Father Brown

Father Brown

Father Brown is a fictional detective created by English novelist G. K. Chesterton, who stars in 52 short stories, later compiled in five books. Chesterton based the character on Father John O'Connor (1870 - 1952), a parish priest in Bradford who was involved in Chesterton's conversion to Catholicism in 1922. The relationship was recorded by O'Connor in his 1937 book Father Brown on Chesterton.


Father Brown is a short, stumpy Catholic priest, "formerly of Cobhole in Essex, and now working in London," with shapeless clothes and a large umbrella, and uncanny insight into human evil.

He makes his first appearance in the famous story "The Blue Cross" and continues through the five volumes of short stories, often assisted by the reformed criminal Flambeau. Father Brown also appears in a story "The Donnington Affair" that has a rather curious history. In the October 1914 issue of the obscure magazine The Premier, Sir Max Pemberton published the first part of the story, inviting a number of detective story writers, including Chesterton, to use their talents to solve the mystery of the murder described. Chesterton and Father Brown's solution followed in the November issue. The story was first reprinted in the Chesterton Review (Winter 1981, pp. 1-35) and in the book "Thirteen detectives". .

Unlike the more famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown's methods tend to be intuitive rather than deductive. He explains his method in "The Secret of Father Brown":

You see, I had murdered them all myself.... I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.

Father Brown's abilities are also considerably shaped by his experience as a priest and confessor. In "The Blue Cross", when asked by Flambeau, who has been masquerading as a priest, how he knew of all sorts of criminal "horrors," he responds: "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?" He also states a reason why he knew Flambeau was not a priest: "You attacked reason. It's bad theology." And indeed, the stories normally contain a rational explanation of who the murderer was and how Brown worked it out.

Despite his devotion, or perhaps, because of it, Father Brown always emphasizes rationality: some stories, such as "The Miracle of Moon Crescent", "The Blast of the Book" and "The Dagger With Wings", poke fun at initially sceptical characters who become convinced of a supernatural explanation for some strange occurrence, while Father Brown easily sees the perfectly ordinary, natural explanation. In fact, he seems to represent an ideal of a devout, yet considerably educated and "civilised" clergyman. This can be traced to the influence of neo-scholastic thought on Chesterton.

Father Brown is characteristically humble, and is usually rather quiet, but when he does talk, he almost always says something profound. Although he tends to handle crimes with a steady, realistic approach, he believes in the supernatural as the greatest reason of all.

Interpretations and criticism

Father Brown was the perfect vehicle for conveying Chesterton's view of the world and, of all of his characters, is perhaps closest to Chesterton's own point of view, or at least the effect of his point of view. Father Brown solves his crimes through a strict reasoning process more concerned with spiritual and philosophic truths rather than scientific details, making him an almost equal counterbalance with Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, whose stories Chesterton read and admired.

