In G.K. Chesterton’s “The Wrong Shape,” Father Brown makes a curious observation that puzzles Flambeau, another master detective like the priest.
Both men are at a loss to uncover the murder of poet Leonard Quinton, a flamboyant and eccentric artist with a passion for Oriental culture and art and a fascination for Eastern philosophy and intricate carpets and embroideries from India. He even writes Oriental poems and hosts an Indian hermit in his home for months.
When Father Brown discovers a crooked, twisted Oriental knife in the grass, he notes the striking, dazzling color but finds the knife’s formation “the wrong shape,” explaining that “The lines go wrong on purpose—like serpents doubling to escape.”
To clarify his meaning to Flambeau who is not following Father Brown’s logic, the priest compares the strangely shaped knife to other instruments like a spear and a scythe, explaining that the spear and the scythe have a practical, “hearty and plain purpose” with an obvious design that confuses no one, whereas the knife “does not look like a weapon. It looks like an instrument of torture.”
These other instruments, despite their sharpness, do not look as sinister as the knife.
Upon hearing the phrase “wrong shape,” Dr. Harris, the physician caring for the poet suffering from an overdose of opium, applies the term to the elaborate home of Leonard Quinton designed in the shape of the letter “T,” commenting “This house is the wrong shape, if you like.”
But Father Brown disagrees. A home in the shape of a “T” is not unnatural, grotesque, or distorted. He remarks, “The shape of this house is quaint—it is even laughable. But there is nothing wrong about it.”
In other words, anything with a natural shape serves a useful human purpose that is self-evident, whereas a grotesque, convoluted shape assumes a perverse, diabolical look that resembles the instrument of torture.
Just as evil has a smell (“I smell a rat”) and has an appearance (“ugly as sin”), it has a shape like the Oriental knife that Father Brown identifies as the instrument of the murder. A weapon for war or self-defense, a farm instrument for cutting grain, and an architectural shape in the form of straight lines rouse no suspicions because their usefulness is transparent and corresponds to a universal form.
The Crooked Track
Of course the first suspect for the crime is the Indian hermit living with Quinton and his wife because everyone assumes the Oriental knife belongs to someone from India. At the moment the doctor finds Quinton dead, he notices a sheet of paper written in the style of Quinton’s handwriting with the cryptic words, an apparent suicide note: “I die by my own hand, yet I die murdered!”
When the evidence of the handwritten letter comes to light, again Father Brown comments on shape: “Doctor, this paper is the wrong shape,” alluding to the fact that the sheet is not square and appears cut at the edges.
Examining Quinton’s study, the priest finds that all the sheets of a stack of paper have been cut in the same, irregular, strange shape as if Quinton’s self-expression showed even in the style of paper.
Solving the crime, he explains to Flambeau, “There has been in this incident . . . a twisted, ugly, complex quality that does not belong to the straight bolts of heaven or hell. As one knows the crooked track of a snail, I know the crooked track of a man.”
A Twisted Pattern
The crooked track of the man in this case is Dr. Harris, the physician whose access to the patient’s private room provided him the scissors to cut the edges of the sheets of paper from a story written by Quinton.
The main character had written, “I die by my own hand.” By cutting off the quotation marks, the doctor created the illusion that it was Quinton’s suicide letter written in his own hand rather than a line from the story.
Dr. Harris, an atheist, confesses that he killed Quinton with the Oriental knife because he loved Quinton’s wife and found the ideal opportunity. He justified the murder thus: “According to my own creed, I was quite free to kill Quinton, which was the best thing for everybody, even himself.”
Father Brown has detected a twisted pattern that leads to the solution of the crime. A crooked knife and paper with the wrong shape correspond to the devious, subtle crime with its labyrinthine ways and elaborate curves and turns.
Startling and Simple
When Flambeau and Father Brown study the crime, they distinguish between two meanings of the word “mystery”—the detective mystery of an unsolved crime and the supernatural mystery of a miracle.
The priest explains, “A miracle is startling; but it is simple. It is simple because it is a miracle.” The simplicity lies in its straightforwardness, “a power coming directly from God.”
On the other hand, the mystery of evil rests on its complexity and complication: Dr. Harrison pretending to care for his patient, insisting the crooked knife be returned to its Indian owner, weaving the clever use of a suicide note twisted out of context from a story, framing the Indian hermit, and rationalizing murder by a philosophizing that “to be a good animal is the best thing in the world.”
The truth, then, in its directness, simplicity, candor, and straightforwardness resembles a spear, a scythe, and a house whose appearance and shape perfectly correspond to their function. A spear follows a straight line, a scythe sweeps in one motion, a house configured to the letter “T” consists of two straight lines, a miracle comes swiftly and directly from God, and man descends straight from God.
Dr. Harris’ notion of man of course violates the classical definition of man as rational and moral and the Christian view of man as created in the image of God.
As Father Brown reasons, everything good acts for a clear, natural purpose that serves man; everything that is “the wrong shape” has a perverse, unnatural use that only leads to the serpentine ways of evil.
Sword Image © Valery Sibrikov / Dollar Photo Club