A paperback book cover for
"The Secret of Father Brown
and other stories"
The fictional detective and Roman Catholic priest Father Brown, written into stories by G. K. Chesterson, reveals his secret for finding murderers after one person says his method might be "…occult in its character." Father Brown explains, in this excerpt from the short story The Secret of Father Brown, that it’s not occult but more of a "religious exercise." Father Brown speaks first:
"The secret is," he said; and then stopped as if unable to go on. Then he began again and said:
"You see, it was I who killed all those people."
"What?" repeated the other, in a small voice out of a vast silence.
"You see, I had murdered them all myself," explained Father Brown patiently. "So, of course, I knew how it was done." …
"I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully," went on Father Brown, "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."
His acquaintance says, "Why, of course, if it’s just a figure of speech and means you tried to reconstruct the psychology…" and Father Brown replies:
"No, no, no," he said, almost angrily; "I don’t mean just a figure of speech. This is what comes of trying to talk about deep things. . . . What’s the good of words . . .? If you try to talk about a truth that’s merely moral, people always think it’s merely metaphorical. A real live man with two legs once said to me: ‘I only believe in the Holy Ghost in a spiritual sense.’ Naturally, I said: ‘In what other sense could you believe it?’ And then he thought I meant he needn’t believe in anything except evolution, or ethical fellowship, or some bilge. . . . I mean that I really did see myself, and my real self, committing the murders. I didn’t actually kill the men by material means; but that’s not the point. Any brick or bit of machinery might have killed them by material means. I mean that I thought and thought about how a man might come to be like that, until I realized that I really was like that, in everything except actual final consent to the action. It was once suggested to me by a friend of mine, as a sort of religious exercise. I believe he got it from Pope Leo XIII, who was always rather a hero of mine."
"I’m afraid," said the American, in tones that were still doubtful, and keeping his eye on the priest rather as if he were a wild animal, "that you’d have to explain a lot to me before I knew what you were talking about. The science of detection—-"
Father Brown snapped his fingers with the same animated annoyance. "That’s it," he cried; "that’s just where we part company. Science is a grand thing when you can get it; in its real sense one of the grandest words in the world. But what do these men mean, nine times out often, when they use it nowadays? When they say detection is a science? When they say criminology is a science? They mean getting outside a man and studying him as if he were a gigantic insect: in what they would call a dry impartial light, in what I should call a dead and dehumanized light. They mean getting a long way off him, as if he were a distant prehistoric monster; staring at the shape of his ‘criminal skull’ as if it were a sort of eerie growth, like the horn on a rhinoceros’s nose. When the scientist talks about a type, he never means himself, but always his neighbour; probably his poorer neighbour. I don’t deny the dry light may sometimes do good; though in one sense it’s the very reverse of science. So far from being knowledge, it’s actually suppression of what we know. It’s treating a friend as a stranger, and pretending that something familiar is really remote and mysterious. It’s like saying that a man has a proboscis between the eyes, or that he falls down in a fit of insensibility once every twenty-four hours. Well, what you call ‘the secret’ is exactly the opposite. I don’t try to get outside the man. I try to get inside the murderer. . . . Indeed it’s much more than that, don’t you see? I am inside a man. I am always inside a man, moving his arms and legs; but I wait till I know I am inside a murderer, thinking his thoughts, wrestling with his passions; till I have bent myself into the posture of his hunched and peering hatred; till I see the world with his bloodshot and squinting eyes, looking between the blinkers of his half-witted concentration; looking up the short and sharp perspective of a straight road to a pool of blood. Till I am really a murderer."
"Oh," said Mr. Chace, regarding him with a long, grim face, and added: "And that is what you call a religious exercise."
"Yes," said Father Brown; "that is what I call a religious exercise."
After an instant’s silence he resumed: "It’s so real a religious exercise that I’d rather not have said anything about it. But I simply couldn’t have you going off and telling all your countrymen that I had a secret magic connected with Thought-Forms, could I? I’ve put it badly, but it’s true. No man’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be; till he’s realized exactly how much right he has to all this snobbery, and sneering, and talking about ‘criminals,’ as if they were apes in a forest ten thousand miles away; till he’s got rid of all the dirty self-deception of talking about low types and deficient skulls; till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees; till his only hope is somehow or other to have captured one criminal, and kept him safe and sane under his own hat."
From "The Secret of Father Brown", at Project Gutenburg Australia>>