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Monday
Feb042008

The Hammer of God

There have been many responses to the greatest fictional character ever created, perhaps none as eccentric as this clergyman and amateur detective.  He is the brainchild of a British man of letters whose massive figure and intellect were the blueprint for another fictional detective.  This may be the only instance in the annals of literature when a serious writer used a colorful and offbeat character as a foil to one literary detective and, for his trouble, was bestowed immortality in the shape of another.  A bizarre story, and one befitting both Father Brown and his genial creator, G. K. Chesterton.

Every serialized character must endure certain conventions that signal to his readers that they are indeed savoring the genuine article.  We have been over this conceit with regard to Holmes and his continuing adventures, and Chesterton’s priest is no different.  He turns up in the oddest places, usually in England and France, and stays in the shadows until the last possible moment at which point he reveals, in an understated and almost embarrassed way, the solution.  Our first taste of the protagonist is normally cloaked in a casual description: “the priest was personally insignificant enough, with plain and rather expressionless features" ("The Doom of the Darnaways"), “the face of one with the harmless name of Brown” ("The Head of Caesar"), “a figure .... [who] looked like a big, black mushroom, for he was quite short and his small, stumpy figure was eclipsed by his big, black clerical hat” ("The Miracle of Moon Crescent").  Holmes is invariably described as very tall and unhealthily thin, the center of attention in every room he enters, a master of disguise and a bit of a fop when normally garbed, and a person who, if not unbelieving in things supernatural or beyond his great ken, is totally uninterested in non–scientific explanations or those based solely on swift character judgment.  A more polar opposite could not be devised.

The Hammer of God takes place in a village called Bohun Beacon, whose Presbyterian priest is the brother of the town’s biggest lout.  That the two now middle–aged men emerged from the same womb seems to baffle the omniscient narrator, adding that it is to the priest’s credit that he has veered off the path of his ancestors, who “rotted in the last two centuries into mere drunkards and dandy degenerates.”  When the weight of this world feels precisely like some Thor–like hammer, the man of the cloth retreats to his church to pray in silence for long periods of time.  Having been informed that some villagers understand his solitude as stemming from “a love of Gothic architecture rather than of God,” we are then told that this is the typically “ignorant misunderstanding” of those who need others to make themselves feel better.  Whatever the case, before the brothers, who have been enjoying a drink together in the local inn, are to part for the evening, the priest warns his rakish sibling to keep away from the blacksmith’s wife, apparently a woman of rather staggering beauty.  The brother, who is also a colonel, “a tall, fine animal, elderly, but with hair startlingly yellow,” pays no attention to such admonitions and proceeds on his merry way with a touch of lust in his eye.  Shortly thereafter, he is discovered gruesomely bludgeoned by a blunt object that suggests the employment of gargantuan strength.  And who is it among the villagers that boasts Herculean muscles and a hammer that could serve Hephaestus?  Just one person, it turns out.  That person is Simeon Barnes, a massive slab of fire–and–brimstone rhetoric who gives the story its title, although we should know better than to suspect the one person with both a motive and the raw power to pulverize a man’s skull into blacksmithereens.  It does not help to dissuade the onlookers that the victim was wearing a metal helmet to protect himself from precisely such an attack.  Curiously enough, the murder weapon appears to have been a small hammer, one which would be a matchstick in the hands of Barnes.  "So who would use a little hammer," asks one of the characters taking a look around the forge, "with ten larger hammers lying about?"  "Only," says Brown, "the kind of person that can’t lift a large hammer," a remark at once plain and cryptic but without Holmes's flair or theatricality.

If you are not sure of the morals of these stories, you might be better off.  Chesterton has an unabashedly determined agenda to follow, and even the uninitiated will feel drawn into a world where fair play and redemption are not exotic concepts.  This adds to the pleasure of the text, although an unconfident reader who wishes to experience art without an agenda (or, at least, without an overt agenda since all art does have a program) may swim away from Chesteron's glorious lighthouse.  Indeed, his touch for detail and conveying the essence of a human soul in a few short sentences has few peers in English literature, and the quaintness of the settings bereft of vulgarity, of sensationalism or of lurid detail is welcome in the face of our modern mores.   And Father Brown himself has nothing of an allegory or stick figure in him.  He is whole and flawed and beset by human frailty, as he states: "I am a man, and therefore have all devils in my heart."   And he knows exactly which devils may be able to make a hammer do godlike things.   

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