The Oracle Of The Dog by G.K. Chesterton, 1926
The magic trick:
Good writing, excellent descriptions amid an otherwise mostly standard-issue British detective story
We wrap up mystery week on the SSMT site with one of fiction’s most famous detectives: Father Brown.
Now, he is no Sherlock or Poirot. Far from it. But he’s clever and his quiet reliance on understanding human nature is entertaining in a not-stressful kind of way that recalls Agatha Christie (or perhaps influenced Agatha Christie).
The other thing to remember here is that G.K. Chesterton was a true writer. This is not pulp fiction. Which brings us to our magic trick. The descriptions here are really good. Father Brown never attends the scene of the crime, so he and the reader are both reliant on the man Fiennes to describe everything.
He does it well. Consider this paragraph:
“It was I who found him,’ said Fiennes rather huskily. ‘It was the ugliest and most uncanny thing fever knew. I went down that old garden again, and I knew there was something new and unnatural about it besides the murder. The flowers still tossed about in blue masses on each side of the black entrance into the old grey summer-house; but to me the blue flowers looked like blue devils dancing before some dark cavern of the underworld. I looked all round, everything seemed to be in its ordinary place. But the queer notion grew on me that there was something wrong with the very shape of the sky. And then I saw what it was. The Rock of Fortune always rose in the background beyond the garden hedge and against the sea. The Rock of Fortune was gone.’
Blue flowers as blue devils? The shape of the sky?
Maybe I’m applying too low a standard here, but that’s pretty good, right? Agatha Christie’s mysteries are far more interesting, but the pure writing in Father Brown is better. And that’s quite a trick on Chesterton’s part.
Fiennes stared still more. ‘But you told me before that my feelings about the dog were all nonsense, and the dog had nothing to do with it.’
‘The dog had everything to do with it,’ said Father Brown, ‘as you’d have found out if you’d only treated the dog as a dog, and not as God Almighty judging the souls of men.’
He paused in an embarrassed way for a moment, and then said, with a rather pathetic air of apology: ‘The truth is, I happen to be awfully fond of dogs. And it seemed to me that in all this lurid halo of dog superstitions nobody was really thinking about the poor dog at all. To begin with a small point, about his barking at the lawyer or growling at the secretary. You asked how I could guess things a hundred miles away; but honestly it’s mostly to your credit, for you described people so well that I know the types. A man like Traill, who frowns usually and smiles suddenly, a man who fiddles with things, especially at his throat, is a nervous, easily embarrassed man. I shouldn’t wonder if Floyd, the efficient secretary, is nervy and jumpy, too; those Yankee hustlers often are. Otherwise he wouldn’t have cut his fingers on the shears and dropped them when he heard Janet Druce scream.
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