G. K. Chesterton: The Hammer of God (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 16)

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I’ve read a handful of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries and I can say that “The Hammer of God”, which I read this week when I drew the Queen of Clubs for Week 16 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project, is my favorite. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis. This story is included in my copy of The Complete Father Brown Stories by G. K. Chesterton.

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I’ve probably said this before but the problem with short story mysteries and, in some cases, mysteries in general is that they either are so simplified that the reader can see the answer a mile away thus taking away the mystery aspect or the answer is pulled out of thin air so that the reader couldn’t have guessed the answer even if they tried.

In reading “The Hammer of God”, I slowly eliminated a few of the suspects and gradually the culprit began to reveal themselves – and it made sense yet was very much a surprise. The mystery involves the fall of the pious amidst the wonderful quotable Chesterton writing. And a gruesome description of the victim’s skull bashed in didn’t hurt. I mean it didn’t hurt the plot of the story; I imagine it may have hurt the victim.

I guess I’ll call SPOILERS here as the following paragraph grabbed my attention before I even knew there was a victim. While it doesn’t reveal the ultimate ending, it does come after the witnessing of an act of cruelty outside of the murder and subtly gives some clues:

This ugly sunlit picture of the stupidity and cruelty of the earth sent the ascetic finally to his prayers for purification and new thoughts. He went up to a pew in the gallery, which brought him under a coloured window which he loved and which always quieted his spirit; a blue window with an angel carrying lillies. There he began to think less about the half-wit, with his livid face and mouth like a fish. He began to think less of his evil brother, pacing like a lean lion in his horrible hunger. He sank deeper and deeper into those cold and sweet colours of silver blossoms and sapphire sky.

 

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The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

I get the distinct impression while reading G. K. Chesterton’s short novel The Man Who Was Thursday that he is an author who enjoys the journey of writing and story-telling more so than the destination.  This novel is a wild philosophical ride containing Chesterton’s grand writing style and imagination.  I admit that I could have easily gotten bogged down in trying too hard to figure out what every detail signified; however, I managed to kick back and have as much fun and intrigue as I think Chesterton intends his readers to have.  Some minor plot SPOILERS are ahead.

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A council of seven anarchists each named after a day of the week elects Gabriel Syme to be their Thursday.  Unknown to the council (or so we think), Syme is an undercover philosophical policeman and a poet that intends to subvert the council’s plans. As Syme pursues and is pursued by numerous friends and enemies and those of whom he is not sure, the reader discovers that six of the seven anarchists are actually policemen in the same vein as Syme – leaving only the elusive Sunday for the council to try to pin down.  And pinning down Sunday is a little like pinning down the universe.  Or pinning down what Chesterton actually means.  An example:  What does it mean that a council of anarchists is essentially made up of – nobody?

Throughout the story, I occasionally thought that the plot reminded me of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland. Towards the end, while the six councilmen are sharing a strange party courtesy of Sunday, I stumbled upon this passage:

For a long time- it seemed hours – that huge masquerade of mankind swayed and stamped in front of them to marching and exultant music.  Every couple dancing seemed a separate romance; it might be a fairy dancing with a pillar-box, or a peasant girl dancing with the moon; but in each case it was, somehow, as absurd as Alice in Wonderland, yet as grave and kind as a love story.

All of these oddities and questions make me continue wanting to explore Chesterton’s writing.

G. K. Chesterton: The Ghost of Gideon Wise

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As I chose the Five of Clubs for Week 47 of my Deal Me In 2014 short story project, allow me to use the “priest walks into a bar” tie-in one last time.  The Five of Clubs corresponds to my final Father Brown mystery by G. K. Chesterton, “The Ghost of Gideon Wise”.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

In this case, a priest, three Capitalists, three Socialists, a detective and a journalist walk into a bar.  Actually, it’s two bars as Capitalists and Socialists don’t socialize with each other.  I’m guessing they don’t capitalize with each other, either.  And Father Brown happens to be socializing with the Socialists.  He has a rather interesting reason for doing this, too.

