At the beginning of the 20th century, in detective fiction there was Sherlock Holmes and that was all. There were other fictional detectives, to be sure, but they were only bad imitations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous consulting detective. The sleuths offered by other writers would try to outdo Holmes in eccentricity and in solving crimes that were evermore contrived and convoluted. But in 1905 a book of mysteries came along that finally managed to turn the Sherlock Holmes idea on its head. The book was The Club of Queer Trades by G.K. Chesterton. His detective, Rupert Grant, is a Sherlock Holmes-like private eye who investigates crimes and chases crooks with great self-assuredness in his powers of deduction. But he is always wrong. The hero of these stories is not Rupert, but his older brother, Basil Grant, a retired judge. In each case, Basil proves to Rupert that there has been no crime and no crooks.
The brothers, Rupert and Basil, are perhaps inspired by two real life brothers: Cecil Chesterton and his older brother, Gilbert.
Chesterton describes Basil Grant as being able to “talk to any one anywhere, and talk not only well but with perfectly genuine concern and enthusiasm for that person’s affairs. He went through the world, as it were, as if he were always on the top of a omnibus or waiting for a train.” Sounds as though he is describing himself. He also reinforces the stereotype of himself as someone who is not bothered with facts as long as he gets the conclusions right. He even has Basil going so far as to say how “mere facts obscure the truth.”
Rupert, on the other hand, has a certain brashness and overconfidence that is usually his undoing. He speaks “in that sweet and steely voice which he reserved for great occasions and practised for hours together in his bedroom,” and then dramatically pronounces the wrong conclusion. We can imagine a young Cecil Chesterton doing just that, especially the practicing in the bedroom, while a patient and amused older brother Gilbert indulged him as they were growing up.
But what is the “Club of Queer Trades”? Well, that would be giving too much away. This is detective fiction, after all. But we can still say that one of the clubs, the Adventure and Romance Agency, which fulfills “the desire for a larger theatre of events,” sounds like the inspiration for the premise of Fantasy Island. And “The Noticable Conduct of Professor Chadd” looks like it might be the inspiration for John Cleese’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” on Monty Python. There are detractors might say that this is giving Chesterton too much credit. These people need not detain us. It is not possible to give Chesterton too much credit.
One of the best things about this book is that Chesterton illustrated it himself. The sentence, “The cries appeared to come from a decapitated head resting on the pavement,” is a line that would do well in any mystery story, but the drawing that accompanies it is as funny and as it is puzzling. We want to know the solution, but first we want to laugh.