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Review: _The Man Who Knew Too Much_, by G.K. Chesterton
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
I picked this up under the mistaken impression that it had something to do with the Hitchcock film(s); it doesn't. But what it did contain was interesting enough to keep me reading to the end.

I appear to be reading authors of a particular pattern lately: early twentieth century authors with two initials fronting their name. P.G. Wodehouse, H.P. Lovecraft, and now G.K. Chesterton. This book seems interestingly situated between PGW and HPL. Like Wodehouse, this book is entirely concerned with the British upper classes, who, though they clearly do not deserve it, are just as clearly in charge and going to stay that way. Like Lovecraft, the book contains evocative and haunting prose, with a frequent suggestion of unnamable horrors in the background. It also shares with Lovecraft the notion that there is knowledge which is better not to possess; the titular "man who knew too much" is rarely made happy by that knowledge.

That man, Horne Fisher, is an English gentleman of no particular profession, though he is sometimes involved in politics. He is also a sort of amateur detective, in the sense that murders (and occasionally other crimes) tend to happen around him, and he interests himself in discovering the truth. This he accomplishes via his vast knowledge of many subjects -- the most important being a practical knowledge of human psychology.

But the mysteries in this book follow a rather different pattern than is traditional. That classic pattern might be summarized thus: introduction of setting and characters; discovery of crime; investigation of clues; explanation of crime; criminal arrested (or, as variant, suffers ironic justice); amusing coda. Chesterton's codas are more wry or poignant than funny, but the real difference is in the penultimate step. In *none* of these tales is the criminal brought to justice. The "too much" that Fisher knows includes all the complex interdependencies of British society, and the ways in which publicity about important people behaving badly would dangerously weaken those social structures. In a few cases, he exerts himself to ensure that an innocent man goes free, but he always finds a good excuse not to punish the guilty. (A good excuse by his own lights, at least; the reader may disagree.)

As you might gather from the above, this is a hugely conservative book. While Fisher holds a healthy skepticism towards individuals, he has a strong faith in nations -- at least his own. Patriotism is held to be the highest virtue. This is often shown in dark reflection as racism, with one particularly nasty outburst of antisemitism.

The writing is very skilled, and some of the mystery bits are clever. At heart, though, this book is more of a political argument than an entertainment, something that becomes more blatant towards the end. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- see Cory Doctorow's _Little Brother_ for a recent successful example. It does, however, mean that you will probably turn off readers who don't share your politics. I don't regret reading it, for the unusual structure if nothing else. But I probably won't reread it, nor do I recommend it.

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I've always been proud of the fact that Chesterton and I share a birthday. I'm not familiar with this book and will have to find it.

I found his essays when I was 16, and was particularly struck by his comment "drawing on brown paper teaches that white is no more the absence of color than virtue is the absence of vice." I love his way with language.

Yes, he is hugely conservative and very much a product of both his time and his religion -- which made him an outsider in the country for which he had so much patriotism. I find his works to be informative because they were so vastly influential at the time of their publication. I look for the tendrils trailing into our own age so I can find my way to the roots.

Would that today's conservatives had his structured thinking. They would be easier to argue with and more likely to be converted by reason.

I remember The Man Who Was Thursday, also Chesterton, was similarly cynical about powerful men not being brought to justice. Fantastic book, though.

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