The Chevalier and the Priest: Deductive Method in Poe, Chesterton and Borges

This article first appeared in Clues: A Journal of Detection Vol 22, No. 1, Spring-Summer 2001. pp. 1-11. This lightly edited version is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license, December 2009.

Note: This piece contains spoilers for Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, Chesterton’s “The Honour of Israel Gow”, and Borges’ “Death and the Compass”. If that bothers you I suggest you read them first.

The Chevalier and the Priest: Deductive Method in Poe, Chesterton and Borges

By Christopher Routledge

“He neither looked nor acted like a detective, but he always got his man.” —Jacket blurb on the 1958 Penguin edition of The Innocence of Father Brown

This article compares Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1845) with G. K. Chesterton’s “The Honour of Israel Gow” (1911), and in doing so suggests that Chesterton’s work represents a reaction against the kinds of certainties and omniscient knowledge on which the plot of Poe’s story depends. This trajectory is from the Enlightenment rationalism of Poe’s detective, Dupin, to the apparently intuitive and non-rational epiphanic moment of Father Brown’s solution in Chesterton’s story. Many of Poe’s other tales seem anti-rationalist, relying on unexplained mysteries and strange coincidences. For example, “The Man of the Crowd” (1840), Gavin Lambert (1988) thinks, demonstrates the weakness of the objective method as a tool for understanding problems which have no definite outcome and as a result—within the same logical code—no definite cause:

The detection of crime . . . lies beyond the criminologist’s grasp, and has noth- ing to do with the technical solution of the problem. The Man of the Crowd symbolizes everything Dupin will never decode. (51)

The methods of Dupin, however, were adopted by many other fictional detectives that followed, and despite Poe’s doubts expressed elsewhere, remain a point at which those detectives can be compared. Although Chesterton’s detective fiction breaks with the view embodied in Dupin, that the mysteries of the universe can be revealed through the ratiocinative method, he does so on the grounds that the detective’s perspective does not allow him access to all the information; a limitation that means not all mysteries can be solved. Nonetheless, Chesterton remains committed to rationalism as such, believing Catholic theology to be rationally grounded. The trajectory from Poe to Chesterton also provides a critique of modernity and suggests a link that will be made at the end of the article between Chesterton’s work and Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “Death and the Compass” (1942). Whilst the rational method of the conventional “classical” detective is undermined in Chesterton’s story, a further effect is to challenge the assumptions of the genre itself, many of which are laid down in Poe’s story. If the solution to Poe’s mystery is unexpected, in Chesterton the genre is problematized by the complete absence of a mystery; as is well known, the suspect, Israel Gow, is motivated not by criminal intent but by a “strange and crooked honesty” (127). This absence of the story of a crime, not only from the narrative but from the story as such, will be used to locate Chesterton, both historically and formally, as a precursor to what Stephano Tani calls “innovative anti-detective fiction” (24). In his subversion of the “ratiocinative” detective fiction genre as conceived by Poe, Chesterton anticipates stories such as “Death and the Compass” in which the absence of a mystery that can be solved by the “false philosophy” of the rational method leads the detective to his death.

Before going on to consider the specific points raised above, it is worth considering here certain key characteristics of “classical” or “ratiocinative” detective stories and the detectives that feature in them. George Grella, in his essay “The Formal Detective Novel,” for example, suggests that in classical detective fiction it is the role of the detective to demonstrate the order and comprehensibility of a world that seems chaotic and baffling. The “whodunit” resembles other nineteenth century fiction in that it “assumes a benevolent and knowable universe” (101). John G. Cawelti is rather more positive in general than Grella about the classical form, but, like Chesterton, exposes its central, now obvious, flaw; that classical detectives can no better understand or control the world than anyone else, it is simply that their rationalistic method allows them to pretend otherwise: “the classical detective formula is perhaps the most effective fictional structure yet devised for creating the illusion of rational control over the mysteries of life” (137). Poe’s own method, of writing backwards from the solution of the mystery so that all the necessary clues are included in the narrative emphasises Cawelti’s point that the detective’s method is illusory. However, Poe’s view was that the deductive method could be used to solve real crimes. Julian Symons suggests in Bloody Murder, in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” Poe attempted to find the solution to the real crime on which the story is based (36) but in fact “cheated” by changing certain details of the real case.

