Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Gilbert Keith Chesterton : The Wrong Shape, 1910 (from The innocence of Father Brown, 1911)



It was a long time I wanted write something about Gilbert Keith Chesterton, the great English

Catholic writer, author of phenomenal books, like that about  St. Thomas Aquinas, which earned him the appreciation of the Pope, Pope Pius XI (the Pope forgotten, who was about to utter the historic encyclical against racism and anti-Semitism, when he died in 1939 before signing it).

In appreciation, Pope Pius XI appealed Chesterton with the title of Defensor Fidei , a title that was not disclosed in England as it would  appeared humiliating that a British subject was called in the same way inherited from the kings of England, since Henry VIII. But so is the story: Chesterton, who converted himself to the Christian faith, gave so many proofs of true conversion in his writings to earn to himself  the praise of the Vatican.


At his death to officiate the ceremony of the funeral was called another Catholic writer and prelate, Msgr. Ronald Knox, author of several mystery novels.

The conversion to all effects is on 1922. But evidently it had to take place in stages, and already some time earlier, at least a decade: in his writings were hints, not so hidden, to a desire to convert. Even those among his writings, that would appear less suited to this: I'm speaking  about the Father Brown stories, detective stories centered on the figure of Father Brown, a very keen Catholic priest in his reasoning, who knows go down the hearts of men and discover the worst atrocities by the force of Faith. The figure of Father Brown was conformed to that of the priest who worked in him the conversion, Father John O 'Connor, Irish Catholic, who stood close him until the death. However, while the protagonist of his Father Brown stories is a scruffy little man, always with an old umbrella, the original was not so scruffy.
To Father Brown were dedicated several books, once the character gained an unexpected success: The innocence of Father Brown is the first of them. It’s formed by the first dazzling tales: The Blue Cross, The Secret Garden, The queer feet , The Flying Stars, The Invisible Man, The honor 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'. The first four of them to be published, were put together to form a collection called The Father Brown stories, then extended to bring together all the stories. The most metaphysical of the first stories, an authentic masterpiece, like The Blue Cross, is The Wrong Shape.
The story begins with a description: it’s showed a low building, coloured white and pale green, with shutters and a terrace, with umbrella sheds, and with a strange T-shape. In this – it’s a summer villa, just outside of London, to the countryside -lives the poet Leonard Quinton, famous for his exotic poems, in which he often speaks about havens and eastern hells. Here is also hosted Father Brown, because his friend Flambeau had been a friend of the owner in Paris. Just arrived, the priest warns at the atmosphere, a strange, wicked aura. And perhaps the same T-shape, a T imperfect feeds his doubts. This T-shape, is such that the leg of the T, the shorter arm, is made up by only two elongated and interconnected rooms: “..the first of these two rooms was the study in which the celebrated Mr. Quinton wrote his wild Oriental poems and romances. The farther room was a glass conservatory full of tropical blossoms of quite unique and almost monstrous beauty, and on such afternoons as these glowing with gorgeous sunlight”, where Quinton, aided by narcotics, dreams and ponders his outbursts of fancy.
In the villa, the poet hosts an Indian guru who enjoys hospitality there, supplying the poet inspiration for his poems. Besides him, other few people: the wife of the poet, a woman who for many years caring for her husband who has exceeded opium to describe dreamlike states it caused, and now it has become sullen and by unstable nature ; instead she is a lovely creature, serious, poised and with a great mass of golden hair, but, as Brown says, “That woman’s over-driven,” said Father Brown; “that’s the kind of woman that does her duty for twenty years, and then does something dreadful”.Finally there is the brother of the woman, Atkinson, a parasite which appears dressed in white, with a garish red tie askew and a hat on the crown of the head, which is always on the hunt for money to squander, without a job and an occupation. He’s detested by the poet's physician, Dr. Harris, a little man with a mustache, very ordinary-looking but capable.
