murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction



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A Detective Story Writer uses many devices to lead the detective and the reader down many paths, some of which are legitimate, but others that are mere red herrings.
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Chapter 16


Tabulated Clues

A good device for the use of the Detective Story Writer is a list or catalog of clues, evidences, or suspects. A distinct tabulation serves to lay the conditions of the story clearly before the reader, and arouses his curiosity as to their meaning and consequences. Of course, if need be, the clues may be misleading; but if done properly, that, too, is a legitimate device.

Wilkie Collins appreciated the use of this tabulation, and thus summed up the opening situation in "The Moonstone":

"Follow me carefully, Betteredge; and count me off on your fingers, if it will help you," says Mr. Franklin, with a certain pleasure in showing how clear-headed he could be, which reminded me wonderfully of old times when he was a boy. "Question the first: Was the Colonel's Diamond the object of a conspiracy in India? Question the second: Has the conspiracy followed the Colonel's Diamond to England? Question the third: Did the Colonel know the conspiracy followed the Diamond; and has he purposely left a legacy of trouble and danger to his sister, through the innocent medium of his sister's child?"

And much later in the story he again uses this device, purposely to mislead the reader:

"As to the person, or persons, by whom the crime was committed: It is known (1) that the Indians had an interest in possessing themselves of the Diamond. (2) It is at least probable that the man looking like an Indian, whom Octavius Guy saw at the window of the cab speaking to the man dressed like a mechanic, was one of the three Hindoo conspirators. (3) It is certain that this same man, dressed like a mechanic, was seen keeping Mr. Godfrey Ablewhite in view all through the evening of the twenty-sixth, and was found in the bedroom (before Mr. Ablewhite was shown into it) under circumstances which lead to the suspicion that he was examining the room. (4) A morsel of torn gold thread was picked up in the bedroom, which persons expert in such matters declared to be of Indian manufacture and to be a species of gold thread not known in England. (5) On the morning of the twenty-seventh, three men, answering to the description of the three Indians, were observed in lower Thames Street were traced to the Tower Wharf, and were seen to leave London by the steamer bound for Rotterdam.

"There is here moral, if not legal, evidence that the murder was committed by the Indians."

Notice how cleverly he makes it seem certain that the crime was committed by the Indians. In a long and somewhat rambling tale like "The Moonstone," a concise summary of evidence now and then is exceedingly effective.

Anna Katharine Green frequently makes use of listed statistics. In "That Affair Next Door," the heroine, who is doing detective work, makes a list, which is here given in part:

Having, as I thought, noticed some few facts in connection with it, from which conclusions might be drawn, I amused myself with jotting them down on the back of a disputed grocer's bill I happened to find in my pocket. Valueless as explaining this tragedy, being founded upon insufficient evidence, they may be interesting as showing the workings of my mind even at this early stage of the matter. They were drawn up under three heads.

First, was the death of this young woman an accident? Second, was it a suicide?

Third, was it a murder?

Under the first head I wrote:

My reasons for not thinking it an accident:

If it bad been an accident and she had pulled the cabinet over upon herself, she would have been found with her feet pointing towards the wall where the cabinet had stood.

(But her feet were towards the door and her head under the cabinet.)

The decent, even precise, arrangement of the clothing about her feet, which precludes any theory involving accident.

Under the second:

Reason for not thinking it suicide:

She could not have been found in the position observed without having lain down on the floor while living and then pulled the shelves down upon herself.

(A theory obviously too improbable to be considered.)

Under the third:

Reason for not thinking it murder, etc., etc.

One of the principals in "The Circular Staircase," by Mary Roberts Rinehart, makes a similar list:

I made out a list of questions and possible answers, but I seemed only to be working around in a circle. I always ended where I began. The list was something like this:

Who had entered the house the night before the murder? Thomas claimed it was Mr. Bailey, whom he had seen on the footpath, and who owned the pearl cuff-link.

Why did Arnold Armstrong come back after he had left the house the night he was killed?

No answer. Was it on the mission Louise had mentioned? Who admitted him?

Gertrude said she had locked the east entry. There was no key on the dead man or in the door. He must have been admitted from within.

Who had been locked in the clothes chute?

Someone unfamiliar with the house, evidently. Only two people missing from the household, Rosie and Gertrude. Rosie had been at the lodge. Therefore—but was it Gertrude? Might it not have been the mysterious intruder again?

In "The Holladay Case," Mr. Burton E. Stevenson tells us that his detective "drew up a resume of the case—to clear the atmosphere, as it were." It ran something like this:

March 13, Thursday—Holladay found murdered; daughter drives to Washington Square.

