Father Brown Reread: The Flying Stars
“The most beautiful crime I ever committed,” Flambeau would say in his highly moral old age, “was also, by a singular coincidence, my last.
- This flips the regular detective story in multiple ways. The focus is on the criminal, rather than the detective. We’re trying to find out why he repented, rather than how he got brought to justice.
- In one sentence, we see Flambeau showing some shocking character development. Not only does he stop committing crimes–he becomes “highly moral.”
- Once again, if we know what Flambeau was like in his old age, when are the Father Brown stories supposed to take place? Given that Chesterton later mentions some “old Victorian chandeliers”, and that he often discusses “modern” political and philosophical fads, I think he’s engaging in a bit of literary time travel, where the stories take place in the “present day” but give us glimpses of the characters’ futures. (Sayers sometimes does something similar in the Peter Wimsey stories).
- This is a strong contender for my favorite Father Brown story. I’ve read it at least six times. (It’s been a Boxing Day tradition for a few years. I’m listening to Christmas music right now to get me in the spirit.) As such, I may have a lot to say. I’ll try to restrain myself.
It was committed at Christmas. As an artist I had always attempted to provide crimes suitable to the special season or landscapes in which I found myself, choosing this or that terrace or garden for a catastrophe, as if for a statuary group.
- Flambeau, here’s a hint: most criminals don’t care about the aesthetics of their crimes. You’re not a thief. You’re an artist. Your trouble is that you create your works of art using other people and their possessions.
- Did Flambeau ever really need the money? Or was he just carried away by the romantic idea of being a trickster and creating those types of tales in real life? Brown’s speech at the end suggests he used the latter to justify the former. (“I’m not a criminal. I’m an artist.”)
I really think my imitation of Dickens’ style was dextrous and literary. It seems almost a pity I repented the same evening.
- So Old Flambeau has repented of his crimes in a moral sense, but he still appreciates them on artistic terms. He’s reformed, but he hasn’t lost that flair for the overdramatic, or that arrogant self-confidence.
- I’m suddenly struck by the desire to see Flambeau meet Lord Peter Wimsey. They’d be two obnoxiously self-confident artistic snobs who’d end up getting drunk on the good wine and doing ridiculous acrobatics to break into someone’s house.
Flambeau would then proceed to tell the story from the inside; and even from the inside it was odd. Seen from the outside it was perfectly incomprehensible, and it is from the outside that the stranger must study it.
- Why does the stranger have to study it from the outside? We heard the first part of the story from Flambeau. I want the rest of Flambeau’s version!
- Not that I dislike this version, of course. It’s too much fun to wish for any change, and we do need to keep some aspect of the mystery intact.
Here she gave an exclamation of wonder, real or ritual, and looking up at the high garden wall above her, beheld it fantastically bestridden by a somewhat fantastic figure. “Oh, don’t jump, Mr. Crook,” she called out in some alarm; “it’s much too high.”
- I believe my first suspicion was that this person was Flambeau–he would do just that sort of acrobatic nonsense. The suspicion’s quickly squashed, but it’s a nice little misdirect.
- It took me a ridiculously long time to realize that Chesterton was trying to mislead us by naming one of the suspects “Crook”.
- This is also a parallel to Father Brown’s conversation with Flambeau at the end of the story.
“I think I was meant to be a burglar,” he said placidly, “and I have no doubt I should have been if I hadn’t happened to be born in that nice house next door. I can’t see any harm in it, anyhow.”
- Even if Mr. Crook’s not literally Flambeau, he’s certainly a symbolic parallel. This is the sort of philosophy that Flambeau uses to justify his crimes. Perhaps Flambeau was a bit like this before he became a thief–which makes it more meaningful that he reforms at the end of this story.
With him also was the more insignificant figure of the priest from the neighbouring Roman Church; for the colonel’s late wife had been a Catholic, and the children, as is common in such cases, had been trained to follow her. Everything seemed undistinguished about the priest, even down to his name, which was Brown; yet the colonel had always found something companionable about him, and frequently asked him to such family gatherings.
