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Tuesday
Aug122014

The Mirror of the Magistrate

The secret to this tale from this collection is that we should have been paying attention from the very beginning, which may be the lesson folded into every Father Brown story. It has been debated, by people who like these types of debates and perhaps, when his great mind drifted among the mildest of cloud-banks, even Chesterton himself, whether his intellectual sketches featuring a small Catholic priest (and sometimes not even featuring; sometimes the insignificant-looking churchman just flutters in the shadows like a bat) were superior to these legendary mysteries. Well, they most certainly are and they most certainly aren't. In terms of style, profundity, and moral insight they trump well-nigh any other fictional works of similar length in the English language. But they aren't in one, very important regard: the adventures of Father Brown are hardly adventures at all. They are philosophical exercises, psychological games that assume, however unjustifiably, that the reader will accord every last detail the same amount of intense scrutiny and from these details derive the identity of the party or parties responsible. Responsible for what, you may ask? A crime, or two, or something that surely appears to be a crime but turns out to be an eccentricity or a hoax. In that respect, the tales of Father Brown are almost impossible to set to the screen (a fact that has not dissuaded a passel of attempts), owing in no small part to Brown's adamance on being meek, inconspicuous, and quietly observant; Holmes and Watson, on the other hand, were truly born to become celebrities. With that in mind we may proceed to the sad fate of Sir Humphrey Gwynne.

It is night in a "silent and seemingly lifeless labyrinth of [a] large suburb," and the night is patrolled by two men, one a professional in nocturnal investigation, the other an amateur. The professional, a Mr. James Bagshaw, has been haranguing the amateur, a Mr. Wilfred Underhill, on the shortcomings of detective fiction: to wit, "the only trade" consistently depicted in book after book "in which the professional is always supposed to be wrong" (Bagshaw, of course, is wrong about being wrong, but not for the right reasons). Before they hear gunshots – yes, there will be gunshots, but actually only the professional will hear them – Bagshaw presents his friend a scenario on which, from its polished logic, he has clearly been ruminating for a while. The subject, to no one's surprise, is the aforementioned celebrity sleuth:

Let's take any imaginary case of Sherlock Holmes, and Lestrade, the official detective. Sherlock Holmes, let us say, can guess that a total stranger crossing the street is a foreigner, merely because he seems to look for the traffic to go to the right instead of the left. I'm quite ready to admit Holmes might guess that. I'm quite sure Lestrade wouldn't guess anything of the kind. But what they leave out is the fact that the policeman, who couldn't guess, might very well know. Lestrade might know the man was a foreigner merely because his department has to keep an eye on all foreigners; some would say on all natives, too. As a policeman I'm glad the police know so much; for every man wants to do his job well. But as a citizen, I sometimes wonder whether they don't know too much.

We can safely assume that Bagshaw has never been to the United States, where ethnic diversity has made the detection of a foreigner a near-impossible task. That said, from mannerisms and dress, and sometimes even from facial expressions, I believe an observant native can distinguish someone raised in his home country from someone who grew up under alien mores. Two shots ring out and our semi-professional duo races off in the direction of "that paradise of peace and legality," the back garden of Sir Humphrey, known popularly as Mr. Justice Gwynne, "the old judge who made such a row about spying during the war." There they find a series of odds and ends in human form: Michael Flood, an Irish journalist who decided to enter the estate by clambering up its garden wall; Green, the man-servant of Mr. Gwynne who, although quite at home in this "paradise of peace," was said to have most recently come to work by the same method as the Irish journalist; and finally, a poet by the name of Osric Orm. Orm was introduced to us much earlier, as it were, right after Bagshaw's little exemplum about what separates the professional and the amateur policeman. Orm is a "literary man of Anglo-Roumanian extraction .... one of the new poets, and pretty steep to read," which makes it clear that not only does Bagshaw have no idea who the "new poets" may be, he has also never read Orm or, for that matter, any other poet. So when Mr. Justice Gwynne is found face down in his otherwise serene garden pond and an "Anglo-Roumanian" neighbor is also found wandering about in that way so commonly incident to poets who compose while they stroll for hours, there is nothing for Mr. Bagshaw to do but take the foreigner into custody.

The story's title is an allusion to this old collection of didactic works which, I suppose, hardly anyone reads nowadays, although I should be careful not to presume too much about others' reading habits. What we can presume is that Chesterton does not think much of men of title and rank. If he did, he wouldn't make so many of them the victims and culprits in his stories (that he almost never includes significant female characters, however, does not mean that he does not think much of them; in fact, it might mean that he thinks the world of them). We do not know anything about Judge Gwynne in life since he very inconsiderately spends the entire tale deceased; what we do know is that if there were one thing the old judge could not suffer, it was treason, be it in the form of a communist (Orm gets shoved brutally into this gaping pit) or, far worse, from someone who has all the power and responsibility an Englishman could reasonably attain and yet still chooses to do ill. And ill cannot be done by doing nothing.

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