I am hooked on Father Brown– currently drip feeding myself his adventures via the iplayer!
This new interest has temporarily broken my fixation with another murderous area, Midsomer, whose perfect prettiness veils unsettling secrets never laid to rest. Midsomer Murders like Father Brown uses captivating theme music to jar creepily with the often gruesome discoveries, making us rethink the meaning of propinquity!
In the new Father Brown, psychological mayhem reigns on in sleepy villages; grudges ferment dangerously beneath the apparently civilized surface of parochial 50’s life. No place seems more perilous than a well attended church fete.! No place seems less safe for the criminally minded than in the vicinity of the apparently naive Father Brown.
The transplantation of the Father Brown tales to the 1950’s may upset the Chesterton purists,as the original tales were published in the early 20th century. However I feel that one age of repression has just been exchanged for another, and that the success of any version depends upon the characterization of Father Brown himself.
The Priest has to be played as a subtly understated, yet compelling figure, whose ability to think ‘otherwise’ about crime leaves the more conventional Police Detectives flummoxed. Father Brown pays real attention and I do like the slightly Patrick Jane(The Mentalist) or Goren(Law And Order) physical ‘tic’ involving the gentlest tilt of the head.
Head Tilting is a signifier of thoughtfulness and imagination. In this I can see also another tenacious detective, always overlooked until way too late for the criminal- Columbo !
Father Brown is no Sherlock Holmes. He is not a cold, detached observer of human foibles with a fatal weakness for drugs. He is instead a master observer of incongruity. He notices mismatches and thinks laterally or ‘otherwise’. And although he is a tenacious detective and pursues cases to the uncomfortable end, he is compassionate and accepting too.
Chesterton is also one of the best readers of Dickens and his essays on Dickens I find some of the most refreshing ever written. In Father Brown, I enjoy the idiosyncrasy of the writing, the alternative understanding of human nature and motivation. Here is a extract from one of the most famous stories, The Hammer of God, a tale interestingly updated in the new series:
After a moment he resumed, looking tranquilly out over the plain with his pale grey eyes. “I knew a man,” he said, “who began by worshipping with others before the altar, but who grew fond of high and lonely places to pray from, corners or niches in the belfry or the spire. And once in one of those dizzy places, where the whole world seemed to turn under him like a wheel, his brain turned also, and he fancied he was God. So that, though he was a good man, he committed a great crime.”
Wilfred’s face was turned away, but his bony hands turned blue and white as they tightened on the parapet of stone.
“He thought it was given to him to judge the world and strike down the sinner. He would never have had such a thought if he had been kneeling with other men upon a floor. But he saw all men walking about like insects. He saw one especially strutting just below him, insolent and evident by a bright green hat–a poisonous insect.”
Rooks cawed round the corners of the belfry; but there was no other sound till Father Brown went on.
“This also tempted him, that he had in his hand one of the most awful engines of nature; I mean gravitation, that mad and quickening rush by which all earth’s creatures fly back to her heart when released. See, the inspector is strutting just below us in the smithy. If I were to toss a pebble over this parapet it would be something like a bullet by the time it struck him. If I were to drop a hammer–even a small hammer–“
Wilfred Bohun threw one leg over the parapet, and Father Brown had him in a minute by the collar.
“Not by that door,” he said quite gently; “that door leads to hell.”
In this story, Father Brown imagines the changed perspective brought about by looking down upon the world from a high church tower. Such a perspective he believes can give an observer a ‘god like‘ arrogance, dangerously aided by the force of gravity!
For Father Brown recognizes that the reason that a small hammer can mash a man’s brains out completely, is because it has been dropped from a high place; a place high enough to give the hammer thrower delusions about his moral rights over the sins of others. So he takes the murderous vicar back to the church tower and shows him the view in order to encourage a confession.
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