This mystery concerns the death of Leonard Quinton. It was apparently a suicide, but a diminutive priest named Father Brown figured out the Quinton had been murdered.
Quinton was a poet who admired Oriental art. He tried to incorporate Oriental imagery in his literary works, but he was not entirely successful. He was a morbid genius, but his experiments with opium had an adverse affect on his body and mind.
Father Brown was present at the time of the murder because his friend Flambeau had decided to pay Quinton a visit. In his youth, Flambeau and Quinton had been close friends, but they were no longer soul mates. Flambeau had been wild in his younger days, and he subsequently became a jewel thief. However, he reformed and became a detective, so he did not enjoy seeing his erstwhile friend indulge in opium while writing amorous verses.
One of the suspects was an Indian hermit whom Quinton had been entertaining for a considerable length of time. He was supposed to be a magical fakir, but many preferred to call him a faker. I believe that Chesterton deliberately tried to make the reader suspect that he was the murderer.
Chesterton also painted Mrs. Quinton with suspicious colors. She did not like her husband’s opium habit. She also objected to the Indian hermit. In addition, Chesterton mentioned that she was overworked, though he did not elaborate on this point.
The brother of Mrs. Quinton was another suspect. He happened to be on the premises when Quinton died because he wanted Quinton to lend him some money. He continued to loiter on the premises after receiving a sum.
Dr. James Erskine Harris was also present. Quinton needed the regular care of a doctor because of his bad health. Harris seemed to be above suspicion.
While Quinton was still alive, Father Brown found a dagger that the Indian hermit had dropped. It was an Oriental dagger, and Father Brown claimed that it had the wrong shape. He became submerged in a sort of metaphysical fog. He noted the beauty of the dagger but considered its shape evil. In fact, he saw misshapen evil everywhere. Even Quinton’s house had the wrong shape.
Flambeau and the doctor happened to be present when Father Brown expressing himself on the shape of the dagger. Flambeau warned the doctor that whenever Father Brown started acting this way, there usually was genuine evil close at hand.
Not long after Dr. Harris had given Quinton his daily sleeping draught, the doctor and Father Brown found a note on the table where Quinton was accustomed to write poetry. It read: “I die by my own hand; yet I die murdered.” The doctor rushed into the adjoining room and discovered that Quinton had been stabbed with the Indian hermit’s knife, or so he claimed.
Father Brown said that the paper of the supposed suicide note was the wrong shape. When the doctor asked him to explain, he pointed out that a corner had been cut off the paper. The doctor said that Quinton regularly cut off the corners of his papers. He pointed to a stack of unused papers that were cut the same way. Nevertheless, Father Brown was not satisfied. He told the doctor not to move the body and to call the police.
Father Brown noticed that the corners cut off the paper were still lying on the table. He counted the corners and the papers. There were twenty-three corners but only twenty-two papers. He concluded that one paper was missing.
While the doctor sent a servant to call the police, Father Brown informed Mrs. Quinton about the death of her husband. Chesterton did not tell us what happened during this interview, but when Father Brown emerged from Mrs. Quinton’s room, he was visibly shaken.
Father Brown asked the doctor to write an account of the case for him. He felt that the doctor knew some details that he had not seen fit to mention. Father Brown promised that he would not reveal what the doctor wrote to anyone. [In this clever manner, he was asking the doctor to confess his sin.]
While the doctor was writing his report, Father Brown told Flambeau that the shape of the supposed suicide note was more crooked and more evil than the dagger that killed Quinton. He also assured Flambeau that Quinton had not committed suicide. He figured that the murderer had doctored up the paper so that it would look like a suicide note. The corner that had been cut off probably contained a quotation mark. The supposed suicide note was probably part of an Oriental romance that Quinton was writing, and the missing paper probably contained words leading up to the quotation.
While they were talking, Dr. Harris handed Father Brown his confession and went home.
The confession began with the words that Julian the Apostate supposedly said as he lay dying: “Galilean, Thou hast conquered.” He knew that Father Brown had solved the mystery and expressed amazement. He wondered: “Can there be anything in your bosh?”
He explained that he was in love with Quinton’s wife and wanted to marry her. He thought that she would be happier with him.
According to his own creed, which was basically a belief in nature, he felt that he had the right to kill Quinton, and the story that he was writing gave him the desired opportunity. It was about an Indian hermit that forced an English colonel kill himself by a mental power that made the colonel act against his will. By chance, the words on a new sheet of paper would look like a suicide note if he cut off a quotation mark. He cut a whole pile of papers the same way so that it would appear as if Quinton had the eccentric habit of cutting corners off his papers. He also destroyed the paper containing the rest of the story.
Dr. Harris also pointed out that only a skilled medical man could have delivered a fatal stab with the dagger, since it had such an unusual shape. He wondered if Father Brown had noticed that detail.
After he killed Quinton, nature deserted him. He could not get rid of the feeling that he had done something wrong. He felt that he was being tormented with madness or perhaps remorse, just as if her were in a Byron poem. [He was probably referring to Byron’s Manfred.]
The story ends with the arrival of the police. Chesterton allows us to figure out for ourselves what happens next. Does the murderer escape punishment and even marry the wife of the man that he murdered? I consider it unlikely.
Chesterton is first and foremost an apologist for the Roman Catholic religion. So Father Brown regularly shows more concern for the soul of the sinner than for the dictates of justice. However, justice usually ends up being satisfied. In one other Father Brown mystery that comes to my mind, a murderer confesses his guilt to the authorities, even though he is not suspected by anyone except Father Brown. In this present story, the remorse of the murderer indicates that this mystery might end in the same way.
Flambeau is another factor that might make a difference. He is a clever detective, and Father Brown has given him ample information. It is possible that he might figure out what happened, and he would not hesitate to reveal his findings to the police.
While this story contains many points of interest, I regard this as one of the least satisfying of the Father Brown mysteries. The plot has the wrong shape.
Since I no longer have the book at my disposal, I have consulted an online version presented by Project Gutenberg.
Project Gutenberg: The Innocence of Father Brown