The Actor, the Author, and the Real ‘Father Brown’ | K.V. Turley | Catholic World Report
The priest who was the inspiration for Chesterton's great detective also played a central role in the conversion of Chesterton and many others
Crime fiction fans are well aware of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and his place in the Pantheon of great detectives. Nevertheless, in contrast with the seemingly endless speculation as to the ‘real Sherlock Holmes’, there has been little such debate about the origin of the priest sleuth. However, a recent book, The Elusive Father Brown (Gracewing, 2010), by Laura Smith, goes some way to rectifying this, detailing as it does the life of the cleric who formed the basis upon which Chesterton’s characterization was based, and who played a part in at least two very public conversions.
But, before the denouement, as in the best detective yarns, let's recap what clues there may be within the Father Brown stories. On reflection, it is easier to say what we don’t have because when you join up any clues found therein they lead precisely to nowhere. Whereas Conan Doyle left bits and pieces to make up the history and character of his hero, Chesterton did no such thing. In fact one could say that H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man comes to mind more than the Great Detective when considering Fr. Brown. And yet there are clues, but, as in all the best detective fiction, you have to read the text closely to discover them.
What so we know? Fr. Brown is English, from rural Essex. One suspects that this region, known for a particularly flat landscape, was deliberately chosen for someone as self-effacing as he is non-descript, remembered more for his unruly umbrella than his face. In each story he is far from being the center of attention—not to begin with anyway—but for all his lack of ‘presence’ there is a curious air about him. Interestingly, this appears to have nothing to do with the supernatural per se as his powers of deduction are always purely logical, even when others have jumped to conclusions that are not of this world. His powers of observation are second to none; he misses nothing, especially when something is ever so slightly amiss, and it is this that often leads to the culprit being discovered.
Nevertheless, there is little if anything of physical description given to the character: ‘he had a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea.’ That's little help if one is waiting at a London train station to meet this priest—but we would meet him nonetheless, and the clue is in that last word: priest. He is undoubtedly that; his manner, his movements, and his speech all betray his vocation. Take, for instance, the ending of “The Hammer of God”. It is the solving of a crime and the unveiling of a murderer, but also, paradoxically, and, in the end more importantly, the saving of a soul. Rest assured no one suspects Fr. Brownof being anything other than a priest.
Perhaps that is because the character was modeled upon a real priest Chesterton had met in 1903.