Chapter 13 of The Techniques of Mystery

contents

PORTRAITS

  1. Some Early Detective Portraits
  2. Some More Modern Portraits
  3. Some Less Known Portraits
  4. Idiosyncrasies of Fictional Detectives
  5. Favorite Phrases of Detectives
  6.  

  The appearance of the detective is always of interest and each author in turn endeavors to make his marvelous-minded creature look as physically unlike other fiction detectives as possible. And especially does he aim to have him totally different in his effects from the popular conception of the conventional detective. In fact the average detective of fiction is always declared to look absolutely unlike the average detective of fiction.

  

1. Some Early Detective Portraits

  M. Dupin is not described physically, as Poe’s marvelous economy of attention made him omit every possible bit of material extraneous to his actual story. But, beginning let us say, with Lecoq, all seem to be diametrically opposed to the conventional detective.

  To quote from “The Crime of Orcival”:

  M. Lecoq, whom none of them had ever met before, in no wise resembled the conventional French detective. The latter is commonly depicted as a tall fellow, with heavy moustaches and “imperial,” wearing a military stock collar, a greasy silk hat, and a threadbare frock-coat buttoned up to the throat so as to conceal either the complete absence of linen or at all events the extreme dirtiness of a calico shirt. Such an individual will have immense feet incaged in heavy Wellingtons and will carry in his right hand a powerful sword-stick or bludgeon. Now M. Lecoq, as he appeared in the dining-room at Valfeuillu, had nothing whatever in common with this familiar type. It is true, however, that he can assume whatever air he pleases. Although his friends declare that he has features of his own which he retains at home when sitting by his own fire-side, with his slippers on, this is by no means certain. At all events, his mobile face lends itself to strange transformations, and he modifies his features according to his will just as the sculptor moulds his modelling clay. He changes everything, even the expression of his eyes. On this occasion M. Lecoq had assumed a handsome wig of lank hair, neither fair nor dark, but rather pretentiously parted on one side. Whiskers of the same vague colour puffed out with bad pomade, encircled his pallid face. His eyelids were very red; his eyes seemed weak and watery, and an open smile rested on his thick lips, which, in parting, disclosed a range of long yellow teeth. Timidity, self-sufficiency, and contentment were equally blended in the expression of his features. No one would ever have credited the possessor of such a head with even average intelligence. He looked the picture of some dull-minded, money-grubbing haberdasher, who after cheating his customers for thirty years, had retired on a large income. His coat was like all other coats, his trousers like all other trousers. A hair-chain, of the same colour as his whiskers, spanned his stomach, and a large silver watch could be seen bulging out of his left waistcoat pocket. While he spoke he fumbled with a horn box full of tiny square lozengers, and adorned on the cover with the portrait of a homely well-dressed woman, “the dear defunct,” no doubt. As the conversation proceeded, according as he was satisfied or disturbed, M. Lecoq munched one of these lozenges or gave the portrait a glance which was quite a poem in itself.

  To be sure, this was Lecoq in disguise. But the natural man, though seldom seen, was also unlike the regulation French detective. At his very first appearance on Gaboriau’s pages he is described thus:

…. he was about twenty-five years old, with a pale face, red lips and an abundance of curly black hair, but with scarcely a sign of beard or mustache. He was short but well-made, and his whole manner denoted energy of extraordinary character. With the exception of his eyes, there was nothing very remarkable in his appearance, but these either shone brilliantly or else grew dull, according to the disposition of the moment. His nose, which was rather wide, possessed an amount of flexibility that was extraordinary.

  Nor is old Father Tabaret, except on close inspection, apparently possessed of detective insight. Here is his picture:

  In a large, heavily curtained bed, covered up almost to the nose, lay the oracle of the Rue de Jerusalem. It was almost impossible to believe that such great intelligence could exist in that figure, the face of which showed nothing but the appearance of the greatest stupidity; a retreating forehead, huge ears, a little snub nose, small eyes, and thick lips, made M. Tabaret look more like a half-witted citizen than the sagacious citizen that he was. It is true that when he was closely examined there was something in him resembling a sleuth-hound, the habits and instincts of which he possessed to such a great extent. In the street the impudent young urchins would shout after him, “Oh! what a guy,” but he laughed at all this, and even took a pleasure in putting on an extra appearance of folly and simplicity.

