Sunday, May 12, 2013

Inspiration: Father Brown

As I cast about for various real world and fictional anchors for my Fading Suns priest PCs, one fictional one immediately came to mind: G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown.

This fictional detective is not cut from the same cloth as Holmes, as his solutions tend to be arrived at from an understanding of human nature -- culture, prejudices, desires, and weaknesses. Furthermore, he runs counter to the 'exceptional detective' template, as the author has taken great pains to underline Father Brown's unexceptionalness. As very succinctly put in his Wikipedia entry, "Father Brown is a short, stumpy Catholic priest, 'formerly of Cobhole in Essex, and now working in London', with shapeless clothes and a large umbrella, and an uncanny insight into human evil."

My first encounter with him was high school short story reading: "The Blue Cross". It was apparently the first story of the series, and ran counter to the mysteries I'd read up until that point (I was a big detective novel buff, before Madeleine L'Engle introduced me to Science Fiction & Fantasy via A Wrinkle In Time.) in that both the inspector and criminal were outwitted by Father Brown.

I never read anything else until about six years back when I started writing fiction again. I picked up a G.K. Chesterton anthology of his works and was charmed by them again.

Upon reflection, there might be an argument for a priest
to have his own entourage, just like a noble might.
Father Brown would be an interesting character to create and play as a PC or NPC. His intellect is quite keen; after all, his more intuitive and empathic approach to crime solving does not preclude an ability to reason.

In fact, his debut highlights his high esteem of the use of ratiocination when he tells Flambeau -- a culprit that he's helped arrest -- the giveaway in his attempt to impersonate a priest: "You attacked reason. It's bad theology."

Religion figures into every story, even if it's just the unique perspective of this very Catholic priest. He has a stinging condemnation of one of those bad priests we encounter often in fiction, delivered in an indirect manner as he attempts to convince the same priest to confess:

"I knew a man who began by worshiping with others before the altar, but who grew fond of high and lonely places to pray from, corners or niches in the belfry or the spire... He thought it was given to him to judge the world and strike down the sinner. he would never have had such a thought had he been kneeling with other men on the floor."

Throughout the stories, he is concerned about addressing injustice -- but his first priority is the salvation of a soul. In the stories I've read, he never intimidates someone into a confession. He comes across more as a stern, but sympathetic confessor rather than an avenging servant of the Lord.

Refreshingly, he is portrayed as genially passionate about his beliefs, but is also quite humble about himself. Quite likely, hearing the sins of the world so often has not turned him cynical, but reminds him constantly how we are all a misstep away from evil.

Most importantly, he always comes across a true man of the cloth, rather than someone merely playing a role.

The new Father Brown mysteries (with Mark Williams as the lead role), seems to really capture that essence of the character in a slightly more modern era -- though I must admit ignorance of the prior portrayals. The almost comedic, very friendly, but unyielding Father Brown will surely inform some of the Fading Suns priests I build.

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