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Was Sherlock Holmes completely opposite? A Priest-Detective and his cases (Column: Bookends)

April 16, 2017: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” The Shadow, the mysterious narrator of a 1930 American radio show, knows — as he told us with his eerie laugh — but he wasn’t the only one. Various detectives — Sherlock Holmes, et al — made it their business to find out too, as well one whose calling exposed him to it. And he was equally effective despite being Holmes’ polar opposite.

Unlike the tall and lean and striking Holmes, Father Brown, a Roman Catholic priest, is short and stumpy, with “a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling”, “eyes as empty as the North Sea” beneath his spectacles, wears shapeless black clerical garb and always carries a large umbrella.

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The real difference is in their methods. While Holmes uses the deductive approach — reasoning from one or more premises towards a logical conclusion — as well as the abductive, using his superb observation and sharp brain to fashion from available evidence a theory that can explain it, Father Brown is intuitive, seeking to place himself in the criminal’s mind to find how the deed was done and thus ascertain who did it.

But there were similarities too. Both rejected supernatural causes and had keen insights into evil — Holmes by dint of research and our priest by his work, once telling an adversary: “Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?”

Debuting in 1911, Father Brown was the creation of author and lay theologian G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), a colossus both in appearance and intellect, and also a poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, and a literary and art critic.

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Chesterton, who had read Holmes (he prepared a number of illustrations for them — which weren’t used and have been only recently discovered), however sought to create a counterpoint to the trend of the coldly analytical detective. The good priest’s reliance on philosophical and spiritual truths also serves to express Chesterton’s own point of view of the world.

The 50-odd stories, 48 published in five collections: “The Innocence/Wisdom/ Incredulity/Secret/Scandal of Father Brown” between 1911 and 1935 (three stories were found and published posthumously) are masterpieces of the genre, with their ingenious puzzles, fiendish plots set out against evocative descriptions of time and place, and spirited dialogue and observations. Chesterton, termed the “prince of paradox”, was also gifted in creating a supernatural ambience — but one that is easily dissipated and stumping us with the unexpected, but perfectly reasonable, solution.

Brown debuts in “The Blue Cross” in which French policeman Valentin, in England on the trail of notorious criminal Flambeau, sees him in his rail carriage but dismisses him as pitiable. But it is the seemingly oblivious priest who enables the arrest of Flambeau (disguised as a fellow priest) by identifying and outsmarting him while laying a strange but unmistakable trail across London for Valentin to follow.

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But after encountering Flambeau in two further stories in the first volume itself, Brown succeeds in weaning him off a life of crime and making him a companion (like Dr Watson) in most of the canon, a strange assortment of tales, set not only in Britain, but also in rest of Europe, the US and in Latin America. And all may not be crimes, despite the evidence (if you pardon the pun).

A recently-deceased Scottish lord’s castle has several strange things — candles without candlesticks, jewels lying loose, prayer books mutilated and so on — and when his body is exhumed, the skull is missing (“The Honour of Israel Gow”); a retired soldier faces some inexplicable attempts on his life after a strange curse in India while an assailant runs off with condiments from the dinner table (“The Salad of Colonel Cray”); a dog howls in despair at the time its master is stabbed to death back at home (“The Oracle of the Dog”); an unclaimed glass which held whiskey helps to solve a murder in a bar (“The Quick One”); are the simultaneous murders of three American millionaires (“The Ghost of Gideon Wise”) a conspiracy by the militant trade unionists and so on.

Father Brown also shows how a revolution-minded university teacher cannot have murdered two businessmen in an Oxbridge college (“The Crime of the Communist”) , how an eminent criminologist and psychic researcher are misled in two cases (“The Absence of Mr Glass” and “The Blast of the Book”), and exposes a number of charlatans, including holy men drawn from various sects/religions.

But the priest-detective, who like Holmes, continues to be written about long after his creator passed on and appearing in other media, had another prominent legacy. The good father, who according to Italian Marxist ideologue Antonio Gramsci, far outstripped Holmes, also inspired the trend of clergy detectives (nearly 350 according to Philip Grosset of www.detecs.org, mainly from Christianity and Judaism but even Buddhism). Other religions are only represented by devout laity. Anyone keen to address the deficiency?  (IANS)

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