  Vidocq, though not declared to be uncommon in his appearance, is sufficiently so to give him the necessary prestige. We are told that “he was a strong, well-built man with square shoulders and shambling gait. He had gray hair, a thick nose, blue eyes, a smooth face and a perpetual smile.”

  Although Vidocq really lived, yet his “Memoirs” are believed to be largely fiction, and so we may class him, in part at least, among our story-book friends.

  Wilkie Collins deliberately draws his picture of the official detective thus:

  For a family in our situation, the Superintendent of the Frizinghall police was the most comforting officer you could wish to see. Mr. Seegrave was tall and portly, and military in his manners. He had a fine, commanding voice, and a mighty resolute eye, and a grand frock coat which buttoned beautifully up to his leather stock. “I’m the man you want,” was written all over his face; and he ordered his two inferior policemen about with a severity which convinced us all that there was no trifling with him.

  And then, in every respect a vivid contrast, he gives us a picture of the engaging Sergeant Cuff, for after all, the beauty of a detective is largely in the eye of the beholder.

  When the time came for the Sergeant’s arrival I went down to the gate to look out for him.

  A fly from the railway drove up as I reached the lodge; and out got a grizzled, elderly man, so miserably lean that he looked as if he had not got an ounce of flesh on his bones in any part of him. He was dressed all in decent black, with a white cravat round his neck.

  His face was as sharp as a hatchet, and the skin of it was as yellow and dry and withered as an autumn leaf. His eyes, of a steely light gray, had a disconcerting trick, when they encountered your eyes, of looking as if they expected something more from you than you were aware of yourself. His walk was soft; his voice was melancholy; his long, lanky fingers were hooked like claws. He might have been a parson, or an undertaker, or anything else you like, except what he really was. A more complete opposite to Superintendent Seegrave than Sergeant Cuff, and a less comforting officer to look at for a family in distress, I defy you to discover, search where you may.

  

2. Some More Modern Portraits

  Sherlock Holmes is too well known to the reading public to require description here, but a brief account of his appearance, as detailed by Watson, proves his unlikeness to those we have previously looked at:

  His very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer. In height he was rather over six feet, and so exceedingly lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination. His hands were invariably blotted with ink and stained with chemicals, yet he was possessed of extraordinary delicacy of touch, as I frequently had occasion to observe when I watched him manipulating his fragile philosophical instruments.

  In almost ludicrous contrast to Holmes is a young detective who never achieved Sherlock’s popularity, but whose wonderful instinct for pure reasoning puts him at the head of his own class.

  This is Rouletabille, who figures in “The Mystery of the Yellow Room,” by Gaston Leroux.

  His friend Sainclair, who is his Watsonian chronicler, says:

  I first knew Joseph Rouletabille when he was a young reporter. At that time I was a beginner at the Bar and often met him in the corridors of examining magistrates, when I had gone to get a “permit to communicate” for the prison of Mazas, or for Saint-Lazare. He had, as they say, “a good nut.” He seemed to have taken his head — round as a bullet — out of a box of marbles, and it is from that, I think, that his comrades of the press — all determined billiard-players — had given him that nickname, which was to stick to him and be made illustrious by him. He was always as red as a tomato, now gay as a lark, now grave as a judge. How, while still so young — he was only sixteen and a half years old when I saw him for the first time — had he already won his way on the press? That was what everybody who came into contact with him might have asked, if they had not known his history.

  Practically, however, Rouletabille was not nominally the great detective of the book — that honor was given to Frederick Larsan — who seemed to show a few of Sherlock Holmes’ physical characteristics. This is Larsan:

  He might be about fifty years of age. He had a fine head, his hair turning grey; a colourless complexion, and a firm profile. His forehead was prominent, his chin and cheeks clean shaven. His upper lip, without moustache, was finely chiselled. His eyes were rather small and round, with a look in them that was at once searching and disquieting. He was of middle height and well built, with a general bearing elegant and gentlemanly. There was nothing about him of the vulgar policeman. In his way, he was an artist, and one felt that he had a high opinion of himself. The sceptical tone of his conversation was that of a man who had been taught by experience. His strange profession had brought him into contact with so many crimes and villainies that it would have been remarkable if his nature had not been a little hardened.

