As one of the books for the Outmoded Authors Challenge I chose G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. I have never read Chesterton before so I had no idea what to expect. From the back of the book I knew it was a sort of spy novel, but I had no idea how hilariously funny it would be. What makes it even funnier is that all of the characters are completely serious no matter how absurd things get.
The main character is Gabriel Syme. He is an upstanding police officer who goes undercover in order to discover the identity of Sunday, the leader of the Anarchists. Syme gets himself elected to the Anarchist Council when the previous Thursday meets an untimely end. Here is a portion of a eulogy spoken before the Anarchist cell members who are about to elect a new Thursday:
As you know, his services to the cause were considerable. He organised the great dynamite coup of Brighton which, under happier circumstances, ought to have killed everybody on the pier. As you also know, his death was as self-denying as his life, for he died through his faith in a hygienic mixture of chalk and water as a substitute for milk, which beverage he regarded as barbaric, and as involving cruelty to the cow.
So we have an Anarchist who tried to kill everyone on Brighton pier but thought drinking milk was cruel. And so goes the whole book. The Anarchists are sticklers about following rules and get very upset when someone doesn’t play fair.
Syme as Thursday runs off to France to try and stop another member of the Council from going through with an assassination. The book is filled with mistaken identities and no one ever seems to be who they say they are. At the end of the book there is a chase scene that involves horses, cars, boats, an elephant and hansom cabs, and a hot air balloon. A scene that would do James Bond proud.
While the book on its surface is a fun romp of a story, there is another deeper level. Regardless of whether the Anarchists are effective, they are viewed as a group that is trying to destroy the world. The suspects are usually rich people because poor people are either too busy just trying to survive to worry about anarchy, or they are viewed as having too much invested in the stability of a government and system that they imagine themselves someday being able to take part in when they make their fortunes.
The driving question underneath The Man Who Was Thursday is will the human race survive? Chesterton published the book in 1908 and was strongly influenced by the Boer War and his deep religious beliefs. The book’s epigraph pretty much says it all:
“I see everything,” he cried, “everything that there is. Why does each thing on earth war against each other thing? Why does each small thing the world have to fight against the world itself?”
Why indeed. I don’t think we are any closer to an answer now than we were then.
I enjoyed The Man Who Was Thursday so much I raced through it in a day and a half. Those kinds of books don’t come along very often. Because I read so fast, I’m sure I missed a lot and I would like to re-read it again sometime. I’d also like to read more Chesterton. The Father Brown books are supposed to be quite good.