The Man Who Knew Too Much was a detective story and that it was written by G.K. Chesterton, I didn't know much about this book going in. I've read some of the Father Brown stories by Chesterton and really enjoyed them so I was looking forward to sinking my teeth into a Chesterton novel. Sadly, this isn't a novel in the proper sense. Rather, this book is a collection of short detective stories centered around Horne Fisher, the "man who knew too much." Even though it wasn't a complete detective novel, I was still excited to have fun reading the stories.
As mentioned, the main protagonist in the stories is a man named Horne Fisher. At the beginning, we know very little about Fisher but as the stories progress, we learn more and more about him and find out he is related to or family friends with a number of very influential people in politics and business. It is presumably through these connections that he obtains a fair amount of his extra knowledge. The rest of his "knowing too much" comes from being hyper-observant in the same sense as another famous detective, the illustrious Sherlock Holmes.
I'm sure plenty of people have made the comparison and I'll just repeat it here. Horne Fisher and his stories bear a striking resemblance to the style and format of Sherlock Holmes and his stories. Through each of the stories in the book, Fisher is accompanied by a journalist friend named Harold March. This character acts like Watson in some sense by being asking questions and helping unravel the clues of the mystery. Unlike Watson's narration, the stories in this book are written in 3rd person rather than by March himself. Also, March seems a little more competent a companion to Fisher than Watson is to Holmes. No offense to Watson, but in many of the Sherlock stories, it seems like Watson's primary purpose is to tag along, pay the bills and ask "how could you possibly know that" in order to shine the light on Holmes's brilliance. While March does question Fisher's abilities at times he also has a journalistic flair that allows him to ask more pointed and driving questions that help elaborate some of the political and social problems that Fisher faces.
Each individual story is fun and interesting. Some (especially some of the latter in the book) got a little bogged down in political specificity for my taste but they were still fun. As with many detective stories, and more so with a detective like Horne Fisher (or Sherlock Holmes), there are times where the reader feels a little cheated by the conclusion comes by the revelation of some bit of evidence that the reader was never given. Granted, it's difficult to give the reader all of the facts with sufficient detail to allow the reader to solve the mystery while still making sure the details stay obtuse enough to ensure the mystery is tricky to solve and allows the protagonist to show some panache. Detective stories have to straddle the line between giving too many clues and bombarding the reader with red herrings or giving too few clues and making the reader feel a little cheated at the end. It's a tough balancing act.
These stories were definitely fun and entertaining. They weren't quite as humorous as Chesterton's Father Brown stories but they weren't overly heavy or dull either. They definitely had that Holmesian feeling while still being different enough to stand on their own. Each story is fairly short and stands entirely on its own which makes for a nice concise bit of reading while still having some meat on its bones. It is written with some of that same formal feeling and style as Sherlock Holmes so if you're looking for a fast-paced mystery novel, this may not quite be what you're looking for. Still, it's a refreshing batch of smart, well crafted mysteries that make for a nice entertaining read.
4 out of 5 stars
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