Many writers find a successful formula and keep repeating it. In that sense, if you have read one Ian Fleming spy novel, you have read them all. Much the same is true of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories and his essays featuring the missed adventure in everyday life. Once you grasp his unique perspective on common things most people ignore, you need read no more, but you will probably want to read more. The same goes for Fleming’s 007 stories. That is the whole point of formula writing, feeding popular acceptance.
Fleming’s spy stories today are mostly known and misrepresented in mass market action films based upon them. He was a masterful writer within his genre, and judging by book sales, far more successful than Chesterton.
With a parade of actors playing the role of James Bond, Hollywood’s philandering British Secret Service agent remained the same: the same guy; the same women; the same intrigue; the chase scenes, over and over. The real 007 of Fleming’s stories would have been fired for distraction in the line of duty.
It seems odd to say that Chesterton in some ways is far more elusive. And yet, if you take a step back from his casual essays and his Father Brown stories, he is always chewing the same cud. He is always busy wrapping himself and Father Brown in different versions of the same delightful tale. Father Brown is the persistent undercover presence in a clerical hat and Roman collar pretending to be elsewhere.
The difference betwixt Fleming’s James Bond versus G. K. of G. K.’s Weekly comes down to a matter of peas versus parsnips. I happen to like parsnips, and so I follow Chesterton and Father Brown from one startling perspective to the same startling perspective, viewed though the same kaleidoscope, filled with the same colorful geometrics. Twist the handle to rearrange the bits, but somehow the vision is always the same. Only the arrangement is different.
Much the same is true with the adventures of 007, cleverer by far than their two-dimensional film adaptations, but still the same arrangements for popular consumption. And so I do not follow James Bond from one intrigue to another or from his sports car to a yet another helicopter landing on the same old beach with its inevitable bikini. Chesterton, as I said, when it comes down to it, is far more unpredictable in writing about flowerbeds and trips to the corner store.
A lot of writers are like this. A successful formula is often mistaken for remarkable creativity. In fact, it is anything but: it’s a bit like the wonderment over swans mating for life. A character in one of my novels suggests wryly that this might imply that swans lack imagination. Human beings, of course, are far more complex than swans, and at least Chesterton becomes fascinating when he thinks of eloping with his wife every so often. Such pleasant zaniness finds its counterpart in Fleming’s depictions of the serious business called wartime counter-intelligence. Chesterton can play with being a lovable, romantic, goof-off.
Still, let’s be honest. It never happened. Three-hundred-pound Chesterton on a ladder held up to a window to escape with his wife is hilarious to imagine but that is as far as it goes. Chesterton is invariably entertaining, but he turns out to be the same amusing character in his own comic strip. He seldom reveals the wistful man behind the mask. Both his friend Hilaire Belloc and his biographer Maisie Ward have said as much. Fleming’s Agent 007 also works behind a mask, one of having his focus elsewhere than where it really is.
Chesterton imagined himself as Chesterton, the amusing and amazing gadfly he always wanted to be, the master of a profoundly personal universe. Though his many biographers keep trying to know him, he is always out of reach, no matter what the next biographer says. Fleming, a World War Two intelligence officer, is far easier to connect with his secret agent Bond. Fleming wrote about what he knew. Chesterton explored the contents of his own imagination, revealing himself in peeks and squints. Both writers created cartoon versions of themselves for public consumption. To judge from what contemporaries said about both, Fleming was closer to the man you would expect to meet if you surprised him at his breakfast.
Successful formula writing aggressively invites speculation about its author’s background and personality: the Shakespeare behind Hamlet and Lear; the Conan Doyle behind Sherlock Holmes; the P. G. Wodehouse behind Jeeves; the Fleming behind Bond; the whimsical Chesterton behind Father Brown.
Chesterton, the author, a consummate poser, reminds me of Hamlet, viewing his world as a stage with himself “strutting and acting upon it.” He will always be more of a mystery and a personal adventure than Fleming. I suspect that is precisely as he wanted it, the mystery behind the mystery behind the man behind the mask.