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Monday Death of a Thousand Epigrams

The Incredulity of Father Brown gave me some trouble. I still liked it intermittently, but Father Brown's homilies are overcrowding his otherwise likeable personality and Flambeau was nowhere to be found. I caught myself skimming a lot.


I thought I might just have finally burned out on the genre as a whole, but then I picked up A Shilling for Candles and felt immediately un-burned-out. The short story format probably has something to do with it; with so many denouements per volume, there's less time to get attached to less well-developed characters, more opportunitities to contemplate the predictability and frequent glibness of Chesterton's paradoxes, and fewer to get to know Father Brown when he isn't slinging epigrams. I still like him as a character, or maybe as a character concept, but in this collection his epigrams began to get on my nerves in a major way, the more so because they so frequently deal stupidly with interesting and valuable observations. There's this pervasive tendency to correct popular misconceptions or bromides by shoving them as far as they can go in the opposite direction, and to generalize inaccurately from cogent observations. If it happened just a few times, I wouldn't mind, but it happens constantly and it covers me in ennui.

In "The Curse of the Golden Cross," for example, Father Brown realizes that an alleged "medieval legend" must be of more recent origin because it has a Jewish person being executed for heresy, a charge that would not have applied to non-Christians in England in the thirteenth century. Solving a crime by highlighting popular misconceptions about the Middle Ages, how fun! But Chesterton CAN'T RESIST having him go on to assert that "it would be nearer the truth to say that [Jews] were the only people who weren't persecuted in the Middle Ages," which is not nearer the truth at all, and which Chesterton ought to know perfectly well is not nearer the truth.

The racial and national stereotyping is interestingly gratuitious. It doesn't play a role in the investigations -- the characters don't make practical judgements based on whether a particular crime is "Anglo-Saxon" or "Latin" in its emotional register, the way e.g. Poirot does sometimes. Instead, "French" "Sicilian" "Oriental" "Negroid" and similar adjectives are simply sprinkled over otherwise complete and functional character descriptions like big slivers of Parmesan cheese. With only a few exceptions, you could scrape them all off into the sink without losing anything or even needing to change the sentence structure. They are everywhere, and have no effect on the story except to transform as many otherwise innocuous descriptions as possible into The Narrator's Thoughts on Foreigners. Everything and everyone is some kind of type, which might help explain both Chesterton's talent for clever epigrams and their tendecy to go stale en masse.

Incredulity is the third book in a series of five (the second was missing from the library) so my fond hope is that if I double back and get The Wisdom of Father Brown, Flambeau will return to me. I have some rational reasons for my attachment to Flambeau in addition to all my irrational ones: Father Brown's friendship with a well-known criminal at multiple stages of his reform is a deeply appealing character note and makes him instantly more three-dimensional than he is in Incredulity with no additional work on the part of the author; I knew I liked it but I didn't know how much I would miss it until it was gone.

Also on the roster: A Shilling for Candles by face-detection master Josephine Tey (good so far; mysterious body on evocative beach, only a minimum of crankiness) and The Floating Admiral, a Detection Club round-robin. I can't tell anything about the latter because I've only read the introduction, except that it is unlikely to be as much fun for readers as it was for the participants. On the other hand, it appears to have been a lot of fun for the participants.

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
osprey_archer
Apr. 14th, 2015 12:39 am (UTC)
the predictability and frequent glibness of Chesterton's paradoxes

YES. Yes, this is exactly what drives me up the wall about Chesterton's paradoxes. Often they aren't even paradoxes, they only seem that way because he's worded them cleverly to make them seem paradoxical because he is ADDICTED TO PARADOXES.

He also loves the whole "this thing is actually the exact opposite of what you believed it was" thing. This is basically the entire plot of The Man Who Was Thursday.

I feel that Chesterton was a very clever man who would have done much better - written much deeper works (and I think he did want to write deeply, so it's not unfair to criticize him for shallowness) - if he had an editor who would take him to task for his fascination with paradoxes. "Only one paradox per chapter, Chesterton!"
evelyn_b
Apr. 14th, 2015 02:05 am (UTC)
I am so glad that you understand my pain, osprey_archer. HE JUST CAN'T STOP. He's clearly a clever man, and a gifted writer, and I really enjoy how closely a lot of the stories sidle up to fantasy and sci-fi (one of the murder victims in Innocence was a manufacturer of robot butlers, and the initial theory was that he had been MENACED BY HIS OWN ROBO-BUTLERS), and a lot of other things -- but yes, his love of paradoxes (fake and less fake) really does seem to be barring him from the depths like a pair of giant water wings. I'm probably speaking too soon, because I've only read the two books. But it is noticeable, and frustrating.

I wish he'd had that editor, too! Who knows -- maybe he did, and cutting him down to five paradoxes per chapter was the best he could do.
osprey_archer
Apr. 14th, 2015 02:09 am (UTC)
ROBO BUTLERS YOU SAY? I may have to give the Father Brown books a try, Chesterton's paradoxical water-wings aside.

I feel for this hypothetical editor. I feel like he probably sent Chesterton manuscripts with paradox number six or seven circled in red ink with the words "this is where I started to weep from sheer paradoxical overload." And Chesterton totally responded "EXCELLENT."
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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