- I can only imagine Flambeau’s dismay at discovering this priest showing up yet again. (I doubt that he knew about this family habit beforehand). After making such elaborate preparations for the heist, he couldn’t just abandon it on the fear that Brown would recognize him.
- Did this make it more fun–a chance to finally pull one over on the priest? Or did it make it more awkward–the guy did convince him to repent last time, after all.
“I’ll put ‘em back now, my dear,” said Fischer, returning the case to the tails of his coat. “I had to be careful of ‘em coming down. They’re the three great African diamonds called ‘The Flying Stars,’ because they’ve been stolen so often. All the big criminals are on the track; but even the rough men about in the streets and hotels could hardly have kept their hands off them.
- What made you think these would be a good present for your goddaughter? Just what every girl wants–three diamonds that’ll draw every big-name criminal to her house.
- Also, why put them back in the tailcoat? I imagine the house has a safe, if he thought they could keep the present. Unless they plan to put them in a bank later?
… What do you call a man who wants to embrace the chimney-sweep?” “A saint,” said Father Brown. “I think,” said Sir Leopold, with a supercilious smile, “that Ruby means a Socialist.”[…] “A Socialist means a man who wants all the chimneys swept and all the chimney-sweeps paid for it.” “But who won’t allow you,” put in the priest in a low voice, “to own your own soot.”
- I’ve always loved this bit. Father Brown shows that religion doesn’t necessarily line up with any political fashions.
- The major philosophical tension in this story is the question of property–who has it, who deserves or doesn’t deserve it, how we should distribute it. Crook supports redistributing property and attacking policemen in theoretical terms. Flambeau takes the initiative to do so in practical terms.
“Why couldn’t we have a proper old English pantomime–clown, columbine, and so on.
- As in “The Blue Cross”, Flambeau’s artistry is his downfall. He could have stolen the jewels by sleight-of-hand at any moment and been gone long before the policeman arrived. Instead, he decides that a much better plan is to throw together a pantomime.
- But no matter how insane the plan is, I have to respect how well he pulls it off. He gets the whole household in on the plan in a matter of minutes, and no one thinks to question him about this “actor friend”.
- I adore this whole section. The wild energy of their slap-dash little play is infectious, and very Christmassy.
The harlequin, already clad in silver paper out of cigar boxes, was, with difficulty, prevented from smashing the old Victorian lustre chandeliers, that he might cover himself with resplendent crystals. In fact he would have done so, had not Ruby unearthed some old pantomime paste jewels she had worn at a fancy dress party as the Queen of Diamonds.
- I know Flambeau would have adored smashing that chandelier (and I love the image of him trying to do it) but he really lucked out that Ruby had some paste jewels. If he’d smashed those chandeliers, I doubt her father would have been in a mood to let the pantomime go on.
He was supposed to be the clown, but he was really almost everything else, the author (so far as there was an author), the prompter, the scene-painter, and, above all, the orchestra. At abrupt intervals in the outrageous performance he would hurl himself in full costume at the piano and bang out some popular music equally absurd and appropriate.
- I’m surprised at how much Crook gets into this. He’s almost as enthusiastic as “Blount” is.
- The fantastic @isfjmel-phleg has located recordings or sheet music of all the songs mentioned in this story. Definitely a post worth checking out.
The climax of this, as of all else, was the moment when the two front doors at the back of the scene flew open, showing the lovely moonlit garden, but showing more prominently the famous professional guest; the great Florian, dressed up as a policeman.
- How did Flambeau explain the lack of policeman during the rehearsal? Everyone was okay with the explanation of “He’ll show up in the middle of the show”? For that matter, how did they open the doors just when he showed up? There’s no mention of him knocking.
“Wife!” replied the staring soldier, “she died this year two months. Her brother James arrived just a week too late to see her.”
- Flambeau knew that Fischer had the diamonds two months in advance? And ingratiated himself to the family that long ago? Talk about elaborate planning. Was there really no other moment he could he could have retrieved the diamonds? I suppose the day of gift-giving would be when they were most vulnerable.
