Father Brown: The Honour of Israel Gow

This is another story from The Innocence of Father Brown (1911). It is one of the more peculiar stories in the collection, and I think one of the most memorable.

Flambeau, now a private detective, and Father Brown are at Glengyle Castle in Scotland, helping Inspector Craven of Scotland Yard to investigate the peculiar death and burial of the late Earl, a reclusive man who lived as a hermit with only one servant: the silent Israel Gow.

Glengyle Castle is an odd and atmospheric castle even without a mystery attached:

It stopped one end of the glen or hollow like a blind alley; and it looked like the end of the world. Rising in steep roofs and spires of seagreen slate in the manner of the old French-Scotch chateaux, it reminded an Englishman of the sinister steeple-hats of witches in fairy tales; and the pine woods that rocked round the green turrets looked, by comparison, as black as numberless flocks of ravens.

The Earl died and was buried in secrecy by Gow, and only now has this irregularity come to official notice. The only clue to the crime, if there has been a crime, is a collection of ‘objects about as inexplicable as any objects could be’. Understandably, they baffle the detectives:

  • Loose piles of snuff on every surface
  • Collections of precious stones
  • Piles of tiny springs and cogs
  • Loose bundles of candles
  • A bamboo stick with a mangled end
  • Pencil leads
  • Defaced religious texts: ‘In every place where the great ornamented name of God comes in the old illuminations it has been elaborately taken out. The only other thing that has been removed is the halo round the head of the Child Jesus.’

It is this last which alarms the usually calm Father Brown – is this evidence of Satanism at work?

“I mean,” answered the little priest, and his voice seemed to rise slightly in the roar of the gale. “I mean that the great devil of the universe may be sitting on the top tower of this castle at this moment, as big as a hundred elephants, and roaring like the Apocalypse. There is black magic somewhere at the bottom of this.”

The final straw is the discovery that the body of the laird has been dug up, and his skull removed.

The situation is creepy and Chesterton creates a spooky atmosphere dominated by the top-hatted, black-suited Gow working stolidly away in his garden.

When revealed, the conclusion is either insane or utterly, frighteningly sane, depending on your perspective.

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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5 Responses to Father Brown: The Honour of Israel Gow

  1. Rich – Chesterton was so good at creating atmosphere I think. Thanks for this reminder of that. Oh, and I just can’t get over the name of the inspector in this case…

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  2. Pingback: Father Brown: The Hammer of God | Past Offences

  3. mike foy says:

    GKC was so good in his descriptions of everything. This is not one of my wife’s favourite stories, since she feels that FB is a triffle snug, when he gives reasons why the the objects are related and then, when the others say really, he says ‘nah’

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  4. naveen reddy says:

    I thought the ending was perfectly sane and the events which followed were entirely justified. I bought penguin’s Complete Father Brown stories on a whim at a bookstore and it is still one of my best buys. My favourite story is The Sign of the Broken Sword for its perfect plotting.
    In the introduction of the book, an extract of Chesterton’s view of the detective story is shown, where he says that the final revelation should be sudden and fit into a single word which explains everthing. He says that imagine you are walking towards someone and that someone is trying to say something which you cant year. You approach that person closer and closer and the thing which was vague is now distinctly heard like ‘she is the count’s sister’ and everything falls into place.

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    • westwoodrich says:

      Hi Naveen

      I got the Wordsworth edition, also on a whim, many years ago, and I also regard it as one of my best buys. I can also recommend The Club of Queer Trades, although it’s a shade more whimsical.

      Thanks for that piece from the intro – I don’t think I’d ever read that.

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