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G.K. Chesterton (part 2)

Brook and Sarah continue their exploration of G.K. Chesterton this week. They discuss his mysteries featuring Father Brown and the legacies of this ecclesiastical sleuth.


The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) G.K. Chesterton

Father Brown Mysteries (2013-present) BBC

Sister Boniface Mysteries (2022-present) BBC

Father Dowling Mysteries (1987-1991) NBC, ABC

Radio adaptations of Father Brown

Chesterton’s work on Project Gutenberg

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This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook. And we both love mystery.
SarahHi Brook.
BrookHi Sarah. How are you today?
SarahI’m good. Thank you. How are you?
BrookI’m great looking forward to another conversation with you.
SarahYeah, and we’re going to continue the conversation that we started last week about G.K. Chesterton.
BrookI’m looking forward to this and I’ve learned a lot. I’m kind of dismayed to know how very little I had heard about Chesterton before we got started researching, Sarah.
SarahYeah, I feel the same way. He really, like we said last week, is just such a fascinating man, who I feel like most people . . . I I feel like all the things that are fascinating about him have been lost to most people.
BrookAbsolutely, yes. We’ve heard of many of his famous friends and famous authors that he worked with. C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, George Bernard Shaw those are names we really recognize but he was right there in the midst of that. I mean Agatha Christie Dorothy Sayers and for whatever reason his name and his work have not stayed on the tip of our tongues. So, we’re bringing him back. We’re going to learn about him and about his mystery contributions today.
SarahExcellent. So, I mean obviously his most famous character is Father Brown. And I thought it was really interesting that all of the writing that he did about Father Brown, it was only short stories. He didn’t write any novels featuring Father Brown. Um, which, yeah I I don’t know because Doyle wrote novels and mostly short stories but he did write a couple of novels featuring Sherlock Holmes and I think Agatha Christie this same thing she wrote both novels and short stories featuring Poirot. I don’t know whether marble was she just short stories or were there novels with Miss Marple I don’t know the answer to that.
BrookI don’t either I’m guess I’m thinking it’s short stories but we might need to do a little bit of research on that. But yeah, they definitely had both for most of those authors.
SarahYeah, um, but yeah, so that all of the Father Brown stories were were short stories which I think is interesting and then he also wrote some I guess we would call them standalone stories that didn’t feature Father Brown. But again I think they were just collections of short stories. Um, no, he did write. There was the um ah the novel The Man Who Was Thursday I think that was a novel um rather than a collection of short stories. Yeah I think I think he wrote a lot of short stories. But and maybe that’s because like you said in the first episode he did a lot of his writing on the train and um, you know that kind of lends itself to to shorter bursts of of writing and and maybe writing maybe writing short stories. I don’t know.
BrookYeah, good point. Good point you could get um, a story done in probably a couple of missed trains and ah supposedly that was definitely something he experienced I Also think that it’s very similar to his other types of nonfiction writing he did. He was known for essays and articles and things like that. So I think sometimes as authors we have ah a way that we tell a story kind of we have a a length and automatic length. And I I feel like he was one of those people who could sum it Up. You know he he could kind of. Encapsulate something pretty briefly which is a so ah, wonderful skill and um, yeah, and it really worked for his short stories. And let’s face it. It worked great for adaptations later on which I’m sure we’ll talk about.
SarahYeah I I thought something similar that you know having a collection of short stories to draw from makes it quite easy to I think translate those into television episodes which obviously some of that has happened with his Father Brown mysteries. Although so I have been watching some of the Father Brown mysteries and there are some characters from his short stories and I’ve noted 1 or 2 that are similar to the short stories that he’s written and I have to say I haven’t watched all of the Father Brown and I haven’t read all of the Father Brown’s original short stories, so I can’t say um that there’s um, you know that it’s it’s one for one but I have a feeling that there was a little more creative license taken with the television adaptation. Um, but using using Father Brown as the inspiration.
BrookI would assume so too because it’s been so long running it’s gone on and on and um, we have 53 of the original stories. So I would assume that that you’re right there, Sarah.
SarahWell and I think the other thing that they did with the television adaptation is they changed the setting. So I think the original stories he traveled around a little bit and that doesn’t happen so much in um, in the television adaptation. And I think the actual location or like where he is from is also different so in the television adaptation. It’s in the Cotswolds whereas I think he was Sussex if I’m remembering that correctly. But I’m not I’m not 100 percent sure on that. But that’s new and then also the time. So I think the television series is set in the mid 1950 s whereas the original stories. Obviously um I think the first ones were written before the First World War.
