murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction



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"The mystery-story is just the one species of story that can not be told impromptu or altered at the last moment, seeing that it demands the most careful piecing together and the most elaborate dove-tailing." — Israel Zangwill
Table of Contents

The Use of Coincidences

An error into which the beginning author easily falls is the too lavish use of coincidences. While perhaps the majority of detective stories are founded upon coincidences, they must be made so plausible, so seemingly inevitable, that they shall not appear to be mere coincidences. A modern fiction detective thus frankly admits the value of coincidences in his work:

"Don't forget the fortunate coincidences," replied Average Jones modestly. "They're about half of it. In fact, detective work, for all that is said on the other side, is mostly the ability to recognize and connect coincidences."

But the reader cannot agree that a frankly announced coincidence makes as good a mystery problem as one where that element is left out. For instance in "The Adventure of Black Peter," in his confession, the criminal relates: "Like a fool I left my baccy-pouch upon the table."

The pouch, so obligingly, even necessarily, left on the table was of course the clue to the criminal. As a further coincidence this remarkable pouch bore the initials "P.C.," which quite conveniently pointed to a suspect named Peter Carey, as well as to the real criminal, Patrick Cairns. This being discovered, Sherlock Holmes says naively, "I was convinced that the initials P.C. upon the pouch were a coincidence and not those of Peter Carey, since he seldom smoked and no pipe was found in his cabin."

All of this shows too clearly the author's dependence on a coincidence. In the completed structure the literary architect should not let his framework show, for it dispels illusion and either prevents or mars surprise.

But the whole question of coincidence is too deep and too really scientific to attempt its discussion here. Poe knew it to its last and finest degree, but not every one could follow its ramifications with the accuracy of his peculiar mind. He says in one instance:

"Coincidences ten times as remarkable as this (the delivery of the money, and murder committed within three days upon the party receiving it) happen to all of us every hour of our lives, without attracting even momentary notice. Coincidences, in general, are great stumbling-blocks in the way of that class of thinkers who have been educated to know nothing of the theory of probabilities: that theory to which the most glorious objects of human research are indebted for the most glorious of illustrations."

Though the theory of probabilities is too abstruse for any but scholars, a general knowledge of the relative values of coincidences is most useful to the writer of detective fiction.

Poe says further:

"There are few persons, even among the calmest thinkers, who have not occasionally been startled into a vague yet thrilling half credence in the supernatural, by coincidences of so seemingly marvellous a character that, as mere coincidences, the intellect has been unable to receive them. Such sentiments—for the half credences of which I speak have never the full force of thought—are seldom thoroughly stifled unless by reference to the doctrine of chance, or, as it is technically termed, the Calculus of Probabilities. Now this Calculus is, in its essence, purely mathematical; and thus we have the anomaly of the most rigidly exact in science applied to the shadow and spirituality of the most intangible in speculation."

The avenues of thought opened to our minds by these suggestions are fascinatingly attractive, and could we study the matter seriously it would soon put an end to many widespread fallacies of coincidence—such as receiving a letter from a friend one has been thinking of and ascribing it to telepathy—and like matters.

Gaboriau appreciated the futility of depending upon the coincidence:

"Don't forget," replied Lecoq, "that the field of conjecture is boundless. Imagine whatever complication you like, I am ready to maintain that such a complication has occurred or will present itself some day. Lieuben, a German lunatic, bet that he would succeed in turning up a pack of cards in a certain order stated in a written agreement. He turned and turned ten hours per day for twenty years. He had repeated the operation 4,246,028 times when he succeeded."

But leaving aside these deeper doctrines, let us use coincidence when necessary, carefully veiling it, however, with plausibility. Work up to the coincidence until it seems to occur naturally. Invent causes to produce the effects that otherwise would have seemed pure coincidence.

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The Use of Melodrama

Another fault to be avoided is the use of melodramatic speech or incident. The day is past when readers are thrilled by the sort of diction that charmed Pomona of "Rudder Grange," as she read aloud, "Ha—Ha—Lord—Marmont—thundered—thou—too—shalt—suffer!" And yet, in "A Scandal in Bohemia" we read: '"And the papers?1 asked the king, hoarsely; 'all is lost!"'

It is difficult to discover a loss of "the papers" without melodramatic exclamation; but moderate the speech of your characters at the time of the appalling discovery as much as possible.

