murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction



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There is a fascination about the solving of a big murder mystery by a bit of a broken cuff-link; or the tracing of a professional burglar by a speck of cigarette ash. Of course, the philosophy is that these clues are so small as to be unnoticed by the criminal who so conveniently leaves them behind him. Also they are unnoticed by the amateur or the Central Office sleuth, and so redound to the glory of the Transcendent Detective.
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Close observation is one of the high cards of the fiction detective's game. Dupin is often described as scrutinizing with great minuteness of attention everything in the vicinity of the scene of the crime. We subjoin an account of the search for "The Purloined Letter" as an example of what a thorough search really means to the Transcendent Detective.

"Suppose you detail," said I, "the particulars of your search."

"Why, the fact is, we took our time, and we searched everywhere. I have had long experience in these affairs.

I took the entire building, room by room; devoting the nights of a whole week to each. We examined first, the furniture of each apartment, we opened every possible drawer; and I presume that you know that, to a properly trained police agent, such a thing as a secret drawer is impossible. Any man is a dolt who permits a 'secret' drawer to escape him in a search of this kind. The thing is so plain. There is a certain amount of bulk—of space—to be accounted for in every cabinet. Then we have accurate rules. The fiftieth part of a line could not escape us. After the cabinets we took the chairs. The cushions we probed with the fine long needles you have seen me employ. From the tables we removed the tops." "Why so?"

"Sometimes the top of a table, or other similarly arranged piece of furniture, is removed by the person wishing to conceal an article; then the leg is excavated, the article deposited within the cavity, and the top replaced. The bottoms and tops of bedposts are employed in the same way."

"But could not the cavity be detected by sounding?" I asked.

"By no means, if, when the article is deposited, a sufficient wad ding of cotton be placed around it. Besides, in our case, we were obliged to proceed without noise." "But you could not have removed—you could not have taken to pieces all articles of furniture in which it would have been possible to make a deposit in the manner you mention. A letter may be compressed into a thin spiral roll, not differing much in shape or bulk from a large knitting-needle, and in this form it might be inserted into the rung of a chair, for example. You did not take to pieces all the chairs?"

"Certainly not; but we did better—we examined the rungs of every chair in the Hotel, and, indeed, the jointings of every description of furniture, by the aid of a most powerful microscope. Had there been any traces of recent disturbance we should not have failed to detect it instantly. A single grain of gimlet-dust, for example, would have been as obvious as an apple. Any disorder in the gluing—any unusual gaping in the joints—would have sufficed to insure detection."

"I presume you looked to the mirrors, between the boards and the plates, and you probed the beds and the bed-clothes, as well as the curtains and carpets."

"That, of course; and when we had absolutely completed every particle of the furniture in this way, then we examined the house itself. We divided its entire surface into compartments, which we numbered, so that none might be missed; then we scrutinized each individual square inch throughout the premises, including the two houses immediately adjoining, with the microscope, as before."

"The two houses adjoining!" I exclaimed; "you must have had a great deal of trouble."

"We had; but the reward offered is prodigious."

"You include the grounds about the houses?"

"All the grounds are paved with brick. They gave us comparatively little trouble. We examined the moss between the bricks, and found it undisturbed."

"You looked among D—'s papers, of course, and into the books of the library?"

"Certainly; we opened every package and parcel; we not only opened every book, but we turned over every leaf in each volume, not contenting ourselves with a mere shake, according to the fashion of some of our police officers. We also measured the thickness of every book cover, with the most accurate admeasurement, and applied to each the most jealous scrutiny of the microscope. Had any of the bindings been recently meddled with, it would have been utterly impossible that the fact should have escaped observation. Some five or six volumes, just from the hands of the binder, we carefully probed, longitudinally, with the needles."

"You explored the floors beneath the carpets?"

"Beyond doubt. We removed every carpet, and examined the boards with the microscope."

"And the paper on the walls?"


"You looked into the cellars?"

"We did."

"Then," I said, "you have been making a miscalculation, and the letter is not upon the premises, as you suppose."

"I fear you are right there," said the Prefect. "And now, Dupin, what would you advise me to do?"

"To make a thorough re-search of the premises."

