I don’t tend to read collections of short stories, but I decided on giving The Man Who Knew Too Much (1922) a go, having enjoyed some of Chesterton’s other work and its date of publication also meant it qualified for Past Offences’ Monthly challenge. The setting of these stories is mostly within a political milieu and the problems which arise such as political scandals and cover ups, make these stories have a certain modern feel to them. The collection has 12 stories, 8 featuring Horne Fisher (more on him later) and 4 which have different individuals each time solving the cases. However, due to my edition being rather rubbish, I only have the first 8 stories and no page numbers. Word of advice: Never trust a book if its publisher feels it needs to put ‘first rate publishers’ in letters bigger than the actual title, on the front cover. But returning to Horne Fisher, he is a man with an aristocratic background and known for knowing a lot about pretty much everything. Overall I found Fisher to rather an anti-hero in the stories, frequently flouting the expectations readers have of detectives.
Story 1 ‘The Face in the Target’
The first story begins with Harold March, an eager and an up and coming newspaper politics critic going to interview the Chancellor of the Exchequer at Torwood Park. However in the grounds of the Park he bumps into a man trying to catch river creatures in a net and discusses Cubism with him (as you do). Our eccentric river dweller is Horne Fisher, who is also the cousin of the Chancellor. The narrative becomes more dramatic however, when a car crashes over the cliff edge nearby and the man inside is found dead. Horne immediately takes charge, leaving Harold to take on the role of Watson. This is not a fair play mystery as Horne withholds important information and despite creating a psychologically dramatic situation to reveal the killer, it does seem as though the reader just has to take Horne’s word for it they are the killer. It does appear as though Horne will always know much more than everyone else and it is up to individual taste whether this is too much for the reader:
‘I know too much. That’s what’s the matter with me. That’s what’s the matter with all of us, and the whole show; we know too much. Too much about one another; too much about ourselves…’
From the very first story we are shown that these tales will bend the rules as it seems Horne will not expose the killer believing that conviction will be unlikely and that the killer is much more useful to the country not in prison. In a way slightly reminiscent of the Father Brown stories, Horne takes the opportunity to analyse the personality of the killer, making them more than a cipher or stock character.
Story 2 ‘The Vanishing Prince’
The setting of the second story shifts to Ireland where Michael O’Neill, is wanted by the police due to his political agitation activities. But he remains elusive due to his ingenious ability at hiding. However, it seems he is in a remote tower and various police chiefs plan to create a net around him and trap him in the tower. Fisher is also present as the secretary of one of the big wigs involved in the scheme. Yet the best laid plans of course go horribly wrong, with several policeman injured or killed. Even worse, Michael is nowhere to be seen and it has the makings of an impossible crime. Again politics gets in the way of justice being executed and Fisher is rather blasé and cynical about his involvement in corruption.
Story 3 ‘The Soul of the Schoolboy’
This story shows Chesterton’s skill at creating characters and opens with polar opposite uncle and nephew, Reverend Thomas Twyford and Summers Minor respectively, spending time in London. The former is a clerical archaeologist and the latter is an amateur photographer, electrician of sorts and a fan of spotting bus types. They both go to look at a rare artefact, St Paul’s Penny, yet due to Summers fiddling with the wiring in the exhibit room, both he, his uncle, the guide and sinister cassocked looking man who claims to be a magician are locked in the room in darkness. On light being restored and the entrance opened, it appears Summers has disappeared and so has the coin. Conveniently, Fisher also just happens to be visiting and with dramatic flair the case is solved… What makes this a strong story in the collection in my opinion is the humorous relationship between Summers and his uncle.
Story 4 ‘The Bottomless Well’
On a British occupied island, somewhere in the east, there is a resort for colonial types, which has an ancient well and of course a nearby golf course, a juxtaposition I believe to be satirical. A hot topic of conversation with people at the resort, including Fisher and his friend Captain Boyle, is the latest British military victory and it seems it is all down to Lord Hastings, whose much younger wife is also staying at the resort and is found conversing with a lot of the younger male resort guests. Any reader of crime fiction will therefore not be surprised when Lord Hastings is found dead near the well poisoned and Captain Boyle is found close by, a gibbering wreck. Despite a clear cut case being made for the obvious suspect, Fisher confounds established opinions and solves the case, with part of the solution reminding of Christie’s Curtain (1975). A solution does not equal justice though, as the reputation of Britain is deemed more important. This story will probably not agree with modern readers with its concluding anti-Semitic remarks and one wonders whether this is Chesterton talking through his characters.