Avoid, too, the use of sentiment. Romance is not now referred to; but other sentiments which though acceptable in the "story of manners," tend to distract the reader of detective fiction. This field recognizes few emotions and no moral; and as a human document it depends for its success upon the primitive instincts of mankind and the material indications thereof.

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Avoid dull and prosy description. If any type of story depends on action and excitement, it is the type we are discussing. Keep before you always the question of your reader's attitude towards your work. Arrest their attention, rouse their curiosity, awake their interest, and you have made your start. Continue to stimulate all these to the highest pitch, and your story is written. Let your final explanation more than satisfy their anticipation, and you have made a success.

Build everything toward the final climax, using minor surprises as stepping-stones by the way. Continually produce the unexpected Persistently lead the reader to believe one thing and then suddenly convince him that he ought to have known it was another! Use every art and craft that in you lies to mislead him, but in such a way that when he is turned back to the right path he will vow he misled himself.

Remember the two great principles: to have your facts as straight and true as a mathematical proposition; and to have your fancies as fascinating and elusive as a fairy tale. In a word, the ideal writer of detective fiction should be the child of Euclid and Scheherazade.

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Unique Plots and Their Solubility

Disdaining or tiring of the regulation plot some writers have branched off into erratic forms. This may be done with wonderfully fine effect if done perfectly. But only a genius, and an experienced one at that, should attempt it.

Perhaps the most brilliant achievement of this sort is Zangwill's "Big Bow Mystery." As this book is now out of print, it may be well to state briefly its plot.

A widowed landlady, a Mrs. Drabdump, after repeated knock- ings on the bolted bedroom door of her lodger, Arthur Constant, fails to awaken him. Terrified by vague fears of tragedy, she rushes across the street to implore the help of a neighbor, Mr. Grodman. He returns with her, and together they break in the bolted door of Constant's bedroom. A horrible sight meets Mrs. Drabdump's eyes, as she discovers the young man dead in his bed with his throat cut from ear to ear. Both windows are fastened; the door, until burst in, was both locked and bolted; and there is no other opening in the room. Add to this the fact that no razor or weapon of any sort can be found, and the problem seems insoluble. What is probably the best jury scene in fiction concludes logically that since the room could not have been entered by any intruder it could not be murder and must be suicide. It also concludes logically that since no weapon is found and the doctors declare that the wound could not have been self-inflicted, it could not be suicide and must be murder! This ingenious deadlock forms the nucleus of the story which is elaborated with cunning skill and marvelous subtlety.

The most experienced reader is not prepared for the surprising denouement, which shows that the murder was committed by Mr. Grodman, after he broke open the door, and had been deliberately planned for by him, beforehand.

Stated thus barely, the plot seems incredible; but as written by Mr. Zangwill, it is plausible, convincing, and intensely interesting.

After all. Detective Stories depend upon the ingenuity of the author—in the best, intellect is paramount. Characters, judged by other standards, may seem unreal without disturbing the reader's equanimity, provided the chain of causation is kept logically perfect. The disregard of this axiom has resulted in many failures. Gaboriau, not content to write a mere tale of mystery, tried to convert it into a well-rounded novel. But the most notable recent instance of the thing was the endeavor of Gaston Leroux in "The Perfume of the Lady in Black,11 the sequel to "The Mystery of the Yellow Room." Without knowing quite why, readers found their interest in it flagging. In some respects it is the subtlest story of its kind. The shifting semi- tropical atmosphere is finely caught and ought a priori to add intensity to the central mystery of doubtful identity. The mystery itself is developed with rare psychological insight, and the relation between a mother and son is so acutely defined as to make a certain noticeable halt in the process of detection seem perfectly natural. Yet impatience with the story is inevitable. From habit the reader holds his attention in readiness for running down a crime—for that and nothing more—and his mind relaxes when outlying material is brought in.

Dr. Harry Thurston Peck says:

"The indispensable condition of a good mystery is that it should be able and unable to be solved by the reader, and that the writer's solution should satisfy. Many a mystery runs on breathlessly enough till the denouement is reached, only to leave the reader with the sense of having been robbed of his breath under false pretences. And not only must the solution be adequate, but all its data must be given in the body of the story. The author must not suddenly spring a new person or a new circumstance upon the reader at the end. Thus, if a friend were to ask me to guess who dined with him yesterday, it would be fatuous if he had in mind somebody of whom he knew I had never heard."