In an article entitled “Locked Rooms: Detective Fiction, Narrative Theory, and Self-Reflexivity,” S.E. Sweeney explores the problem posed by the idea of rationally explaining the world in detective fiction through the common motif of the locked room and the idea of closure. Examining “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Sweeney argues that the locked room, and the ways in which it is used by crime writers demonstrates “the inherent self-reflexivity of the genre” (2), since the closure of the murder room, and the limited frame of action such closure creates, is paralleled by the closure of the narrative itself; the discovery of the crime leading directly to the solution: “That fourth floor apartment in the Rue Morgue, its doors doubly locked and its windows nailed shut, represents in one simple architectural paradigm all of the insoluble conundrums and ingenious solutions of detectivefiction. ” (1-2)

All of the information Dupin the detective requires to solve the mystery may be found within the limited frame of the apartment house in the Rue Morgue; it is a closed world, and the solution to the mystery of the events that have taken place within it forms the closure of the narrative itself. In other words, just as Poe began with the solution to the mystery and constructed the clues around it, so Dupin begins with the closure of the locked room and what it contains, knowing the solution will come from within.

While detective stories are heavily dependent on plot to arouse and maintain the interest of their readers, the figure of the detective, and her or his particular method is also an important consideration for practitioners in the genre. As we have seen, George Grella argues that the classical detective story sets out to demonstrate the extent to which the universe is knowable and benign. However, John Carey argues that the detective too plays a reassuring role. Confronting the demoralising effects of large-scale urbanisation that took place in the nineteenth century, Carey argues that in Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created an intellectual figure capable of reassuring a mass audience of their value as individuals through being able, simply by examining an individual’s clothing, to ascertain her or his habits, occupation and tastes. Holmes is:

a comforting version of the intellectual for mass consumption . . . his function being to disperse the fears of overwhelming anonymity that the urban mass brought. Holmes’s redemptive genius as a detective lies in rescuing individuals from the mass. (8)

One of Holmes’s tricks is to deduce from their appearance alone a person’s occupation, hobbies, and home town, for example. In doing so, Carey says, he shows that the person concerned is a unique individual. The classical detective story, therefore, reassures its readers that despite its apparent chaos and danger, and their insignificance in it, the universe is knowable and, by implication, controllable. In addition, it seeks to persuade them that their individuality is sustainable even in the face of the apparently depersonalising forces of industrialisation and urbanisation. Furthermore, the classical detective represents a protective authority to whom it is possible to turn in times of trouble. This formulation is emphasised by the device of the narrating sidekick with whom the reader associates and who, like the reader, is also somewhat in awe of the great detective and his powers.

By contrast, the American hard-boiled detective story also presents a world which appears chaotic, dangerous, unknowable, and threatens to overwhelm individuals with anonymity. Unlike the classical form, however, it does nothing to disabuse its readers of those fears. Instead the hard-boiled detective abandons all efforts to understand and control the world in favour of controlling the self. Rather than being reassured that social and intellectual betters such as Sherlock Holmes are acting on their behalf, readers of conventional hard-boiled detective fiction expect to associate themselves with the detective, to whose personal and moral integrity they may aspire.

These brief assessments of the “classical” form of the genre are supported by the opening sections of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which begins with an explanation of the deductive method and a description of the type of person who will be most successful at it. The main features listed are an attentive memory and, more importantly, a knowledge of what to observe. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” for example, Dupin does not pay much attention to what language the neighbours think they heard behind the closed door of the apartment, but his knowlede of what to observe leads him to notice that none of them agrees on which language it is. This clue of course, leads him to the conclusion that the voice is not human.

As will be argued later, Dupin’s social status—however financially impoverished he may be—endows him with a level of authority that antecedes his skill as a detective. Our first encounter with Dupin’s deductive powers is in a demonstration of his apparent ability to “read” the narrator-sidekick’s mind. He successfully deduces from the narra- tor’s actions, facial expressions, and the events of the previous fifteen minutes that he was thinking of a cobbler named Chantilly who had once unsuccessfully played Xerxes on the stage. He explains how he did it, listing what he calls the “larger links of the chain”: “Chantilly, Orion, Dr. Nicholls, Epicurus, Stereotomy, the street stones, the fruiterer” (195).

