"The Blue Cross": A Short Story by G. K. Chesterton
The "Birth" of Father Brown
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) introduced his Catholic priest / detective Father Brown in this story, which was first published in September 1910 in a magazine called “The Storyteller”. The reception given to the story inspired Chesterton to continue writing stories featuring Father Brown, and the first collection of twelve stories, “The Innocence of Father Brown”, was published in 1911.
The Plot of the Story
The story opens as the ferry from Hook of Holland docks at Harwich and the reader is introduced to Valentin, the head of the Paris police, who is hot on the trail of Flambeau, a master criminal who is described as “a Gascon of gigantic structure”. However, Valentin has not spotted Flambeau on the ship, neither can he see him on the train to London that he now catches.
However, one person he does notice is “a very short Roman Catholic priest” with “a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling”. Indeed, the priest is very noticeable as he tries to control his collection of brown paper parcels and a large unwieldy umbrella. The priest even tells everyone in the carriage that he is carrying an especially valuable parcel containing something made of silver encrusted with blue stones. Valentin is even moved to warn the priest of the danger of drawing attention to himself and his item of value.
In London, having presented himself at Scotland Yard, Valentin wanders into a square near Victoria station and visits a restaurant to have breakfast. Strange things start to happen at this point, beginning with the realisation that somebody has switched the contents of the salt cellar and sugar shaker. A waiter tells the aggrieved Valentin about the two clergymen, one large and one small, who had been there earlier, the small one having thrown a bowl of soup at the wall.
Valentin now finds himself following a trail across London of strange deeds committed by the smaller of the two clergymen, including apples thrown into the road from a greengrocer’s shop and a broken shop window, the pane having being smashed by a small clergyman who had paid for it in advance.
Eventually the trail leads to Hampstead Heath where Valentin, now accompanied by two other policemen, finds the two clergymen who are deep in conversation as they walk. The two sit on a bench and Valentin can overhear them debating the nature of reason. The reader learns that Valentin has been able to find out, during his journey across north London, that the smaller clergyman is Father Brown and that he is carrying a valuable silver cross studded with sapphires.
The other clergyman, who is of course Flambeau in disguise, then attempts to steal the silver cross from Father Brown but then says that he already has it in his pocket because he has switched parcels with Father Brown. A bit odd this – why demand something that you think you have already got?
As it happens, Father Brown had already switched the cross for another parcel, having asked a shopkeeper to post it for him, so Flambeau had only stolen a dummy.
Valentin is now able to pounce and arrest Flambeau, and also to pay tribute to Father Brown for having led him to his quarry.
Does the Story Hang Together?
Although the idea of a policeman being enticed to follow a series of clues, without the quarry knowing that such clues were being given, is a clever one, there are a number of problems with the plot of this story. For one thing, how can Father Brown’s earlier behaviour be explained? Clearly he spread the word about the silver cross, when on the train, with a view to tempting the thief to follow him, but there is no indication in the story that Father Brown knew that Flambeau was on the train, or even that he was aware that he was fleeing across Europe and was likely to escape via the ferry to Harwich; this was, after all, knowledge that France’s top policeman had and which was highly unlikely to reach the ears of a Norfolk priest.
Towards the end of the story Father Brown tells Flambeau that “I suspected you when we first met”, but he does not say when this was. Was Flambeau on the train? We don’t know, but we do know that Valentin did not see him but did see Father Brown. However, how could Flambeau have known about the cross if he had not been on the train? If so, why did Valentin not see him, given that he was on the lookout for anyone of Flambeau’s build in whatever disguise?
There are further problems with the trail set by Father Brown. How could he have known that Valentin would visit the same restaurant in which he had had breakfast with Flambeau? He also had to assume that every aggrieved waiter and tradesman along the route would have taken careful note of the direction in which the priests had gone, thus preventing the trail from being broken. At one point Valentin says that the broken shop window, which he sees from the bus he is travelling on, is a “twenty to one” shot as to whether it has anything to do with his chase; this would seem to be a considerable risk on Father Brown’s part, for why would a bus passenger take note of one particular broken window, even assuming that he was looking in the right direction at the time?
Then there is the matter of the switched parcels. At what point would Flambeau have been able to put together a duplicate parcel with which to make the switch? It seems improbable that he would carry the requisite items, including brown paper and string, with him at all times just in case such an opportunity might arise. And how could he expect to create a duplicate parcel unseen by Father Brown?
One has to conclude that Chesterton did not think everything through in quite enough detail to make the story convincing. There are elements that work well, and which make the reader admire the cleverness of Father Brown in getting the better of a master criminal, but there are also features that make one question whether such a scenario could actually happen as stated. There are, unfortunately, just too many loose ends here.