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Literature / The Man Who Knew Too Much

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The Man Who Knew Too Much is a collection of detective short stories written by G. K. Chesterton in 1920-22 and published in 1922.

The book centers on Horne Fisher, a brilliant and extremely well-connected gentleman who is not a professional detective but can solve riddles with the best of them. Fisher revolves in the very upper crust of the British society. He is a relation or a good friend to the most powerful men in the Empire, like prime minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer or Foreign Secretary.

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Turns out, all those statesmen are thoroughly corrupt. British state is rotten to the core, it cannot be saved, only distructed. Big political figures violate every law, they are concerned only about money they can embezzle. In the end they resort to murder.

Enter Horne Fisher. As an amateur master of detection, he easily guesses the culprit, which is usually a very high-ranking official. However he mostly cannot reveal the truth and bring the murderer to justice. Because that individual is such an undispensable pillar of the British political and social system that it will collapse if the public learns about the crimes of man in question. The Britain will lose its empire and probably perish.

Moreover often the victim is an equally important and criminal person and had it coming for his sins. Thus the murder is committed only to save the kingdom. Of course in this case Fisher has every reason to silence the truth.

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Thus most short stories end anticlimactically. Fisher (and Harold March, The Confidant) don't tell anyone, who is the real murderer. Because if they did, a much bigger crash, than a loss of sole life, would ensue.

Horne Fisher appears in the eight stories in this collection. The Tree of Pride, the ninith story, does not include him, as well as three additional stories, featured in the UK edition.


Contents

  1. The Face in the Target
  2. The Vanishing Prince
  3. The Soul of the Schoolboy
  4. The Bottomless Well
  5. The Fad of the Fishermman
  6. The Hole in the Wall
  7. The Temple of Silence
  8. The Vengeance of the Statue

Bonus Material (short stories without Horne Fisher)

  • The Trees of Pride
  • The Garden of Smoke (U.K. edition only)
  • The Five of Sword" (U.K. edition only)
  • The Tower of Treason (U.K. edition only)


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Tropes (beware of the unmarked spoilers!)

