Father Brown: Master Detective and Priest

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of finishing The Complete Father Brown, which covers all of the adventures of G. K. Chesterton’s famous priestly sleuth.  The fictional detectives who came before Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes relied upon rudimentary thinking skills, luck, and enterprise, while Holmes himself used a combination of precise observation and deductive reasoning.  Father Brown, though he also has keen powers of observation, differentiates himself from the detectives prior to him by using his knowledge of the human heart to solve crimes.

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What allows Father Brown to understand the human heart so well?  As you may have guessed, his performing the Sacrament of Penance or Confession gives Father Brown his special knowledge of the darkness within the heart.  He understands also that he himself might, under the right circumstances and not aided by grace, have committed some of these crimes.  And so, he places himself in the perpetrator’s shoes in order to solve each mystery.  Interestingly, Fr. Brown is more concerned with the criminal’s soul than bringing him to justice, and occasionally he declines to bring the crook before a state judge as long as the crook is willing to beg forgiveness of the Just Judge.

Complete Fr Brown

It is this facet of Father Brown which gives these mysteries a flavor one finds no where else.  Unlike in reading Sherlock Holmes, one finds one’s understanding expands in addition to one’s intellect.  Chesterton brings forth a wide variety of actors in each tale, almost equaling Dickens or Shakespeare for the sheer variety of characters.  I can only recall about three stories which felt unoriginal, i.e. a similar to a prior mystery.  Then again, the surprises and new twists Chesterton adds to religious and philosophical discussions do not disappoint either.  I highly recommend these stories to keen observers of human nature who love philosophical and theological discussions.

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Impression of the Dresden Files

While I was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club, I purchased an omnibus edition titled Wizard for Hire by Jim Butcher.  It includes the first three novels of the Dresden Files: Storm Front, Fool Moon, and Grave Peril.  I devoured these three novels in short time.  I’d say that it took reading all three novels in order to come to a general opinion of the series, which is now at sixteen books.  These books are exciting page turners, but they smack of being formulaic.  It’s a very good formula where the obstacles keep mounting for the hero, but I find myself leery of formulaic plots.  After all, can’t one keep changing the details and villains and continue to churn out thrillers?  One of the things I like about the classics is that the science of writing a story was not well known.  The plots might be slow or full of errors when looked upon from the science of novel writing, but they’re more interesting for all that.

Wizard for Hire

For all the sense that Butcher follows a kind of formula, the details and characters in each story are brilliant and lovable.  These areas of the novels and the prose itself contain his artistry and great sense of humor.  I might describe his hero as a Philip Marlowe with the physical features of Sherlock Holmes–sans the master detective’s athleticism.  But, Butcher adds the twists of Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden (what a name!) being a wizard and perfect gentleman.  Butcher also goes to great lengths to making Dresden seem more human and less hard-boiled than Marlowe.  Another recurring character is Karrin Murphy.  I find her too touchy and too much of a feminist.  It’s cool that she’s a Aikidoka (Though, her trophies prove that she’s numbers among the sport Aikidoka, whose art is less traditional), a sharpshooter, and a tough cop; but, she’s way too demanding.  (I was happy to see less of her in Grave Peril.)

I love opportunities to show O-Sensei.  Here Morihei Ueshiba sends a student flying.

I love opportunities to show O-Sensei. Here Morihei Ueshiba sends a student flying.

Besides Raymond Chandler’s detective novels, I’d say that he owes much to H. P. Lovecraft and Christian writers like Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.  Concerning the former, the vast array of supernatural villains and the idea that giving in to evil never pays are very Lovecraftian.  The ideas of sexual purity, the positive presentation of faith, and the constant battles between good and evil evince a Christian moral background.  Though Harry Dresden himself seems to be kind of pagan–he still believes in God, but is not sure whether God is caring, Butcher introduces a very Catholic character in the paladin Michael, the Fist of God.  Virtuous characters are often accused of being boring, but Michael, with his stoic insistence on morality, quiet faith, and a bastard sword named Amoracchius, stand as one of the series greatest characters.  Michael appears in Grave Peril, and the opportunity to read more of him and Dresden battling villains will likely convince me to pick up more novels.

HBCD

So, I have a rather positive impression of the Dresden Files.  Though the plot for his modern fantasy thrillers reveal a formula, the writing, characters, and other details he adds are very interesting.  They feature suspenseful and action-packed battles between good and evil.  So, these novels are great fun and I recommend that you read a few of them.  Fool Moon, which dealt with werewolves running rampant in Chicago, stood as my favorite of the three.

