Saturday, February 11, 2023

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare

There's going to be some spoilerish things in this, so be advised.

Gabriel Syme wanders into the London suburb of Saffron Park, a 'place not only pleasant, but perfect.' 'It had to be considered not so much as a workshop for artists, but as a frail but finished work of art.' Syme is himself a poet, 'a poet of law, a poet of order; nay, he said he was a poet of respectability.' He gets into a verbal squabble with red-headed Lucian Gregory, the established poet of Saffron Park, who is none of those things, but rather the opposite. (While at the same time, Syme admires Gregory's sister Rosamond, equally red-headed.)

Syme is also a detective, working for Scotland Yard. He was approved at joining by a mysterious man in a dark room.

Gregory proclaims himself a radical anarchist, but Syme accuses him of being a wannabe. Gregory refutes this charge by introducing Syme to a secret society, the leaders of which are named after the days of the week; at the very next meeting, to which Gregory takes Syme, Gregory expects to be elected the new Thursday. Sunday is the leader of this anarchist society.

Syme launches into a speech that results in his being elected the new Thursday. Aha, thinks Syme! I will now be Scotland Yard's man on the inside. But he has confessed his status as a policeman to Gregory, and sworn not to denounce him, so he has to figure out how to use his new insider-dom without breaking his vow.

At the very first meeting of the seven weekday leaders, Sunday announces one of them is a policeman. Yikes, thinks Syme, I've been found out already. But no, it turns out Gogol is also a policeman in disguise, and while Syme is mostly relieved he hasn't been detected, he's also a little ashamed he didn't do more. Gogol is escorted by thugs off the premises to some unspeakable fate.

On leaving that first meeting, Syme is pursued by another anarchist principal, the Professor de Worms. Does the Professor know Syme's a policeman? Syme tries to escape, but is eventually cornered by the Professor, who...reveals he's also a policeman. That makes three out of the seven. If only they'd organized!

I was perfectly ready to generalize after this, and yes, it quickly turns out six of the seven anarchist leaders are policeman in disguise. Is Sunday as well? 

Of course he is. (I have to say I saw that a mile away, or at least 90 pages away out of the 160.) But Chesterton handles it amusingly and suspensefully enough, and, in fact, Sunday is exactly that unseen policeman who first approved Syme's joining the force (and the other five policeman/anarchist leaders, as well.) The six pursue Sunday (or maybe Sunday is pursuing them) until a final recognition and no crime is actually committed, no dynamite thrown, the Czar not assassinated, even Gogol turns out to be alive after all.

It is Chesterton, and the name Sunday might be a clue. This is fairly early in Chesterton's career (1908), Father Brown is in the future, and Chesterton has not yet converted to Catholicism. Wikipedia tells me he was suffering a crisis of faith as he was writing this. Sunday is a deus absconditus. He tells his policemen, "You heard the voice in the dark, and you never heard it again. The sun in heaven denied it, the earth and sky denied it, all human wisdom denied it. And when I met you in daylight I denied it myself." Sunday goes on to explain why he allowed this, and so the book is a kind of theodicy, a justification of God, and an explication of why there is evil in the world. Like all theodicies, I didn't find it very convincing myself...

But until it got there it was a pretty amusing thriller.

There are the usual Chestertonian provocations. Only someone who's meat-eating and beer-drinking can be a proper Englishman, and not a lowly anarchist. Well in fact, I eat meat and drink beer, and have no desire to be a proper Englishman, so this should slide right past me, but I admit to being bothered by it, a little. But it is Chesterton, so one has to either not read him, or not be bothered by that sort of thing.

Do I dare call it a crime book? Well, in the end, it is a bit more Piers Plowman than Bulldog Drummond, but it does start with a Scotland Yard man trying to prevent a murder, so...

Vintage Mystery, Gold, Two People.

I actually read it in a copy from Project Gutenberg, but found online the cover shown above which fits the book pretty well.


  1. Another well-known author I have never read.

    1. The Father Brown detective stories are pretty good, too.

  2. I think you can still call it crime novel - thriller and crime are cousins, right? :P
    I own a copy of this book, but haven't had the mood to read it. I think it's a bit too queer for my taste. But I've read Father Brown years ago, and loved it. Would love to read more of it in the future!

    1. It is definitely an odd one--odder than the Father Brown stories. Still I did find it pretty entertaining.

  3. I read this a while back - my older children had read it and loved its quirkiness but while I enjoyed I can't say I really understood it! I do love Chesterton's way with words.

    1. I have no idea how I was to read the message, though I'm pretty sure there was supposed to be one. But it definitely carried me along. Chesterton does have panache.