Father Brown felt something evil there. Attributes it not only to the shape of villa but also to the Indian holy man, a magician. Wrong shape for him has also a strange dagger with a wavy blade, made not to cut but to torture, in the tall grass of the garden: “Why, look at it,” cried Father Brown, holding out the crooked knife at arm’s length, as if it were some glittering snake. “Don’t you see it is the wrong shape? Don’t you see that it has no hearty and plain purpose? It does not point like a spear. It does not sweep like a scythe. It does not look like a weapon. It looks like an instrument of torture. Father Brown look at the Indian holy man, and at his Indian writing: “They are letters and symbols in a language I don’t know; but I know they stand for evil words,” went on the priest, his voice growing lower and lower. “The lines go wrong on purpose—like serpents doubling to escape” .Father Brown scowls, getting lost at a mystical fog. The same his friend Flambeau recognizes before to the astonished doctor, that when Brown seems lost in mystical discourses that seem crazy, bad things happen then. In a way Father Brown  is a psychic. In front of the doctor who denies his allegations, Father Brown says that while the house is ridiculous in shape but it is not wrong, that dagger is wrong: it is the prologue to the wrong forms.
At that moment Quinton greets the onlookers because it has to go for the usual afternoon nap. Mrs. Quinton comes home, and the doctor goes by his client to make sure he sleeps well and takes the tonic, but in that while the inept brother manages to sneak in the study before the door is closed, so to check an half pound to same  Quinton until before the poet falls asleep.
The clouds are gathering and air manifests the typical electricity announcing the impending storm: Father Brown and Flambeau see the Indian holy man who passes in front of them; for them he’s like a bird of ill omen . As they see him once again stand in the garden near the house, gets out of breath doctor Harris learned who accuses the brother-in-law of Quinton, to have done something  against Quinton: in fact he has seen through the window that his client lies in an unnatural position. Worried, rushes toward the house, followed closely by Father Brown and Flambeau, while Atkinson remains behind.
They open the study and behold, found on his desk a sheet oddly shaped on which with cryptic words are written: " I die by my own hand; yet I die murdered!" While Father Brown looks stunned the sheet, the doctor rushes for greenhouse, just to get back immediately behind and announce the death of Quinton: he’s stabbed in the heart. The hand lies on the dagger. And the dagger is just what first found in the grass, by the wavy shape.
They call the police.
The suicide is self-evident. Still it doesn’t convince Father Brown. What is not convincing:? The shape of the sheet. Another thing wrong, wrong. In fact it is not a rectangular sheet but from a corner is missing a part, as if it had been removed.
Father Brown is to meditate, look, even looks at the cards thrown in the wastepaper basket, finds the scissors and a stack of any missing sheets of a corner. He tries the scissors, conjectures, counts the sheets (23) and corners (22) and then, while they’re waiting for the arrival of the police, he and Flambeau sit under a shed in the garden to smoke and discuss the affair. Father Brown calls the case "very strange". The deductive approach of the priest defines the psychological complexity of the matter:
“You call it queer, and I call it queer,” said the other, “and yet we mean quite opposite things. The modern mind always mixes up two different ideas: mystery in the sense of what is marvellous, and mystery in the sense of what is complicated. That is half its difficulty about miracles. A miracle is startling; but it is simple. It is simple because it is a miracle. It is power coming directly from God (or the devil) instead of indirectly through nature or human wills. Now, you mean that this business is marvellous because it is miraculous, because it is witchcraft worked by a wicked Indian. Understand, I do not say that it was not spiritual or diabolic. Heaven and hell only know by what surrounding influences strange sins come into the lives of men. But for the present my point is this: If it was pure magic, as you think, then it is marvellous; but it is not mysterious—that is, it is not complicated. The quality of a miracle is mysterious, but its manner is simple. Now, the manner of this business has been the reverse of simple.”
The storm that had slackened for a little seemed to be swelling again, and there came heavy movements as of faint thunder. Father Brown let fall the ash of his cigar and went on:
“There has been in this incident,” he said, “a twisted, ugly, complex quality that does not belong to the straight bolts either of heaven or hell. As one knows the crooked track of a snail, I know the crooked track of a man.”
The white lightning opened its enormous eye in one wink, the sky shut up again, and the priest went on:
“Of all these crooked things, the crookedest was the shape of that piece of paper. It was crookeder than the dagger that killed him.”
