Chesterton's “Father Brown” Tackles the Decalogue

If the idea of interjecting faith into the mystery genre appeals to you, then Father Brown and the Ten Commandments is perfect for you.

(photo: Register Files)

If you love mysteries, chances are you've encountered Father Brown, the short, stumpy British priest and amateur detective. Father Brown's adventures were told in 53 short stories by English novelist G.K. Chesterton. The author, it's believed, based his character on Monsignor John O'Connor, an Irish priest who was instrumental in Chesterton's conversion to Catholicism in 1922.

The Father Brown stories are widely available in print, in radio dramas, in television format for the BBC, and here in the United States, where a 13-part television series was produced in 1974 starring Kenneth Gilbert Moore as the beloved sleuth.

Now Ignatius Press has released a new collection with a twist. Father Brown and the Ten Commandments, edited and with an introduction by John Peterson, finds the spiritual admonitions in eleven of Father Brown's cases, linking each to one of the commandments.

“Why eleven,” you ask, “when there are ten Commandments?” Peterson explains that not all Christian denominations number the Commandments in the same way. Some, he explains, count “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourselves a graven image” as two separate commandments, while others count these prohibitions as a single decree against idolatry. Similarly, some count “You shall not covet your neighbor's wife” and “You shall not covet...anything that is your neighbor's” as a single rule against covetousness, while others find two separate rules, the one against lust and the other against jealousy.


A Detective With a Different Perspective

Father Brown differed from other literary detectives of his time. Whereas Sherlock Holmes, for instance, was concerned about solving crimes, the Catholic priest was concerned about sin – about the criminal's offenses against God. Wikipedia actually does a good job of explaining the two sleuths' methods: Sherlock Holmes tends to be deductive, while Father Brown is intuitive. In one of Chesterton's stories, “The Secret of Father Brown,” the priest explains his method:

“You see, I had murdered them all myself.... I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.”

There's another difference: Unlike 's detective, Father Brown didn't see himself as a member of the law enforcement community. He would, when he was able, intervene to prevent a crime from occurring; but he didn't see it as his role to turn the offender in to the police. Peterson explains his reticence and, in so doing, explains the underlying motive behind the Father Brown mysteries. “Chesterton's priest,” writes John Peterson,

...did not think that criminals were the worst people walking about. “You must remember,” he once told the Reverend John Cope, “in a murder case, the guiltiest person is not always the murderer.” To miss that point is to miss the meaning of the Father Brown mysteries.

If the idea of interjecting faith into the mystery genre appeals to you – if, even more, you like the idea of filing each mystery in its own virtual Decalogue File Folder – then Father Brown and the Ten Commandments is perfect for you. There you'll meet Father J. Brown of St. Francis Xavier Church in Camberwell, man of action and man of reflection.