It is not feasible here to explain in detail how Dupin manages to link those things together, but the fact that he does is, as we shall see, a good example of the kind of detection Chesterton subverts in “The Honour of Israel Gow.” Having convinced the narrator and the reader of his extraordinary skill, Dupin repeats the process in the solving of the mystery of the murders themselves; one body being found in the yard below the window of the fourth floor apartment while the other is shoved up the chimney. The room itself is locked, and Dupin’s task is to discover first how the killer entered and went out, but also, as we have seen, who the killer is: in this case, because of the elevation of the window and the voice that was heard, Dupin settles on an escaped ape.

Although he is analytical, Dupin is also creative and at times whimsical. Dupin and his companion live a strange, bohemian life, leaving the house only after nightfall and keeping the curtains drawn all day. The narrator tells us: “[I] amused myself with the fancy of a double Dupin—the creative and the resolvent” (194). The dual nature of Dupin’s personality has become a staple of the “master detective” as a type. Witness Sherlock Holmes’s interest in both scientific research and in music and the arts, his fame as a brilliant analytical and independent thinker compared with his dependency on cocaine. Gavin Lambert explains that in Holmes “the rational man and impersonal observer sometimes betrays the popular characteristics of the poet” (38). Indeed, detective fiction is full of doubles: the innocent who turns out to be guilty, the detective and the narrating companion, the detective and the criminal.

The idea of the detective’s personality being a conflict of the rational and the irrational is interesting in the case of Poe’s story since the criminal—who can be seen as the detective’s alter ego—is an ape. Poe of course was writing in a period in which the difference between animals and humans was an issue; the Enlightenment view was that human beings could be differentiated from animals by their ability to analyse and think rationally. Furthermore, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection came only a few years later, and the juxtaposition of the rational man and the chaotic, random actions of the animal does not, in that context, seem coincidental. A further doubling in detective fiction involves linking the detective or the criminal with the writer. We will return to this point later in discussing Chesterton. Having briefly considered the genre of detective fiction and the role of the detective, particularly in relation to Poe’s story, it is worth summarising in more detail the characteristics of Dupin, Poe’s detective, with the aim of comparing him with Chesterton’s Father Brown. As the title of this article suggests, many of the differences between them depend on their respective social positions. Auguste Dupin, for example, is a Chevalier; he is of aristocratic background and in spite of the fact that he has lost his fortune and his status, Poe reminds us of his rightful place in the social hierarchy. Dupin’s superior intellectual power may be Poe’s way of signalling that he is rightfully a man of influence and political power as well. Poe is known to have favoured the aristocracy and in that context the incompetence of the police (which has since become a staple of detective fiction) could be read as a gesture against democratic and bureaucratic government. Dupin is a rationalist and an atheist, but as has already been suggested he is also a romantic figure; he is in a tradition of philosopher heroes that to some extent continues. Julian Symons calls him: “Aristocratic, arrogant, and apparently omniscient” (39).

By contrast, Father Brown is an English Catholic Priest, that is, a mediator between God and humanity. As such he, like Dupin, belongs to a group that has lost its position of power as part of state. Father Brown is presented, especially in the first story in The Innocence of Father Brown, “The Blue Cross,” as a naif and a bumbling incompetent. There Chesterton compares the arrogant rationalism of the French chief of police with the foresight and knowledge of Father Brown, who of course succeeds in capturing the criminal, Flambeau. The chief of police represents the kind of “reasoning machine” Dupin seems to be, and, incidentally, himself becomes a murderer in the story “The Secret Garden.” Chesterton does not attack rationalism out of hand, however. For example, Flambeau, who has disguised himself as a priest, is found out by Brown because, “You attacked reason . . . It’s bad theology” (29). Where Father Brown’s view of reason differs from that of Dupin is in his realisation that certain things, such as God, are beyond human capabilities of reasoning. That is not to say that God is beyond reason, however. In “The Blue Cross,” in which Father Brown’s principles are defined, he says: “Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God Himself is bound by reason . . . [He is] not infinite in the sense of escaping from the laws of truth” (24).