Story 5 ‘The Fad of the Fisherman’
This story commences with March rowing to Willwood Place, which is owned by Sir Isaac to meet Fisher and the Prime Minister. Fisher went down earlier to discuss the Denmark/ Sweden problem, concluding that Britain needs to protest in Denmark’s favour, which the PM plans to do in his speech at Birmingham. However on the way to Willwood, March sees a man in boat cling to a bridge archway and promptly disappear. But this is not the most extraordinary event which occurs. Sir Isaac has the odd habit of fishing from early in the morning, refusing to return until sunset. Dramatic news causes various characters to go visit him whilst he is fishing, yet suspicion is aroused when he does not return by sunset. He is found with fishing line wrapped around his neck, which means that those who went to see him during the day fall heavily under suspicion. Corruption again oozes in this story with even the killer only being implied.
Story 6 ‘The Hole in the Wall’
A medieval fancy dress and ice skating weekend party turns sour when the host Lord Bulmer disappears after deciding on an early morning skate on the pond. Suspicion quickly falls on a young architect at the party, but again Fisher beats all others to the solution. A solution which I half expected, as this is probably the easiest of the short stories to solve. However, I did find the metaphors Chesterton makes about society well-written, meaningful and interesting.
Story 7 ‘The Temple of Silence’ (which on Wikipedia is called ‘The Fool of the Family’)
This story is a retrospective one where we see how Fisher possibly lost his optimism about righting wrongs. It concerns Fisher’s dabble in politics and his brother Henry and their relationship did feel similar to Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes’. After a dinner party, Horne is persuaded into standing in the local election to prevent the corrupt and horrid Sir Verner winning. As Horne has quite practical democratic ideas, he quickly becomes popular with voters, but Horne keeps returning to the question of how Sir Verner got his money and where he came from. Further investigation reveals unpleasant truths and Horne is determined to expose them. But are the machinations of government and society stronger than the individual? Who can one really trust? Again the conclusion of this story provides Chesterton with an opportunity to converse on integrity, morals and materialism, but because it is interwoven into one of the characters it does not feel forced.
Story 8 – ‘The Vengeance of the Statue’
This story rather reminded me of Doyle’s story, ‘His Last Bow’. Imminent invasion seems likely (though by who I’m not entirely sure). March and Fisher’s relationship becomes strained as March is determined to expose the corruption and mishandlings of the government in a new independent newspaper. Some of the problems such as the mistreatment of foreign workers in the country and expenditure scandals certainly resonant with current times. However, contrasting with the previous story, Fisher is not interested in exposing wrongs and is more interested in helping the various morally doubtful government members tackle the invasion problem, who also just happen to be relations. Fisher invites March to a house party which is dealing with the aforementioned crisis and it seems there is a spy within their midst. Worse is to follow when Fisher’s uncle is found murdered, devoid of important plans. His death is a puzzling one involving a cumbersome stone statue and an excess of blood. Yet Fisher seems preoccupied and invites March on a secret mission, which has long reaching consequence… In a way this is a very fitting final story for a detective figure who is complicated, unconventional and who defies expectations, yet it is ruined by the vagueness of the plot making dramatic actions make no sense.
I think it is rather hard to give an overall rating of a short story collection, so instead I have decided to give ratings on individual components of the collection and select a favourite and least favourite story.
Writing style: 3/5 (Dialogic passages are strong and Chesterton does have a flair for imagery and analogies. However, he can have some rather prosaic passages which are a little dull, especially when describing the setting.)
Characters: 4/5 (Horne Fisher is an intriguing and amusing individual, if not necessarily likeable and it was interesting especially to see how his youthful optimism is transformed into cynicism and passivity. In a way he is sort of a morally ambiguous Holmes figure.)
Favourite Story: The Soul of a Schoolboy
Least Favourite Story: The Face in the Target