“Chloroform,” he said as he rose; “I only guessed it just now.”
- Apparently Flambeau carries chloroform on him at all times. Nothing like being prepared, I suppose.
- Father Brown’s detective style is the opposite of Sherlock Holmes’. It’s truly deductive reasoning–starting with the “big picture” and finding details to support it. So far, we haven’t really seen Father Brown collect clues. He’s just living life, quietly observing, until he gets a sudden flash of inspiration. Only then can he pick out the little details to support his theory and show how the crime was done.
There were hollows and bowers at the extreme end of that leafy garden, in which the laurels and other immortal shrubs showed against sapphire sky and silver moon, even in that midwinter, warm colours as of the south. The green gaiety of the waving laurels, the rich purple indigo of the night, the moon like a monstrous crystal, make an almost irresponsible romantic picture; and among the top branches of the garden trees a strange figure is climbing, who looks not so much romantic as impossible.
- Here Chesterton shifts from past tense to present tense for a page. There’s no explanation. Sayers does these kinds of shifts sometimes, too. Were writing rules different back then, or is this a failure of editing?
- The present tense does give it a bit of a “stage show” feel, paralleling the dramatics of a moment before.
“Well, Flambeau,” says the voice, “you really look like a Flying Star; but that always means a Falling Star at last.”
- Does Father Brown practice these one-liners?
- Flambeau’s disguise must have been pretty good if Father Brown didn’t recognize him until now. But once Brown understood the crime, it must have been easy to figure out the criminal’s identity. Who else would do something so overelaborately artistic?
You were going to steal the jewels quietly […] You already had the clever notion of hiding the jewels in a blaze of false stage jewellry. Now you saw that if the dress were a harlequin’s the appearance of a policeman would be quite in keeping.
- The stage jewellry can’t already have been a part of Flambeau’s plan, not if he planned to steal them quietly.
- However, just before he got his letter, he was ready to applaud Ruby’s idea of a little show. Perhaps Brown meant that this gave him the idea to use a Christmas show to hide the jewels, and he got the idea for a pantomime a moment later when he heard about the policeman?
“I want you to give them back, Flambeau, and I want you to give up this life. There is still youth and honour and humour in you; don’t fancy they will last in that trade.”
- Father Brown already got Flambeau to repent and return his stolen goods once before. This time he has to be more specific. It’s not good enough to just give back the goods. He has to give up this life entirely.
- Flambeau may be the criminal, but there’s an innocence about him. Father Brown, for all his cloistered lifestyle, has a much grittier and more realistic view of the world. Yet another example of how these stories invert the typical detective story tropes.
“…I know the woods look very free behind you, Flambeau; I know that in a flash you could melt into them like a monkey. But some day you will be an old grey monkey, Flambeau. You will sit up in your free forest cold at heart and close to death, and the tree-tops will be very bare.” […] “Your downward steps have begun. You used to boast of doing nothing mean, but you are doing something mean tonight. You are leaving suspicion on an honest boy with a good deal against him already; you are separating him from the woman he loves and who loves him. But you will do meaner things than that before you die.”
This page is one of the best monologues in fiction.
This entire speech gives me chills, but the ending is especially powerful.
The restoration of the gems (accidentally picked up by Father Brown, of all people) ended the evening in uproarious triumph; and Sir Leopold, in his height of good humor, even told the priest that though he himself had broader views, he could respect those whose creed required them to be cloistered and ignorant of the world.
- Chesterton loves highlighting this bit of irony. It’s also a nice bookend to “The Blue Cross” where this irony was the turning-point of the whole story.
- After the chilling dramatics of the garden, it’s nice to end on this lively, cheery, Christmassy atmosphere.
- I wonder how Flambeau first got back in touch with Father Brown. The next time we see him, he and Brown are already good friends. It must have been an awkward, dramatic, and epic moment when a fully repentant Flambeau reapproaches the man who convinced him to reform.