Literature / Father Brown
"The little priest was so much the essence of those Eastern flats; he had a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea; he had several brown paper parcels, which he was quite incapable of collecting."

Father Brown is a detective series created by G. K. Chesterton. The protagonist is actually called Father J. Brown, though we are never told what the initial stands for, and is originally presented as the parish priest of Cobhole in Essex, though he is found in parishes as far afield as Italy and South America. In appearance he is undistinguished, small and dumpy, short-sighted and not particularly intelligent; dressed in shabby clerical black, and carrying an umbrella as dumpy and shabby as himself.

The Father Brown mysteries generally appeared first as independent short stories in various magazines; (most of) the stories were eventually collected in a series of five books:

  • The Innocence of Father Brown (1911)
  • The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914)
  • The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926)
  • The Secret of Father Brown (1927), and
  • The Scandal of Father Brown (1935).

Three stories, "The Donnington Affair" (1914) (GKC writing the solution of a mystery set up by Max Pemberton), "The Vampire of the Village" (1936), and "The Mask of Midas" (1936), were published separately, though the second of these was later included in editions of Scandal.

In 1934 a film version of Chesterton's priest based on "The Blue Cross"' appeared with the title Father Brown, Detective, with Walter Connelly in the title rôle. In 1954 Father Brown (U.S. title, The Detective) appeared with Alec Guinness as the eponymous priest. Heinz Rühmann played Father Brown in two German adaptations of Chesterton's stories, Das schwarze Schaf ("The Black Sheep") (1960) and Er kann's nicht lassen ("He Can't Stop Doing It") (1962). (The score to these, by Martin Böttcher, became very popular in Germany.) In 1970 an Italian television series entitled I racconti di padre Brown ("The Tales of Father Brown") starred the well-known Italian comedian Renato Rascel. In 1974, Kenneth More starred in a 13-episode Father Brown TV series, each episode adapted from one of Chesterton's short stories. In 1979, the TV move Sanctuary of Fear featured an American Father Brown (Barnard Hughes) sleuthing in contemporary New York City.. but the protagonist's only resemblances to Chesterton's character are his name and occupation. A German television series, Pfarrer Braun ("Pastor Brown"), loosely based on the Chesterton character, is in production since 2003; its title theme by Martin Böttcher is a Shout-Out to the one of the Heinz Rühmann films. A 2013 TV series produced by the BBC cast Mark Williams of The Fast Show and Harry Potter fame in the title role. The trope page for that show can be found here.

Tropes featured in this series include: (Note that the following examples are heavy on spoilers!)

