At first glance, Four Faultless Felons appears to be a cross between Manalive and The Club of Queer Trades. At second glance, too. It could serve as the Legion of Innocent Smith, who certainly could qualify as a faultless felon for his attempted murder, his burglary, his betrayals, all of which prove to be something other than what they seem. Here we have a quartet of kindred spirits and apparent reprobates: John Hume, “The Moderate Murderer”; Dr. John Judson, “The Honest Quack”; Alan Nadoway, “The Ecstatic Thief”; and John Conrad, “The Loyal Traitor.” Each character is the subject of his own story, complete with subchapters, in this Chesterton book from 1930.
The tales are lovely little mysteries with a twist in their very set up: the purpose of the puzzle is not to try to figure out who the criminal is, but to figure out why the criminal is not a criminal, and why in fact, there has not even been a crime committed. One man is caught shooting and wounding a government official. Another is caught openly abusing his trust as a doctor. Another is caught with his hands in other people’s pockets. And another is caught conspiring against the king.
To add to the drama, in each story there is a woman involved. The element of romance always increases the sense of urgency. The stories are told quickly, and each one plays out perfectly. But as usual, Chesterton has done more than spin some light detective yarns, he has sewn an intricate tapestry with the minimum number of stitches. There is a profound point to these tales. It is revealed in a striking passage from “The Ecstatic Thief.” Millicent Milton has a profound revelation that sums up the whole message of these four unusual gospels. While her hero is on trial for thievery, she realizes that he is not only innocent but unbelievably good. It is the deep dilemma of something that is too good to be true, too good to be believed: “Can’t you feel there is something so frightfully and frantically good that it must seem bad?” We are bound to misunderstand such goodness. “A blaze in the sky makes a blot on the eyesight. And after all the sun was blotted out, because one man was too good to live.”
It is surprising to find in the middle of an amusing mystery story, such a sudden and succinct explanation of Calvary. Atonement and expiation are horribly complex concepts. But with an almost daring economy of words, Chesterton shows that a character who is needlessly good weighs down the balance of judgment against a world full of sinners.
There is a fifth felon in this book. He appears in a short introduction in which we first meet the murderer, the fraud, the thief and the traitor. He is the Count Raoul de Marillac. And he is the President of the Club of Men Misunderstood. He appears to be an almost unreal figure of great extravagance and indulgence and dissipation. It turns out that he is too good to be bad. He only pretends to be a man of pleasure so that the pleasures of good food, good wine and good cigars can be safely enjoyed by others. He practices a strange and surprising form of self-denial, by indulging in things he does not like. He is, in fact, an ascetic.
There is something of G.K. Chesterton in all of his characters. Chesterton no doubt would like to shoot at people to remind them that they are alive, to steal from the rich and give to the poor, to take up arms and protect the strange little places that are private and holy. He can certainly be seen in Innocent Smith. We can also get a glimpse of him in each of the Four Faultless Felons. But perhaps the most suggestive and intriguing glimpse of Chesterton comes in the leader of the other four who appears only briefly, the mysterious Marillac. Is he another face of G.K. Chesterton, who in order to defend beef and beer against the teetotalers and the vegetarians who would take it away from everyone, only appeared to be a carouser and glutton? Is it possible that, like Marillac, the last thing Chesterton ever wanted to be accused of was virtue? At the end of the book, the Four Faultless Felons propose that a certain newspaper reporter also be made a member of their little club, since he has a reputation of being aggressive and rude to everybody in order to get his stories, when in fact he is very polite and finds that people are only too willing to tell him everything. Is there another journalist who should be included in the club, a writer who appears to be careless with the facts and even more careless with certain types of people who are not entirely white or English or Christian, when in fact he cherishes the facts just as he cherishes every human soul? Is there a smiling and laughing court jester urging merriment who is really a sober and suffering prophet preaching repentance? Did Chesterton create the Club of Men Misunderstood so that he, too, could be allowed to join?