murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction



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Some authors try to give their detectives prominence by using methods exactly opposite to those of Sherlock Holmes. But it is a dangerous experiment for inexperienced authors to put forward views heterodox to the accepted laws of Detective Fiction, and it must be done with skill and judgment.
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The detective of modern fiction is a combination of the stock principles already noticed with such further and varying characteristics as the author may invent. In so far as the personal traits of the detective can differ from Sherlock Holmes, the author is so far less liable to the charge of plagiarism.

Some Original Traits

A good example of how one of the later writers has invested his detective with fresh qualities may be noted in this extract from "Midnight at Mears House,11 by Harrison J. Holt:

At the time of his coming to Mears House, Garth looked very much as he does to-day—a short, slight man of about my own age, well-built and energetic, but of a nervous rather than a muscular type of energy. He has grown a trifle stouter since, to be sure, but otherwise I can see little change in him. He was as bald then as he is now, and had the same trick of carrying his head a little to one side, as though the weight of it were too much for his neck to support. I have never seen a head more beautifully shaped than his, with a wide, high forehead, dark eyes far apart and rather prominent—it was hard to believe them blind—the nose and chin of an old Roman Emperor, and a somewhat small but finely modelled mouth.

His ears, however, were the most remarkable of his features—not that they were unusual in shape or size, but because they were so low as to appear almost misplaced, and on account of their extraordinary quality. I doubt if anyone was ever gifted with a more wonderful sense of hearing. Certainly I have never met anybody, even among those bom blind, who could distinguish and interpret sound with such unerring, almost uncanny skill. Without this power—which he had developed to an altogether incredible degree—he could never have achieved the results he did: he has told me so many times. The tiniest noises, unremarked or meaningless to most people, were packed with significance to him. Each registered its own distinct, unequivocal impression, producing an emotion or resulting in a co-ordination of ideas which often enabled him to arrive instantly at the most momentous conclusions.

Especially was this the case in regard to the tones, inflection, and timbre of the human voice. From these he was able to deduct an astonishingly large number of facts concerning the person speaking—such as his age, nationality, occupation, physical and mental state of health, disposition, and character. This, as I am well aware, may strike the reader as fanciful and even preposterous. It seemed so to me at first, and yet I learned later that to a lesser degree this power of divination was no uncommon thing among the blind, though I have heard of very few instances in which it proved so uniformly infallible.

I should not forget to mention as well a veritable sixth sense which he possessed—a sort of clairvoyance which made up in great measure for his lost sight. And yet clairvoyance is hardly the right word to describe it. It was rather as if he had some strange invisible organ of sensibility, some occult medium, by means of which he became aware of things seemingly beyond his apprehension. Doubtless a psychologist could state it far more intelligibly; I can only repeat that he had some such way of sensitizing himself, as it were, so as to receive impressions not communicable through the ordinary channels of the senses.

Just how much this faculty, combined with his marvellously developed hearing, has aided him in his work, it would be hard to say. Personally I think he overestimates its value to him, and underrates the part his brain has played in the mastering of these abstruse problems.

Without a very high degree of mental acuteness, the clearest and soundest of reasoning powers, and what-for want of a better word—I must call a sympathetic imagination, his unusual psychical and auditory perceptions would, I feel sure, have been of little help to him. It is, in my opinion, far more to the brilliant qualities of his mind, his marked analytical and synthetical abilities, and his unrivalled skill as a constructive logician, that he chiefly owes his success.

Again, some authors try to give their detectives prominence by using methods exactly opposite to those of Sherlock Holmes. LeDroit Conners, in Samuel Gardenhire's book, "The Long Arm," thus asserts his confidence in himself:

"You cannot understand how strongly such matters appeal to me. It is a faculty with me almost to know the solution of a crime when the leading circumstances connected with it are revealed. I form my conclusion first, and, confident of its correctness, hunt for evidence to sustain it. I do this because I am never wrong. It is not magic, telepathy, nor any form of mental science; it is a moral consciousness of the meaning of related facts, impressed upon my mind with unerring certainty."

"I do not understand you," I said.

"When I am given certain figures," he replied, "the process of addition is instantaneous and sure. So, when I know of established incidents relating to a matter, they group themselves in my mind in such a manner as to reveal to me their meaning.

