Monday, July 7, 2008

GK Chesterton

GK Chesterton: The Club of Queer Trades

The Club of Queer Trades, if you can find it, comes rightly packaged with Chesterton's treatise on detective novels. It is a barrage on snobbery and an assault on the detractors of this much maligned brand of fiction.

"The trouble is that many people do not realize that there is such a thing as a good detective story; it is to them like speaking of a good devil. To write a story about a burglary is, in their eyes, a sort of spiritual manner of committing it."

Of course, he was a contemporary of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and other luminaries in the field. He went on to explain the merits of the good detective novel, pausing to berate those who dismiss the stories offhand. The Club of Queer Trades is a culmination of detective stories, utilizing all the tools of a traditional mystery while arriving at an entirely different conclusion.

The book is a strange sort of detective story separated into 6 smaller mysteries. The "detectives" are Swinburne and a corpulent Basil Grant, who are usually arguing in a parlor somewhere when Basil's little brother, the amateur detective Rupert, bursts in with an odd occurrence. They all go along on the investigation, the suspicious Rupert, the observing narrator, and the wisely aloof Basil. Over the course of the story, they keep encountering members of the club of queer trades, a secret society whose requirements for membership include that one has to have created his own trade (different from any other job extant) and must make his living from it.

Just like a Sherlock Holmes story, clues are dropped throughout the proceedings. Rupert is easily pictured as a caricature of Holmes. Basil is undoubtedly Chesterton, brimming with wisdom and a laconic manner of speaking. The narrator Swinburne serves only to tell the story, adding very little besides a voice of reason. In the end, every case is solved and the link between cases, which the reader has already guessed, appears.

The book is enjoyable enough, offering little in the way of true surprises, but plenty of tight clever prose. Its quirks are its assets, and eventually prove Chesterton's theory that artistic imagination exists in detective fiction. The cold foggy streets, the flickering street lamps, the gray stone buildings, this book is the London of murder mysteries, though the mysteries inside this volume do not include crimes, much less murders. They are a compendium of strange events that could be transpiring right under your nose in any given city, only explained by the existence of the Club of Queer Trades.

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