Lecoq pursues the same methods of close scrutiny, and we find him in Gaboriau's "The Crime of Orcival,"

"… lifting the fallen furniture, studying its fractures, examining the smallest bits of wood or stuff to see if they might betray the truth. Now and then he took out an instrument case, from which he produced a shank, with which he unlocked various drawers. Finding a towel hanging over a rack, he carefully put it on one side, as if he deemed it of importance. He went to and fro between the bedroom and the count's study, without losing a word of what was being said—making indeed a mental note both of the remarks themselves and of the tone in which they were exchanged."

As to Sherlock Holmes, it is not necessary to refer to his microscopic examinations. In fact, so addicted is he to the use of the lens, that it has become a by-word in connection with his methods.

But this close observation must have something to observe; the magnifying glass must have something to magnify; and these things must be of vital importance as evidence.

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The Search for Clues

This could rarely be compassed in real life, but it is, of course, easy for the author to provide the tiny clues necessary to his hero's microscope work.

And tiny clues are a favorite device of the detective story writer. There is a fascination about the solving of a big murder mystery by a bit of a broken cuff-link; or the tracing of a professional burglar by a speck of cigarette ash. Of course, the philosophy is that these clues are so small as to be unnoticed by the criminal who so conveniently leaves them behind him. Also they are unnoticed by the amateur or the Central Office sleuth, and so redound to the glory of the Transcendent Detective.

But most of all their use is to impress and astound the reader by a picturesque application of the truth that great oaks from little acorns grow. It is the dramatic contrast of the tiny indication that points the way to the enormous result of discovering the perpetrator of an atrocious crime.

But here again we have the great gulf fixed between the Real Detective and the Fiction Detective. Take the vital point in "File No. 113." Now really there is not one chance in a thousand that the particle of green paint would have been found adhering to that key, had the key been found. Green paint will adhere most annoyingly to clothing, or hands, or even keys when it is not desired, but if needed as criminal evidence it will in all probability be found wanting.

But the field of fiction is as a salted mine. What is searched for is found, and the detective triumphantly ferrets out the infinitesimal clues that have been most carefully put in place by the author.

When Sherlock Holmes looked for a burnt match in "Silver Blaze," he found it, though the really careful inspector had carefully overlooked it. This is the account of the scene:

"My dear Inspector, you surpass yourself!" Holmes took the bag, and, descending into the hollow, he pushed the matting into a more central position. Then stretching himself upon his face and leaning his chin upon his hands, he made a careful study of the trampled mud in front of him. "Hullo!" said he, suddenly. "What's this?" It was a wax vesta half burned, which was so coated with mud that it looked at first like a little chip of wood.

"I cannot think how I came to overlook it," said the Inspector, with an expression of annoyance.

"It was invisible, buried in the mud. I only saw it because I was looking for it."

"What! you expected to find it?"

"I thought it not unlikely."

This is a fine instance of spectacular detective work. And this is what is demanded for the true technique of the Mystery Story. It is not real life; it is a stage, set with the furnishings and properties of the dramatic plot. The dropped handkerchiefs, the shreds of cloth or torn bits of paper, are carefully placed, and the detective has only to step along and pick them up.

Wilkie Collins' creation. Sergeant Cuff, sanctions it emphatically:

"I made a private inquiry last week, Mr. Superintendent," he said. "At one end of the inquiry there was a murder, and at the other end there was a spot of ink on a table-cloth that nobody could account for. In all my experience along the dirtiest ways of this dirty little world I have never met with such a thing as a trifle yet."

A case in point, is this bit from "The Whispering Man:"

"I turned to go. Just as I did so, my eye caught a glint from the carpet, of what I took to be a bent pin. Quite automatically—for by nature I am an orderly and methodical person—I stooped and picked it up. It was not a pin after all, but the broken end of a curved needle. It made no particular impression on my mind, and I was on the point of dropping it into the waste-paper basket when something stopped me. It was no very definite idea, probably just a reminiscence from detective stories I had read, of the immense importance of the most trivial things."

It was this that Lowell had in mind, when he said that Poe "combined in a very remarkable manner two faculties which are seldom found united,—a power of influencing the mind of the reader by the impalpable shadows of mystery, and a minuteness of detail which does not leave a pin or a button unnoticed. Both are, in truth, the natural results of the predominating quality of his mind, to which we have before alluded,—analysis." And the same principle is approved of in real life by Mr. Arthur C. Train's assertion: "The discovery and proper proof of minute facts which tend to demonstrate the guilt of an accused are the joy of the natural prosecutor, and he may in his enthusiasm spend many thousands of dollars on what seems, and often is, an immaterial matter."

