crude. It’s a delightful kind of snarky observation that feels timeless — his witty observations about his world pretty much apply to our modern world.
- They’ve got heart. GK’s brother was right — Father Brown is a philosophical detective, so he not only quietly notices the human condition, he also makes astute theological observations. I love it when Christian (or any deep-thinking) writers aren’t heavy-handed about their beliefs. Chesterton is a master at this in his fiction.
- They’re fun stories. If you like mysteries or crime or whodunnits of any sort, give these a whirl. Sure, they’re definitely fictional, and sometimes a bit far-fetched. But if you’re like me, you need that sometimes. It’s okay if our fiction isn’t super realistic if it’s full of humanity.
- They’re older, but not inaccessible. If reading the classics is new to you, or you haven’t entertained the idea since high school, you might want to give these a try. They’re low commitment since they’re short, and while they’re old, they’re not ancient or anything — mostly quite readable for the average reader.
- And like I said at the beginning of this episode, short stories are where it’s at when you want to enjoy a story in its completion in one sitting. Some Father Brown stories are longer than others, and those I’ve read in about two evenings before drifting off to sleep, at most. There are other good short story collections out there I love, and I’ll probably talk about those in future Good List episodes. But if you’re into the idea of reading more short stories, Father Brown is a great place to begin.
There’s also a popular BBC TV series called Father Brown Mysteries, and here in the US right now you can stream them on Netflix. And it’s a good show! It stars Mark Williams as Father Brown, who you may know better as Arthur Weasley from the Harry Potter series. Kyle and I often watch an episode when we want a one-off show that makes us think without gore or violence or even being very scary (I’m pretty sensitive to that). Basically the short-story version of television. But like most great stories, the TV show isn’t as good as the written short story collections, so don’t let the show replace your willingness to give them a read. In fact, the series is only very, very loosely based on the original short stories. Not a bad thing, but it’s good to know if you’re hoping for a dramatized version of the OG stories. You won’t really find ‘em in this series.
So, Father Brown mysteries: a really great work of art that’s made my life just a bit better, and therefore, is on my Good List. transcendental Sherlock Holmes
Hey Tsh, this is Jennifer Pepito. And I’m calling from Sonora, California. And I wanted to share about a work of art that I’ve been enjoying lately. I read Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan about CS Lewis’s wife, which led me to read Surprised by Joy, CS Lewis’s autobiography and both of them are just so compelling and thought-provoking and even really encouraging as a parent as I looked at. CS Lewis’s unconventional or even sometimes difficult life. And then what a fantastic person developed out of that life. So thanks for the opportunity to share Tish and I hope you’re having a wonderful week.
As you know, The Good List is a brand-new podcast, and I’m excited about future episodes I’ve got in store for you. But my main gig is a writer, and if you’re curious about my own writing, I’d love to share it with you. I’ve got a few books out and more in the works (both non-fiction and fiction), yet I’m also writing somewhat regularly in my newsletter hosted on Substack called Books & Crannies. It’s from here I write my free weekly letter called 5 Quick Things, but if you’d like to go a bit deeper with me, when you sign up for the full newsletter, you’ll get things like a space to chat with me and other like-minded nerds weekly, longer-form essays about things on my mind, like living more analog, the intersection of faith and travel, good books, the writing life, and more, as well as a monthly private podcast called The WRLD at Home, where I share one thing to either watch, read, listen to, or do to learn more about the world. If this sounds like your cup of tea, I’d love to have you join. Find out more at thegoodlistshow.com, where you can also find the show notes of this episode, as well as where you can find links to subscribe to this show so you never miss an episode. You can also read a full transcript of this episode and future episodes there. Again, all of this is at thegoodlistshow.com.
I like living more offline these days, but I do occasionally hang out online. When I do, I’m on twitter @tsh and on IG @tshoxenreider. I’d love you to say hi, and to tell me what’s on your good list right now.
And speaking of — I’d love to feature what’s on your good list with the listeners of this show! Simply record yourself from your phone, stating your name, where you’re from, and what idea, work of art, habit, or thing is making your life just a bit better. Then email the voice file to email@example.com. You can also call and leave a voicemail at (401) 684-GOOD, and I promise it goes straight to voicemail; you won’t have to talk to anyone. Again, reminders on how to do all this is at thegoodlistshow.com, so just head there, and you’ll get squared away.
Thanks so much to Jennifer Pepito for sharing her work of art with us that’s making her Good List. Music for the show is by Kevin MacLeod, and thanks, as always, to Caroline TeSelle for her help, as well as my furry intern, Ginny. I’m Tsh Oxenreider — thanks for listening to The Good List.