French Detective Stories

While in the library, I discovered an anthology titled Great French Detective Stories.  Being curious, I picked up the work to be delighted by the quality of the stories.  Though one, “The Mystery of the Four Husbands” by Gaeton Leroux, struck me as more of a horror story, which evinces the influence Edgar Allen Poe, especially through his Inspector Dupin.  (Soon, I’ll have to read these works of Poe.)

One of the best mustaches I've ever seen.

One of the best mustaches I’ve ever seen.

This series of works held several surprises for me.  In particular, I was surprised to see that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle borrowed the scenario in Emile Gaboriau’s “The Little Old Man of Batignolles” for his A Study in Scarlet.  Not only did he borrow the scenario, but the inspector’s friend and assistant in the mystery is also a doctor!  But, I will say that Doyle writes a much more complicated mystery, and so, it may be considered a good theft.

I can't help but imagine that this would be a riveting story if done well.

I can’t help but imagine that this would be a riveting story if done well.

Other than Emile Gaboriau, I find Maurice Leblanc also fascinating to read.  I ought to be familiar with this author through anime: the eponymous hero of Lupin III is the grandson of Arsène Lupin, a thief who’s Leblanc’s most famous hero.  Arsène Lupin displays a remarkable degree of energy and cleverness in the short story I read, which involves him duping the police into helping him regain the money stolen from him which he himself had stolen!  Leblanc also seems to have written stories surrounding a detective hero named Jim Barrett.  This detective is brilliant, but has a caustically sarcastic personality.  He’s made my list as my least favorite detective in literature from one short story!

Maigret seems to have loved smoking his pipe much more than Sherlock Holmes from the story I read: he smoked three before the morning was over!

Maigret seems to have loved smoking his pipe much more than Sherlock Holmes from the story I read: he smoked three before the morning was over!

Another author who’s peaked my interest and whose volumes may easily be obtained in English is Georges Simenon.  In the library, I must have seen at least 15 volumes of his detective novels!  Unlike Sherlock Holmes, Maigret happens to be married and very well adjusted.  He enjoys a loving relationship with his wife and is quietly observant and tactful.  (Gaboriau’s detective, M. Méchinet, happens also to be married and consults his wife on cases.)  His character only came across as slightly interesting in the short story; but, since Maigret just retired, he followed the leads of a current inspector for the most part, and Simenon, as one who preferred the medium of novels, probably writes better stories when allowed to write at length.

You know that you've written an awesome fictional character if someone decides to build a statue of him!

You know that you’ve written an awesome fictional character if someone decides to build a statue of him!

That sums up what I have read so far.  I am almost reluctant to read further in the anthology lest my backlog of interesting authors to read increases.  One almost hopes that there are libraries in heaven so that one can have enough time!

 

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Swashbuckler

A friend of mine in college told me that Sherlock Holmes was not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s favorite series for which to write.  He wrote Sherlock Holmes in order to pay the bills.  Doyle got so tired of writing Sherlock Holmes that he attempted to kill off Sherlock Holmes, but the heartbroken British public urged him to bring Holmes back!  According to my friend, Doyle wished to write stories of chivalry and adventure, like The White Company.

LIBRIVOXTheWhiteCompany500Now, I want to read the above work, but The Adventures of Gerard found its way onto my reading list first.  I listened to these exciting adventures on audiobook–again through Librivox.  The reader did an excellent job in capturing the character.  My only complaint concerns his mispronunciation of corps.  He pronounced corps the same way as corpse!  Now, before this plague of people who mispronounce corps goes any further (our president is also guilty), let it be known that corps is pronounced the same way as core.  One hopes that peer pressure and mockery would be enough to smash this phonetic heresy!  Deus vult!

adventures-of-gerard-newnes-1903At any rate, our titular hero narrates his adventures to some drinking buddies in his old age.  (Or perhaps he narrates them to the entire tavern.  The quality of the stories surely beats the quality of any alcoholic beverage–which is saying something.)  He served with Napoleon from Saragossa to Russia to Venice and lastly to Napoleon’s ultimate defeat at Waterloo.  The adventures always display a wonderful variety and Gerard is a likable gallant.  His self-esteem might appear insufferable to some if it were not for the many humiliations he endures at the hands of his foes and his ability to walk the talk.  Some of his greatest weaknesses are his lack of cunning, fondness for young ladies, and hilarious provincialism.  His time as a paroled officer in England contains some of the most amusing of his adventures.  For example, his ignorance of British games induces him to think that the object of croquet is to peg the opposing player with a wooden ball as the opponent attempts to ward it off with his mallet!

