I don’t think I’m nearly creative or audacious enough to write something like The Man Who Was Thursday. I could barely believe that I was reading it.
Ostensibly, this is the story of Gabriel Syme, a gentleman, a poet, and a lover of law and order. In the first chapter he takes up an argument with another poet Lucian Gregory, an anarchist poseur. They argue heatedly but ineffectually, and both of them dismiss the other as harmless. However, the evening turns strange when Gregory swears Syme to secrecy, then conducts him to the underground lair of the European Council of Anarchists, where he reveals that he belongs to a cabal of anarchist terrorists, all of whom have taken up disguises as harmless bourgeois dilettantes to throw the police off their scent. Syme then reveals to Gregory that he is in fact a member of the police force, who has been drafted into a secret cadre of police intellectuals commissioned to prevent crimes arising from bad philosophy.
Both of them swear to keep the other’s secret. The anarchist parliament convenes, and Gregory’s election proceeds as predicted, until Syme intervenes. He contrives to pass himself off as a representative of the Council’s president, discredits Gregory, and has himself elected to the council in Gregory’s place.
This double deception is indicative of the whole absurdist tone of the book. People disguise themselves as exactly what they are, fight bitterly with their allies, and collude with their enemies, and by the end of the book even the ridiculous premise described above turns out to be something other than the truth. After Syme is elected to the Council of Anarchists, he becomes privy to a plot to kill both the Czar and the Prime Minister of France with a bomb, and sets out to somehow derail the assassinations without revealing himself to the rest of the group. His attempts result in him being chased by an octogenarian through a London snow storm, a duel with the Marquis of St. Eustache, a desperate flight through the French countryside, and a battle with an anarchist horde at the seashore. None of these incidents are what they seem at first, and all of them are accompanied by further revelations about the true nature of the characters and organizations in the story.
This structure is both the novel’s strength and its greatest weakness. By the third iteration of "this person is not what they seem", it becomes fairly obvious what the general direction of the story is, and some of the final twists in the main plot seemed rather perfunctory. However, as the plot dissolves into obfuscation, a larger and more pressing mystery comes forth, like a shape looming out of the fog: Who is the President of the Council of Anarchists, and what does he actually want? The answer to this question is strange, unexpected, and beautiful. Finding it out also involves a hijacked hansom cab, an elephant, and a hot air balloon.
In many ways, this novel feels like a spiritual predecessor to The Prisoner. As in The Prisoner, the story’s conceit revolves around hidden identities and double-crosses, and as with The Prisoner the novel’s ending does not resolve the plot in any literal manner. Rather, as the story nears its conclusion it ascends out of its novelistic trappings into something like a fairy tale, offering a conclusion which addresses the novel’s questions spiritually and philosophically. Not all readers will like the ending, but I doubt many will doubt its audacity and originality.
If you like Chesterton, you will doubtlessly like this book. If you don’t like Chesterton, you may enjoy this anyway, if nothing else as an example of how to write a cosmic comedy in the guise of a police thriller.