"You say a gift developed; perhaps. Rather an instinct, as the faculty of scent to the blood-hound and the acute ear to the hare, an unfailing sight to the hawk and a sense of touch to the serpent. Deductive knowledge depends on reason, but inspiration is an exalted—no, perhaps I should say an acute sense of something else. The beasts, unclothed except by nature and unfed except by season and conquest, must make existence out of an absolute impression of certainty that is neither analytical nor deductive. I fear I am in that category, my dear fellow. I know things because I know them—that is, some things."

This is decidedly in contrast to Holmes' statement,

"Now I make a point of never having any prejudices, and of following docilely wherever fact may lead me."

The foregoing is in line with this bit of Poe's wisdom:

"The mass of the people regard as profound only him who suggests pungent contradictions of the general idea. In ratiocination, not less than in literature, it is the epigram which is the most immediately and the most universally appreciated. In both, it is of the lowest order of merit.

"What I mean to say is, that it is the mingled epigram and melodrama of the idea that Marie Roget still lives, rather than any true plausibility in this idea, which have suggested it to L'Etoile."

Burton E. Stevenson works on this principle when his detective in "The Holladay Case" says:

"I think we're too apt to overlook the simple explanations, which are, after all, nearly always the true ones. It's only in books that we meet the reverse. You remember it's Gaboriau who advises one always to distrust the probable?"

"Yes. I don't agree with him."

"Nor I."

But it is a dangerous experiment for inexperienced authors to put forward views heterodox to the accepted laws of Detective Fiction, and it must be done with skill and judgment.

In Luther Trant's work, his scientific apparatus enables him to dispense with the more usual methods.

"No, thank you," he said, refusing the proffer of the paper. "I read from the marks made upon minds by a crime, not from scrawls and thumbprints upon paper.

And my means of reading those marks are fortunately in my possession this morning. No, I do not mean that I have other evidence upon this case than that you have just given me, Mr. Eldredge," Trant explained. "I refer to my psychological apparatus which, the express company notified me, arrived from New York this morning. If you will let me have my appliance delivered direct to your house it will save much time."

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Two Unique Detectives

Rouletabille appreciated the dramatic value of what Poe called the pungent contradiction of the general idea. In "The Mystery of the Yellow Room,11 by Gaston Leroux, the following conversation occurs:

"Have you any idea as to the murderer's station in life?" "Yes," he replied; "I think if he isn't a man in society, he is, at least, a man belonging to the upper class. But that, again, is only an impression."

"What has led you to form it?"

"Well,—the greasy cap, the common handkerchief, and the marks of the rough boots on the floor," he replied.

"I understand," I said; "murderers don't leave traces behind them which tell the truth."

"We shall make something out of you yet, my dear Sain- clair," concluded Rouletabille.

Like Lecoq, this young man was not infallible; but his author made him this way for the same reason. Because he figures in a novel, and the infallible detective must do his work in a short- story.

Rouletabille's strong card is pure reason.

"How did you come to suspect Larsan?" asked the President.

"My pure reason pointed to him. But I did not foresee the drugging. He is very cunning. Yes, my pure reason pointed to him."

"What do you mean by your pure reason?"

"That power of one's mind which admits of no disturbing elements to a conclusion. The day following the incident of 'the inexplicable gallery,' I felt myself losing control of it. I had allowed myself to be diverted by fallacious evidence; but I recovered and again took hold of the right end."

Again, he says:

"M. Sainclair, you ought to know that I never suspect any person or anything without previously having satisfied myself upon the 'ground of pure reason.1 That is a solid staff which has never yet failed me on the toad and on which I invite you all to lean with me."

His pure reason is of the subtlest variety, and his fine work throughout the book commands always the admiration of the connoisseur. In a seemingly inexplicable situation he exclaims:

"Let us reason it out!"

And he returned on the instant to that argument which lad already served us and which he repeated again and again to himself (in order that, he said, he should not be lured away by the outer appearance of things): "Do not look for Larsan in that place where he reveals himself; seek for him everywhere else where he hides himself."

This he followed up with the supplementary argument:

"He never shows himself where he seems to be except to prevent us from seeing him where he really is."

And he resumed:

"Ah! the outer appearance of things! Look here. Sain- clair! There are moments when, for the sake of reasoning clearly, I want to get rid of my eyes! Let us get rid of our eyes, Sainclair, for five minutes—just five minutes, and, perhaps, we shall see more clearly."

