A most unusual book is featured on this week's "Classic Mysteries" podcast. It is a thriller, a traditional struggle between good and evil, order and anarchy. It is a mystery. It is also a surreal farce, richly funny and profoundly dark, a work of metaphysics and logic and illogic. It is, in fact, a nightmare - or, to be specific, it is "The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare," by G. K. Chesterton. It is, as I say, the subject of this week's podcast review, which you may listen to by clicking here.
Chesterton, the creator of the Father Brown stories, had a profound influence on mystery fiction. In "The Man Who Was Thursday," first published more than a century ago in 1908, he begins with the exposure of a terrible plot by anarchists to destroy the civilized world. The leaders of the plot are seven men, each of whom uses the name of a day of the week as an alias. The leader of the plot is a terrifying man who calls himself "Sunday."
But the group is infiltrated by our protagonist, a poet named Gabriel Syme, who is elected to the leadership council as "Thursday." Syme is, secretly, working for the police against the plotters. What he finds out, as he infiltrates the group, is that all is not as clear-cut as it seems. In a series of increasingly fantastic episodes - many of them quite comic, most equally surreal (there is, for example, a chase sequence involving both a hot-air balloon and an elephant) - much is revealed. And, ultimately, it is a nightmare - whether real or surreal is up to the reader to judge.
Penguin Books has released a new edition of "The Man Who Was Thursday," with an introduction and comprehensive footnotes by Matthew Beaumont. Penguin provided me with a copy of the book for this review. Frankly, I would urge you to read the story itself before reading Beaumont's introduction, because the latter does, of necessity, give away much of the plot. It is useful and informative, after reading the book itself, for explaining some of the cultural and social references of the time.
For readers of vintage mysteries, this is one of the finest, written by Chesterton at the top of his form. The Penguin edition is also available electronically for the Amazon Kindle. The book is entertaining, funny, frightening, often all at once; it is, in fact, "a nightmare," as the subtitle indicates. Enjoy the dream!