Father Brown in other media

  • Walter Connolly starred as the sleuthing priest in the 1934 film Father Brown, Detective, based on "The Blue Cross." Connolly would later be cast as another famous fictional detective, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, in the 1937 film, The League of Frightened Men.
  • A Mutual Broadcasting System radio series, The Adventures of Father Brown (1945) featured Karl Swenson as Father Brown, Bill Griffis as Flambeau and Gretchen Douglas as Nora, the rectory housekeeper.
  • The 1954 film Father Brown (released in the U.S. as The Detective) had a formidable cast, with Sir Alec Guinness playing the part of Father Brown, and is widely regarded as a minor classic. Like the 1934 film starring Connolly, it was based on Chesterton's first Brown short story, "The Blue Cross." An experience while playing the character prompted Guinness's conversion to Catholicism. .
  • Heinz Rühmann played Father Brown in two German adaptations of Chesterton's stories, Das schwarze Schaf (The black sheep) (1960) and Er kanns nicht lassen (He can't stop to do it) (1962) with both music-scores written by German composer Martin Böttcher. In these movies Brown is an Irish priest. Later the actor appeared in Operazione San Pietro (also starring Edward G. Robinson, 1967) as Cardinal Brown, but the movie is not based on any Chesterton story.
  • A German television series superficially based on the character of Father Brown, Pfarrer Braun, was launched in 2003. Pfarrer Guido Braun, from Bavaria, played by Ottfried Fischer, solves murder cases in the (fictitious) island of Nordersand (Northsea-island) in the first two episodes. Later other German landscapes like the Harz, the Rhine or Meißen in Saxony became sets for the show. Martin Böttcher again wrote the score and he got the instruction by the producers to write a title-theme hinting at the theme of the cinema-movies with Heinz Rühmann. To date 14 shows have been made, which ran very successfully in German ARD.
  • In 1974, Kenneth More starred in a 13-episode Father Brown TV series, each episode adapted from one of Chesterton's short stories. The series, produced by Sir Lew Grade for Associated TeleVision, was shown in the United States as part of PBS's Mystery!. They were released on DVD in the UK in 2003, and in the USA four years later, both versions by Acorn Media.
  • An American TV movie, Sanctuary of Fear (1979), starred Barnard Hughes as an Americanized, modernized Father Brown in Manhattan, New York City. The film was intended as the pilot for a series but critical and audience reaction was unfavorable, largely due to the changes made to the character, and the mundane thriller plot.
  • An Italian television series entitled I racconti di padre Brown ("The Tales of Father Brown") starred the well-known Italian comedian Renato Rascel.
  • A series of 16 Chesterton stories has been produced by the Colonial Radio Theatre in Boston. J.T. Turner plays Father Brown, all scripts are written by British radio dramatist M. J. Elliott.

Reference to Father Brown

In Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited, a quote from the Father Brown story "The Queer Feet" is an important element of the structure and theme of the book. Father Brown speaks this line after catching a criminal, hearing his confession, and letting him go: "I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread." Book 3 of Brideshead Revisited is called "A Twitch Upon the Thread," and the quote acts as a metaphor for the operation of grace in the characters lives. They are free to wander the world according to their free will until they are ready and receptive to God's grace, at which point He acts in their lives and effects a conversion. In the miniseries made by Granada Television adapting Brideshead, the character Lady Marchmain (Claire Bloom ) reads this passage aloud.

Compilation books

1. The Innocence of Father Brown (1911)
#The Blue Cross (The Storyteller, September 1910)
#The Secret Garden (The Storyteller, October 1910)
#The Queer Feet (The Storyteller, November 1910)
#The Flying Stars
#The Invisible Man
#The Honour of Israel Gow
#The Wrong Shape
#The Sins of Prince Saradine
#The Hammer of God
#The Eye of Apollo
#The Sign of the Broken Sword
#The Three Tools of Death
2.The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914)
#The Absence of Mr Glass
#The Paradise of Thieves
#The Duel of Dr Hirsch
#The Man in the Passage
#The Mistake of the Machine
#The Head of Caesar
#The Purple Wig
#The Perishing of the Pendragons
#The God of the Gongs
#The Salad of Colonel Cray
#The Strange Crime of John Boulnois
#The Fairy Tale of Father Brown
3. The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926)
#The Resurrection of Father Brown
#The Arrow of Heaven
#The Oracle of the Dog
#The Miracle of Moon Crescent
#The Curse of the Golden Cross
#The Dagger with Wings
#The Doom of the Darnaways
#The Ghost of Gideon Wise
4.The Secret of Father Brown (1927)
(framing story) The Secret of Father Brown
#The Mirror of the Magistrate
#The Man With Two Beards
#The Song of the Flying Fish
#The Actor and the Alibi
#The Vanishing of Vaudrey
#The Worst Crime in the World
#The Red Moon of Meru
#The Chief Mourner of Marne
(framing story) The Secret of Flambeau
5. The Scandal of Father Brown (1935)
#The Scandal of Father Brown
#The Quick One
#The Blast of the Book
#The Green Man
#The Pursuit of Mr Blue
#The Crime of the Communist
#The Point of a Pin
#The Insoluble Problem

The Donnington Affair (1914, outside of compilations)

The Vampire of the Village (Strand Magazine, August 1936)

The Mask of Midas (1936)



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