Irrespective of all else, it is the mystery that arouses curiosity to the pitch of demanding explanation that counts. By few has it been played with a skill like that of Wilkie Collins, who, with little characterization or sentiment, without creating individuals of fiction whom we remember, or whose sayings we quote, could hold the attention of the novel-reading world with his "Woman in White," or set them eagerly agog to find the whereabouts of the mysterious diamond taken from its Eastern sanctuary. For ingenuity of construction, blind leads, bafflings, and sustained interest "The Moonstone" stands high in the catalogue of the mysteries of fiction; and the reader was penetrating to a degree who fastened upon Mr. Godfrey Ablewhite the theft.

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Women as Writers of Detective Stories

Not a few among the best writers of detective fiction are women. That perspicacious critic, Julian Hawthorne, observes:

"I have often marvelled that women so seldom attempt this form of literature; many of them possess a good constructive faculty, and their love of detail and of mystery is notorious. Perhaps they are too fond of sentiment; and sentiment must be handled with caution in riddle stories."

And a contemporary English essayist thus compliments our foremost American detective story writer:

"It may seem curious that women should be successful in a branch of fiction which many would be disposed to pronounce a masculine specialty. Perhaps Mrs. Green has herself supplied the explanation. In one of her best stories, 'That Affair Next Door,1 she introduces us to a very commonplace old maid, like most old maids curious, secretive, keenly observant of her neighbours' affairs, and fond of speculating about other people's business. Circumstances throw her into the very centre of a mysterious crime, and suddenly reveal in her all the qualities of a great detective. All the characteristics which made her a nuisance to her neighbours make her an invaluable ally to the police. The conception is a daring, and, I think, a true one. I fancy that the two faculties which the great Sherlock declared to be the prime necessities of a detective, observation and deduction, are feminine rather than masculine faculties. It will hardly be disputed that it is so in regard to the former; while, as to the latter, what man ever discovered as much about the inhabitants of the house opposite as any woman will deduce from the shape of their window blinds. Most women quite habitually indulge in the sort of ratiocination that Holmes practiced over the old hat. Be that as it may, Mrs. A.K. Green herself has certainly as much right as any contemporary writer to claim the mantle of Gaboriau for stories the excellent technique of which should put some popular writers on this side of the Atlantic to shame."

Anna Katharine Green, who is Mrs. Charles Rohlfs in real life, is far and away the best in our home field. She is entirely conversant with all the rules of detective fiction, and her long list of books stands alone on the top shelf. She, herself, tells an amusing story in connection with her first book, the celebrated "Leavenworth Case." She wrote this story when quite young; and, becoming absorbed in the work, wrote wherever she happened to be, using any kind of stationery that might be at hand, from finest letter paper to backs of old envelopes or torn out ledger leaves. Unheeding the growing length of her story, she kept on until she had every drawer of an old bureau overflowing with its manuscript. Concluding at last, she stuffed all her papers into a large suit-case, and sallied forth to a publisher. The first publisher she called upon eagerly accepted the story; but to her regret, the young author was obliged to cut out more than forty thousand words of her manuscript. But the result was the most popular and the best-written detective novel by an American.

Other feminine authors have succeeded in this field. Mary E. Wilkins' short-story, "The Long Arm," conforms to all the conditions required by the unwritten law. Natalie Lincoln, in "The Trevor Case," and Mary Roberts Rinehart, in "The Circular Staircase," have done admirable work, as has also Stella M. During in "Love's Privilege." "That Mainwaring Affair," by A.M. Barbour, is among the masterpieces of construction, and Florence Warden may be accounted among the best authors of mystery stories in England. The series of short-stories by Baroness d'Orczy, and Augusta Groner, are as clever as any written by men.

But of whatever sex the writer, or of whatever manner or style the setting, the one end and aim of the author must be curiosity aroused, increased and gratified. Other stories, other manners; but the Detective Story depends solely on this principle.

And ever remember Mr. Zangwill's dictum:

"The mystery-story is just the one species of story that can not be told impromptu or altered at the last moment, seeing that it demands the most careful piecing together and the most elaborate dove-tailing."

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