Friday, December 16, 2011

Adventure classics -- The man who almost wasn't


“The Queer Feet”

by G.K. Chesterton

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So entrenched is G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown canon that I was puzzled when I realized during a recent re-reading that the little priest with a face “as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling” wasn’t the original leading character. Instead, the much more elegant and more obviously sophisticated French police investigator Valentin played that role.

In fact, the first Father Brown story was originally published in the Saturday Evening Post edition of July 23, 1910, under the title, “Valentin Follows a Curious Trail.”

But by the second story, Chesterton had become so fond of the priest that he killed Valentin (by suicide), leaving Father Brown to reign supreme. And the other character as firmly associated with Father Brown as Dr. Watson is with Sherlock Holmes, the sympathetic master criminal Flambeau, disappeared from sight until the series’ third story, “The Queer Feet,” published in November 1910.

Aside from its now cringe-worthy title, “The Queer Feet” is my favorite of the entire canon (at least until I reread them all again). It showcases Father Brown’s combination of rationality and spiritual allegiance against the background of a plutocratic club whose membership today’s one percent would envy.

I won’t do a spoiler for those who haven’t read it, but the actual method Father Brown uses to condemn a crime and rebuke the wealthy is only one of the story’s delights.

Dudley Barker mentions early in his volume, G.K. Chesterton: A Biography, that Chesterton’s favorite childhood memories were of his father’s toy theater. And despite his failure as a playwright, Chesterton’s life and writings displayed a deep sense of the theatrical -- a sense shared by other members of his family. Barker records that G.K.’s brother Cecil once considered abducting him to France, hoping to persuade him to leave his wife. (G.K. was devoted to her; his family couldn’t stand her.)

One aspect of “The Queer Feet” baffled me, I admit. Why didn’t anyone in the hotel hear the noise when, as Chesterton writes, “the window of the room behind (the priest) was burst, as if someone had passed violently through.”

The answer, biographer Barker would probably say, is as simple as Father Brown’s explanation of the crime (and accounts for a number of other oddities in Chesterton’s stories). He always wrote in a hurry. “Once he had dictated,” Barker writes, “he rarely made any corrections. . . the secretary had to get swiftly on to her bicycle and ferry the copy to the railway station.”

Intrigued by Chesterton and Father Brown? The American Chesterton Society’s website,
www.chesterton.org/ hosts a Chesterton 101 series of lectures and sponsors chapters in several states, including Texas. For information about the Dallas-Fort Worth Chesterton Society, contact Tom Ridenour at wthomasridenour@sbcglobal.net/

(Next Friday: Wear a flower in your hair when we look at Steppenwolf, Hermann Hesse’s 1927 gem that became a 1960’s psychedelic favorite.)

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