Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Man Who Knew Too Much by G. K. Chesterton

Source of book: I own this.

At the outset, I should note that Chesterton’s book has absolutely nothing to do with the two movies by Alfred Hitchcock of the same name. Hitchcock originally directed a 1934 version, later remaking his own movie in 1956, utilizing stars Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. That later film is famous for the song, “Que Sera, Sera.” But I digress. 

Chesterton wrote a number of mystery and detective stories through his career. The Father Brown stories are particularly well known. In my own case, the first non-used book I ever special ordered was the complete Father Brown. There are others, with various detectives which are in some way reminiscent of Chesterton himself, if not directly representative. The Man Who Knew Too Much is no exception.

This book, a collection of eight related short stories, features Horne Fisher as “the man who knew too much.” Specifically, Fisher knows far too much about the internal workings of politics because he is an insider, related to a number of the key players in a fictitious pre-war England, but unlike them in essence. Based on this knowledge, he is able to solve a number of murders, thefts, and blackmails that involve political figures in some way.

This might be interesting enough, but Chesterton adds a twist: Fisher cannot expose the criminals, because to do so would incur greater harm.

As Fisher himself relates to his friend, the journalist Harold Marsh upon their first meeting while Fisher is, well, fishing, he always has to throw back the big fish.

Marsh isn’t exactly Fisher’s Watson. He does figure in most of the stories (but not the ones that take place before their meeting), but he is more of an intellectual counterpart to Fisher. He challenges Fisher just as Fisher challenges the assumptions of his society. The two form a medium by which Chesterton can explore politics and philosophy. Their banter and deeper discussions both illuminate the crime and add dark complexity to the world in which the crime was committed.

It is a bit difficult to determine how much of Fisher’s political views reflect that of Chesterton. One suspects that there are substantial parallels, but fiction isn’t always that direct. Chesterton certainly has a love for paradox that often adds depth to metaphysical truths, but doesn’t entirely help in a discussion of concrete politics in the real world.

What this leads to is a common dilemma in interpreting Chesterton. As an inspiration to a deeper spiritual life and as a counterpoint to conventional truisms, he is a powerful voice. As a source of anything resembling coherent - or even desirable - public policy, he is both severely limited and on occasion dangerous.

I mention this in connection with this book because it contains some uncomfortable moments, when Chesterton - or at least Fisher - veers into xenophobia and anti-Semitism. In the one story, Fisher is unwilling to bring to light an attempted murder which inadvertently kills the perpetrator because of the chaos it would bring to British military. Not such a big deal, except that at the end, Fisher opines that the real cause of death in the armed forces is the fact (in his opinion) that the British military acts at the behest of Jewish financiers, who are the real persons pulling the strings in the world. Yeah, that old canard again. And it ruins what was otherwise brilliant tale of a love triangle, professional ambition, and class politics.

Likewise, there is a bit in the last story wherein Fisher accuses the government of intentionally importing foreign labor with the express goal of starving the peasants. I’ll admit to being a bit sensitive about this in part because my ancestors were once the poor immigrants accused of stealing the very bread from earlier European settlers of the United States. It also seemed jarringly similar to the rhetoric of the current “black helicopters” conspiracy minded crowd I know all too well in our own time. One wishes that Chesterton (or at least Fisher) would have shown a little more empathy for the immigrants themselves.

Of course, this is part of the complexity of Chesterton, who did get carried away a bit with “Good Ol’ England” with its Celts, Saxons, and Normans at the expense of everyone else, from the Germans on down. Except that since this book was written in 1922, I am willing to forgive a little anti-German sentiment. That whole world war and all. Likewise, Chesterton does show a bit of an anti-Semitic edge in the rest of his writing, although, as I have pointed out elsewhere, he was hardly alone in Europe with these views. On the positive side, Chesterton did speak out against Hitler and his racial views long before it became popular to do so. As I said, it’s complicated.

I hate to dwell on these flaws because there is much in this book to enjoy. Chesterton is at his best when he is teasing out the nuances of the human soul, particularly its dark corners. Father Brown solves his mysteries, not by looking for physical clues like Sherlock Holmes, but by ascertaining the human heart and its sordid motivations. In this book, Horne Fisher relies on his insider knowledge, to be sure, but also on his acute understanding of motive. It is, in fact, the complexity of motive that drives the narrative, and explains why exposure of the criminals cannot happen. There are, shall we say, complexities.

I should mention a few of my favorite moments. First is the character of the title character in “The Soul of the Schoolboy.” This boy accompanies his uncle on a tour of some of the sights of London, but does not share his uncle’s love for the antique. Rather, he is fascinated by the electrical wiring and apparati - and the endless variety of omnibuses, which he catalogues in his head.

It is as if Chesterton knew my sons. My older one - true story - can tell you within 5 minutes of entering a room where all the outlets are and what is plugged into them. And he started this at age four. And, my younger son can identify the make of a car faster than I can. At age one he was liking up matchbox cars in perfectly orderly and even rows. I could have sworn Chesterton looked ahead a century and saw them or something.

Also always interesting is Chesterton’s brilliance in deconstructing the “simplicity” affectation of the wealthy. I discussed this a bit in connection with The Flying Inn, which contains an amazing takedown of dietary trends. [insert link] In one of the stories in this book, an aristocrat prides himself on eating no meat but the fish he catches in the river abutting his extensive property. In fact, he spends all of most days simply fishing. “Of course, he’s all for simplicity, like so many of these millionaires.” Fisher points out that maintaining this facade of “simplicity” requires immense effort on the part of many “lesser” men, who labor for far less so that he can enjoy the “simple” life. So much of this is as applicable to today - or even more so - than it was 90 years ago.

One final quote, just because I enjoyed it so much. This is the opening of “The Hole In The Wall.”

Two men, the one an architect and the other an archaeologist, met on the steps of the great house at Prior’s Park; and their host, Lord Bulmer, in his breezy way, thought it natural to introduce them. It must be confessed that he was hazy as well as breezy, and had no very clear connection in his mind, beyond the sense that an architect and an archaeologist begine with the same series of letters. The world must remain in a reverent doubt as to whether he would, on the same principles, have presented a diplomat to a dipsomaniac or a ratiocinator to a rat catcher…

It is in these moments of humor, as in his introspective paradoxes, that Chesterton is at his best. While The Man Who Knew Too Much isn’t the very best of Chesterton’s works, it is worth a read for its strengths and in spite of its flaws.  

Other Chesterton reviews:

I have been a fan of Chesterton for some time, and he is in my top five persons I would love to have at the ultimate dinner party. I have been attempting to read something of his, whether poetry, fiction, or non-fiction, each year since I started this blog. Here are my past reviews:

Also, a quick mention of The Ball and the Cross as one of my 10 most influential books. 

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