Good evening, I’m Vincent Price.
G.K. Chesterton, the creator of the fictional detective Father Brown, often said the whole point of a sensational story was that the secret should be simple. He firmly believed that the whole story exists for the moment of surprise— and it should be a moment. The best way to test this, says Chesterton, was to imagine a dramatic moment that might appear within a detective story: a dark garden at twilight, a maze of confusing paths hidden by thick hedges, a terrible voice crying out in the distance. And as you get closer it begins to sound dreadfully familiar. A servant. A family friend. You hear another cry.
Now it is clear at this point, says Chesterton, that the cry must be something short and simple like “The butler did it.” Or, “The King has cut his throat.” The servant or family friend cannot disrupt the silence of a twilight garden by shrieking, “Fatigued with the cares of state, the King’s throat has been cut under the following circumstances: He was, in fact, when the butler, hearing a commotion, rushed in and when he was just about to snatch the weapon, a shot rang out.” Hmph! It’s no good.
According to Chesterton, the inability to make it short and sweet has done in any number of would-be writers. Too often they think it is their duty to discover the most improbable series of events in order to produce a certain result. The result may be logical but it is never sensational. And that is why Chesterton believed that a mystery should be based on the format of a short story rather than a novel.
A thinker and philosopher by nature, religious argument always figured strongly in Chesterton’s writing, whether it was poetry, criticism, or detective stories. Again and again in his writings, he confronted the moral and religious questions that occupied most of his life. He insisted that the trouble with detective stories was that the writer cannot tell us until the last chapter many of the most interesting things about the most interesting characters. After all, the whole point of a mystery is like a masquerade ball in which everyone is disguised in some particular way, until the moment the clock strikes twelve. Not until the last chapter can the writer really get at the psychology, philosophy, and morals of the case. Since this was as much a part of Chesterton’s raison d’etre as the crime itself, he liked it best when the first chapter of the mystery was also the last.
So, Chesterton liked the mysteries— he liked his mysteries, anyway—straight and simple. The Father Brown saga, for instance, is noted for its lack of endless incidental clues that characteristically plagued detective literature around the turn of the century. Now, Father Brown cared little for scientific mumbo-jumbo. Instead he relied on what goes on inside the murderer’s mind that brings him to his villainy. He catches his criminals by applying a judicious blend of understanding and logic. Now this is Father Brown speaking: I try to get inside the murderer... Indeed it’s much more than that, don’t you see? I am inside a man. I am always inside a man, moving his arms and legs; but I wait till I know I am inside a murderer, thinking his thoughts, wrestling with his passions; till I have bent myself into the posture of his hunched and peering hatred; till I see the world with his bloodshot and squinting eyes, looking between the blinkers of his half-witted concentration; looking up the short and sharp perspective of a straight road to a pool of blood. Till I am really a murderer... And when I am quite sure that I feel exactly like the murderer myself, of course then I know who he is.”
I’m Vincent Price. Good night.