March 14, Friday—Coroner's inquest; Miss Holladay released; mysterious note received.

March 16, Sunday—Holladay buried.

March 18, Tuesday—Will opened and probated.

March 28, Friday—Miss Holladay returns from drive, bringing new maid with her and discharges old one.

March 29, Saturday—Gives orders to open summer house.

April 1, Tuesday—Asks for $100,000.

April 2, Wednesday—Gets it.

April 3, Thursday—Leaves home ostensibly for Belair, in company with new maid.

April 14, Monday—Butler reports her disappearance;

Royce taken ill; I begin my search.

There I stopped. The last entry brought me up to date.

One of the cleverest lists, for the purpose of telling the story is one in "The Leavenworth Case," by Anna Katharine Green:

Taking a piece of paper, I jotted down the leading causes of suspicion as follows:

Her late disagreement with her uncle, and evident estrangement from him, as testified to by Mr. Harwell.

The mysterious disappearance of one of the servants of the house.

The forcible accusation made by her cousin—over- heard, however, only by Mr. Gryce and myself.

Her equivocation in regard to the handkerchief found stained with pistol smut on the scene of the tragedy.

Her refusal to speak in regard to the paper which she was supposed to have taken from Mr. Leavenworth's table immediately upon the removal of the body.

The finding of the library key in her possession.

"A dark record," I involuntarily decided, as I looked it over; but even in doing so began jotting down on the other side of the sheet the following explanatory notes:

Disagreements and even estrangements between relatives are common. Cases where such disagreements and estrangements have led to crime, rare.

The disappearance of Hannah points no more certainly in one direction than another.

If Mary's private accusation of her cousin was forcible and convincing, her public declaration that she neither knew nor suspected who might be the author of this crime, was equally so. To be sure, the former possessed the advantage of being uttered spontaneously, but it was likewise true that it was spoken under momentary excitement, without foresight of the consequences, and possibly without due consideration of the facts.

  1. An innocent man or woman, under the influence of terror, will often equivocate in regard to matters that seem to criminate.

Here much of the problem is clearly stated in the first half of the list, and the working out of the solution is definitely indicated in the second part.

Listed suggestions are more useful in books than in short- stories; for in the former the complexities of the plot are more likely to need occasional rounding up and recalling to view.

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Worn-out Devices

A trite and greatly worn device is the watch that stopped presumably when the crime was committed.

Here is a typical use of this incident quoted from R. Ottolengui's "The Crime of the Century":

"I found Mr. Mora's watch under the bed, where it must have been knocked from the dressing-table. The fall had caused it to stop, and the hands indicated seven minutes of two, agreeing with the time during which the watchman testifies that young Mora was at home."

"Yes," said Mr. Mitchel, "but do not go too fast. The watch may have run down. It is uncommon for a good watch to stop merely because it falls to the floor."

"Both of your points are good, in theory," replied the detective "But neither applies in this instance. If a watch runs down, it cannot be started again without winding.

By merely shaking this one I set it going, and to make assurance doubly sure, I let it run for an hour, when it was still keeping time. Next, though it be true that most watches would not be so easily stopped, this one, for some reason, is very sensitive to a blow. I tried the experiment of pushing it from the table to the floor, and at every attempt I found that it would cease its movement."

This idea of a stopped watch is so obvious that it led authors at once to the idea of purposely stopping a watch with the intent of leading the detective and the reader astray. In fact, this was done as long ago as in Gaboriau's "Crime of Orcival," where Lecoq, finding a clock which has been overturned in the struggle between the victim and his assassin, purposely turns the hands some four hours backward.

This device has been used so often that the astute reader now disregards the evidence of the stopped watch in fiction. But still the clock or watch may play an important part in the plot, if managed with any degree of originality. In "The Quests of Paul Beck" the device is well used:

Mr. Beck looked at the German with manifest admiration. "Forgive me for mentioning it. You would have made a first-class detective if you hadn't gone into another line of business. I should have told you that the evidence of the watch had been faked."

"Faked?" queried the other, with a blank look on his face.

"Oh! I see. Being a German, of course you don't understand our slang phrases. I examined the watch, and found that though the glass had been violently broken, the dial was not even scratched. The spring had been snapped, not by the blow but by overwinding. It was pretty plain to me the murderer had done the trick. He first put the hands on to half-past eight and then broke the spring, and so made his alibi. He got the watch to perjure itself. Neat, wasn't it?"

The German merely grunted. He was plainly impressed by the devilish ingenuity of the murderer.