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The Bizarre in Crime

A deep conviction of the Transcendent Detective is that a crime containing unusual or even bizarre characteristics is more easy of solution than a commonplace one. This is a somewhat disingenuous proposition; for the real reason that the bizarre crime is preferable, is because it offers greater dramatic and spectacular opportunities. But of course the author is not admitting this. No, he puts into the mouth of his detective such theories as these.

Thus Dupin speaks:

"It appears to me that this mystery is considered insoluble, for the very reason which should cause it to be regarded as easy of solution—I mean, for the outre character of its features. The police are confounded by seeming absence of motive; not for the murder itself, but for the atrocity of the murder. They are puzzled, too, by the seeming impossibility of reconciling the voices heard in contention, with the facts that no one was discovered upstairs but the assassinated Mademoiselle L'Espanaye, and that there were no means of egress without the notice of the party ascending. The wild disorder of the room; the corpse thrust, with the head downward, up the chimney; the frightful mutilation of the body of the old lady; these considerations, with those just mentioned, and others which I need not mention, have sufficed to paralyze the powers, by putting completely at fault the boasted acumen of the government agents. They have fallen into the gross but common error of confounding the unusual with the abstruse. But it is by these deviations from the plane of the ordinary that reason feels its way, if at all in its search for the true. In investigations such as we are now pursuing, it should not be so much asked 'what has occurred,1 as 'what has occurred that has never occurred before.' In fact, the facility with which I shall arrive, or have arrived, at the solution of this mystery, is in the direct ratio of its apparent insolubility in the eyes of the police."

And again:

"This is a far more intricate case than that of the Rue Morgue from which it differs in one important respect.

This is an ordinary although an atrocious instance of crime. There is nothing peculiarly outre about it. You will observe that, for this reason, the mystery has been considered easy, when, for this reason, it should have been considered difficult of solution."

Sherlock Holmes remarks on this matter thus:

"As a rule," said Holmes, "the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify. But I must be prompt over this matter.—It seems, from what I gather, to be one of those simple cases which are so extremely difficult."

"That sounds a little paradoxical."

"But it is profoundly true. Singularity is almost invariably a clew. The more featureless and commonplace a crime is, the more difficult is it to bring it home."

Indeed, so fond is Sherlock Holmes of the bizarre that he prefers that characteristic to the more culpable forms of crime. In one of his stories he observes:

"Amid the action and reaction of so dense a swarm of humanity, every possible combination of events may be expected to take place, and many a little problem will be presented which may be striking and bizarre without being criminal. We have already had experience of such."

"So much so," I remarked, "that of the last six cases which I have added to my notes, three have been entirely free of any legal crime."

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The Value of the Trivial

But in the following extract, perhaps because he is in a disputatious mood, he acknowledges a liking for trivial and lowly manifestations of his art:

"To the man who loves art for its own sake," remarked Sherlock Holmes, tossing aside the advertisement sheet of the Daily Telegraph, "it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived. It is pleasant to me to observe, Watson, that you have so far grasped this truth the in these little records of our cases which you have been good enough to draw up, and I am bound to say, occasionally to embellish, you have given prominence not so much to the many causes celebres and sensational trials in which I have figured, but rather to those incidents which may have been trivial in themselves, but which have given room for those faculties of deduction and of logical synthesis which I have made my special province."

"And yet," said I, smiling "I cannot quite hold myself absolved from the charge of sensationalism which has been urged against my records."

"You have erred, perhaps," he observed, taking up a glowing cinder with the tongs, and lighting with it the long cherrywood pipe which was wont to replace his clay when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood—"you have erred perhaps in attempting to put color and life into each of your statements, instead of confining yourself to the task of placing upon record that severe reasoning from cause to effect which is really the only notable feature about the thing."

"It seems to me that I have done you full justice in the matter," I remarked, with some coldness, for I was repelled by the egotism which I had more than once observed to be a strong factor in my friend's singular character.

"No, it is not selfishness or conceit," said he, answering, as was his wont, my thoughts rather than my words. "If I claim full justice for my art, it is because it is an impersonal thing—a thing beyond myself. Crime is common. Logic is rare. Therefore it is upon the logic rather than upon the crime that you should dwell. You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales."

