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Monday
Jan042016

The Dagger with Wings

If you know even a little about the English Romantic poets, you will understand their lineage to the antagonist of likely the greatest literary achievement of mankind. Being a Romantic meant being in love with ideals against all the conformities and customs of bourgeois society, that suffocating python, even with the knowledge that there would always be a bourgeois society; being an English poet also necessarily meant being inferior, because there would always be Milton. Shades of the most famous of fictional Satans still inhabit the gunslinging outlaw, the gangster, the drug lord, and the ruthless chief executive officer who from his underlings wishes to make grist for his golden mill, but they also animate the pious fraud. After all, it is the alleged prophet or clairvoyant who aims to seduce those too feeble of mind and experience to distinguish a sham from a Lamb. Which brings us to this odd and rather unsettling tale.

You may already know a little about our protagonist, if that is really the right word: a diminutive Catholic priest often consulted when an unusual crime stumps the usual investigators. And our investigator, Dr. Boyne, "the medical officer attached to the police force," has something very usual about his approach:

Dr Boyne was a big dark Irishman, one of those rather baffling Irishmen to be found all over the world, who will talk scientific scepticism, materialism, and cynicism at length and at large, but who never dream of referring anything touching the ritual of religion to anything except the traditional religion of their native land. It would be hard to say whether their creed is a very superficial varnish or a very fundamental substratum; but most probably it is both, with a mass of materialism in between.

Dr. Boyne will later claim to be "a practical man" who "do[es]n't bother much about religion and philosophy," and will be corrected as to what a practical man should really do with his time. But between these two sidelights on our Irish coroner, a fantastic situation presents itself: a rich old man by the name of Aylmer has died and his three sons have inherited. A standard bequest were it not for the fact the two eldest followed their father in death with unenviable rapidity. The reason? A fourth son, as it were, who equally qualifies to be the first, a "very brilliant and promising" boy legally adopted by Aylmer "in his bachelor days, when he thought he would have no heir" (the patriarch, like many people of lifelong wealth, married late). Boyne's description of this fellow, "who went by the name of John Strake," will imbue even the callow reader with a distinct impression:

His origin seems to be vague; they say he was a foundling; some say he was a gypsy. I think the last notion is mixed up with the fact that Aylmer in his old age dabbled in all sorts of dingy occultism, including palmistry and astrology, and his three sons say that Strake encouraged him in it. But they said a great many other things besides that. They said Strake was an amazing scoundrel, and especially an amazing liar; a genius in inventing lies on the spur of the moment, and telling them so as to deceive a detective .... Perhaps you can more or less imagine what happened. The old man left practically everything to the adopted son; and when he died the three real sons disputed the will. They said their father had been frightened into surrender and, not to put too fine a point on it, into gibbering idiocy. They said Strake had the strangest and most cunning ways of getting at him, in spite of the nurses and the family, and terrorizing him on his death-bed. Anyhow, they seemed to have proved something about the dead man’s mental condition, for the courts set aside the will and the sons inherited. Strake is said to have broken out in the most dreadful fashion, and sworn he would kill all three of them, one after another, and that nothing could hide them from his vengeance. It is the third or last of the brothers, Arnold Aylmer, who is asking for police protection. 

With all his materialist mores, Boyne certainly resembles a real person; but there is no way on earth or beyond that John Strake is real in person, name, or image, which shouldn't surprise us in the least. Like the Romantic poets (one in particular leaps to mind), he has constructed his own identity to be as lush, mysterious, and provocative as his verse. Someone like John Strake could not possibly have hailed from an average, bourgeois family or entertained the notion of enjoying such a family's quotidian comforts. So when Brown ventures to Arnold Aylmer's isolated residence, a cold and distant patch likened at one point to "the North Pole," he will obtain a private pow-wow since all of Aylmer's servants have already abandoned him – and here we must also abandon our cassocked friend.  

A minor imperfection or two can be in found in each of Chesterton's Father Brown tales (as a whole, however, they form an impregnable fortress of genius), and The Dagger with Wings omits more than one crucial detail, or at least appears to do so. Even the story's name does not quite get at the gist of the matter. Brown will make his way to the lonely house just before a convenient snowstorm literally covers his tracks; there, a lengthy conversation will ensue on an array of subjects: white (or "silver") magic, the sort of man who would sell himself to the Devil, Simon Magus (whom some may include in the last category), and some threatening letters "marked with a sign like a winged dagger." We could inject some levity into these dreadful debates by calling Magus a pioneer in human aviation, but Magus has always been revered by those of dark intent because he was one of the first and most determined apostates. Yet the most salient line of discourse comes after one character declares it the priest's "business to believe things," to which the alleged believer replies: "Well I do believe some things, of course ... and therefore, of course, I don't believe other things." A perfectly logical statement, if you happen to be a weekly subscriber to logic. It may also explain why when one character labels himself an "agnostic," he means it in the precise Greek sense of the word, that is, one who doesn't know. Perhaps I should say he knows some things and doesn't know others.

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