“You mean the paper on which Quinton confessed his suicide,” said Flambeau.
“I mean the paper on which Quinton wrote, ‘I die by my own hand,’” answered Father Brown. “The shape of that paper, my friend, was the wrong shape; the wrong shape, if ever I have seen it in this wicked world.”
Basically, if others think that Quinton has committed suicide, because no one can have killed him, because he was asleep at the time since he died, before their eyes, beyond the greenhouse, and all the characters were present in garden, Father Brown suspects, indeed already he  already knows that he was killed. But how? A crime that seems so much illusion. Could be the Indian guru the killer? But he was in the garden! A murder case with hypnotism? No. Yet the facts do not give reason to the priest. But he pins his whole house of cards, on that other paper by the wrong shape: it was written on a piece of paper by the wrong shape. Twenty-three were the sheets with the cut corner, including the one with the sentence, but only twenty-two paper corners Father Brown  found, and so the one that came from the offending sheet had to be destroyed. Why? Because of it there was something no wider than a comma, that is ... two commas. In other words, who has cutted the corner he has done it because a phrase with quotes, which by chance was beginning a white sheet, was deprived of the quotes and seemed to punch a written sentence by a suicide.
Father Brown knows who killed the poet among Atkinson, the indian guru, the doctor or the Quinton wife. Yet he  gives the killer a way to escape: his purpose is not to catch the culprit and bring him to justice, but rather to redeem a sinner, to save another ewe that was being lost.  He offers him to write a report mentioning things that only the killer knows and to deliver it in the belief that he, the priest, engaged in a completely confidential profession. In essence, he asks him to confess in a letter that he will deliver. Thing that he will make.
The murderer confesses and confesses because he killed the poet, and at the same time confirms the hypothesis of the priest about the wrong shape of the sheet.  And confessing his crime, the killer admits that for the first time he feels remorse for what he did. 
The story is one of those by Chesterton whom Carr so much liked, so that the character of the Doctor Fell was created looking right at the mammoth figure of Gilbert Keith Chesterton himself.  It’s in fact a story with an Impossible Murder, rather with a Classic Locked Room: the greenhouse is a space enclosed by glass walls, whose only entry / exit is made from the door intercom with the study, the door of which is in turn It remained closed, and indeed all the characters in this mini-drama interacted outside the greenhouse, in the garden, except his wife, who went to his room, but that was visible from the garden below; and each of them was guarded - so to say - by the other. So it becomes difficult to demonstrate how the murderer has killed, if it is true that until a given time Quinton was alive and then he is died, suicide victim..ma not so much.
Locating the murderer does not seem to me so daunting, but instead is understanding how he killed and especially understanding  the motive of the murder, because each of the actors in the drama, apparently has no reason to kill Quinton ... indeed. For all persons in fact the poet is the classic "goose that lays the golden eggs."
It 'clear that at the actio delicti a very important part is a kind of illusionistic game, which goes well with the atmosphere in which moves, for example, the Indian guru; but also the screening of the paper from the wrong shape is a must, being a surprisingly wise of deduction.  
Also there is no trace of a text that Quinton was writing, which concerned the possibility that apparently an Indian holy man (another guru) could result with the power of thought the suicide of a British army officer. It has disappeared : burned in the fireplace? The fact that there dwells an Indian guru does not mean automatically that he is the murderer.
It seems that Chesterton is liable at least of Zangwill, as well as the same Carr may have drawn inspiration from this story for those of his works that speak about the distance murder, like "The Reader is Warned". It may have influenced both Vindry and Agatha Christie.
