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.
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.