The Man Who Knew Too Much, by G.K. Chesterton

May 23, 2012 at 22:34 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Mystery) (, , , )


Chesterton wears the persona of theologian to the literate everyman very well, and The Man Who Knew Too Much is a magnificent example of his unmatchable ability to walk the tightrope of Christian exposition above the frothy waters of eloquent skill, without making an ass of himself. This book is perhaps a perfect example of what a good piece of fiction written by a Christian ought to be like.

In spite of the ominous title, this is a glorified mystery story: or, more accurately, a compendium of a half dozen or so short mysteries. Each blends the trademark Chesterton tropes expertly, including the quasi-mystic and his man-of-the-world companion and friend, the constant suggestion of something diabolically sinister underlying all, the brooding edge of the supernatural, and an inimitable atmosphere of nineteenth century style and sophistication hanging like cigar smoke over the whole.

In fact, it is only as the final mystery in the volume begins to pick up pace that Chesterton seems almost to break out from behind the fourth wall and address the reader directly, in the only slightly uncomfortable moment in the book. The final mystery is just a little bit forced, and is plainly not the main issue in that particular story. Instead, the reader is cornered for a few brief speeches transplanted a little awkwardly from Chesterton’s mouth into the mouth of Horne Fisher.

“‘…to the schoolboy you add the sceptic, who is generally a sort of stunted schoolboy. You said just now that things might be done with religious mania. Have you ever heard of irreligious mania? I assure you it exists very violently, especially in men who like showing up magicians in India.'”

-The Man Who Knew Too Much

Readers familiar with Chesterton’s style will not find anything peculiar about this. “After all,” they will ask, “is that not something the fellow does time and time again?” And indeed, The Man Who Knew Too Much is replete with moments where the author unashamedly uses his characters as props in a parable, or a particular object lesson. The quote included to the left is one such instance. But in the final mystery of the set, the sermon overtakes the story, and is deucedly awkward, even for Chesterton.

This one hiccup aside, the book is a sheer delight. It is much lighter reading that The Man Who Was Thursday, and is as witty, charming, urbane and clever as any reader familiar with either the author or the genre might wish for.


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