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BY Edward Peters
Father Brown of the Church of Rome: Selected Mystery Stories by G.K. Chesterton edited by John Peterson (Ignatius Press, 1996, 265 pp., $17.95)
Too many decently-read Catholics have never read a word of Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936). Decently-read, I say, not wellread, because in my opinion, one is not a well-read Catholic (at least among English-speakers) until one has sampled generously of Chesterton's wares.
After that, if one finds G.K.C.'s arresting alliteration or penchant for paradox not in keeping with one's literary tastes, fine. Go with our blessings unto J.R.R. Tolkien or Dorothy Sayers or Walker Percy or Ralph McInerny (in whose elite company, however, there are many Chesterton fans). But at least one will know what one is missing, something few American Catholics under 50, and almost none under 40, can honestly say these days.
Having regretted the modern's unfamiliarity with the second-most quoted man in English (Shakespeare is first), I admit there might be a good reason for it: knowing where to start. The magnificent Ignatius Press effort to publish the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton now runs more than 30 hefty volumes, and the end is not yet in sight. So, where to begin? With Chesterton's theology? His politics? Vast social essays? Poetry? Literary criticism? Novels?
Well, short of saying start anywhere, as long as you start, I usually recommend starting with Chesterton's classic short mystery stories featuring the inimitable clerical sleuth, Father Brown. Even this advice, however, leaves one with a choice of several dozen detective stories of various lengths and complexity and, given Chesterton's ability to pack considerable nuance into apparently innocent literary or historical allusions, the stories are still amenable to some informed guidance along the way. Enter John Peterson, the founder, and for the last 10 years, editor of the Midwest Chesterton News (Barrington, Ill.).
Peterson has selected and thoroughly researched 10 Father Brown stories. His selections are not simply those Peterson feels to be among the best (for Peterson's judgments on such points, while weighty, are not necessarily conclusive), but more specifically, they are the stories that most clearly demonstrate Father Brown's ability to apply philosophy and faith to the world around us. In that regard, Peterson has chosen very well.
Father Brown does not solve crimes nor catch the bad guys by some process of divine illumination. He applies human reason to the facts of the case as well as any Doyle or Christie detective. But Father Brown adds that crucial insight into human motives which the Church, that “expert in humanity,” to borrow Pope Paul VI's phrase, possesses in a unique way. I have never reached the end of a Father Brown mystery and felt gypped because a crucial piece of evidence was withheld from me as a reader; but I have reached the end of many of these stories and felt that I, as a Catholic, should have better appreciated the analytical significance of what I was reading from the outset.
Three of Peterson's 10 mystery selections date from early in Chesterton's literary career, and one comes from very near the end of his life. Most, however, date from the mid-1920s, the period in which Chesterton's story-telling powers were at their height. They are all short enough to read during, say, a lunch break, but they are each so different that I would recommend a decent break between stories. Such practice helps a reader keep the clues from running into each other, and more importantly allows the implications of Father Brown's wisdom to sink in a while.
I would, moreover, offer a particular use for Peterson's fine collection, namely, as a gift for young people whereby they could be introduced to the writings of G.K. Chesterton. In my own circle, for example, I know of an 11-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl who have read the 10 stories gathered by Peterson and enjoyed them thoroughly, thereby paving the way for both of them to read more Chesterton down the road. One of these young people particularly noted, by the way, that Peterson's explanatory footnotes made the good stories even more understandable.
If really pressed to find grounds for any criticism of Peterson's collection, I suppose it would be that his own introduction reads too briefly. A man with the kind of command of Chesterton and his world that Peterson possesses has an obligation to show it extensively with those of us less versed. Still, I can well imagine Peterson's reluctance to delay the reader's enjoyment of Chesterton's work one minute longer than necessary.
Edward Peters writes from San Diego, Calif.