  • Asshole Victim: Many instances of this. That's also why Horne Fisher frequently does not reveal the murderer. That's because he killed the victim to save Britain from war.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: That's the case in The Fad of the Fisherman. The evil tycoon who was pushing for the war with Sweden is killed by the prime minister who only wanted to save thousands of lives. Of course this good deed remained unpuinished even though Horne Fisher figured out the truth and also revealed it to the journalist Howard March.
  • Batman Grabs a Gun: In the last story about Horne Fisher he is the one who "kills" the victim, aggrvated by the fact that the dead was his uncle, a high ranking military officer. Of course his uncle was in fact a traitor, he was going to transfer very important documents to the enemy who has just invaded England.
  • Black Sheep: Horne Fisher is the one in his family. While he is very intelligent, he never made any career.
    Horne Fisher Why, don’t you know,” he observed quietly, “that I am the fool of the family?''
  • Broken Ace: Fisher. He is extrmely clever and shrewd. He also has huge connections. However he keeps saying that he cannot improve mend things in the British politics. Fisher can only keep silent and hope that total breakdown won't happen.
  • Damned by Faint Praise: Harold March asks Horne Fisher whether he admires his outstanding cousin, sir Howard Horne (who has just drawn up a budget March thinks is excellent). Fisher replies: Rather. He’s the best shot I know.
  • Gone Horribly Right: That's how in The Temple of Silence people ostensibly supporting Horne Fisher's attempt to be elected to the Parliament actually regard his rise in populatiry with the voters. From the beginning he was planned as a spoiler, to distract votes frome the candidate they did not like and secure the win of the planned candidate. However his campaign was a runaway success which they did not expect.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: Prince Michael in The Vanishing Prince runs into the field, closely followed by several policemen (though still out of their sight) and disappears into thin air. Of course he disguises as a scarecrow and the men overlook him and depart.
  • Impoverished Patrician: Michael O’Neill, aka Prince Michael is this. He is from a very ancient Irish family and he is currently quite poor.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Jefferson "Jink" Jenkins in The Face in the Target. Aggravated by the fact that people around him believe he is a notoriously bad shot. They attribute his few hits of which they know to pure chance. Other times they see that does not hit the center of the target although he does not even try. Instead he draws a picture on the target (Jenkins is that good) but no-one notices.
  • It Runs in the Family: In the family of Horne Fisher statesmen hold position in a certain department, not on the very top, however they are somehow more influential than ministers and viceroys to whom they are subordinate.
  • Karma Houdini: for most of the murderers.
    • In The Vanishing Prince things are at their most egregious. A policeman kills two of his colleagues to clean the place for himself and is retired with a weighty pension. While the titular prince, who shot and wounded him to punish for these crimes, goes to jail.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: That's how Harold March is introduced in the very first story.
    Harold March was the sort of man who knows everything about politics, and nothing about politicians. He also knew a great deal about art, letters, philosophy, and general culture; about almost everything, indeed, except the world he was living in.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Chesterton likes to mention the officials who, while holding a post inferior to the top position in a certain body, are in fact more influential than the formal chief. Somehow several of Fisher's relations are this.
    It was, therefore, with something like a start that he found that Fisher had a brother, much more prosperous and powerful than himself, though hardly, March thought, so entertaining. Sir Henry Harland Fisher, with half the alphabet after his name, was something at the Foreign Office far more tremendous than the Foreign Secretary. Apparently, it ran in the family, after all; for it seemed there was another brother, Ashton Fisher, in India, rather more tremendous than the Viceroy.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Harold March is a journalist.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Horne Fisher's country (meaning it political leadership) seem to be always wrong. But it is still his country. The state would be helped by a little bit of dismantling but Fisher is not the one who would set it off.
  • No Name Given: For the prime minister in The Fad of the Fisherman and The Vengeance of the Statue. He (they) is always referred to as prime minister.
  • The Needs of the Many: That's why British prime minister kills Sir Isaac Hook, the ship tycoon, with his own hands. Hook was pushing for the war with Sweden which would claim numerous lives and he wis just one man.
  • The Scream: Jefferson "Jink" Jenkins pushes out the one when sees his hits on the target highlighted by phosphorus courtesy of Horne Fisher. Although none of them hit the center of the target, together they made a caricatured face of a recogniseable man. Thus Fisher reveals that Jenkins is actually a pretty great shot which proves his involvement in the murder of thу short story The Face in the Target.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: A common M.O. for many characters in short stories.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: The Horne Fisher short stories are so extremely on the side of cynicism that they actually achieve the zone where the oppposites meet and they sudenly become quite idealistic in general approach.
  • The Watson: Harold March. He follows the reasonings of Horne Fisher but is never able to figure anything out on his own. Short stories are not written in the first-person-narration but are generally told from the perspective of Harold March.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Lord Bulmer in The Hole in the Wall. He thinks that architect and archeologist have much in common because their names start with the same four letters:
    Two men, the one an architect and the other an archaeologist, met on the steps of the great house at Prior’s Park; and their host, Lord Bulmer, in his breezy way, thought it natural to introduce them. It must be confessed that he was hazy as well as breezy, and had no very clear connection in his mind, beyond the sense that an architect and an archaeologist begin with the same series of letters. The world must remain in a reverent doubt as to whether he would, on the same principles, have presented a diplomatist to a dipsomaniac or a ratiocinator to a rat catcher.
  • Whole Episode Flashback: The Temple of Silence is set in the past. Horne Fisher was a young, fresh-faced rooke in politics and tried to het elected in the Parliament.
  • Woman Scorned: Bridget Royce in The Vanishing Prince is oddly this. One day Prince Michael runs into the farmhouse of Bridget and tells her that the police are following him. She offers him help. He curtly rejects her offer, proceeds through her famrhose to the field and manages to hide there. Narrator presents it as though Prince Michael should have deeply hurt Bridget by his refusal to accept her assistance and hiding on his own instead.

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