BrookYeah, yeah, he wrote he started writing them in 1910 and wrote for a while and then had taken kind of a break and went back and finished more and then so by 1936 he had written all of them.
SarahOne of the things that I really like about both the stories and the the television um versions is that like these are true I think cozy mysteries, right? It’s a small community of characters. Um they’re gentle in the um gentle in the telling. Um and you know I don’t know. Did you come across this, Brook whether he like whether we would consider him one of the first true, cozy mystery authors?
BrookYes, absolutely. I mean I think that some actually credit him for being the creator of cozies and it’s probably because of just like what you said. They’re gentler I mean they there are murders and things like that. But, nothing is ever on the page. Um, the characters are a little bit caricatures in if in a sense I feel. Um and and not in a not in an off-putting way but you definitely get that and to me it feels almost like an allegorical um way to tell a story. Um, and I think that that gives it a very cozy feel as well.
SarahUm, yeah, that’s really interesting.
BrookI think that there’s a pattern that we see in the stories where um, many times. There’s a more elaborate whether it’s by ah, another detective sort of character or sometimes there’s the um. You’ll have to help me Sarah I can’t recall the criminal. He’s the criminal turned good in Father Brown.
BrookYes. Or sometimes it’s Flambeau that they come up with this more elaborate explanation for what has happened and and the explanation of the crime and sometimes that includes supernatural elements. Um, but then so you know a so unassuming quiet Father Brown comes in and says no here’s what really happened and it’s much. More simple and straightforward and it you know it makes much more sense and again I feel like we get a lesson in his stories about um you know things are generally the most simple explanation or the most simple you know, understanding and um I just I feel like we have a very quiet ah spiritual lesson even in the Father Brown mysteries.
SarahYeah I I would agree. I think this is something that you said in the first episode in our conversation about him where it’s not pushy, right? Like it’s not you don’t feel like you’re being told that this is something that you need to believe or something that um, um, you know that you’re wrong if you don’t believe it. It’s it’s very um it’s very soft.
BrookYes, it is soft. And the messages are often about um, getting set on the right path. Um, maybe a second chance. Ah, those kind of ideas definitely come through. And I will say, you can read them for the mystery and and and not worry about the perhaps deeper meeting that he’s weaving in there but I just I kind of feel that when I read his stories.
SarahYeah I would um I would agree. I think his writing is quite lyrical I don’t know if you found that? But some of the you know the um opening paragraphs I looked at last night at a couple of his stories and the opening paragraphs are just these wonderful descriptions of setting or the you know the character that’s um, the first character that’s introduced in the story and yeah, like he just had a really. Beautiful way of writing.
BrookYeah I would agree I found it so beautiful and I was surprised I don’t know why I was surprised but um I I found it to be the same thing. I wrote my notes “Wonderful descriptions. Interesting observations. Nice details”. Sometimes the smallest detail but it just explained the setting and it it really beautiful writing I would agree.
SarahAnd and not overly like it wasn’t you know pages and pages of description. It was just a little bit to to get a sense of of where you are um and yeah, like you said you know, just enough to really paint that picture. Um, And. Ah, and get the story started.
BrookAnd good point because we’re talking short stories here and so in order to do that. You do have to be very economical. So A great um lesson If you’re interested in writing short stories. This would be a great lesson to see how he accomplishes that in such a short spot.
SarahOh definitely I Think yeah, he’s um, definitely one to to look to.
BrookSpeaking of um him perhaps kicking off the cozy mystery genre. Um I also found a quote from Crime Reads that said he was the parent of all clerical mystery and in fact was the first that we know of clerical amateur sleuth. And we have seen others. Um, in fact I have a confession, Sarah and the pun is fully intended. When we started talking about Father Brown I was like oh yeah, I used to watch Father Brown all the time. No no. I watched Father Dowling. Are you familiar with Father Dowling?
SarahI am not.
BrookSo this was a a us ah series that was late 80 s and um Tom Bosley was who also as the dad from Happy Days if anyone needs that reference was the sleuth father dowling and these were not based on G.K. Chesterton stories they were based on Ralph Mccarney’s um, books and um he was he lived 1929 to 2010 but I only bring it up because he was heavily influenced and talks about being heavily influenced by G.K. Chesterton and so um, as.
BrookSo it was not Father Brown that I was most familiar with but actually Father Dowling and an an example of an author who was influenced and came out of these mysteries that um Chesterton started.
SarahWell having a clerical sleuth is actually quite a good device because um, there’s you know, good reason for him to be at a crime scene. He’s comforting the witnesses or, you know he can um have these conversations with people that you know they may be more willing to open up to him because he’s seen as such an unassuming character so it really is quite a clever. Um, a clever device. So I’m I’m not surprised that others have modeled their own stories after that. And I think there’s a spinoff um from Father Brown um that I haven’t seen and I don’t know that Chesterton wrote any of these stories. But um. I think it’s Sister Boniface. Um, where she’s the she’s the sleuth and she was a character in one of the early episodes of the television series.
