John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.
The first Father Brown story, “The Blue Cross” had introduced Chesterton's detective, an otherwise insignificant Roman Catholic priest with remarkable analytical skills. We also met the master criminal Flambeau and the French police chief Aristide Valentin. The latter reappears in the second story.
The setting is Valentin’s house alongside the River Seine in Paris, one feature of which is the garden that is surrounded by a high wall and which has no entrance apart from through the house. This might sound like a somewhat impractical arrangement but it is essential to the plot of the story.
Valentin is hosting a dinner, at which Father Brown is one of the guests. The other guests include Dr Simon, “a typical French scientist”, and Lord Galloway, who is the British ambassador, accompanied by his wife and daughter, the latter being Lady Margaret Graham. Also present is Commandant O’Brien, an Irishman who is a member of the French Foreign Legion, and Julius K Brayne, an American multi-millionaire who is intent on making large donations to religious organisations.
It is soon made clear that O’Brien wants to lavish his attentions on Lady Margaret, but that Lord Galloway distrusts him and wishes to keep the couple apart.
After dinner Lord Galloway walks round the house trying to find Lady Margaret with a view to ensuring that O’Brien is not with her. He sees O’Brien entering the house from the garden and, when he goes into the garden himself, he falls over a dead body in the long grass close to the wall.
When the body is moved it is found that the head has been cut cleanly from it, and the only weapon in the house that might have been used is Commandant O’Brien’s cavalry sabre, which he was wearing when he arrived but is now missing, O’Brien having taken it off before dinner to leave it on the library table.
It is then established that O’Brien had been in the garden with Lady Margaret, where he had proposed marriage to her but she had refused. She can therefore vouch for O’Brien’s innocence. However, no trace can be found of Julius Brayne who appears to have left the house, taking his hat and coat.
Ivan, Valentin’s manservant, then appears with the bloodstained cavalry sabre, which he has found in a bush in the road outside the house. Suspicion has now fallen entirely on Julius Brayne, although it is still not known who the victim is.
Valentin has asked everyone to stay on the premises overnight, so it is the next morning before any further progress can be made. Dr Simon outlines to O’Brien the five “colossal difficulties” of the case, namely how the victim got in, how the killer got out, why a sabre was used when a pocket knife would have done the job, why the victim did not cry out when the killer approached, and why there were cuts on the body that must have been made after the head was cut off.
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Father Brown arrives to tell Simon and O’Brien that a second severed head has been found, this time in the reeds next to the nearby River Seine. Father Brown identifies it as being that of Julius Brayne. If Brayne committed the first murder using the cavalry sabre, he certainly could not be responsible for the second.
Ivan then reveals that the first victim has been identified as Arnold Becker, a German criminal whose twin brother, Louis, had been guillotined in Paris the previous day. When Ivan had first seen the corpse he had been shocked by the resemblance to Louis Becker, but had then remembered the existence of the twin brother.
Father Brown then goes through Dr Simon’s “colossal difficulties” and offers explanations for them. They all revolve around the realisation that the head and body found in the garden were those of different people.
The body is that of Julius Brayne. When distracted, his killer beheaded him with the cavalry sabre and then threw both the sabre and the head over the wall, replacing the head with that of Louis Becker. This meant that only one person could have committed the crime, and that was Aristide Valentin, the police chief who had been present at the execution of Becker by guillotine and was in a position to take the head away with him.
When those present go to confront Valentin in his study they find that he has already killed himself by taking an overdose of pills. Father Brown had concluded that Valentin’s motive had been to rid the world of a man who was about to make a huge donation to the Catholic Church, which went against Valentin’s atheist principles.
A Few Problems
This is a strange story from a number of perspectives. For one thing it contains a number of inconsistencies. The sabre was thrown over the garden wall but Ivan reported having found it “fifty yards up the road to Paris”. Julius Brayne’s hat and coat are not where he left them, but where are they? This point is not touched upon at all.
Then there is the question of how Valentin knew not only that Commandant O’Brien would arrive wearing his cavalry sabre but that he would leave it conveniently on the library table. In order for Valentin’s plan to work, he would have needed to be certain of having access to a weapon that would have the same effect as the blade of the guillotine.
One also has to ask what the point was of throwing the head and sword over the wall when it was almost certain that they would be found? If the idea was to kill Julius Brayne and make it look as though Brayne had been the killer of an executed man’s twin brother, that seems to be a strange way of going about things. There was always going to be the fundamental difficulty of explaining how Arnold Becker got into the garden.
Finally, why did Valentin kill himself? He was not present when Father Brown produced the solution, so it could not have been because he knew that the game was up. Did he always intend to commit suicide but want to leave an intriguing mystery behind him? No explanation is given for this in the story.
All in all, this is a clever plot that is let down by not having thought it through with sufficient care. Contrivance is allowable in a detective story to an extent, but all the pieces have to make sense and fit together. Unfortunately that is not the case with “The Secret Garden”.