by Janice Law
I realized lately that I am ready for a new man – at least in the realm of mystery fiction. Oh, there’s lots of good ones around, although I’ve never really forgiven Henning Mankel for saddling poor Kurt Wallander with Alzheimer’s. Some other good detectives have unfortunate habits, especially with regard to wives and girl friends. Aside from James Bond, it used to be safe for a woman to date a sleuth. No more; death or divorce are surely in her future.
Consider the poor spouses of Inspector Lynley and George Gently, bumped off by villains. Shetland’s Jimmy Perez lost his wife to illness, Jackson Brody of Case Histories lost his to divorce, as did Wallander, while other significant others have faced assault, kidnapping, and worse. As for handsome Sidney Chambers of Grantchester, who carries a torch for his former girlfriend, he doesn’t recognize a promising woman when he finally meets one.
But there is a bright spot for me and, although my Calvinist ancestors will be stirring in their chilly Scots graves, it is Father Brown. Created before WWI by G.K. Chesterton, the pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in the Cotswolds, started out as a hyper-observant, hyper-logical sleuth in the Sherlock Holmes mold – if one can imagine the aloof and acerbic Holmes as a small, innocuous looking Catholic priest.
The stories are short, puzzle pieces, very clever but longer on ingenuity than on characterization or psychology. The good Father is basically an observer with not a lot of personality, odd, given that he was apparently based on a real priest, indeed, the one who converted Chesterton. The stories are old fashioned with a fair number based on interest in, and fears of, ideas and people from the rest of the Empire – shades of Wilkie Collins’ great The Moonstone. Published from before the war up through the 1920’s they are very much period pieces, mostly in a good way.
Television, which so often spoils good stories, has in this case made something quite attractive. Cognizant of our bloodthirsty tastes, Father Brown now investigates mostly murders in contrast to the robberies that seem to have been a staple of the originals. The series has been moved into the post WW2 era, provided Father Brown with a supporting cast, and, thanks to Mark Williams, made him a dynamic and sympathetic character.
There’s more than a touch of Friar Tuck in this iteration of the sleuthing cleric. Rotund but energetic, Williams’ Father Brown likes to eat and drink, despite the efforts of his parish secretary, Mrs. McCarthy, to watch his waistline. He likes any kind of merriment, he is an indefatigable cyclist, and he has friendships with a wide range of characters, respectable and not. Is he full of angst and doubt? No way. Is he tormented by what one must say is a rather too enthusiastic pursuit of crime? Not at all. Confident that he serves a higher power, Father Brown is free to indulge his curiosity and to enlist the rest of his little circle in the pursuit of justice.
They are an odd bunch. Mrs. McCarthy is a self-important, narrow minded woman with a heart of gold, especially when pointed in the right direction by Father Brown. Lady Felicia, glamorous and intrepid with a wandering eye, manages to stay just on the right side of respectability. Sid, her chauffeur and a man who can turn his hand to everything from righting a motor to impersonating a seminarian, is an invaluable, if not always honest, assistant for Father Brown.
Add the usual bumbling officers – the ones in this series are addicted to the quick solution, a habit that opens the door wide for Father Brown’s interference – and you have a nice grade of cozy mystery.
What takes the best of the episodes out of the cute range, though, is something else, Father Brown’s optimism about people and about the ever present possibility for repentance and salvation. Not particularly orthodox and certainly not at all cowed by his ecclesiastical superiors, he nonetheless suggests that a deep and genuine faith is behind his joy in living and his patience with and pleasure in his neighbors. As such, the good father is a nice corrective to the doubt and depression that have become almost de rigueur for popular detectives.