  • Actually, That's My Assistant: Invoked in "The Scandal of Father Brown"
  • All-Loving Hero: Father Brown, appropriately for a priest, has a deep sense of agape, spiritual love for all people. He recognizes human monsters when he sees them, but even more so, he recognizes people's capacity for goodness and redemption.
  • Amateur Sleuth: Father Brown. Technically all of his training is in theology; he just happens to have a keen insight into the criminal mind thanks to his experience listening to Confession.
  • Attending Your Own Funeral: In "The Resurrection of Father Brown"
  • Babies Ever After: Flambeau and his Spanish Lady produced a large and very domestic brood of children.
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: Taken down with extreme prejudice in Father Brown's very first story, "The Blue Cross"
    "...But, as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren't a priest."
    "What?" asked the thief, almost gaping.
    "You attacked reason," said Father Brown. "It's bad theology."
    • From the same story: "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?"
    • On a couple of occasions, Father Brown essentially states that he knows a certain mysterious occurrence was not Black Magic because he knows what Black Magic looks like and [whatever mysterious occurrence they're discussing] does not fit the signs.
  • Be My Valentine: Aristide Valentin in "The Blue Cross" and "The Secret Garden."
  • Beneath Notice:
    • In "The Invisible Man," a man is murdered and witnesses say they saw nobody. Father Brown figures out that the murderer was a postman, and the witnesses didn't pay any attention to him.
    • In "The Queer Feet", which Flambeau infiltrates a high-class party in black tie. When he's at the table, he behaves like a waiter (causing the guests to pay no attention to him), but when he's away from the table, he instead behaves like a guest (so the waiters, who are familiar with each other, don't find him out).
  • Blue Blood: Despite GKC's very commonly expressed dislike of aristocratic systems of government, his work abounds in noblemen, both sympathetic and unsympathetic, e.g., in "The Purple Wig." Some of them are even of real aristocratic lineage, too.
  • Bookcase Passage: The old manor house in "The Doom of the Darnaways" has one, which Father Brown discovers after noticing that the fake books on that shelf all refer to myths and hoaxes. Lampshaded, with him feeling obliged to apologize for the fact that his solution to the mystery features such a cliché.
  • Brown Note: "The Blast Of The Book" revolves around a book that is reported to drive anyone who reads even a few words of it to self-destruction.
  • Church of Saint Genericus: Subverted in "The Vampire of the Village", in which Father Brown realises that a purported clergyman is a fake because he shows characteristics of multiple incompatible Christian denominations.
  • Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: A character with red hair is almost always Good in Chesterton. Less frequently, blond hair is evil — especially if the blondness looks somehow artificial ("gilded").
  • Confessional: Is very often Father Brown's goal for the criminals he detects.
    • He also claims that it is the source of his uncanny insight into the criminal mind:
    “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?"
  • Criminal Mind Games: "The Insoluble Problem"
  • Dead Person Impersonation: In one story, the murderer almost gets away by putting on a bathrobe and pretending to be the man Father Brown was trying to find. In another, the murderer pretends to be his victim, blatantly displays his victim's corpse (disguised as someone else's), fakes 'his' suicide, and gets away. In yet another, someone in a duel pretends to die, later shoots his antagonist, and to avoid detection pretends to be that antagonist, shutting himself away out of guilt.
  • Deal with the Devil: Invoked in "The Dagger With Wings."
  • Deadpan Snarker: Father Brown, though a very kindly one.
    "Your whole case was founded on the idea that a man looking like a young god couldn’t be called ‘Potter.’ Believe me, names are not so appropriately distributed.”
  • Decoy Protagonist: Valentin, introduced as the protagonist in the first short story; returns as the protagonist for the second short story, and commits suicide at the end of the same story.
  • Depth Deception: Referenced in "The Song of the Flying Fish."
  • Driven to Suicide: Not uncommon in the Father Brown stories, as for instance, in "The Secret Garden": "...and on the blind face of the suicide was more than the pride of Cato note ."
  • Duel to the Death: In "The Duel of Dr. Hirsch," the eponymous doctor issues is a party in a duel that does not quite come off.
  • Eureka Moment: In "The Honour of Israel Gow", Father Brown is uncharacteristically stumped, until a chance remark by Flambeau shows him what he's overlooked.
  • Everyone Is a Suspect: "The Arrow of Heaven" is a good example.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Subverted in "The Oracle of the Dog".
  • Exact Words:
    • Father Brown suffers from this constantly, as in "The Quick One": "...I never said he was a murderer. I said he was the man we wanted."
    • In "The Chief Mourner of Marne", Father Brown asks General Outram if he knows more about the history of the Marquis of Marne than he's already said. The General replies "I cannot tell you any more". Father Brown notes that this isn't the same thing, and points out the General would have no patience with a priest who equivocated like that.
  • Fairy Tale: As in "The Fairy Tale of Father Brown."
  • The Fair Folk: Invoked in "The Sins of Prince Saradine"
  • Fake Brit: In-universe, Kalon in "The Eye of Apollo".
  • Genteel Interbellum Setting: Reasonably enough, as all of the stories were written between 1910 and 1936.
