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Thursday, November 17, 2011

On Mysteries and the Higher Mystery, Part 3

The third and final part of my notes on my talk on the philosophical and theological dimensions of mystery stories. In Parts 2 and 3 I distinguish two very different approaches to mystery stories, the one typified by Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the other by G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. Don’t worry that these are only notes. The holes in the argument you find here were all part of the delivered address.

Part III. The Detective-Hero as Metaphysical Moralist

1.   GKC’s Father Brown. His origin story from GKC’s Autobiography (300-302): Chesterton, Father O’Connor, and the Cambridge undergraduates. Father Brown himself is a paradox, a featureless man, sheltered, innocent, not apparently very brilliant, knowing more about evil than anyone.

2.   Represents a very different kind of detective story, and thus a very different understanding of paradox.

3.   Holmes vs. Brown: GKC, “The Ideal Detective Story”: The side of the character that cannot be connected with the crime has to be presented first; the crime has to be presented next as something in complete contrast with it; and the psychological reconciliation of the two must come after that, in the place where the common or garden detective explains that he was led to the truth by the stump of a cigar left on the lawn or the spot of red ink on the blotting-pad in the boudoir. But there is nothing in the nature of things to prevent the explanation, when it does come, being as convincing to a psychologist as the other is to a policeman.

4.   What does the character of Father Brown imply about the world, the human person, and mystery?
(a)        the world is more than matter in motion
(b)        the human person is above all a spiritual creature: with intellect and will, with ends distinct from his purposes
(c)         the paradox of mystery illuminates the mystery of the heart…

5.   “Father Brown’s Secret”: not just imaginative, but a moral sympathy, with the criminal’s predicament as a sinner; giving insight into the full reality of human motivation.

6.   the Chestertonian sleuth is not about “clues” as much as he is a reader of the human heart. “the only thrill, even of a common thriller, is concerned somehow with the conscience and the will,” “In Defence of Detective Stories.” Investigating crime and evil in light of the higher mystery: our Fall and Redemption.

7.   The heirs of Father Brown?
(a)        Noir in general (Thomas Hibbs, Arts of Darkness: “Noir never delivers final redemption for its characters, but it does present characters in a quest for a lost code of redemption,” p. 22).
(b)        Foyle’s War
(c)         The Adjustment Bureau?


1.   The Paradox of Evil: Nos. 394-96 of CCC: Satan is a murderer from the beginning.
2.   Mystery itself only resolvable by the highest of mysteries: the God who Died. 


  1. This was an insightful 'investigation' into the attraction of mysteries and their relationship to 'higher mysteries.' Since I've published mysteries with a Catholic coloring (BLEEDER and VIPER, both from Sophia Institute Press), I've been giving similar talks in libraries, schools and mystery conferences.
    John Desjarlais

  2. Thanks, John, for hopping aboard High Concepts, and for letting us know about your own mystery fiction. I look forward to a closer look!