But Watson himself confesses to the dangers of this literary Scylla and Charybdis with which Conan Doyle has seen fit to disturb him:

"In glancing over the somewhat incoherent series of Memoirs with which I have endeavored to illustrate a few of the mental peculiarities of my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I have been struck by the difficulty which I have experienced in picking out examples which shall in every way answer my purpose. For in those cases in which Holmes has performed some tour de force of analytical reasoning, and has demonstrated the value of his peculiar methods of investigation, the facts themselves have often been so slight or so commonplace that I could not feel justified in laying them before the public. On the other hand, it has frequently happened that he has been concerned in some research where the facts have been of the most remarkable and dramatic character, but where the share which he has himself taken in determining their causes has been less pronounced than I, as his biographer, could wish. The small matter which I have chronicled under the heading of 'A Study in Scarlet,1 and that other later one connected with the loss of the Gloria Scott, may serve as examples of this Scylla and Charybdis which are forever threatening the historian. It may be that in the business of which I am now about to write the part which my friend played is not sufficiently accentuated; and yet the whole train of circumstances is so remarkable that I cannot bring myself to omit it entirely from this series."

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The Tricks of Imitation

These tricks of the trade are of course faithfully copied by the imitators and successors of these great authors. An example in point is this from Jacques Futrelle's "The Thinking Machine;"

"Now, Mr. Hatch," said The Thinking Machine in his perpetually crabbed voice, "we have a most remarkable riddle. It gains this remarkable aspect from its very simplicity. It is not, however, necessary to go into that now.

I will make it clear to you when we know the motives."

The following paragraph of philosophy has proved of immense use as a model:

"All this seems strange to you," continued Holmes, "because you failed at the beginning of the inquiry to grasp the importance of the single real clew which was presented to you. I had the good fortune to seize upon that, and everything which has occurred since then has served to confirm my original supposition, and, indeed, was the logical sequence of it. Hence things which have perplexed you and made the case more obscure have served to enlighten me and to strengthen my conclusions. It is a mistake to confound strangeness with mystery. The most commonplace crime is often the most mysterious because it presents no new or special features from which deductions may be drawn. This murder would have been infinitely more difficult to unravel had the body of the victim been simply found lying in the roadway without any of those outre and sensational accompaniments which have rendered it remarkable. These strange details, far from making the case more difficult, have really had the effect of making it less so."

Its principles are embodied in this quotation from Gordon Holmes' "A Mysterious Disappearance:"

"The greater the apparent mystery," he communed, "the less it is in reality. We now have two tracks to follow. They are both hidden, it is true, but when we find one, it will probably intersect the other.

"You are not to blame. White," he said, "for having failed to note many things which I have now told you. You are the slave of a system. Your method works admirably for the detection of commonplace crime, but as soon as the higher region of romance is reached it is as much out of place as a steam-roller in a lady's boudoir. Look at the remarkable series of crimes the English police have failed to solve of late, merely because some bizarre element had intruded itself at the outset. Have you ever read any of the works of Edgar Allan Poe?"

The detective answered in the affirmative. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Mystery of Marie Roget" were familiar to him.

"Well," went on Bruce, "there you have the accurate samples of my meaning. Poe would not have been puzzled for an hour by the vagaries of Jack the Ripper.

He would have said at once—most certainly after the third or fourth in the series of murders—'This is the work of an athletic lunatic, with a morbid love of anatomy and a morbid hatred of a certain class of women.

Seek for him among young men who have pestered doctors with outrageous theories, and who possess weak- minded or imbecile relatives.' Then, again, take the murder on the South-Western Railway. Do you think Poe would have gone questioning bartenders or inquiring into abortive love affairs? Not he! Jealous swains do not carry pistols about with them to slay their sweethearts, nor do they choose a four-minutes' interval between suburban stations for frenzied avowals of their passion.

Here you have the clear trail of a clever lunatic, dropping from the skies, as it were, and disappearing in the same erratic manner."

In "The Master of Mysteries," Mr. Gelett Burgess puts this principle into the mouth of his psychic detective. Astro:

"It will probably be easy and interesting," he remarked to his assistant Valeska, who had been present at the interview with McGraw. "It is these cases which are apparently so extraordinary that are most easily solved. Given any remarkable variation in the aspect of a crime, and you know immediately where to begin. This will be only play, I fancy."

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