  An interesting-looking detective is “The Thinking Machine” of Jacques Futrelle. His description is written with Mr. Futrelle’s individual touch, and Professor Van Dusen possesses the squint which Mr. Train regards as a detective’s birthright:

  Practically all those letters remaining in the alphabet after Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen was named, were afterward acquired by that gentleman in the course of a brilliant scientific career, and, being honorably acquired, were tacked on to the other end. His name, therefore, taken with all that belonged to it, was a wonderfully imposing structure. He was a Ph.D., an LL.D., an F.R.S. an M.D., and an M.D.S. He was also some other things — just what, he himself couldn’t say — through recognition of his ability by various foreign educational and scientific institutions.

  In appearance he was no less striking than in nomenclature. He was slender, with the droop of the student in his thin shoulders and the pallor of a close, sedentary life on his clean-shaven face. His eyes wore a perpetual, forbidding squint — the squint of a man who studies little things — and when they could be seen at all through his thick spectacles, were mere slits of watery blue. But above his eyes was his most striking feature. This was a tall, broad brow, almost abnormal in height and width, crowned by a heavy shock of bushy, yellow hair. All these things conspired to give him a peculiar, almost grotesque personality.

  Anna Katharine Green is one of the very best constructors of a detective story. The first introduction of her Mr. Gryce begins:

  And here let me say that Mr. Gryce, the detective, was not the thin, wiry individual with the piercing eye you are doubtless expecting to see. On the contrary, Mr. Gryce was a portly, comfortable personage with an eye that never pierced, that did not even rest on you. If it rested anywhere, it was always on some insignificant object in the vicinity, some vase, inkstand, book, or button. These things he would seem to take into his confidence, make the repositories of his conclusions; but as for you — you might as well be the steeple on Trinity Church, for all connection you ever appeared to have with him or his thoughts. At present, then, Mr. Gryce was, as I have already suggested, on intimate terms with the door-knob.

  And in a later book she again insists upon this unlikeness to what may be expected:

  I was therefore moving reluctantly away, when I felt a slight but peremptory touch on the arm, and turning, saw the detective a my side, still studying his piece of china.

  He was, as I have said, of portly build and benevolent aspect; a fatherly-looking man, and not at all the person one would be likely to associate with the police. Yet he could take the lead very naturally, and when he spoke, I felt bound to answer him.

  Grodman, in “Big Bow Mystery,” is briefly described by Mr. Zangwill:

  After an age seven minutes by any honest clock — Grodman made his appearance, looking as dressed as usual, but with unkempt hair and with disconsolate side-whisker yet, for it had only recently come within the margin of cultivation. In active service Grodman had been clean-shaven, like all members of the profession — for surely your detective is the most versatile of actors.

  And this is the picture of Wimp the official detective in the same book.

  Wimp was young and fresh-colored. He had a Roman nose, and was smartly dressed. He had beaten Grodman by discovering the wife Heaven meant for him. He had a bouncing boy, who stole jam out of the pantry without any one being the wiser. Wimp did what work he could do at home in a secluded study at the top of the house. Outside his chamber of horrors he was the ordinary husband of commerce. He adored his wife, who thought poorly of his intellect, but highly of his heart. In domestic difficulties Wimp was helpless. He could not even tell whether the servant’s “character” was forged or genuine. Probably he could not level himself to such petty problems. He was like the senior wrangler who has forgotten how to do quadratics, and has to solve equations of the second degree by the calculus.

  The reference to Wimp’s wife is thus explained:

  In a moment the first floor window was raised — the little house was of the same pattern as her own — and Grodman’s full, fleshy face loomed through the fog in sleepy irritation from under a nightcap. Despite its scowl the detective’s face dawned upon her like the sun upon an occupant of the haunted chamber.

