Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Quote of the Day (G.K. Chesterton, on ‘The First Essential Value of the Detective Story’)

“The first essential value of the detective story lies in this, that it is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life. Men lived among mighty mountains and eternal forests for ages before they realized that they were poetical; it may reasonably be inferred that some of our descendants may see the chimney-pots as rich a purple as the mountain-peaks, and find the lamp-posts as old and natural as the trees. Of this realization of a great city itself as something wild and obvious the detective story is certainly the ‘Iliad.’ No one can have failed to notice that in these stories the hero or the investigator crosses London with something of the loneliness and liberty of a prince in a tale of elfland, that in the course of that incalculable journey the casual omnibus assumes the primal colours of a fairy ship. The lights of the city begin to glow like innumerable goblin eyes, since they are the guardians of some secret, however crude, which the writer knows and the reader does not. Every twist of the road is like a finger pointing to it; every fantastic skyline of chimney-pots seems wildly and derisively signalling the meaning of the mystery.” —English man of letters G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), “A Defence of Detective Stories” in The Defendant (1901)

It wasn’t until I read assorted essays and biographies by Garry Wills that I discovered why he so deeply admired G.K. Chesterton, born 150 years ago today in London.

Those who have read this blog over time know how often I have quoted from Chesterton’s poems, literary studies, essays, and Christian apologetics.

But years before that, as a child, I had become enthralled by his “Father Brown” detective tales, as seen in this post from 15 years ago.

The late novelist P.D. James (herself a sterling detective novelist) pretty much sums up what drew me years ago to Chesterton’s work in this often-unappreciated genre:

“We read the Father Brown stories for a variety pleasures, including their ingenuity, their wit and intelligence, and for the brilliance of the writing. But they provide more. Chesterton was concerned with the greatest of all problems, the vagaries of the human heart.”

(By the way: If you watch the recent BBC series Father Brown, based loosely on Chesterton’s stories on the mild-mannered, mystery-solving cleric, I’m afraid that I must agree with Steven D. Greydanus, who writes, on his “Decent Films” blog, that this “cozy, nostalgic British crime series…,while not without merit, has little in common with either the letter or the spirit of Chesterton’s yarns.”)

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