Monday, May 29, 2006

The Wisdom of Brown’s Father

Is there something about being born in late May that turns people into crime novelists? Just over the last week, we’ve celebrated the birthdays of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, and Ian Fleming, as well as John Gregory Dunne. And today just happens to mark what would’ve been the 132nd birthday of G.K. (Gilbert Keith) Chesterton, the English biographer, polemicist, journalist, and late Catholic convert who, in his 1911 collection of puzzle-plot mysteries, The Innocence of Father Brown, introduced the reading world to a short, flat-hatted, and umbrella-wielding Catholic priest renowned for his crime-solving acumen.

Chesterton would go on to pen five collections of Father Brown yarns--51 stories in all--which greatly influenced the works of Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, and Ellery Queen. (Queen has been quoted as saying that Father Brown was one of the three greatest fictional sleuths ever created, alongside Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin). The kindly little cleric detective subsequently appeared in a couple of theatrical releases (Father Brown, Detective [1934] and The Detective [1954]), and at least three times on the small screen: in a 1970s British television series starring Kenneth More; in a mediocre 1979 series pilot called Sanctuary of Fear (starring Barnard Hughes); and in a still-running German series. The character also, undoubtedly, influenced ABC-TV’s Father Dowling Mysteries (1987-91), which had actor Tom Bosley (previously of Happy Days) starring as a Catholic priest who seemed forever to be stumbling over crimes in Chicago.

During his prolific career, Chesterton composed some 80 books, including the 1907 novel The Man Who Was Thursday and a 1906 biography of Charles Dickens that was apparently influential in reviving critical interest in Dickens’ prose. He also penned hundreds of poems, 4,000 essays, and a stage play. His fifth and final Father Brown story collection, The Scandal of Father Brown, saw print in 1935, just a year before the author died.

READ MORE: The American Chesterton Society; “The Blue Cross,” Chesterton’s First Father Brown Mystery; Impossible Crime Fiction: G.K. Chesterton.

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