What a great title for a novel. Set in the early years of the 20th century, ‘The Man who was Thursday’ is subtitled ‘A Nightmare’, which gives a clue to the novel’s eventual denouement. Gabriel Syme, a newly recruited, not to say unusual police detective, infiltrates a gang of anarchists, and within hours has secured a place on their European Council. The council has seven members, each with a code name derived from the days of the week. The purpose of these code names is not immediately apparent, as each is also known by their actual names, and the council operates openly ‘in plain sight’, on the basis that this is the best form of disguise. A fairly breathless adventure ensues in which each council member is steadily exposed by Syme as fellow police officers.

I was already aware of the novel’s plot big ‘twist’, so I can’t be sure at what point I would have worked it out. I doubt it would have taken long. Each member has their own ‘reveal’ scene, although the surprise fades quickly, and the “Oh, by the way, I’m a policeman not an anarchist as well” scene quickly becomes the routine.

 

Chesterton challenges the reader to work out whether this is a naturalistic detective novel or not. The surreal elements are introduced quite early on – the back-street pub Syme is taken to by Gregory, keen to demonstrate the authenticity of his belief in anarchy, leads into a mysterious underground den of London anarchists, packed with weaponry and bombs. Anarchists were considered a real threat in early 20th century Europe, it being more of a catch-all term for revolutionary than it is today, and so even though the world Syme is introduced into has fantastical elements, it is unclear at first whether the reader is expected to treat them as simply part of an adventure story. Chesterton exploits this ambiguity throughout the novel – he constantly introduces mysterious, seemingly supernatural aspects into the narrative, only to quickly provide a naturalistic explanation. Syme duels with one of his council members, cutting him several times with an open blade, but does not draw blood. It is quickly revealed that this is because he is wearing a number of prosthetics, not least a false nose, which he removes to reveal – cure fanfare – yet another London policeman. Syme is earlier followed through London at breakneck speed by an old man who can hardly walk – and yes, the old man is revealed soon thereafter as an athletic policeman in disguise.

The nightmarish intensity of the novel accelerates as it draws to a climax, in some quite astonishingly surreal scenes. Naturalism is abandoned as Sunday, the leader of the Council, leads his gang, now all revealed as policemen, on a chase through the streets of London, partly on an elephant, partly by hot air balloon, throwing surreal comic notes into their path (“Fly at once. The truth about your trouser stretchers is known. – A FRIEND”) as he goes – into the countryside. The chase ends in a masked fancy dress ball. Christian allegory takes centre stage, and the somewhat bemused reader leans that Sunday’s disguise mirrors that of the novel itself – it never was a detective story, but a dream, a nightmare, all along.

I am sure I am not alone in finding this novel strangely discomforting. Chesterton wrote detective fiction – the Father Brown stories – and so the expectation that ‘Thursday’ would be more of the same, a reworking of Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’ with a lighter tone, is completely subverted by the revelation that the novel is a well-disguised religious allegory all along. The joke is a clever one, although whether it is clever enough for me to want to pursue Chesterton further is one I have yet to decide. The best I can say for now following a few days reflection on having finished the novel is that my disappointment at not having read the detective novel I expected has abated, and I have reappraised ‘The Man who was Thursday’. It may not be a great detective story, but it is quite an intelligent novel, and while religious allegories are something I can quickly have too much of, it is still good for me to have my expectations subverted once in a while.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements