All the Wrong Things: The Man Who Knew Too Much

This month’s theme is “Sleuths & Spies,” so I’m writing about a man who’s a bit of both.

Horne Fisher is the hero of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1922). Like many a Chesterton hero, he’s a detective. But unlike Chesterton’s best-known sleuth Father Brown, as famous for his naïveté as his uncanny spiritual insight, Horne Fisher solves crimes through an intimate familiarity with human society in all its grimy and seedy glory. “I know too much,” Fisher admits, “and all the wrong things.”

Fisher specializes in upper-class crime. The British upper class is his home turf. He does his best work solving crimes committed by his closest friends and associates, the politicians, aristocrats, and magnates he’s wined and dined with all his life. He knows their secrets. It’s only a matter of time before he unearths their sins. That’s why I think of Fisher as a spy, not just a sleuth: Like an undercover agent, he blends seamlessly with the people he hunts.

The oddest part though? After he hunts them down…. he always, always lets them go.

I have read The Man Who Knew Too Much scores of times, and I still don’t understand Horne Fisher’s motives. He has a strange compulsion to know everything his family and friends are up to. He has an equally strange reluctance to expose it, or even punish it. His favorite excuse is an appeal to the status quo: British oligarchy may be bad (he says), but a future without its stabilizing power would be worse. We cannot take responsibility for toppling corrupt politicians. Who knows what new breed of corruption would rise to take their place?

If I had to guess, I’d say Fisher fears the unfamiliar. He hates the environment he grew up in, but not enough to cleanse and change it. More than that, he fears disloyalty. Foul as they may be, these are his people. His class. His tribe. How can he be the one to shred their veil of illusion? How can he be the one to tell the nation—to tell them—they’re not all they pretend to be?

I’ll admit, I admire that loyalty. In some sneaking, twisted way, I admire it. What I don’t understand is why this man continues to torture himself with constant sleuthing and spying… why he amasses layer after layer of knowledge of criminal activity he’s determined to do nothing about.

Since I’ll never fully ‘get’ Horne Fisher, I’ll leave you with his own defense of his conduct. It’s more grimly eloquent than anything I could say, at any rate: “If you people ever happen to blow the whole tangle of human society to hell with dynamite, I don’t know that the human race will be much the worse. But don’t be too hard on me merely because I know what society is.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Prescott is a former homeschool student and current graduate student, pursuing a master’s degree in American history with a focus on immigration studies. In her (sadly limited) free time, she can usually be found listening to “Hamilton” or Celine Dion or Twenty One Pilots and dreaming up new ideas for historical fiction novels. Which, she hopes, will someday make her famous. Someday. She also blogs.

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