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« Miss Jéromette | Main | The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance »
Tuesday
Apr272010

The Crime of the Communist

Readers of these pages are aware that my views on political animals and other fauna tilt distinctly to the left – the pleonastic sinister left – in no small part because on the right lies the megaton chain of unchecked survival.  What smirking men of science call evolution we may accept as historical fact, if that fact is not undone by the plethora of unknowns that render it a small and murky corner on a endless canvas.  On the right also lies the status quo as perpetrated by those who most directly benefit from the here and now.  These characters know who they are: the robber barons, the humbug gazillionaires bereft of culture, imagination or anything resembling humanity, those who claim that rich people are more valuable when, in truth, no one on earth needs to have ten even five million dollars at his personal disposal.  My contempt for their relentless justifications of their relentless greed may lead the hasty categorizers among us to lump me together unceremoniously with the crimson firebrands of yesteryear – but of such affiliation I want no part.  I am a content, left-of-middler and nothing more or less.  Which makes the damnation of the title character of the story in this collection all the more pertinent.    

The communist in question has the name of a sea monster – but we'll get to him presently.  We begin in the middle, so to speak, with a triptych of walkers amidst the fictional lawns of Mandeville College, Oxford, and two other men utterly out of place on those same greens.  They are, we are told, even out of place next to one another.  It is also somewhat of a surprise, on a campus of such repute, to behold two moneyed dandies lollygagging on garden chairs:

The only excuse was that they were foreigners.  One was an American, a millionaire named Hake, dressed in the spotlessly and sparklingly gentlemanly manner known only to the rich of New York.  The other, who added to all these things the outrage of an astrakhan overcoat (to say nothing of a pair of florid whiskers), was a German Count of great wealth, the shortest part of whose name was Von Zimmern.  The mystery of this story, however, is not the mystery of why they were there.  They were there for the reason that commonly explains the meeting of incongruous things; they proposed to give the College some money. 

Money has the distinction of being both the great equalizer and the object that keeps most of the human race at no closer than arm's length, but we know enough about money to proceed (we should also know that Chesterton evinced a particular disdain for astrakhan coats).  Predictably enough, our two contributors are restless tourists – rich people often believe that traveling from one luxury resort to another, even more exotic location steadily makes them cultured – and, therefore, one may be generous and declare their lounging to be well-merited.  Well-merited until they are tipped over by the shortest member of our promenading trio, a curious clergyman by the name of Brown, and display the onset of rigor mortis.

Preceding this horrific discovery is one of those British University dining hall scenes which some people automatically admire without once ever having visited such a chamber.  Let me state for the record that if you do not admire the brilliance and wisdom contained in these same institutions' libraries, you will surely not enjoy their food.  Father Brown and the two other men – the Master of Mandeville, a tall and lithe fellow, and the Bursar, precisely his opposite – sit down to lunch only to anticipate another arrival, this time of someone outside the school's immediate control.  This is Craken, our communist in the flesh:

A shadow shot or slid rapidly along the panelled wall opposite, as swiftly followed by the figure that had flung it; a tall but stooping figure with a vague outline like a bird of prey .... it was only the figure of a long-limbed, high-shouldered man with long drooping moustaches, in fact, familiar to them all; but something in the twilight and candlelight and the flying and streaking shadow connected it strangely with the priest's unconscious words of omen .... his hanging hair and moustache were quite fair, but his eyes were so deep-set that they might have been black.   

Why a Communist could lack the convivial and positive spirit with which his manifestoes allegedly imbue him may remind the reader of a famous quote about one's face at the age of fifty – but I digress.  Firstly, Craken is not fifty; secondly, we are not concerned about his face even if that may be his sole and besetting sin.  Our Craken, you see, is a revolutionary in the same way that a rock star is a revolutionary: both dislike the soothing calm of the status quo.  Joining the mainstream may be impossible and, admittedly, not something anyone with a few sparks of creativity might wish to do, yet humanity in all its flaws and fluff cannot be equated to a lump of ignorant clay.  When you stop caring about the rest of humanity, any theory you may have of revolution will inevitably suggest that you are great enough to accomplish this coup, and therefore are entitled to the concomitant rewards.  Craken proposes bloodshed, which he gets in the form of the two philanthropist businessmen with whose murder he is to be charged.  The very classic crime by the very red killer of the very rich and un-red – and the rest of the plot can come in due time.

A casual reader of Chesterton may find the treatment heavy-handed, in particular the ending, but there really should not be any casual Chestertonians, anyway.  What separates Father Brown from the common detective is not only the priest's refusal to do anything that would not be for the greater good of humanity, but the author's willingness to embrace the ethical quandaries that such openness entails.  So when the clues fall into place, it is Father Brown who defends Craken with passion that such a lout could not possibly deserve.  And, as it were, it wouldn't match his face.  

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