The Wisdom of Fr. Brown

What man is considered the greatest detective in all literature? There is only one answer. Hundreds of detectives have been written into mystery stories, each with their own traits and methods of crime solving, but none are as well-known or idolized as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s inimitable Sherlock Holmes. Logically disentangling the most baffling of crimes, Holmes deduced his way into the imaginations of millions of readers and moviegoers. He is the epitome of the rational mystery solver. But is he the greatest detective to have ever lived on paper? Twenty-four years after the creation of Sherlock Holmes, G. K. Chesterton introduced the world to a detective unlike any other in a set of stories entitled The Innocence of Fr. Brown. The opposite of Holmes in nearly every way imaginable, Fr. Brown’s method of detecting is more realistic and much more Christian. While Holmes is a product of the age of science, Fr. Brown is a product of the undying genius of the Christian faith and a response to the limited rationalism of Doyle’s famous detective. 

The contrasts between Holmes and Fr. Brown provide insights into their characters. First, Holmes is tall, thin and sallow; Fr. Brown is short, portly and rosy-cheeked. Holmes is a man of science and is indefatigable until a case is solved. Fr. Brown is a cleric, a Roman Catholic priest, and he often plops down on a nearby bench to rest. These contradictory qualities highlight a certain similarity. Holmes is wholly absorbed with his chosen profession. If he is not a detective, he is nothing. Fr. Brown also is absorbed with his profession. Yet, he is first a shepherd of souls and then a detective. Fr. Brown might rest in the midst of a case, but he will never rest when someone’s eternal salvation is at stake. While Holmes disregards the sin and sees only the crime, Fr. Brown views a crime as the effect of sin. Therein lies their
essential difference.

Holmes’ defining quality is his reliance on deductive logic, but it is also his greatest constraint. Reason alone can only go so far, and Holmes stands as a testament to the limits of rational thought. He works from the outside in, using small details to recreate a crime. In contrast, Fr. Brown looks at a man’s life in its entirety and employs his understanding of human nature to discern the reason for the crime. It is as if Holmes builds his puzzles blank side up, relying on the way the pieces fit together to guide him. Fr. Brown works with the image of the completed puzzle in mind, fitting the pieces together according to their color and pattern. Brown’s grasp of a crime is well-rounded, much like his own physique. Holmes, in contrast, is defined by his intellect, and he revels in details. He is limited by his tendency to strict rationalization and is, almost as if to reflect this, thin and sallow in appearance. 

Fr. Brown is a detective unlike any other because he has a keen grasp of human nature. This is the fruit of his extensive experience as a priest in the confessional, which has given him an unparalleled knowledge of the interior darkness that leads to crime. For him, crime is but an expression of sin, the undoing of man. Fr. Brown is not a detective; he is a man whose purpose on earth is to save souls. While Holmes prides himself on being able to distinguish over 140 different kinds of tobacco ash, Fr. Brown has no interest in material trivialities. The only thing that matters to him is whether the criminal smoked or not and whether the criminal lit his cigar with trembling fingers or with a careless indifference. To Brown, the thing of ultimate importance is whether the criminal repents, not of his crime, but of his offense against God. This is the fundamental difference between these two giants of detective fiction. Holmes deals in particulars. Fr. Brown deals with human nature, particularly in the universal darkness we call sin.