Father Smiley

An interesting connection – made many times, I’m sure – is that between John Le Carre’s spymaster George Smiley, and GK Chesterton’s priest detective, Father Brown.

Both are, essentially, detectives (and in Smiley’s first two novels, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, he is a detective, being a retired or about to retire spy). Both are short, plump, physically unassuming men. Both are routinely underestimated by those around them.

Most importantly though, both men rely on their understanding of human nature to crack their cases. In Smiley’s case, this goes alongside serious, logical detective work; but it is his sympathy for and empathy towards the people he tries to bring to justice or unmask, that is the key to his work. He uncovers Haydon with sleuthing, but his understanding of Haydon’s motivations, which he slightly shares himself, gives him the confessing nature of the priest. People don’t always like to talk to Smiley, but he likes to listen to them. He likes to understand them. Nowhere is this clearer than whenever Ann Smiley appears or is referred to: he doesn’t understand her at all. Her motivations are so much harder to unearth than those of traitors. In this way, Smiley is almost the celibate priest.

Father Brown’s cases are sometimes solved with a confession, and he makes no apologies for understanding people’s motivations, casting a wry glance at the ideologies of his day as he does so.  But justice – in the sense of punishment, or desert – these are sometimes elided by both Brown and Smiley. As is sometimes said in Christian texts – notably St Luke – But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

For both detectives, the key is thought and humanity. For both are a counterblast to ideology in their emphasis on the human stories of those they encounter. While both are attached to and serve ideologies (or theologies), both have too much sympathy for the vulnerable humanity caught up in the sway of violent or chaotic mass movements and in the sweep of history.

About Kevin Donnelly

I'm also known as Lawrence George, which is the name I write for Helium under. I think I ought to ditch my pseudonyms before I forget which one is me.
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