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Tuesday
May102011

The Green Man

You may hear in casual and rather unfortunate parlance that the discerning reader does not read for pleasure, which is somewhat akin to claiming that the gourmet is too busy to enjoy his food because he is enumerating its ingredients on a napkin.  Yet what distinguishes a good reader from all others is the type of pleasure reading permits, a pleasure that, while having something to do with the act itself, has much more to do with the transport of the soul and mind to another realm in which every word may blossom fully like a lotus.  That is not to say, however, that he is a lotus-eater.  He may certainly be; but what he must be is willing to read a text for its aesthetic value, which may be very generally understood as the successful alliance of its style and moral rectitude.  A great work will necessarily have to exhibit excellence in both; a good work may have one of the two towering over the other like a castle and its adjoining chapel (or perhaps a cathedral and the neighboring museum); a poor work, which sadly has an inordinate amount of adherents, will either have both elements in ineffectual doses, or only one (or none) of the two.  This plain rule makes a list of commandments in their brackish dullness as unappealing as a purplish, pretty poem of no relation whatsoever to a real human condition or occurrence.  And if there is one eternally appealing characteristic of man, it is his ambition to become something greater than he already is – which brings us quite nicely to this story.  

Our initial actor is a young man by the name of Harold Harker.  We have all known a Harold Harker or two in our day.  And somehow perhaps, he knows he seems like much more of a story-book character than a real person, precisely because he is so incredibly real.  As our story opens, Mr. Harker is as always his busy, amateurish self:

He was not carelessly knocking a ball about, but rather practising particular strokes with a sort of microscopic fury; like a neat and tidy whirlwind.  He had learned many games quickly, but he had a disposition to learn them a little more quickly than they can be learnt.  He was rather prone to be a victim of those remarkable invitations by which a man may learn the Violin in Six Lessons or acquire a perfect French accent by a Correspondence Course.  He lived in the breezy atmosphere of such hopeful advertisement and adventure.  He was at present the private secretary of Admiral Sir Michael Craven, who owned the big house behind the park abutting on the links. He was ambitious, and had no intention of continuing indefinitely to be private secretary to anybody.  But he was also reasonable; and he knew that the best way of ceasing to be a secretary was to be a good secretary.  Consequently he was a very good secretary.

How one can at once excel at one's job and think of nothing more than abandoning it remains a question for every silently resentful servant biding his time, a common affliction among those with unbridled ambition and very bridled talent.  As the story progresses, Harker will seem less important until one key conversation towards the end that is summarized rather than provided in the text.  But he is monumentally important for our introductory purposes because from his lofty perch, he espies his master Admiral Craven scurrying up the bottom of the hill "wearing that almost extravagant full-dress uniform which naval officers never do wear if they can possibly help it."  In his wake comes an even more extraordinary sight, and for a rare moment Mr. Harker believes he has just seen a pirate, also in some fancy-dress outfit appropriate for buccaneers and their confederates, and in the possession of a cutlass which is drawn just as the lumbering pair drift out of eyeshot. 

He sees no more, of course, because this story is supposed to be a mystery necessitating a detective, not a dilettante twit like Mr. Harker.  And the next time he does in fact behold his employer, it is as the latter is being lifted, quite dead, from a green pool of slime.  The location of this pool?  Not far from a "shabby fisherman's tavern" that just so happens to be the title of this review.  While leaving a daughter on this earth, the Admiral, bless his stilled heart, left no mortal foes (he was, we are told, the type of person who has no enemies, which also means he was the type of person who has no friends).  That lovely daughter of his, however, is another story.  We are told she is "dark and dreamy," which makes her sound like a pirate ship trapped in human form; we are also told that she is prone to startling fits of laughter that invariably prove infectious.  Even the simplest minds raised on pink romance and blue skies could imagine that to complete this character, whose name is quite strangely Olive, she would need a suitor or two minding her hems.  Those suitors will be provided – you may know one of them already – as well as the supporting cast that tends to turn up in these kinds of stories: a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman and a singularly small and innocuous-looking priest by the name of Brown.  And the policeman's belief in our priest's powers – apparently in contrast to what he thinks about every other man of the cloth – allows for the easy transfer of authority that will make a molehill out of our mystery.

It is still strange to me, having read all the Father Brown stories at least three of four times, that I must be reminded that our miniature sleuth is exclusively garbed in a Roman cassock of thirty-three buttons, not the modest frock of this order, but this is purely owing to my faulty associations.  There is much to be loved in Chesterton: everything he wrote had his magic touch, his unswerving passion for art and wisdom and salvation, which makes his unmatchable wit even more impressive.  Nevertheless, to most his reputation has survived only thanks to a small Catholic priest and his brilliant perception of human nature.  And in every story Chesterton takes a detective writer's premise – a simple act, as all acts of violence are unfortunately simple – and paints an impressionist masterpiece.  Since he confines himself to a dozen or so pages each time, the deception must draw from the reader's moral ballast.  The deception?  Very much so.  The Green Man is perhaps not the best of his stories, but its structure embodies the tricks that a man of genius plays on his readers when he has an uncomplicated point to convey but no intention to bore them and, much more importantly, himself.  That is why, as  far as green human-sized creatures are concerned, you may also want to consider that old adage about the sword and the pen.

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