  • Gentleman Thief: Flambeau is an example. Deconstructed in "The Flying Stars", in which Father Brown points out that he has left an innocent person to be blamed for the crime he committed, and persuades him that it's impossible to remain a honourable outlaw without Slowly Slipping Into Evil.
  • Glass-Shattering Sound: Suggested as a solution to the mystery in "The Flying Fish".
  • Good Is Not Dumb: Regularly invoked by Father Brown himself.
  • Good Shepherd: Father Brown, a reflection of GK Chesterton's Catholic faith, in literary form.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Very common, helping to spread round the motive for murder, as in "The Man in the Passage."
  • Happily Married: Very common in Chesterton — no doubt reflecting his own happy marriage. One example is Flambeau and his wife in The Secret of Father Brown.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: Used in several stories, notably "The Invisible Man."
  • Hypocrite: As, for instance, in "The Ghost of Gideon Wise."
  • Identical Grandson: In "The Doom of the Darnaways", the newly-discovered Darnaway heir bears such a striking resemblance to an old portrait that another character suspects he's deliberately modeled his appearance on it. Father Brown suspects a much simpler explanation — it's the portrait that has been made to resemble the man.
  • If Jesus, Then Aliens: Defied. Father Brown is quite devout, but doesn't believe in anything supernatural at first sight, and is very quick to correct those who attempt to use this logic themselves. Multiple mysteries are mistaken for miracles, curses or what have you, and Brown is usually there to prove that they are quite mundane and staged to look supernatural.
    ‘Yes,’ answered Father Brown, ‘I believe in miracles. I believe in man-eating tigers, but I don’t see them running about everywhere. If I want any miracles, I know where to get them.’
  • Impoverished Patrician: In "The Doom of the Darnaways", the Darnaways are an aristocratic family of ancient lineage reduced to living in the still-habitable portions of a half-ruined house.
  • In Medias Res: "The Eye of Apollo," which begins with Father Brown confronting Kalon before the reader even knows a murder has happened.
  • Interdisciplinary Sleuth: Father Brown is, as the name would imply, a priest.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Not a positive example. He observed Father Brown helping a woman run from an ugly man with a handsome one and, assuming it's a typical Ugly Guy, Hot Wife scenario, immediately sent a story about how a priest broke a sacred marriage, ruining his reputation. The ugly one was the lover.
  • Last Request: In the second story, it's because Father Brown got one at a deathbed that he's in the place where he deduces the crime.
  • Literal-Minded: The probably-autistic title character in "The Honour of Israel Gow". The various bizarre and apparently sinister events of the story turn out to be because of Gow's literal and scrupulously honest interpretation of his equally-eccentric dead employer's dying wish for Gow to inherit all his gold - which Gow interpreted as "every scrap of gold in the house and nothing else".
  • Malicious Slander: he was a victim of this in "Scandal"
  • Mistaken for Servant: Used in at least two of the stories, "The Queer Feet" and "The Strange Crime of John Boulnois."
  • Mondegreen: In "The Absence of Mr. Glass", Mr. Glass does not exist. What Todhunter, a stage magician in training, really said (while practicing juggling) was, "...Two, three—Missed a glass."
  • Moral Event Horizon: Discussed in-universe in "The Sign of the Broken Sword". Being a greedy and corrupted traitor? Not okay. Killing the one who found out about that? Real bad. Leading the whole regiment in a pointlessly suicidal attack so that the deceased would be lost in a field of corpses? There we go.
    • Deconstructed in "The Chief Mourner of Marne:" while the other characters are insisting that a character's crime - Playing Possum in a duel in order to murder his own brother - is absolutely unforgivable, Father Brown reminds them that from a Christian point of view there is no such thing as an unforgivable crime.
  • Needle in a Stack of Needles: "The Sign of the Broken Sword":
    Where would a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. If there were no forest, he would make a forest. And if he wished to hide a dead leaf, he would make a dead forest.
  • Nice to the Waiter: "The Actor and the Alibi"
    • Used in a much lighter fashion in The Blast of the Book.
  • Never Suicide: Subverted in "The Three Tools of Death" when Sir Aaron Armstrong commits suicide and everyone thinks it's murder.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Father Brown appears to be a simple, not-too-bright parish priest at first glance, and sometimes plays this up to get criminals to drop their guard around him.
  • Off with His Head!: "The Secret Garden"
  • Path of Inspiration: "The Eye of Apollo"
  • Pepper Sneeze: In "The Salad of Colonel Cray," a key clue to the mystery is some unexplained sneezes heard near the scene of the crime. It is eventually explained that the criminal sneezed when throwing away to the dustbin the pepper that could have been used to counter the action of the poison he was planning to use.
  • Police Are Useless: A police detective complains about this trope in one story. He points out that while the police may not be as intuitively brilliant as the average fictional detective, they are not even shown as having the virtues they do have such as storing and sharing information.
  • Pre-emptive Declaration: Used by Father Brown, of all people, in "The Blue Cross."