The staging is embodied in three distinct phases that are indispensable to each other: youmust wait for Quinton sleep (and the doctor then gives him thenarcotic); you have to create the last fake message of the suicide; and finally you have to kill . However, I emphasize how the same message of suicide reveals in its duplicity, as the same premeditated murderer was not quite free from a reflection on what he was doing: the murderer is not an evil being who kills for interest ( oh my God is also that !), but it is not said that his purposeis no less noble than others, because it tends to a better situation as for the murderer as for the victim (which it’s  better it’s dead, once for all instead living ill destroying the life of his wife).  Moreover, being a person who conceals his moral nature, in the amorality of the act the killer has made, it is as the killer had, when performed the act, wanted to suggest suicide was not really such: in fact using a script of the dead in which the victim claims to die by his own hand but instead he died killed from another (the officer of the British army), anticipates exactly what it will happen to Quinton. It therefore insinuates that although the appearance of the situation suggests that it was suicide (the victim was found with the hand that was still holding the dagger, sunk in the heart), in reality the exact  interpretation of the unfolding of the facts is proving  the murder . For more, premeditated. At this point, since the killer premeditated since some times to kill the victim, it would not have been easier forging a letter and carrying a message that spoke only about suicide?
However, we are faced with a masterpiece, also for the refined writing (the description of the places reveals expertise fiction for example). No coincidence Antonio Gramsci , the greatest Italian Marxist thinker and founder of the Italian Communist Party in the '20s, died in prison for anti-fascist activities, in his letter to (sister) Tania, of 6 October 1930 (from “ Letters from Prison”), analyzes the work of Chesterton comparing it for example to that of Conan Doyle:
"Thank you for all that you have sent me. Two books haven’t  been delivered yet: the "fascist Bibliography" and the tales of Chesterton that I will read again for two reasons. First because I imagine that they are as interesting as the first set and second because I will try to reconstruct the impression that they had to make on you. I confess that this will be my greatest delight. I remember exactly your state of mind when you read the first set: you had a happy disposition to receive more immediate impressions and less complicated from cultural sediments. You were not even able to realize some Chesterton wrote a delicate caricature of detective novels more properly said than the detective stories. Father Brown is a Catholic who mocks the way of mechanical thinking of Protestants and the book is basically a defense of the Roman Church against the Anglican Church. Sherlock Holmes is the "Protestant" detective who finds the thread of a criminal skein starting from the outside, relying on science, on the experimental method, on induction. Father Brown is the Catholic priest, who through refined psychological experiences given by the confession and by the workings of moral casuistry of the catholic ancestors, without ignoring the science and experience, but relying especially on deduction and introspection, beats Sherlock Holmes in full , he makes he looks a little pretentious boy, it shows the narrowness and pettiness. On the other hand Chesterton is a great artist while Conan Doyle was a mediocre writer, even if was done knight for literary merit; therefore in Chesterton there is a stylistic gap between the content, the intrigue thriller and the form style, i.e.  a subtle irony towards the subject matter that makes more tasty the tales. Do you think about? I remember you were reading these stories as if they were chronicles of true facts and you identified yourself up to express a sincere admiration for Father Brown and his marvelous acumen, in a manner so naïve than it extraordinarily enjoyed me." [1]
The reflection of the Marxist historian, seems to me perfectly centered, both for the time at which is created Father Brown (more or less that of Doyle) and for the fact that Father Brown is entailed in practice, however, in an alter Sherlock Holmes, but  Catholic . Indeed, while SH is an example of the society in which the mechanistic positivism reigns (SH analyzes a given fact based on evidence and scientific experiments, and thus solves a problem based on the induction), Father Brown is an example of psychological insight and deduction, and he’s a combination of faith and reason (a denial of fideism), as well as Aristotelian thought applied to the patristic. In addition, the way of thinking of Father Brown leverages high psychological reflection that is completely lacking in SH: Father Brown, as claims to go down to the heart of man to find the Evil (or the Good), ends up understanding the culprit as he can think like him. In addition, he bases all his actions, on theological reflections applied, which are always extremely well-aimed to probe the problem that is proposed.

Pietro De Palma


[1] My translation

1 comment:

  1. another Catholic writer and prelate, Msgr. Ronald Knox, author of several mystery novels

    Ronald Knox's mystery novels are very good indeed.

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