Father Brown is a fictional character created by English novelist G. K. Chesterton, who stars in 51 detective short stories (and two framing vignettes), most of which were later compiled in five books. Chesterton based the character on Father John O'Connor (1870–1952), a parish priest in Bradford who was involved in Chesterton's conversion to Catholicism in 1922. The relationship was recorded by O'Connor in his 1937 book Father Brown on Chesterton.
Father Brown is a short, stumpy Roman Catholic Church priest, "formerly of Cobhole in Essex, and now working in London", with shapeless clothes and a large umbrella, and an uncanny insight into human evil. He makes his first appearance in the story "The Blue Cross" and continues through the five volumes of short stories, often assisted by the reformed criminal M. Hercule Flambeau. Father Brown also appears in a story "The Donnington Affair" that has a curious history. In the October 1914 issue of the obscure magazine The Premier, Sir Max Pemberton published the first part of the story, inviting a number of detective story writers, including Chesterton, to use their talents to solve the mystery of the murder described. Chesterton and Father Brown's solution followed in the November issue. The story was first reprinted in the Chesterton Review (Winter 1981, pp. 1–35) and in the book Thirteen Detectives.
Unlike the more famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown's methods tend to be intuitive rather than deductive. He explains his method in "The Secret of Father Brown": "You see, I had murdered them all myself... I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was."
Brown's abilities are also considerably shaped by his experience as a priest and confessor. In "The Blue Cross", when asked by Flambeau, who has been masquerading as a priest, how he knew of all sorts of criminal "horrors," he responds, "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?" He also states a reason why he knew Flambeau was not a priest: "You attacked reason. It's bad theology." The stories normally contain a rational explanation of who the murderer was and how Brown worked it out. He always emphasises rationality; some stories, such as "The Miracle of Moon Crescent", "The Oracle of the Dog", "The Blast of the Book" and "The Dagger With Wings", poke fun at initially sceptical characters who become convinced of a supernatural explanation for some strange occurrence, while Father Brown easily sees the perfectly ordinary, natural explanation. In fact, he seems to represent an ideal of a devout, yet considerably educated and "civilised" clergyman. This can be traced to the influence of Roman Catholic thought on Chesterton. He is characteristically humble, and is usually rather quiet; when he does talk, he almost always says something profound. Although he tends to handle crimes with a steady, realistic approach, he believes in the supernatural as the greatest reason of all.
Father Brown was the perfect vehicle for conveying Chesterton's view of the world and, of all of his characters, is perhaps closest to Chesterton's own point of view, or at least the effect of his point of view. Father Brown solves his crimes through a strict reasoning process more concerned with spiritual and philosophic truths rather than scientific details, making him an almost equal counterbalance with Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, whose stories Chesterton read. However, the Father Brown series commenced before Chesterton's own conversion to Catholicism. In his Letters from Prison, Antonio Gramsci made this partisan declaration of his preference: "Father Brown is a Catholic who pokes fun at the mechanical thought processes of the Protestants and the book is basically an apologia of the Roman Church as against the Anglican Church. Sherlock Holmes is the 'Protestant' detective who finds the end of the criminal skein by starting from the outside, relying on science, on experimental method, on induction. Father Brown is the Catholic priest who through the refined psychological experiences offered by confession and by the persistent activity of the fathers' moral casuistry, though not neglecting science and experimentation, but relying especially on deduction and introspection, totally defeats Sherlock Holmes, makes him look like a pretentious little boy, shows up his narrowness and pettiness. Moreover, Chesterton is a great artist while Conan Doyle was a mediocre writer, even though he was knighted for literary merit; thus in Chesterton there is a stylistic gap between the content, the detective story plot, and the form, and therefore a subtle irony with regard to the subject being dealt with, which renders these stories so delicious".
Father Brown in other media
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Father Brown, as he appeared in volume 13 of Case Closed
The 1954 film Father Brown (released in the US as The Detective) had a formidable cast, with Sir Alec Guinness playing the part of Father Brown, and is widely regarded as a minor classic. Like the 1934 film starring Connolly, it was based on Chesterton's first Brown short story, "The Blue Cross". An experience while playing the character reportedly prompted Guinness's own conversion to Roman Catholicism.
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) with both music-scores written by German composer Martin Böttcher. In these films Brown is an Irish priest. The actor later appeared in Operazione San Pietro (also starring Edward G. Robinson, 1967) as Cardinal Brown, but the movie is not based on any Chesterton story.
A German television series superficially based on the character of Father Brown, Pfarrer Braun, was launched in 2003. Pfarrer Guido Braun, from Bavaria, played by Ottfried Fischer, solves murder cases in the (fictitious) island of Nordersand (Northsea-island) in the first two episodes. Later other German landscapes like the Harz, the Rhine or Meißen in Saxony became sets for the show. Martin Böttcher again wrote the score and he got the instruction by the producers to write a title-theme hinting at the theme of the cinema-movies with Heinz Rühmann. To date 21 (November 2012) episodes have been made, which ran very successfully in Germany on ARD.
A US film made for television, Sanctuary of Fear (1979), starred Barnard Hughes as an Americanized, modernised Father Brown in Manhattan, New York City. The film was intended as the pilot for a series but critical and audience reaction was unfavorable, largely due to the changes made to the character, and the mundane thriller plot.
An Italian television series, I racconti di padre Brown (The Tales of Father Brown) starred Renato Rascel.
BBC Radio 4 produced a series of Father Brown stories from 1984 to 1986, starring Andrew Sachs as Father Brown.
Author Ralph McInerny used Father Brown as the spiritual inspiration for his Father Dowling pilot script which launched The Father Dowling Mysteries, a television series that ran from 1987–1991 on US television. An anthology of the two detectives' stories, titled Thou Shalt Not Kill: Father Brown, Father Dowling and Other Ecclesiastical Sleuths, was released in 1992.
Father Brown was highlighted in volume 13 of the Case Closed manga's edition of "Gosho Aoyama's Mystery Library", a section of the graphic novels (usually the last page) where the author introduces a different detective (or occasionally, a villain) from mystery literature, television, or other media.
Ignatius Press published the audio book version of The Innocence of Father Brown in 2008. The book is read by actor and Theater of the Word, Incorporated founder Kevin O'Brien and features introductions to each story written and read by Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society. The book was a winner of the 2009 Foreword Audio Book Awards.
EWTN produced the Father Brown story "The Honour of Israel Gow" as an episode of the television series The Theater of the Word, which first aired in 2009, starring actor and Theater of the Word, Incorporated founder Kevin O'Brien and Frank C. Turner.
In 2012 the BBC commissioned a ten-episode Father Brown TV series starring British actor Mark Williams in the title role to air on BBC One in January 2013 Monday to Friday over a two week period in the afternoon. The era and location are moved to the Cotswolds of the early 1950s and used adaptations and original stories. Filming for the series began around the Cotswolds in Summer 2012. A further ten episodes were commissioned and broadcast in January 2014 in the same timeslot as the first. Another 15 episodes were commissioned in January 2014.
Reference to Father Brown
In Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, a quote from "The Queer Feet" is an important element of the structure and theme of the book. Father Brown speaks this line after catching a criminal, hearing his confession, and letting him go: "I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread." Book Three of Brideshead Revisited is called "A Twitch Upon the Thread," and the quotation acts as a metaphor for the operation of grace in the characters' lives. They are free to wander the world according to their free will until they are ready and receptive to God's grace, at which point He acts in their lives and effects a conversion. In the miniseries made by Granada Television adapting Brideshead, the character Lady Marchmain (Claire Bloom) reads this passage aloud.