    Waiter: 'The parson at the door he says all serene, 'Sorry to confuse your accounts, but it'll pay for the window.' 'What window?' I says. 'The one I'm going to break,' he says, and smashed that blessed pane with his umbrella.
  • Pull a Rabbit out of My Hat: In "The Absence of Mr. Glass."
  • Revealing Cover-Up
  • The Roaring '20s: The stories in Incredulity covering Father Brown's visit to the United States tend this way (with, for instance, several mentions of Prohibition, all of them in the context of it being flouted).
  • Royal Blood: In "The Sins of Prince Saradine."
  • Ruritania: In "The Fairy Tale of Father Brown" there is the Teutonic "city and state of Heiligwaldenstein."
  • Sarcastic Confession: As in "The Worst Crime in the World."
  • Satchel Switcheroo: Used twice in The Blue Cross.
  • Scooby-Doo Hoax: Almost all the stories seems to invoke supernatural elements, only for Father Brown to discover that they have perfectly mundane solutions, see Belief Makes You Stupid and If Jesus, Then Aliens.
  • Seen It All: The vast (even shocking) experience of GKC's friend Father John O'Connor so impressed him that he fictionalized the priest in the form of Father Brown, whose first story, "The Blue Cross," is based upon this trope.
  • Serial Killings, Specific Target: One of the earliest examples (though the disguise is an intentionally provoked military battle rather than a serial killing) is "The Sign of the Broken Sword" (1911). In Father Brown's own words:
    Father Brown: Where would a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. If there were no forest, he would make a forest. And if he wished to hide a dead leaf, he would make a dead forest. And if a man had to hide a dead body, he would make a field of dead bodies to hide it in.
  • Sherlock Scan: Subverted in "The Absence of Mr Glass," in which some characters involve a brilliant criminologist in a domestic case, where he concludes with a sinister and dramatic interpretation of some facts. Dramatic and totally false. The apparent killer is only a stage magician, so that the cards, the knives, the swords and the mysteriously large top hat have a very simple explanation. At the end of the tale, everyone (including the criminologist) is laughing.
    • In "The Honour of Israel Gow", the Father is asked to perform a scan on a odd set of trinkets left behind on the scene and produces six equally plausible but all mutually contradictory stories explaining their presence — none of which turns out to be correct.
  • Silly Rabbit, Romance Is For Kids!: At least, it's not for movie stars on their fifth marriages.
  • Silver Bullet: In "The Dagger With Wings"
  • Spanner in the Works: Joan Stacey in The Eye of Apollo is this to Kalon's scheme to kill her older sister Pauline for her inheritance. Pauline was blind, and Joan filled her fountain pens with ink for her. However, she left a pen un-filled for Pauline to write her will (which would have left everything to Kalon) with. The pen ran out before the will could be finished, meaning that Kalon got nothing.
  • Spiritual Successor: Pfarrer Braun.
  • Stage Magician: In "The Absence of Mr Glass"
  • Sudden Sequel Heel Syndrome: Aristide Valentin in "The Secret Garden"
  • That's What I Would Do
  • The Greatest Story Never Told: In "The Sign of the Broken Sword".
  • The Reveal: One of the bases of Mystery Fiction, of course.
  • The Unfair Sex: Provides a blind in "The Oracle of the Dog."
  • The Uriah Gambit: In "The Sign of the Broken Sword."
    • Also a more unconventional version in "The Fairy Tale Of Father Brown". The greedy and paranoid Evil Overlord sneaks away in the dead of night to visit a local monk whom he suspects knows the location of a gold mine. The monk, who is the last of three brothers who led a successful resistance for some time, jumps the Evil Overlord and gags him with his own military sash, causing said Overlord to be shot by his own troops when he can't answer the challenge.
  • They Call Me Mister Tibbs: Alluded to in "The Oracle of the Dog" — "With your Citizen Riquetti you have puzzled Europe for ten days."
  • To Know Him, I Must Become Him: Father Brown explains that this is his method for crime-solving in The Secret of Father Brown. (See also That's What I Would Do.)
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Deconstructed in one story. Father Brown points out that a rich, beautiful girl who has always gotten whatever she wanted is not likely to have married an ugly old man: she'd have no reason to.
  • Unfriendly Fire: The story "The Sign of the Broken Sword"
  • The Vicar: Invoked in-story by an impostor in "The Vampire of the Village". Only the Catholic Father Brown sees through him, since "the English know nothing about the Church of England."
  • The Watson: Subverted with Valentin, who bows to Father Brown's intellect in The Blue Cross, but then goes full-on Well-Intentioned Extremist and then takes his own life in The Secret Garden.
    • Played straight with Flambeau in many later stories.
  • Wham Line: In the third story, "Queer Feet". "I'm a priest, Monsieur Flambeau, and I'm ready to hear your confession."
    • Also in The Blue Cross when Valentine believes he has gone on a wild goose chase after two harmless, theology-debating clerics and is ready to creep away:
    "On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, Thou shalt not steal."
    • And again in The Chief Mourner of Marne: "It isn't Jim at all. It's Maurice!"
  • White Magic: Invoked, and debunked, in "The Dagger with Wings" — and re-invoked.
  • Whodunnit to Me??: In "The Resurrection of Father Brown."
  • The Wicked Stage: In one of the stories, Father Brown realizes that an alleged High Church Anglican is a fake when his poses are inconsistent; for instance, he's severe about acting, which is rather more Low Church.
  • Writer on Board: Father Brown is a fairly accurate mouthpiece for Chesterton's views.