The detective story, according to G.K. Chesterton

October 29, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: fiction, journalism, writers, writing.

G.K. Chesterton, the great British author of the early 20th century, liked detective stories, read them, and wrote them.

He had the formula down pat. It went like this:

The bones and structure of a good detective story are so old and well known that it may seem banal to state them even in outline. A policeman, stupid but sweet-tempered, and always weakly erring on the side of mercy, walks along the street; and in the course of his ordinary business finds a man in Bulgarian uniform killed with an Australian boomerang in a Brompton milk-shop. Having set free all the most suspicious persons inthe story, he then appeals to the bull-dog professional detective, who appeals to the hawk-like amateur detective. The latter finds near the corpse a boot-lace, a button-boot, a French newspaper, and a return ticket from the Hebrides; and so, relentlessly, link by link, brings the crime home to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

– G.K.Chesterton
Illustrated London News May 6, 1911. Source: The Detective

The above quotation comes from the website of the American Chesterton Society, a deep and intensive repository of material by and about the man that George Bernard Shaw labeled “a colossal genius.”

Chesterton, most famously for modern minds, is the author of the Father Brown detective series, but he also wrote detective novels outside the series. He even wrote an article on how to write a detective story. It starts out like this:

Let it be understood that I write this article as one wholly conscious that he has failed to write a detective story. But I have failed a good many times. My authority is therefore practical and scientific, like that of some great statesman or social thinker dealing with Unemployment or the Housing Problem. I do not pretend that I have achieved the ideal that I set up here for the young student; I am, if you will, rather the awful example for him to avoid. None the less . . . (

That’s what you get when you start to read Chesterton.

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