The Charging Chasseur by Theodore Gericault

The Charging Chasseur by Theodore Gericault

Yet, the bulk of his adventures diverge from usual chivalric stories in showing the dark side of human nature.  For example, one of his comrades ends up being crucified against the wall of a room!  His captors left him there for days suffering from hunger and thirst with a bottle of wine placed on a table in front of him!  From this bottle, his captors would occasionally drink in front of the poor sufferer!  Gerard may be a knight, but his gallantry shines in a very dark world indeed!

Exploits_of_Brigadier_Gerard,_plate_page_73

I cannot imagine Gerard as anything less than a knight.  He is not rash but at the same time shows no hesitation in accepting the most dangerous assignments which  the French army bestows on him.  Despite the above mentioned humiliations, he always maintains his self-respect.  He also protects any women in his presence from coming to any harm despite the consequences to himself–as is adequately illustrated in the adventure “How Brigadier Gerard Lost his Ear.”  To further highlight his image as a gallant swashbuckler, I might add that he hails from Gascony–the same province as D’Artagnan.

Did anyone else know that D'Artagnan has two famous statues?  Here's the one in Maastricht, Netherlands.

Did anyone else know that D’Artagnan has two famous statues? Here’s the one in Maastricht, Netherlands.

So, The Adventures of Gerard stands as a great book for light reading.  The obstacles placed before Gerard as well as the alternations between humorous scenes and those of the darkness of human nature keep the reader turning pages.  Of course, these adventures don’t reach the same level as Sherlock Holmes, but they still provide a great deal of entertainment and let one learn a different facet of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

A Curious Criticism

In my friend’s article on Tolkien, he adduced a rather curious point against Lord of the Rings: hardly any of the protagonists died.  At first blush, this struck me as a fine absurdity!  Annoyed by a dearth of death!  Fie!  One ought to be more prone to criticize a work because too many of the characters die, as we see in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire.  Or are we to consider killing off beloved characters a virtue?  (Perhaps, if the story goes on for far too long, as in Sherlock Holmes, but we know how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s attempt to kill off Sherlock Holmes ended!)  Yet, below J D Thomp’s article, a commentator expressed aggreeance with his criticism!  This forces me to give the idea serious consideration.

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There used to be an excellent WWII show called Combat!, where the writers would throw darts at a board with the characters’ pictures to see which character should die in a particular episode.  The fact that one’s favorite character could die at any moment created a great sense of realism in that show; however, a similar callousness seems inappropriate in an epic fantasy or, rather, this epic fantasy.  A writer must pick what truths he wishes to examine in a book, and the mortality rate on a medieval battlefield or on a desperate journey does not concern Tolkien.  But, I will say that casualties among well armored persons, as our heroes were during the major battles of the work, were indeed very low in the Middle Ages.  Otherwise, I expect that Medieval noblemen would have had the same attitude to war as Hemingway and the other Lost Generation writers.

You can bet they're all having the time of their lives!

You can bet they’re all having the time of their lives!

In a prior post, I mentioned how themes of mercy, providence, and sin abound in Lord of the Rings.  It does not make Providence look very provident if Gimli (when cut off at Helm’s Deep), Pippin (in fighting the Black Rider), Gandalf (in Moria), Sam (Mordor), and Frodo (Mordor) all end up dead by the end of the book, does it?  (Of course, if one wishes to examine the problem of evil, so many deaths is quite appropriate.)  There were ample opportunities for all of these characters to die!  As for the Deus Ex Machina rescue of Sam and Frodo, that fits in with the above three themes.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.”  As Frodo spared Gollum’s life despite Sam’s urging to kill him, it is no wonder that Frodo should be providently rescued.  If the ring represents sin, salvation is naturally found when sin is destroyed–and the advent of salvation is as marvelous as it is unexpected!

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I should adduce one more thing for consideration.  I have written the first draft of a novel, where one of my favorite characters dies–and relatively early in the work.  Note my wording: “where one of my favorite characters dies.”  Does this not sound altogether passive?  That’s because it is so.  In the story in my mind, I simply saw Thord dying in that battle.  To write otherwise would be false to the story.  It would not surprise me if Tolkien faithfully passed on a story he felt that he was given.

I want a library like that.

I want a library like that.

And should this make us upset?  No!  When a great character should die, let him die and take a piece of our hearts with him.  If a great character lives, let us rejoice that he obtains the glory and peace due to him.