Having once upon a time enjoyed the Father Brown stories of G. K. Chesterton, I had high hopes for what is widely hailed as his best novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, first published in 1908. Like Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent, and Henry James The Princess Casamassima, The Man Who Was Thursday, is one of the recognized literary classics about terrorist bombers of the previous fin de siècle.
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The novel got off to a promising start with two London bohemian poets -- one a genuine anarchist, the other a detective -- involved in selecting a delegate to an anarchist central committee in which each member is known only as a day of the week (the open slot is for a new person to be Thursday; the leader is known as Sunday). The undercover detective gets himself elected. The book's plot gets extremely complicated (featuring many chases, including one involving an elephant and a hot-air balloon), but the group's plot is simpler: to blow up the czar of Russia when he meets with the president of France.
The cabal of terrorists turns out to have more than one undercover policeman, to the great relief of the hero. (Adumbrating the results of a very famous social psychology experiment by Solomon Asch, Chesterton wrote, "There are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having an ally. It may be conceded to the mathematician that four is twice two, but two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.")
Although I did not foresee the ludicrous course of events, the central mystery is obvious before the book's midpoint. As satire, the book also falls apart, though Chesterton gets off a few ironic shots such as "The poor always have a stake in the country. The rich man hasn't; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht [or move from country to country like bin Laden]. The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all" and (in explaining the hero, Gabriel Syme) "He came of a family of cranks, in which all the oldest people had all the newest notions.... Being surrounded with every conceivable kind of revolt from infancy, Gabriel had to revolt into something, so he revolted into the only thing left--sanity."
The second half of the novel has been viewed as a religious allegory. If this was Chesterton's intent, he produced a very capricious glutton of a deity, if Sunday was intended to play the part of a supreme deity manipulating lesser mortals. It is hard to see Sunday as any orthodox Christian theological notion (Chesterton converted to Catholicism later).
The plotting is heavy-handed and the prose is overstuffed, like Victorian furniture. The book was a major disappointment for me. Shortly before he died, Chesterton protested that the book was "not intended to describe the real world." Alas, it does not create a very entertaining alternative reality either. For an account of bored rich folks playing at anarchist terrorism, The Princess Casamassima is much longer, but is also much better.
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