Review of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” by G. K. Chesterton

from Goodreads

I am the man who knows too much to know anything, or, at any rate, to do anything.

Other than its title, this book bears no resemblance to the Hitchcock films of the same name.

This is a collection of eight mystery/detective short stories that feature well-connected Horne Fisher. His friend, journalist Harold March, serves as his Dr. Watson but is no Dr. Watson. In the first story, “The Face in the Target,” he is described as “the rising reviewer and social critic,” on his way to interview the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Howard Horne, about the latter’s so-called “socialist budget.” Walking along a stream, he meets a man fishing. They strike up a conversation. It turns out the fisherman is Horne Fisher, also on his way to the Chancellor.

Fisher is depicted as a tall, balding man. The word most often associated with him is “languid.” His eyelids droop. Nevertheless, he can rush when action is required. Poor Harold is a reporter who is forever getting fantastic scoops (The Prime Minister committed a murder!) but can never print the complete version of the stories.

What makes these stories odd is that, while Fisher reasons out the identity of the guilty parties, none of the bad’uns is ever brought to justice. Some pay a penalty of sorts, but there’s nary a hangin’. Each time, letting the malefactor off serves some greater purpose, such as preserving the (British) Empire or forestalling a war. This is part of the curse of knowing too much; Horne appreciates the world, warts and all. Not only does he understand enough to discern the answer to each baffling mystery, he knows the cost of bringing the bad’un to justice.

Author G. K. Chesterton makes full use of paradox, which turns out to be a helpful trait for Fisher in figuring mysteries out. However, a warning: the stories are a product of the author’s time and society. That is, there is causal racism and unapologetic anti-Semitism.

In the last story, “The Vengeance of the Statue,” he finally confronts Horne about his inaction.

The stories were first published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine between April 1920 and June 1922:

1. “The Face in the Target” Horne Fisher and Harold March meet. A car careens over a cliff near a stream where Fisher is fishing and the two are chatting. The single occupant is beyond doubt deceased but was not killed by the crash. Only a crack shot could have hit him while he was driving.

First published April 1920


2. “The Vanishing Prince, A Story” The Prince is question is Michael O’Neil, who has a talent for “appearing when he was not wanted and disappearing when he was wanted.” He was most often wanted by the police for his political activity. When police follow rumors that he is holed up in an old tower, several of them are killed, and the Prince is nowhere to be found—until he comes strolling onto the scene, acting for all the world like an innocent man.

First published August 1920


3. “The Soul of the Schoolboy” The Rev. Thomas Twyford takes his schoolboy nephew Summers Minor—also known as Stinks—on a day trip through London, stopping at underground chapel housing a Roman coin supposedly depicting the head of St. Paul. The only other person on the tour with them is an odd character claiming to be a “mage.” The coin is safe in a glass case behind bars. Who could steal the coin?

First published September 1920


4. “The Bottomless Well” In an unnamed British-occupied area, “in an oasis…in the red and yellow seas of sand that stretch beyond Europe toward the sunrise,” stands a landmark deep hole that may have once been a well. It’s marked by two stones. The British exiles have built a golf course around it. The reader just knows a murder victim is going to get pitched down the hole. Well, the murderer’s plans didn’t work out, either.

First published March 1921


5.  “The Fad of the Fisherman” Sir Isaac Hook has become something of a fishing fanatic. He rises early, sits by the brook, and won’t allow anyone to disturb him until he comes back to the house when he’s good and ready. Among his guests are the Prime Minister, who has asked Horne Fisher to come at once. Harold March, whose political articles are earning him some clout, is also on his way. The Prime Minister seems to be interested only in getting away.

First published June 1921


6. “The Hole in the Wall” The host of a house party decides two of his guest, an architect and an archaeologist, should have a lot in common. Unlike the other stories, this features a woman, a sister of one of the other characters, who get about the serious business of starting a costume party. This is just as well, for nothing is as it appears.

First published October 1921


7. “The Temple of Silence” This manages to be among the saddest and, at the same time, the most amusing of the stories. Horne Fisher stands for (that is, runs for) Parliament on a remarkably progressive platform. He wins, only to find out he wasn’t supposed to. He is a failure.

First published May 1922


8. “The Vengeance of the Statue” Harold March finally takes Horne Fisher to task about knowing so much and failing to do so little. He’s connected by family or friendship to the highest places in the land. He should do something!

This story produces some memorable quotes: “Believe me, you never know the best about men till you know the worst about them.”

After detailing his intricate family relations in various government positions—corrupt and incompetent as they may be—Fisher tells March he’s proud of his family.

“I am proud of the Chancellor because he gambled and of the Foreign Minister because he drank and the Prime Minister because he took a commission on a contract. … I take off my hat to them because they are defying blackmail, and refusing to smash their country to save themselves.”

First published June 1922


Some editions contain other stories that do not include Horne Fisher.


Bio:

Author G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) is probably best known now for this Father Brown mysteries, in which a gentle, umbrella-carrying priest not only solves mysteries but also converts the well-known thief, Flambeau. Chesterton also wrote on Christian apologetics and authored some eighty books, in addition to thousands of newspaper columns.


Title: The Man Who Knew Too Much
Author:  G. K. Chesterton
First published: 1922

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

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