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With this type of mystery, I usually have a problem with the resolution as many authors tend to throw logic to the wind and pull an answer out of thin air – or an answer that is somewhat contrived.  In the case of “Gideon Wise”, though, the premise may be a little contrived, but the mystery’s resolution is not too difficult to figure out and the logic behind the mystery’s revelation made the story that much more enjoyable.

Gideon Wise is one of the three Capitalists and, of the three, he might be considered an extreme capitalist.  He is a rugged pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps individualist and it goes without saying that he doesn’t like to share.  The title of the story might give away some of the story’s plot but the reader needs to remember that it’s a mystery – not everything is as it appears.  As usual, Father Brown remains both humble and confident as he brings the story to an end which gives an interesting Chesterton take on the conflict between the two political and economic systems.

At some point in the future, I’d like to give Chesterton’s longer works of fiction a try.  I’ve heard great things about his novel The Man Who Was Thursday.  I also have Chesterton’s biographies of Charles Dickens and Thomas Aquinas unread on my shelf.  And I happen to be reading Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited and came upon a Father Brown quotation.  As I’ve said before, Chesterton has a great mind and a great imagination.

G. K. Chesterton: The Red Moon of Meru

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A priest, a mystic and a skeptic walk into a bazaar.  Actually, there are several skeptics and a few mystics and, as usual, for G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, not everything is as it appears in “The Red Moon of Meru”.   These characters have names like Lord and Lady Mounteagle, Hardcastle, and Tommy Hunter.  All of these characters begin the story in conversation about the fortune tellers at the bazaar.  Much is made of what is real and what is not real.  Illusion is a major theme in this episode.  What is in the eye of the beholder and what is cold, hard fact are questions debated between everyone including Father Brown.

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They all make their way to the museum owned by Lord Mounteagle to look upon his prized ruby from India known as the Red Moon of Meru.  As Mounteagle allows his guests to handle the gem, the reader gets an idea of what is going to happen.  When one of the guests accidentally (or a little too coincidentally, in my opinion) lays the stone on a window sill, everyone sees an unknown hand, or perhaps a sleight of hand, snap it away.  After an initial struggle among some of the guests, Father Brown begins to figure out what happened.  At the same time, the ruby mysteriously reappears right where it was.

This story lacked the very quotable Chesterton that I enjoy; however, I appreciate the manner in which the ending veered from the standard detective story.  All of the guests leave with the impression that the stolen ruby was simply an illusion.  They all saw what they wanted to see.  Of course Father Brown knows the truth but he lets everyone leave without knowing it – everyone except his detective friend disguised as a phrenologist (someone who tells the future by the configuration of one’s skull).

I suppose it’s not completely beyond the realm of possibility for a priest-detective to stumble across a repentant thief?

My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

G. K. Chesterton: The Song of the Flying Fish

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“The Song of the Flying Fish” is the second story I’ve read of the many that G. K. Chesterton wrote about his detective priest, Father Brown.  Based on the two that I’ve read, it seems that Father Brown tends to stay in the background, slowly making his way to the forefront in time to solve the story’s mystery.

In this one, Mr. Peregrine Smart’s hired hands guard his expensive ornamental goldfish bowl with fish made of gold and rubies for eyes.  Boyle and Jameson hear a bump in the night.  While Jameson runs downstairs, Boyle looks out the window to see the apparition of a man singing a strange song calling forth “his fish”.  The window breaks and the fish are gone.

In this case, the “usual suspects” are the neighbors –  the doctor, the banker, a Count.  No Colonel Mustard or Professor Plum.  The doctor suggests the song made the window break and the Count suspects mystical happenings.  It’s Father Brown who realizes the answer is so close nobody can see it.

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I’m captured most by these stories because of Chesterton’s imaginative writing style.  As I’ve mentioned before, he can be a very quotable author.  Here are a few passages that got my attention:

Outside, the last edges of the sunset still clung to the corners of the green square; but inside, a lamp had already been kindled; and in the mingling of the two lights the coloured globe glowed like some monstrous jewel, and the fantastic outlines of the fiery fishes seemed to give it, indeed, something of the mystery of a talisman, like strange shapes seen by a seer in the crystal of doom.