In "The Whispering Man," by Henry Kitchell Webster, a large office clock seen in a mirror, makes twenty minutes before twelve appear to be twenty minutes after twelve, which leads to worth-while complications, and proves a clever device.

In Brander Matthews' story, "The Twinkling of an Eye," a clock is used to conceal and manipulate a camera for the purposes of detection.

Any such original application of commonplace material is worth-while in detective fiction.

Another maneuvre that has lost its grip on the attention of the trained reader, is the clumsily-upset table.

In "The Reigate Puzzle," Dr. Watson tells us;

"Near the foot of the bed stood a dish of oranges and a carafe of water. As we passed it. Holmes, to my unutterable astonishment, leaned over in front of me and deliberately knocked the whole thing over. The glass smashed into a thousand pieces and the fruit rolled about into every corner of the room. You've done it now, Watson," said he, coolly. "A pretty mess you've made of the carpet."

This incident was effective and of importance as Conan Doyle used it, but it has since been done so often as to have lost its power to surprise.

A hackneyed misleading device is that of high words between a victim and a suspect. In Chekhov's Russian story, "The Safety Match," the author thus tries to cast suspicion on the valet.

"The master's valet, your worship," answered Ephraim.

"Who else could it be? He's a rascal, your worship! He's a drunkard and a blackguard, the like of which Heaven should not permit! He always took the master his vodka and put the master to bed. Who else could it be? And I also venture to point out to your worship, he once boasted at the public-house that he would kill the master!"

This idea was right enough when first used; but experience has taught the modern reader that the one who threatens, or boasts an intent to kill never does so. The man who is overheard quarrelling with the victim just before his death is never by any chance the criminal in Fiction.

Whispered words is a legitimate though slightly overworked way of preserving the secret. One character whispers to another something the reader is not allowed to overhear. This rouses the eavesdropping instinct latent in every human mind, and the reader scans the pages in endeavor to learn that whispered message.

But attentive reading of the best detective stories will soonest teach a writer what devices may be used effectively and what not. It is a matter of taste, originality and cleverness. Even a trite device may be used with a new turn or twist and prove of great value.

Perhaps the longest roll of hackneyed devices in one book is found in "That Mainwaring Affair," by A.M. Barbour. This is a most excellent and interesting story and of exceedingly good construction. The surprise is perfect and the plot original, but old and time-worn devices are repeatedly used. It includes the return of a long-lost brother, supposed to have been shipwrecked years before; stolen family jewels, a missing will; a twin brother; a birthmark identification; an illegitimate son of a designing housekeeper; a suspected private secretary; whispered words conveying the secret; a dragged lake; and innumerable disguises. All of these are justifiable, but a writer will do well to strike out on more original lines.

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The Use of Disguise

Disguise is not so much employed now as in former years when Lecoq was young. And the general public is now more keen to see through false whiskers than in the old days when Vidocq made his fame. Both these celebrated detectives were experts in the art of disguise. To quote from Vidocq's Memoirs:

At last, by dint of much effort of memory, I recalled to mind one Germain, alias "the Captain," who had been an intimate acquaintance of Noel's, and although our similarity was very slight, yet I determined on personating him. Germain, as well as myself, had often escaped from the Bagnes, and that was the only point of resemblance between us; he was about my age, but a smaller-framed man, he had dark brown hair, mine was light; he was thin, and I tolerably stout; his complexion was sallow, and mine fair, with a very clear skin; besides, Germain had an excessively long nose, took a vast deal of snuff which, begriming his nostrils outside, and stuffing them up within, gave him a peculiarly nasal tone of voice. I had much to do in personating Germain; but the difficulty did not deter me; my hair, cut a la mode des Bagnes, was dyed black, as well as my beard, after it had attained a growth of eight days; to embrown my countenance I washed it with white walnut liquor; and to perfect the imitation, I garnished my upper lip thickly with a kind of coffee grounds, which I plastered on by means of gum-arabic, and thus became as nasal in my twang as Germain himself. My feet were doctored with equal care; I made blisters on them by rubbing in a certain composition, of which I had obtained the receipt at Brest. I also made the marks of the fetters; and when all my toilet was finished, dressed myself in the suitable garb. I had neglected nothing which could complete the metamorphosis,—neither the shoes nor the marks of those horrid letters G.A.L. The costume was perfect.

* * *

"If I were your lieutenant, and wanted to take Vidocq," replied I, "I would contrive that he should not escape me."

"You! Oh yes, you and everybody! He is always completely armed. You know they said that he fired twice at Delrue and Carpentier; and that is not all, for he can change himself into a bundle of hay whenever he likes."

