13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 22 January 2006
I have been trying to recall, but I can’t ever remember reading a stranger or more disappointing book than ‘The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown’. The text itself may be passed over, of course – it is the first collection of Father Brown mysteries by the great Edwardian writer G. K. Chesterton, and they are superb. Luckily they are available in many other editions than this one.
No, the sour note comes from the annotator, elucidator and irritator Martin Gardner. As a devout Carollian, I have owned and treasured his ‘Annotated Alice” and his ‘Annotated Snark’ for many years, and I consider them absolutely indispensable. But in these Carrollian books he displays none of the cranky egomania he parades in this Chesterton volume.
He begins the edition with a furious tirade against a fellow self-important prig called Owen Edwards, about their conflict over some Chestertonian tidbit which would possibly be of slight interest to eight people in the world, and infuriating to no one. It is a hallmark of certain academics that, although they often take themselves with almost Ciceronian seriousness, they always end up behaving like children fighting over the best marbles.
Gardner also seems to have no concept of the pacing and careful building of suspense necessary in a mystery story, interrupting the action regularly to give us discursive information – for example, that Swinburne once lived in Putney, what ‘billiard chalk’ is, who lived in Hampstead that was fantastically famous, and who Father Christmas is. Most amazingly, he takes a teeny-tiny reference to ‘Sunny Jim’, an old advertising character for cereal flakes, from ‘The Three Tools of Death’, and writes three entire pages of footnotes on Sunny Jim’s history, nothing of which has the slightest connection with the Chesterton story and seem merely an excuse for Gardner to show how much more useless effluvia he knows than you do.
Charles Kinbote merely misrepresented the poetry of John Shade in Nabokov’s story for his own selfish ends – Gardner seems completely undirected in his attitude towards Chesterton. He alternately gives the impression that G.K. was a deluded Catholic (Gardner himself is proud to tell you, in the introduction, that he is a ‘creedless philosophical theist’ – which means, I think, if it means anything, ‘someone who is always right about everything and is ever so smug about it’), an admirable Thomist, a genius, a hack, and so on. Granted, Chesterton was many things, perhaps even all of these. But he was a humane and huge and vital man, and Gardner in this book seems like nothing more than one of those little gray fish that attach themselves to enormous sharks and then swim around with them for life, probably telling themselves ‘Hey look at me! I’m a great big shark!’
If you still like to be aggrievated by this particular annotator, get this edition. If you like to read Chesterton, get another book.