And this one:

Only Boyle, for the first time, noted consciously something that he had all along been noting unconsciously.  It was like a fact struggling in the submerged mind and demanding its own meaning.

And I thought the first line was a good one:

The soul of Mr. Peregrine Smart hovered like a fly round one possession and one joke.

Chesterton’s imagination makes mystery and illusion as much fun as the answers.

My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

Beowulf

I remember reading Beowulf in high school, or at least parts of it, but didn’t remember much about it.  After just finishing it, I have to say that hanging out in mead-halls and fighting monsters doesn’t seem to be a bad way to live life.  I probably read this too fast and should have read more of the commentary that came with it.  While the translation by Seamus Heaney was good and easy to understand I sometimes thought something got lost.  I can’t really point to anything in particular – just a gut feeling.  The edition I had was illustrated with beautiful photographs of weapons, landscapes, paintings of monsters and other items that gave additional insight to the poem.

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There’s a quote by G. K. Chesterton that I’ve always enjoyed that says:

I don’t deny…that there should be priests to remind men that they will one day die.  I only say that at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have another kind of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet.

I think the author of Beowulf could have been both priest and poet.  The poem blends perfectly God’s Providence with Man’s might -or perhaps I could say man’s “free will” but that could be stretching it – and who wants to get all theological about a story with monsters, anyway?  And while death lurks around every corner, the warriors face it head on and won’t go down without a fight.

I think the next epic poem I read might be Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.  But I’ll read it a little slower – I’ll take it a pilgrim at a time.

 

Graham Greene and G. K. Chesterton

What do Graham Greene and G. K. Chesterton have in common?  For starters, they are both British.  They also write with a strong Catholic influence – Greene having a strained relationship with the church but never leaving and Chesterton seeming to fully embrace the church.  They now also have something else in common:  both of them have short story collections that are owned by me.

The first story in the Graham Greene collection, Complete Short Stories, is “The Destructors”.  The story could be considered the flip side to Willa Cather’s great story “The Enchanted Bluff”.  While I would consider the Cather story better, Greene uses a certain unsentimental humor to make “The Destructors” enjoyable and worth reading.

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A car-park gang of boys, ranging in age from nine to about fifteen, put together a plan with the leadership of “T” (short for Trevor, but apparently Trevor wasn’t a cool enough name), a boy new to the neighborhood and a threat to Blackie (that was a cool enough name), the gang’s current leader.  The title gives the reader a clue as to the nature of this plan.  The plan might actually be considered a dream in the nature of the dreams and plans of the boys in “The Enchanted Bluff”; however, this dream eventually comes to fruition.  Is this a good thing?  Well, I’ll just let you read the story and decide for yourself.

The collection of Chesterton stories I have is The Complete Father Brown Stories.  The first one is called “The Blue Cross”.  In the nature of mysteries, these stories have strong similarities to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s more well-known Sherlock Holmes mysteries. This first one is told from the perspective of French detective, Valentinarriving in London chasing his arch nemesis, Flambeau.  As Valentin tracks down the criminal, he expresses thoughts to himself about reason and doubt.  He begins to become suspicious of two priests. Ultimately, through one of the priests, Father Brown, Valentin catches Flambeau.

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I especially enjoyed the parting thoughts Father Brown leaves for both Valentin and Flambeau.  Valentin asks Father Brown how, as a priest, he knows so much about the criminal mind.  Father Brown indicates that years of listening to confessions has made him an expert in human nature – particularly the dark side.  Flambeau, pretending to be a priest in order to steal a valuable ornamental cross, wonders what gave himself away to Father Brown.  At one point in the story, Flambeau (as a priest) talks of God as being above human reason.  Father Brown lets Flambeau know he ought not attack reason – it’s “bad theology” and it was this “bad theology” that gave the criminal away.

I have the feeling that Graham Greene’s stories will utilize the “anti-hero” with a moral ambiguity in his characters.  Chesterton’s Father Brown will likely have a more focused moral compass.  I’m looking forward to reading more of each.