Rouletabille's subtlety of reasoning rose almost to clairvoyance. In his desperate endeavors to discover the identity of Larsan, he relates his experience thus:

"And why did all the others sit so silent and so motionless behind their dark glasses? All at once, I turned my head and looked behind me. Then I understood, more by instinct than anything else, that I was the object of a common physical attraction. Someone was looking at me. Two eyes were fixed upon me—weighing upon me. I could not see the eyes and I did not know from where the glance fixed upon me came, but it was there. I knew it—and it was his glance. But there was no one behind me, nor at the right, nor the left, nor in front, except the people who were seated at the table, motionless, behind their dark glasses. And then—then I knew that Larsan's eyes were glaring at me from behind a pair of those glasses—ah! the dark glasses,—the dark glasses behind which were hidden Larsan's eyes. If I mention this incident here, it is for the purpose of showing to how great an extent I was haunted by the image of Larsan, hiding under some new form, and lurking unknown among us.

Dear Heaven! Larsan had so often proved his talent—I may even say his genius—in this respect, that I felt that he was quite capable of defying us now, and of mingling with us while we thought that he was a stranger—or, perhaps, even a friend."

So fearful is he that one of the seemingly well-known people about him may be Larsan in disguise, that he says to Sainclair:

"Hold your left hand in your right for five minutes and then ask yourself: 'Is it you, Larsan?' And when you have replied to yourself, do not feel too sure, for he may, perhaps, have lied to you, and he may be in your own skin without your knowing it."

There is nothing imitative about this young detective. His methods are unique. His pure reasoning is most subtle; and though the farthest possible remove from realism it presents a semblance of reality that is entirely convincing.

In "The Whispering Man" Mr. Henry Kitchell Webster employs a very different principle for the use of his detective. It may be called the principle of The Inspired Guess, and though improbable, perhaps not more so than the laws of detective fiction permit. The Whispering Man thus describes it himself:

"I had happened to tell him once that I believed that I always knew a criminal when I saw one, without knowing how or why—by just looking at him. He didn't scout that theory as you would if I were to give you a chance."

"And you believed all the while," I repeated, incredulously, "that McWilliams was the man?"

"Not believed; knew. Oh, I don't know how. That's the whole point. That's what I've been preaching all the evening. The only certain knowledge is the inspired guess."

One of the most remarkable Detectives of Fiction is Mr. Zangwill's Grodman, who in "Big Bow Mystery," thus discourses:

"It grew daily clearer to me that criminals were more fools than rogues. Every crime I had traced, however cleverly perpetrated, was from the point of view of penetrability a weak failure. Traces and trails were left on all sides—ragged edges, rough-hewn corners; in short, the job was botched, artistic completeness unattained.

To the vulgar, my feats might seem marvelous—the average man is mystified to grasp how you detect the letter 'e1 in a simple cryptogram—to myself they were as commonplace as the crimes they unveiled. To me now, with my lifelong study of the science of evidence, it seemed possible to commit not merely one, but a thousand crimes that should be absolutely undiscoverable. And yet criminals would go on sinning, and giving themselves away, in the same old grooves—no originality, no dash, no individual insight, no fresh conception! One would imagine there were an Academy of crime with forty thousand armchairs. And gradually, as I pondered and brooded over the thought, there came upon me the desire to commit a crime that should baffle detection. I could invent hundreds of such crimes, and please myself by imagining them done but would they really work out in practice? Evidently the sole performer of my experiment must be myself; the subject whom or what? Accident should determine. I itched to commence with murder—to tackle the stiffest problems first, and I burned to startle and baffle the world—especially the world of which I had ceased to be. Outwardly I was calm, and spoke to the people about me as usual. Inwardly I was on fire with a consuming scientific passion. I sported with my pet theories, and fitted them mentally on every one I met. Every friend or acquaintance I sat and gossiped with, I was plotting how to murder without leaving a clue. There is not one of my friends or acquaintances I have not done away with in thought. There is no public man—have no fear, my dear Home Secretary—I have not planned to assassinate secretly, mysteriously, unintelligibly, undiscoverably. Ah, how I could give the stock criminals points with their second-hand motives, their conventional conceptions, their commonplace details, their lack of artistic feeling and restraint."

And in the same book, we get this description of the contrasting official detective:

Wimp was at his greatest in collecting circumstantial evidence; in putting two and two together to make five.

He would collect together a number of dark and disconnected data and flash across them the electric light of some unifying hypothesis in a way which would have done credit to a Darwin or a Faraday. An intellect which might have served to unveil the secret workings of nature was subverted to the protection of a capitalistic civilization.

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