This novel takes place in a dull, dreary London boardinghouse whose inhabitants are terribly bored and listless — that is, until Innocent Smith bursts into their lives. Smith has extremely odd manners that startle the boardinghouse dwellers at first, but soon his gaiety and zest for life become contagious, even inspiring courage and romance in the hearts of the other characters. However, just as they’re all starting to enjoy themselves, Smith is cornered by two mental health doctors who claim that he is criminally insane. They accuse him of committing murder, burglary, polygamy, and a host of other crimes. The boardinghouse residents are shocked, but one of them suggests an informal “trial” to determine whether Smith is a force of good or evil.
I think the trick to liking this book is to approach it as a fable rather than as a novel in the traditional sense. There’s not much character development, nor is there a real plot to speak of; instead, the book satirizes modern psychology (“modern” being 1912, when the book was published) and explores a host of philosophical issues ranging from the profound to the (apparently) trivial. Being a diehard Chesterton fan, I enjoyed this book, but I wouldn’t recommend it to someone reading Chesterton for the first time. Start with Orthodoxy instead, which is a wonderful introduction to his style and his philosophy.