BrookYes, Yes I’ve I’ve heard of that but also haven’t caught that. But you’re right having this um amateur sleuth who’s a priest is really a great device and um I like that part of the reason that Father Brown is so successful in you know untangling the the crimes is his awareness of human evil um I think that and he talks about Father Brown talks about this and some of the stories about people assume that priests are these you know, um pious, quiet and you know never being exposed to any of the evils of the world. But in fact, they know a lot because you know they work with their parishioners and they hear ah confessions. And maybe they know more about how people are ah than anyone and um, understand that you know. What people are capable of. So I thought it was a ah great way to have this sleuth and as you say access to people access to crime scenes. It works really well.
SarahSo I I often listen to the stories. You know if we’re if we’re preparing for an episode I often. Um, will listen to whatever’s been been written by the author that we’re talking about. But I found that I preferred reading Chesterton’s work rather than listening to it. And I don’t know if it was just the audio version that I was listening to didn’t didn’t work for me. But I think there was something—and maybe this is you know like we were talking about the kind of beauty of his words—there was something about reading them that made them resonate with me a lot more than than hearing them.
BrookInteresting I did listen to some of the radio plays that were done and those were a lot of fun and one thing I enjoyed about them and thought was really cool was that they although they definitely had a script. They if they messed up this must have been live radio because they would just kind of have to work off 1 another and um and fix their improvs so it was really really fun and it made it feel really real and um I enjoyed those stories a lot too.
SarahOh I didn’t I didn’t listen to any of those but now I I want to when were those produced. Do you know?
BrookI believe that these were like 1940s productions. I found them on YouTube I believe and um, yeah, so that was it was fun to see like and maybe as a podcaster to understand like. “Oh yeah, they didn’t always get it right either and they just had to roll with the punches.”
SarahYeah, okay I’m definitely going to check that out. We’ll maybe put a link to that in the show notes.
BrookOne thing I wanted to bring up was that I feel like um Chesterton succeeded in doing something that Arthur Conan Doyle always wanted to. And that is that he was actually known more for his nonfiction you know quote unquote serious writing in his lifetime more than he was his mysteries and um I don’t know what there is really to say about that except for the fact that ah. He definitely was popular for his philosophical theological stuff and really not so well known for his mysteries that we’re probably paying the bills in ah in a large sense during his lifetime.
SarahYeah I think that’s I think that’s really interesting, Brook, and I did I did see that. Um, yeah, he would I think he took a break from writing the Father Brown mysteries and then when his income was was a little lower um wrote a few more to pay some of the bills. Um, but yeah I think I think that’s interesting that Doyle wasn’t able to accomplish that. I think I think the public was just so enamored with Sherlock Holmes that I think it just was too difficult for him to to really do anything else. Um, but I think there are a lot of parallels between those two authors in terms of their wide interests and the things that they that they wrote about.
BrookI agree. I agree. I I saw a lot of parallels as well and um, you know on the one hand you think well gosh what a terrible problem to have Doyle that you’re massively famous for this, you know, fictional character. But it really did weigh heavily on him and and you know I mean face it. He killed off his his sleuth, right? because he was hoping that that would be a way to distance himself. But um, yeah I just it struck me I thought well you know what? somehow Chesterton did that. And now, in this day and age we mostly know him for his mysteries I I think ah probably in in large part because of the television series that’s endured. Um, so just just a thought.
SarahNo I I think you’re right I think he is far better known now for the mysteries. Um, and yeah I would I would credit that with the television series because I think it’s very popular. Um. The Father Brown Mysteries. I think it’s I think I read somewhere one of the most popular um BBC programs. Um in some category I’m not sure which I don’t remember which category. But um, yeah I think ah and and they’re good. There are really nice. You know if you don’t want something that’s too heavy. Um, they’re they’re perfect.
BrookYes, yes, and his character of Father Brown is just as endearing and fun as as he is in the books artists excuse me in the short stories.
SarahOkay, well, Brook this has been so great to talk about G.K. Chesterton and more specifically talk about his mystery writing today. I’m so glad that we took the time to learn a little bit more about about this man.
BrookI am too and there’s others coming because we know that there are a whole list of mystery authors that we’re just uncovering as we do the podcast so we’re we’ll continue to do some of these bio episodes in the future and we look forward to that. But for today. Thank you so much. Everyone for joining us on Clued in Mystery I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.