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At first glance, G.K. Chesterton’s famous detective, Father Brown, is unremarkable. With a "face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling" and "eyes as empty as the North Sea," he is cast aside in favor of more apparent greatness. Even Father Brown’s name and identity are a mystery; we are only given a simple initial “J” for his first name. In the first short story “The Blue Cross,” Father Brown isn’t even the first character introduced.

But appearances can be deceiving.

In “The Blue Cross,” we meet the celebrated detective Aristide Valentin, who presents a sharp contrast to Father Brown. Valentin has radiance and intelligence not initially evident in the humble Roman Catholic priest. Valentin is praised for the logical methods he uses to bring about justice and solve crimes. Father Brown, on the other hand, is a simple, nameless priest who often fades into the background.

To deepen the contrast, the two men have entirely different outlooks on the world. While they work for a common goal, they have utterly different motives. Valentin works for human justice alone, while Father Brown combines justice and mercy - differences that may seem rather insignificant at first glance but prove to be the difference between reason and insanity.

As St. Thomas Aquinas worded it, “Justice without mercy is cruelty. Mercy without justice is the mother of all dissolution.” This truth is especially relevant in detective fiction, and even more so in Chesterton’s detective fiction, where we can see the proper relationship between justice and mercy with even more clarity.

Father Brown doesn’t brush off the issue of justice as mystery writer Dorothy Sayers suggested: “[Father Brown] (who looks at sin and crime from a religious point of view) retires from the problem before the arrest is reached. He is satisfied with a confession.”

While this is a far cry from the truth, Sayers is correct in one regard. Chesterton often chooses to end the story before the reader discovers the criminal’s fate. In “The Invisible Man,” the story concludes with Father Brown “[walking the] snow-covered hills under the stars for many hours with a murderer.”

Does this mean that Father Brown neglects justice in favor of compassion and forgiveness?

Perhaps Chesterton’s goal was to paint the criminal in another light and to view him as a human being deserving a chance at redemption. It’s not his ability to solve a crime that makes Father Brown great, but rather his willingness to see a human being with a rectifiable soul.

Father Brown’s mindset sets him apart from Valentin, who relies on his own abilities. Rather than exploring the connections between logic and faith, Valentin trusts only in what he can sense and see. This approach, which once drove him to achievement, eventually transforms him into a monster: a man full of hatred and anger, spurring him on toward irrational action.

In the stories Valentin features in, he is torn between his rejection of redemption and his admiration for Father Brown, who attracts his awe and reverence. Valentin is offered the same choice that each human being is offered: to accept God’s mercy or turn away from grace. The reader witnesses Valentin’s choice firsthand: he chases criminals for the sake of justice alone and, in the end, is left empty.

In “The Secret Garden,” we see the clear effects of Valentin’s choice when the crazed detective decides to murder someone for their religion: “[Valentin] would do anything, anything, to break what he called the superstition of the Cross. He has fought for it, starved for it, and now he has murdered for it.”

In the Complete Father Brown Story Collection, the story of Valentin’s murder and subsequent suicide is directly followed by another story that provides a stark contrast. In “The Flying Stars,” Flambeau the thief is offered the same choice that Valentin previously faced. Father Brown is able to provide Flambeau with a unique opportunity to see the consequences of his greed:

“Your downward steps have begun. You used to boast of doing nothing mean, but you are doing something mean tonight. You are leaving suspicion on an honest boy with a good deal against him already; you are separating him from the woman he loves and who loves him. But you will do meaner things than that before you die.”

The priest’s words have a remarkable effect on Flambeau. In the next story in the collection, “The Invisible Man,” we see a reformed Flambeau, who has become a detective and uses his experiences and gifts to fight against injustice.

Contrast Flambeau’s embrace of mercy with Valentin’s nihilistic rejection of it.

This raises an important question: What is the difference between Valentin and Flambeau?

The situation calls to mind the parallel of Judas and Peter in the story of the Lord’s passion and death. Like Judas and Peter, Valentin and Flambeau are both offered God’s love and mercy. However, Valentin responds to this mercy with despair and hatred, while Flambeau both acknowledges his shortcomings and accepts forgiveness wholeheartedly, amending his life.

Perhaps Valentin’s issue with faith is that God reaches out to the hard-hearted and offers redemption to sinners like Flambeau. Possibly, Valentin chooses to resent and condemn the sinner, unable to bear the thought of the rich being sent away empty. Valentin’s Pharisee-like viewpoint could simultaneously explain his admiration for Father Brown, his hatred of faith, and eventually, his hopelessness that ultimately leads him to death.

As human beings, we sometimes desire vengeance above mercy. Our need for justice (which is not wrong in and of itself) can oftentimes get in the way of bringing others to repentance.

Indeed, Dorothy Sayers seems unable to completely fathom Father Brown’s beautiful recognition of God’s mercy, which does not overlook the need for justice but rather seeks the conversion of souls wherever possible. As William David Spencer states in his book, Mysterium and Mystery: The Clerical Crime Novel:

The normally astute Dorothy Sayers has, I believe, missed the point here. [Seeing] the need for both earthly justice and heavenly mercy, [God’s] bar is the bar that Father Brown recognizes. [Father Brown alters] his method of ensuring justice is done. He does not merely retire from the problem and leave the sordid details to be performed ‘off.’ Rather...he brings the culprit before God’s bar, himself serving first the role of prosecutor, then defense attorney, passing judgement and giving penance.”

As is revealed in the sacrament of confession, we must first serve our penance before we can be offered God’s mercy. This is precisely what both Sayers and Valentin got wrong. The simple, nameless priest does what the acclaimed detective Valentin cannot imagine or accept: Father Brown extends God’s unconditional love and mercy to the sinner, no strings attached.

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