  “What in the devil’s the matter?” he growled. Grodman was not an early bird, now that he had no worms to catch. He could afford to despise proverbs now, for the house in which he lived was his, and he lived in it because several other houses in the street were also his and it is well for the landlord to be about his own estate in Bow where poachers often shoot the moon. Perhaps the desire to enjoy his greatness among his early cronies counted for something, too, for he bad been born and bred at Bow, receiving when a youth his first engagement from the local police quarters, whence he drew a few shillings a week as an amateur detective in his leisure hours.

  Grodman was still a bachelor. In the celestial matrimonial bureau a partner might have been selected for him, but he had never been able to discover her. It was his one failure as a detective. He was a self-sufficing person, who preferred a gas stove to a domestic; but in deference to Glover Street opinion he admitted a female factotum between ten a.m. and ten p.m., and, equally in deference to Glover Street opinion, excluded her between ten p.m. and ten a.m.

  

3. Some Less Known Portraits

  Gordon Holmes inclines to Wilkie Collins’ plan of contrasting the appearance of the real detective and the fictional at once. In “A Mysterious Disappearance” he presents these opposite physical effects:

  Inspector White, of Scotland Yard, was announced, and a short, thick-set man entered. He was absolutely round in every part. His sturdy, rotund frame was supported on stout, well-moulded legs. His bullet head, with close-cropped hair, gave a suggestion of strength to his rounded face, and a pair of small bright eyes looked suspiciously on the world from beneath well-arched eyebrows.

  Two personalities more dissimilar than those of Claude Bruce and Inspector White could hardly be brought together in the same room. People who are fond of tracing resemblances to animals in human beings would liken the one to a gray-hound, the other to a bull-dog.

  Yet they were both masters in the art of detecting crime — the barrister subtle, analytic, introspective; the policeman direct, pertinacious, self-confident. Bruce lost all interest in a case when the hidden trail was laid bare. Mr. White regarded investigation as so many hours on duty until his man was transported or hanged.

  In “The Whispering Man,” an astonishing detective story by Henry Kitchell Webster, we have this description of the detective:

  He was the sort of a man who never would be spoken of as old, if it were not for his attempts to look young. He was actually, I should judge, somewhere in the middle forties, a tall, graceful, and commanding figure, with a strikingly handsome face. There was nothing weak about it. The features were big and boldly, though finely, modeled, and the deep-set eyes singularly expressive. The only fault one could find with him was that he carried everything just a little too far. He was too aggressively well dressed; too painfully clean-shaven; his manner a little too dignified; his voice and features a little too expressive. It came upon me all at once what he must be — an actor. That was it. Everything about him was heightened just enough to carry itself over the footlights. He was in evening dress, wore an overcoat and gloves, and carried a walking stick, as well as an irreproachable silk hat, in his hand.

  In “The Scales of Justice,” an exceptionally clever surprise story by George L. Knapp, the Hero Detective is not a professional one, but a young newspaper reporter. He is therefore allowed the characteristics of our best newspaper men, but in all probability he inherits his sardonic humor from his predecessor Holmes.

  Kern tossed the shears into a drawer, and stood up. He was as tall as the other man, and as straight; and both had that alert look of expectancy, quite unmixed with either wonder or nervousness, which marks our best newspaper men. There the resemblance ended. Jennings was about thirty-five, smooth-shaven, smiling brown of hair and blue of eye; with humorous little wrinkles around the eyes to testify of the many funny things he had seen. Kern was twenty-eight or twenty-nine; and his coal-black hair and bronze-black Vandyke beard made him look more like an Austrian surgeon than an American reporter. His humor was apt to be sardonic; and a certain element of moodiness was seldom absent from his face. “Kern is really a secret sufferer from the artistic temperament,” said the managing editor once, “but so long as he’s trying to live it down, I won’t give him away.”

