Lecture 39: The Man Who Knew Too Much

First of all, there is no connection between The Man Who Knew Too Much and the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name. Other than the same name.

In this collection of stories, the man who knows too much is Horne Fisher, a character who is generally thought to be based on Chesterton’s good friend, Maurice Baring. Fisher fits Baring’s physical description, he is a respected member of the upper class, and he seems to know everybody and everything. The similarity, however, ends there. Just as Father Brown is not exactly Father John O’Connor, neither is Horne Fisher exactly Maurice Baring. By all accounts, the real Baring was a charming, affable gentleman who knew how to laugh and had no fear of making a fool of himself, nonchalantly balancing a full wine glass on his bald head at social gatherings. Horne Fisher is distinctly lacking in both the charm and humor departments.

In awe of Fisher’s grasp of the facts, one character tells him, “Fisher, I should say that what you don’t know isn’t worth knowing.”

“You are wrong,” replies Fisher with a very unusual abruptness and even bitterness. “It’s what I do know that isn’t worth knowing.”

He would be much happier knowing less than he does. He is weighed down with the burden of knowing “the seamy side of things,” the stinking corruption in the high places of wealth and power. He drags himself languidly from one amazing, appalling event to another, pulling corpses out of cars and wells and summing up the situation with a cool disdain. But he can never report the crimes he solves because governments may fall, reputations may be ruined, aristocrats may squirm. We can get the truth out of Horne Fisher, but not justice. It is because he has a problem: he is himself a complicit member in the criminal governing class.

The overall impression cast by this book may strike some as unpleasant. However, it was reprinted many times after Chesterton’s death while most of his other books, including masterpieces like Manalive, languished out-of-print for decades. Why? The answer is simple. The stories are still great detective stories, each of which stands on its own. “The Hole in the Wall” and “The Vanishing Prince” are considered among the best detective stories Chesterton wrote. “The Face in the Target” is a fine example of Chesterton’s most important contribution to detective fiction: the idea of fair play with the reader. All the clues are there, but still the reader is still surprised. Detective fiction succeeds where other fiction fails because it is about finding the truth. There is a satisfaction in solving the riddle, even if the answer is not pleasing.

And though we must be careful not to consider this book as a novel but as a collection of independent stories, it is still worthwhile to note the development not of Fisher but of the character who plays the Watson role in these tales. Fisher’s sidekick is a journalist named Harold March. Newspaper journalists in Chesterton’s time had entirely the wrong idea about the shining virtues of the rich and powerful, but thanks to hanging around with Fisher, March learns the tainted truth. And in the end, he finally blasts Fisher for his inaction. He says what the reader has been wanting to say all along. But then Fisher turns the tables on March (and the reader) by defending his family and his circle. It is humble, thoroughly Christian and orthodox, and an intensely-thought provoking defense:

“Did you think I had found nothing but filth in the deep seas into which fate has thrown me? Believe me, you never know the best about men till you know the worst about them. It does not dispose of their strange human souls to know that they were exhibited to the world as impossible impeccable waxworks, who never looked after a woman or knew the meaning of a bribe. Even in a palace life can be lived well, and even in a parliament life can be lived with occasional efforts to live it well. I tell you it is as true of these rich fools and rascals as it is true of every poor footpad and pickpocket: that only God knows how good they have tried to be. God alone knows what the conscience can survive, or how a man who has lost his honour will still try to save his soul.”

Some have wondered: Is this burden of knowing too much Chesterton’s burden also? Forget Maurice Baring, is Fisher really Chesterton? Like Fisher, he had “discovered how darkly and how terribly crime can be entangled with law.” Is Fisher simply his mouthpiece to say the things he wants to say without restraint, to be a catharsis for his frustration at the entrenched and corrupt system, which he knows first hand? Just a few years earlier, he had to watch his dear brother suffer in the courts at the hands of a commercial and political conspiracy that itself went unpunished.

The answer is no. There is an expose here, but it is not of Chesterton’s subconscious. It is of British Officialdom. Horne Fisher is joyless. He is a pessimist. And he is spineless. There is no way to maintain such a description of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Horne Fisher says that what he knows isn’t worth knowing. Chesterton knows that what he knows is indeed worth knowing. He knows God. He also knows justice. Unlike Fisher, Chesterton is not afraid to cry out for justice, no matter what the cost. He hopes to reach an audience of the men who know too little.

If you would like to purchase this book, click here.

It is also available in Vol.8 of The Collected Works.