Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Club of Queer Trades by GK Chesterton

This book has long held a special place in my heart. I have read a very large quantity of books in my lifetime, and to date this is the only work I have ever read in which someone is hit in the face during a drawing-room brawl with a volume of St Chrysostom's theology.

The Club of Queer Trades is a fairly small book in a typical Chestertonian tone. The six short stories of which it is composed are something like detective stories and something like Sherlock Holmes parodies and something like neither. Even the titles ("The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown", "The Eccentric Seclusion of the Old Lady," "The Awful Reason of the Vicar's Visit") are reminiscent of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Then you have the cast--the narrator, known to friends as "the Cherub", who one assumes to be a middle-aged gentleman-about-town; the sharp, brilliant, empirically-minded detective, Rupert Grant; and his vague and visionary older brother Basil. One might almost suppose oneself in the company of Holmes, Watson, and Mycroft themselves.

Except that Chesterton has put the usual twist on the stories. I have long felt a little fed up with Sherlock Holmes, who so infallibly deduces perfect truth from unambiguous facts, in the bad old Thomistic tradition of reason as an infallible guide. Now Chesterton was in fact a fan of Aquinas, but he was not as misguided. In Chesterton stories, human reason is almost never able to arrive at truth; revelation, or an intuitive leap, is necessary. Facts are never unambiguous.
"It's a matter of fact," cried the other in an agony of reasonableness.
"Facts," murmured Basil, like one mentioning some strange, far-off animals, "how facts obscure the truth. I may be silly---in fact, I'm off my head---but I never could believe in that man---what's his name, in those capital stories?---Sherlock Holmes. Every detail points to something, certainly; but generally to the wrong thing. Facts point in all directions, it seems to me, like the thousands of twigs on a tree. It's only the life of the tree that has unity and goes up---only the green blood that springs, like a fountain, at the stars."
And that is the unifying theme of the novel, and the general plot follows the Cherub as he dashes around London with one or the other of the Grant brothers, one hot on the trail of imagined crimes and the other genially uncovering perfectly benign--but quirky and wonderful--mysteries. Behind all of them looms the shadowy form of the Club of Queer Trades--a club of which it is the only condition of entry that you must have invented a wholly new and unusual mode of income.

Major Brown retires from a life of thrilling adventure in India to his heart's desire--a prim little house surrounded by prim little rows of pansies. Then when he peers over the wall of the house next door, the message "Death to Major Brown" leaps out at him. Who is the mysterious lady in the green dress? Where does the jackal dwell? Whence the sinister strangling-attempt in the dark?

Professor Chadd is about to rise from genteel poverty to a regular income with his new post at the British Museum. Why then should he suddenly cease speaking and start dancing? An old lady is held captive beneath a respectable suburban home inhabited by bluff young scholars. Basil insists that everything is quite aboveboard, but Rupert and the Cherub are convinced of foul play. And so on...

This is a quick read, but most enjoyable, stuffed with the usual Chestertonian wit and wisdom.


Radagast said...

The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond is also good, in a somewhat similar vein:

"The peculiarity of his conversation was this: in the middle of a steady stream of sense, there would suddenly appear two or three words which seemed simply to be nonsense. It was as if something had suddenly gone wrong with the works of a gramophone. It was nonsense which the speaker never seemed to notice himself; so that sometimes his hearers also hardly noticed that speech so natural was nonsensical. But to those who did notice, he seemed to be saying something like, "Naturally, having no legs, he won the walking-race easily," or "As there was nothing to drink, they all got tipsy at once." Broadly speaking, two kinds of people stopped him with stares or questions: the very stupid and the very clever. The stupid because the absurdity alone stuck out from a level of intelligence that baffled them; it was indeed in itself an example of the truth in paradox. The only part of his conversation they could understand was the part they could not understand. And the clever stopped him because they knew that, behind each of these queer compact contradictions, there was a very queer story--like the queer story to be narrated here."

Suzannah said...

Ah--oddly enough, I picked up a copy of Mr Pond at the Clunes Booktown, in tandem with this book, in matching covers. I shall have to read it soon!


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