Father Brown and the Ten Commandments

by GK Chesterton, Ignatius Press, £13

Never having read any of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories before, I found this book a treat. Usually my holiday reading list includes a Simenon novel – this year it has been spent in the company of a small, tubby figure in black, with a “moonlike face” and carrying a heavy umbrella. These stories of how the Commandments might be broken are ingenious, deliberately far-fetched, packed with humorous sideswipes at contemporary fashions and brimming with glimpses of Chestertonian wisdom. John Peterson, who edited the collection, points out in his introduction that what interested Chesterton was the state of his characters’ souls – their sins more than their crimes. As Father Brown reflects, “You must remember, in a murder case, the guiltiest person is not always the murderer.”

They should be read slowly, otherwise you might miss a thought-provoking aside – such as the priest’s comment on being taken to visit a millionaire in The Arrow of Heaven: “It is my duty to visit prisoners and all miserable men in captivity.” In The Worst Crime in the World, Chesterton’s fictitious alter-ego startles the reader by reminding him that “There are two types of men who can laugh when they are alone … either very good or very bad … either confiding the joke to God or confiding it to the Devil … It does not mind if nobody sees the joke. The joke is enough in itself, if it is sufficiently sinister and malignant.”

As always with Chesterton, his instinctive irreverence towards the gods of the age is a delight, such as when, in The Actor and the Alibi, Father Brown inveighs against “those highbrows” who talk about the Will to Power: “Damned nonsense and more than damned nonsense – nonsense that can damn.”

How would Chesterton fare today in a BBC discussion group? Very badly. After all, “You needn’t have any intellect to be an intellectual,” as Father Brown remarks.

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