Despite Father Brown’s commitment to reason in “The Honour of Israel Gow” Chesterton parodies and undermines the deductive method as a way of explaining the world. Confronted with a set of “clues,” challenged by a detective from Scotland Yard to find a connection between them, and to the accompaniment of the wind howling through the pine woods of the Glengyle estate, Father Brown offers three possible “solutions” to the mystery of the Earl of Glengyle, each equally plausible, and each false. The episode is similar to Dupin’s “mind reading” episode, but Father Brown admits that although he can plausibly connect the clues to give an answer, he does not know what the right answer is: “Ten false philosophies will fit the universe; ten false theories will fit Glengyle Castle. But we want the real explanation to the castle and the universe” (119). This general parodying of the conventions of the detective fiction form is also made specific in an attack on Wilkie Collins:

Suppose the servant really killed the master, or suppose the master isn’t really dead, or suppose the master is dressed up as the servant, or suppose the servant is buried for the master; invent what Wilkie Collins tragedy you like and you still have not explained . . . (117)

Father Brown ridicules the police and the supposedly rational method of other ratiocinative detectives, but the story of Israel Gow also problematizes the very purpose of detective fiction. Tsvetan Todorov, for example, suggests that “classical” detective fiction consists in two stories, that of the crime and that of the investigation. The story of the crime only emerges at the end of the story of the investigation: “The first story, that of the crime, ends before the second begins. But what happens to the second? Not much. The characters of this second story, the story of the investigation, do not act, they learn” (44).

Chesterton’s story problematizes the formula of which Poe’s story is an early, perhaps the first, example. It does so first by never explicitly stating the existence of a crime, and in the end, the reader realises that no crime has been committed; no violence has been done to anyone, even by an ape. Instead, the Earl of Glengyle has disappeared and the estate is occupied by his mysterious servant, Israel Gow. Father Brown concedes at the end that the story of the crime is no such thing: “This is not the story of crime . . . rather it is the story of a strange and crooked honesty” (127). The second way in which Todorov’s formula is problematized by Chesterton’s story is that the story does not conclude with an elaborate reconstruction of events by the detective. In other words, since there is no crime, Todorov’s “first story” can never be reconstructed. Unable to make sense of the “clues” left lying around, Father Brown very sensibly “solves” the mystery by asking Israel Gow himself for an explanation.

Besides deliberately ridiculing the deductive method of the ratiocinative or “classical” detective, Chesterton’s story reacts against the formula Todorov describes by not only making the story of the crime subordinate to the story of the investigation, but by effacing it altogether. Even the story of the investigation depends on Father Brown being told the details of the solution to the mystery: Israel Gow has neither stolen the gold nor murdered the Earl of Glengyle, but instead, having been promised all the gold in the castle, he has removed just that, leaving behind the jewels from gold jewellery, removing gold pencil cases but leaving the pencil leads, taking gold leaf from religious paintings, but leaving the paintings otherwise intact.

Although Chesterton’s and Father Brown’s origins are in classical detective fiction, the solution to the crime is not only beyond Father Brown’s powers of deduction, but he reaches his conclusion through a moment of inspiration rather than a methodical elimination of clues. In religious terms the idea of epiphany suggests the realisation of the unknowableness of anything in the world except the mystery of God. Father Brown exclaims at one point in the story: “We have found the truth; and the truth makes no sense” (124). The solution to the “mystery” of “The Honour of Israel Gow” is arrived at as much by this method of epiphany—the personal realisation of the truth—as by deductive method. Father Brown stumbles on the truth; it is revealed to him when his friend Flambeau mentions that he has never put off a visit to the dentist, a trivial point that nonetheless triggers Father Brown’s realisation of what has become of the Earl of Glengyle’s severed and missing head. What makes the truth he finds odd is that it is dependent on the human beings; in other words, it is not determinable “from the world” as Dupin’s method demands.

As in Poe’s story, in which a double “murder” is committed by an ape, the solution to Chesterton’s mystery is absurd: Israel Gow has taken a bequest literally; he has removed all the gold from the house of Glengyle—including the Earl’s gold teeth—and nothing else, since he was left only the gold. As such the “story” of the bequest has been interpreted by Gow; its truth is the truth as he makes it. By contrast, the truth uncovered by Dupin is an immutable truth about the world which, in his formulation, is a closed system, containing all the clues for solving its mysteries. Chesterton’s and Father Brown’s view differs from this in that although the rational method could in theory provide all the answers to the mysteries of the universe, it may not because only a limited amount of information is available. Father Brown declares, “Our shortest cut to the mystery is up the hill to the grave” (120). In other words, although there are immutable truths about the world, and although God is rational in Chesterton’s view, as his story suggests, that rationality is not available to human beings. The solution to the mysteries of the universe is available only in death.