"A bundle of hay!" cried I, surprised at the novel endowment assigned to me. "A bundle of hay! How?"

"Yes, sir; my father pursued him one day, and at the moment he laid his hand upon his collar, he found that he only held a handful of hay. He did not only say it, but all the brigade saw the bundle of hay, which was burnt in the barrackyard."

Lecoq also depends largely on disguises for his successes. He says himself:

"A detective who is worth his salt can give an actor any amount of lessons. Since last year I have been studying the art of disguising my face, and I can at my desire become short or tall, dark or fair a perfect gentleman, or the vilest scoundrel that hangs about the outskirts of the suburbs."

And in "File No. 113" we are told:

His amazement gave so singular an expression to his face that M. Lecoq could not restrain a smile. "Then it was you!" continued the bewildered detective; "you were the stout gentleman at whom I stared, so as to impress his appearance upon my mind, and I never recognized you! You would make a superb actor, my chief, if you would go on the stage; but I was disguised too—very well disguised."

"Very poorly disguised: it is only just to you that I should let you know what a failure it was, Fanferlot. Do you think that a huge beard and a blouse are a sufficient transformation? The eye is the thing to be changed—the eye! The art lies in being able to change the eye. That is the secret." This theory of disguise explained why the lynx-eyed Lecoq never appeared at the Prefecture of Police without his gold spectacles.

* * *

"You can't swear to that because no one can boast of knowing the real face of M. Lecoq. It is one thing today, and another tomorrow; sometimes he is a dark man, sometimes a fair one, sometimes quite young, and then an octogenarian. Why, at times he even deceives me. I begin to talk to a stranger—bah! it turns out to be M. Lecoq! Anybody on the face of the earth might be he. If I were told that you were he, I should say 'Very likely it is so.' Ah! he can convert himself into any form he pleases.

He is a wonderful man!"

Of modern fictive detectives, few use disguise to great extent, with the exception perhaps of Frederic Larsan in the books of Gaston Leroux. So punctilious was this French detective in the details of his disguise, that his young opponent himself admitted that Larsan's disguises were impenetrable.

"And Old Bob?" I asked.

"No, dear boy, no!" scoffed Rouletabille, almost angrily.

"Not he, either. You have noticed that he wears a wig, I suppose. Well, I assure you that when Larsan wears a wig, it will fit him!"

And so perfectly did Larsan's wigs fit him, as well as all the other details of his disguise, that he assumed the personality of any one at will, without fear of discovery.

Sherlock Holmes often assumed disguise, but Conan Doyle does not make a strong point of it, relying not so much on physical appearances as on acute mentality.

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Other "Properties"

A pet device is the discovery of a torn bit of paper containing part of a written communication. The writing is usually readable, but incomprehensible for want of context.

This is very bunglingly done by Vidocq, who finds a torn scrap of an envelope with these words on it:

Monsieur Rao—

Marchand de vins, bar—



and after much effort, mental and otherwise, he thus solved the enigma:

The torn address was, in my estimation, an enigma, which must first be solved; and, to effect this, I racked my brains day and night and at last felt satisfied, that excepting the name (respecting which I had but few doubts) the perfect address would run thus:

A Monsieur—, Marchand de vins,

Barriere Rochechouart.

Chaussee de Clignancourt.

But, better managed, a torn bit of paper is helpful in rousing the reader's curiosity and there are few authors who have not utilized it.

Conan Doyle goes farther, in using what seems to be part of a woman's name, "Rache," but is really a whole word in German.

Anna Katharine Green gives an original twist to this old idea in her title, "One of My Sons." In truth, this phrase, found on a bit of paper and pointing directly to the criminal, was really part of the line, "None of my Sons." It may be seen at a glance how the intent and the evidence of this line are purposely contradictory. The detective story is essentially dramatic, and therefore picturesque incidents and sensational situations are not only permissible, but advisable. The trained reader has learned to expect them. But unless they can be novel or original, there must be a skillful handling of the old devices. Likewise, there are certain stage properties with the use of which the author should be entirely familiar, and which he should be able to employ with grace and skill.

The Weapon, the Papers, the Jewels, the Safe, the Alibi, are all his rightful belongings. So, too, the Lens, the Desk Blotter, the Waste Basket, the Cabman, the Deserted Wing, the Inquest, and the Mistaken Identity,—all are his, to manipulate at his pleasure.

If he can afford to ignore such as these, and use The Monkey's Paw, or The Speckled Band, so much the better for his originality.

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