False reports have been a bit on my mind lately for obvious reasons (hey, there was another major hoax exposed in the press today), false reports of crimes doubly so. As it happens, Chesterton was kind of big into that topic. He wrote almost a hundred detective stories, most of which followed the standard outline. A crime is committed, the facts appear to point to either a clear suspect or one of several, but then the detective cleverly unravels the mystery and puts the blame squarely on someone who was never suspected. In that category, my favorite would probably be The Mirror of the Magistrate.
But not all of his stories follow that outline. In some we begin with evidence or detailed accounts of a crime, and end up learning that there is no crime at all. One of the best Father Brown stories fits that pattern: The Absence of Mr. Glass. Also in that category: The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown, The Awful Reason of the Vicar’s Visit, and of course the entire novel The Man Who Was Thursday.
But if we’re going to talk about instances where everyone’s sure that there’s a crime, and then it turns out there isn’t, the most relevant work is surely Four Faultless Felons. The title is direct enough: four stories about men who did something terrible, only it turns out that they didn’t. Here’s how it starts:
Mr. Asa Lee Pinion, of the Chicago Comet had crossed half of America, the whole of the Atlantic, and eventually even Piccadilly Circus, in pursuit of the notable, if not notorious figure of Count Raoul de Marillac. Mr. Pinion wanted to get what is called “a story”; a story to put in his paper. He did get a story, but he did not put it in his paper. It was too tall a story, even for the Comet. Perhaps the metaphor is true in more ways than one, and the fable was tall like a church-spire or a tower among the stars: beyond comprehension as well as belief. Anyhow, Mr. Pinion decided not to risk his readers’ comments. But that is no reason why the present writer, writing for more exalted, spiritual and divinely credulous readers, should imitate his silence.
A bit later we get this:
“Well, we are four men with a common bond at least. We have all had occasion, like Marillac, to look rather worse than we were.”
“Yes,” grunted the large man rather sourly, “we’ve all been Misunderstood. Like Mrs. Prague.”
“The Club of Men Misunderstood is rather more cheerful than that, however,” continued his friend. “We are all pretty jolly here, considering that our reputations have been blasted by black and revolting crimes. The truth is we have devoted ourselves to a new sort of detective story–or detective service if you like. We do not hunt for crimes but for concealed virtues. Sometimes, as in Marillac’s case, they are very artfully concealed. As you will doubtless be justified in retorting, we conceal our own virtues with brilliant success.”
The journalist’s head began to go round a little, though he thought himself pretty well accustomed both to crazy and criminal surroundings. “But I thought you said,” he objected, “that your reputations were blasted with crime. What sort of crime?”
“Well, mine was murder,” said the man next to him. “The people who blasted me did it because they disapproved of murder, apparently. It’s true I was rather a failure at murder, as at everything else.”
Pinion’s gaze wandered in some bewilderment to the next man who answered cheerfully:
“Mine was only a common fraud. A professional fraud, too, the sort that gets you kicked out of your profession sometimes. Rather like Dr. Cook’s sham discovery of the North Pole.”
“What does all this mean?” asked Pinion; and he looked inquiringly at the man opposite, who had done so much of the explaining so far.
“Oh, theft,” said the man opposite, indifferently; “the charge on which I was actually arrested was petty larceny.”
There was a profound silence, which seemed to settle in a mysterious manner, like a gathering cloud, on the figure of the fourth member, who had not spoken so far a single word. He sat erect in his rather stiff, foreign fashion; his wooden, handsome face was unchanged and his lips had never moved even for so much as a murmur. But now, when the sudden and deep silence seemed to challenge him, his face seemed to harden from wood to stone and when he spoke at last, his foreign accent seemed something more than alien, as if it were almost inhuman.
“I have committed the Unpardonable Sin,” he said. “For what sin did Dante reserve the last and lowest hell; the Circle of Ice?”
Still no one spoke; and he answered his own question in the same hollow tone:
“Treason. I betrayed the four companions of my party, and gave them up to the Government for a bribe.”
Something turned cold inside the sensitive stranger, and for the first time he really felt the air around him sinister and strange. The stillness continued for another half minute, and then all the four men burst out into a great uproar of laughter.
I highly recommend reading and enjoying the whole thing.