Father Brown’s view that the mysteries of the universe will be revealed only in death occurs in somewhat bleaker form in Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “Death and the Compass” of 1942, a story representative of what Tani calls “anti-detective” fiction. Tani argues that writers such as Borges set out to demonstrate, and to some extent parody, like Chesterton, the falseness of the closure of the world inhabited by con- ventional classical detectives. For example, in “Death and the Compass,” the detective, Loennrott, acting in the tradition of Dupin or Sherlock Holmes, establishes a connection between three murders and from them predicts the time and place of a fourth. However, the arch-criminal Scharlach, knowing the methods of the detective, has deliberately constructed the pattern Loennrott follows in order to lure the detective to his death. In other words, rather than making discoveries through a truly rational method about the natural order of the universe, Loennrot’s approach—like Dupin’s—has actually been a subjective one, and as such one that can be anticipated and manipulated by Scharlach, the criminal. As the detective realises, too late, the fourth murder is to be his own.

Borges’s story inverts the requirements of the classical detective sub-genre by making death not only the only certainty, but also the inevitable consequence of attempting to find the essential truth about the world. Loennrot’s investigation turns out to have been concerned not with essential truths, but with a reality that has been constructed:

Even in the title [“Death and the Compass”] the stress is on the duality of annihilation as logic, that is, death as detection—murderer equals detective. The story is a perfect example of sophisticated reexamination of traditional detective narrative; all of Borges’ typical games (playful logic, mirrors, labyrinths) converge to reverse the detection. (Tani, 33)

This “creative” element to the criminal is also recognised in Chesterton’s, “The Blue Cross” in which the criminal, Flambeau, leads the French policeman, Valentin, across London. Valentin tells us: “The criminal is the creative artist, the detective only the critic” (12). In other words, the detective must observe the criminal’s actions and speculate on their meaning. Indeed, Flambeau, the arch-criminal of “The Blue Cross” becomes in later stories a private detective and Father Brown’s friend, providing an impetuous, vigorous foil for the priest’s circumspect and thoughtful approach. As Tani points out, it is not necessarily true that such inversions did not occur in detective fiction before Borges, simply that:

Since Poe’s time the world has changed. The madness and self-contradiction of the narrator has become general, a quality of the universe in which the detective struggles. (51)

Tani presents the work of Borges as an extreme reaction against the rigid formality and closed structure of the classical detective story. Chesterton’s work seems to represent a middle stage between these two, challenging the validity of the deductive method and lacking a mystery as such. Chesterton falls short of the bleakness of Borges, however, in his belief in ultimate salvation or, in detective story terms, a “solution” to life’s mysteries. Tani suggests that the hard-boiled detective story also lacks the absolute closure of the older form, and sin- gles out Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest as exhibiting that characteristic:

An important connection between Red Harvest and the novels of what I will call innovative anti-detective fiction is that in both, the solution, although still pre- sent, is ambiguous and partially unfulfilling. (24)

Hammett’s novel, and conventional works of hard-boiled detective fiction in general, however, fall short of the model Tani considers to be exemplified in Borges in that they do, in the end, reach a conclusion or “solution” of sorts. Red Harvest, for example, ends with order restored to the town of Personville in the form of martial law, and the detective, the Continental Op., delivering a report on the case. In comparison with both Red Harvest and “The Honour of Israel Gow,” however, “Death and the Compass” ends with the death of the detective. More importantly, however, that death is brought about by the deductive method which, in Poe, provides a comforting view of a world which is knowable and controllable.

Borges’s fiction, like Chesterton’s, therefore, shows the extent to which, far from enabling the detective to find out truths about the world, the deductive method does no more than provide a convenient construction of the reality on which it operates, leaving the reality itself as inscrutable as ever. As such, Chesterton exposes the limitations of the deductive method as a way of understanding and controlling the world, and in doing so negates the principle on which the classical form depends. Nevertheless, while Father Brown’s version of the deductive method, as we have seen, is rather less reassuring than that of Dupin, it remains grounded in the belief that the universe is an ordered place. In Borges, as Loenrott discovers, such order is both contingent and imposed; the truth that he recognises as he faces his death is only that he will surely die.

See also: My brief biography of Poe and my introduction to the Tales.

Bibliography

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[5] _______. “The Honour of Israel Gow.” The Innocence of Father Brown. 1911. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958. 112-29.

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[13] Todorov, Tsvetan. The Poetics of Prose. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Cornell UP, 1977.