John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.
“The Queer Feet” revolves around a clever piece of deduction by Chesterton’s priest/detective Father Brown, but it depends on a highly contrived situation and a statement about human behaviour that, if it applied in 1911, certainly does not do so today.
The situation is the annual dinner of an exclusive men’s club called The Twelve True Fishermen. Their dinner is at the equally exclusive, not to say bizarre, Vernon Hotel in London’s Belgravia. The restaurant only has one table, at which 24 people can sit, but if there only 12 diners, as on this occasion, they can sit in a row and have a view of the hotel garden. The restaurant employs fifteen waiters, who therefore outnumber the guests.
Another fact that is essential to the story is that The Twelve True Fishermen are most interested in the fish course of their dinner, and for this purpose they supply their own cutlery of ornate silver knives and forks, shaped like fish, each with a large pearl in the handle.
On the day of the dinner a crisis occurs when one of the fifteen waiters suffers a severe stroke and is taken to a room upstairs. As the waiter is a Catholic he asks for a priest to hear his last confession, which is why Father Brown is on the premises. The waiter has asked Father Brown to write out a long document, the nature of which is not fully explained by Chesterton. The hotel manager agrees that Father Brown can do this work in a room that is next to a passageway that leads from the waiters’ quarters to the terrace where the guests are mingling and is next to the dining table. This room has no direct access to the passageway but is linked to the hotel’s cloakroom.
While he is working in this room, Father Brown is aware of the sound of footsteps in the passageway. He deduces that they are all made by the same feet, because of the slight creak of one of the shoes, but they keep switching from a fast walking pace, almost on tiptoe, to a steady heavy pace. This keeps on happening until there is a complete pause, followed eventually by a running pace made by the same feet.
Father Brown then goes through into the cloakroom, just in time for a man to come up and ask for his coat from the person he assumes to be the cloakroom attendant. Father Brown then demands that the man hand over the knives and forks that he has stolen.
The story is then told from the perspective of the diners and waiters. Two courses of the dinner take place, followed by the fish course, after which a waiter collects the plates and the cutlery. A second waiter then arrives and is horrified to discover that the table has already been cleared. It then becomes apparent that the special knives and forks, with their pearls, are nowhere to be found. Father Brown then appears with the stolen items and explains how he was able to reclaim them.
Solving the Mystery
The story revolves around the footsteps heard in the passageway. Father Brown has deduced that the rapid walk is typical of that of a waiter on duty as he dashes about taking orders and serving dishes, however the solid walk matches that of an aristocratic gentleman. Clearly this is one man pretending to be two.
The guests and the waiters are dressed almost identically, so it would not be difficult for a guest to assume that a strange face belonged to a waiter and for a waiter to assume that he was a guest. The only difficult moment for the thief would have been when the waiters lined up before the meal and might have been discovered, by his fellow waiters, to be out of place. However, he was able to avoid this problem by standing just round a corner.
But Does It Work?
It is a clever idea, but does it really stand up to examination? As with most of Chesterton’s stories there are weak points that are not properly explained.
For one thing, the reader is not told how Father Brown knows about the special cutlery. He has been called into the hotel to deal with an emergency, is sequestered in a locked room, and has no reason to know anything about the arrangements on hand for the dinner. However, he is able to demand that the thief hands over the silverware.
Another difficulty is that the thief does know about the silverware and how the dinner is organised. This is an exclusive club which guards its secrets, but there is no clue given as to why the thief would have known about the dinner, the special cutlery, or the vacancy caused by a waiter’s sudden illness.
It also seems odd that, with a complement of fifteen waiters, only one would clear the table of all twelve plates and 24 pieces of cutlery. Surely, with more waiters than diners, the most efficient procedure would have been for each diner to have their own waiter who would deal with them exclusively? However, the plot of the story would have fallen apart if this had happened.
If there is a passageway along which waiters and guests might be expected to walk, why does only one waiter/guest do so? There is no indication that Father Brown picks out the distinctive steps from among many others, but that they are the only ones to be heard. This is surely highly unlikely, as is the idea that any guest would feel the need to visit the waiters in their quarters, which is assumed here.
As mentioned above, this story is just too contrived to be really successful. There are too many features that seem improbable and put in place just to make the plot work. The story also fails to work for the modern reader who would find it extraordinary that waiters walk in a distinctively different way from diners. Perhaps they did more than a century ago, but today?