  “Average Jones,” the creation of Samuel Hopkins Adams, achieves a distinction by being inconspicuous:

  He was, so to speak, a composite photograph of any thousand well-conditioned, clean living Americans between the ages of twenty-five and thirty. Happily, his otherwise commonplace face was relieved by the one unfailing characteristic of composite photographs, large, deep-set and thoughtful eyes. Otherwise he would have passed in any crowd, and nobody would have noticed him pass. Now, at twenty-seven, he looked back over the five years since his graduation from college and wondered what he had done with them; and at the four previous years of undergraduate life and wondered how he had done so well with those, and why he had not in some manner justified the parting words of his favorite professor: “You have one rare faculty, Jones. You can, when you choose, sharpen the pencil of your mind to a very fine point. Specialize, my boy, specialize.”

  A little like “The Thinking Machine” is “The Man in the Corner,” described thus by the Baroness Orczy:

  The appearance of the man was sufficient to tickle the most ultramorose fancy. Polly thought to herself that she had never seen anyone so pale, so thin, with such funny light-coloured hair, brushed very smoothly across the top of a very dubiously bald crown. He looked so timid and nervous as he fidgeted incessantly with a piece of string; his long, lean, and trembling fingers tying and untying it into knots of wonderful and complicated proportions.

  Astro, the hero of Gelett Burgess’s book of Mystery Stories, is perhaps the farthest possible remove from a conventional detective in appearance. Though not described categorically, we are given various word pictures of him in his “psychic studio.” There he lounges among oriental divans and draperies, wearing a jewelled turban, flowing silken robes, and other characteristic apparel, as he indulges in the enjoyment of his silver-mounted water-pipe or his pet white lizard. He has sufficiently unusual eccentricities to put him in the list of correctly made up fiction detectives, and though blase, he is original and interesting.

  

4. Idiosyncrasies of Fictional Detectives

  Most fictional detectives have peculiar and individual tricks of personality which are doubtless intended for the reader to remember them by.

  Dupin had the most pronouncedly queer traits of all. Perhaps none of his successors ever achieved anything so freakish as this described below; and which, had he lived to-day, would have given him a claim to the title of “Sun Dodger.”

  It was a freak of fancy in my friend (for what else shall I call it?) to be enamoured of the night for her own sake, and into this bizarrerie, as into all his others, I quietly fell; giving myself up to his wild whims with a perfect abandon. The sable divinity would not herself dwell with us always; but we could counterfeit her presence. At the first dawn of the morning we closed all the messy shutters of our old building; lighted a couple of tapers, which, strongly perfumed, threw out only the ghastliest and feeblest of rays. By the aid of these we then busied our souls in dreams — reading, writing, or conversing, until warned by the clock of the advent of the true darkness. Then we sallied forth into the streets, arm and arm, continuing the topics of the day, or roaming far and wide until a late hour, seeking, amid the wild lights and shadows of the populous city, that infinity of mental excitement which quiet observation can afford.

  Sherlock Holmes’ idiosyncrasies are too well known to need recapitulation. His morphine habit, his musical taste and his sardonic moods are familiar to all. Holmes also had a habit of listening to his clients’ recitals with his eyes shut. Though to be sure this was less radical than the proceeding of Dupin who “sat in his accustomed armchair, the embodiment of respectful attention” but he wore green spectacles which allowed him to “sleep not the less soundly, though silently” throughout the long account of the case by the Prefect.

  Holmes’ odd habits are here referred to:

  An anomaly which often struck me in the character of my friend Sherlock Holmes was that, although in his methods of thought he was the neatest and most methodical of mankind, and although also he affected a certain quiet primness of dress, he was none the less in his personal habits one of the most untidy men that ever drove a fellow-lodger to distraction. Not that I am in the least conventional in that respect myself. The rough-and-tumble work in Afghanistan, coming on the top of a natural Bohemianism of disposition, has made me rather more lax than befits a medical man. But with me there is a limit, and when I find a man who keeps his cigars in the coal-scuttle, his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper, and his unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jack-knife into the very centre of his wooden mantelpiece, then I begin to give myself virtuous airs. I have always held, too, that pistol practice should be distinctly an open-air pastime; and when Holmes, in one of his queer humors would sit in an arm-chair with his hair-trigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges, and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V.R done in bullet-pocks, I felt strongly that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of our room was improved by it.

  These are, we must admit, unusual habits, but still Dr. Watson assures us that:

  Holmes was certainly not a difficult man to live with. He was quiet in his ways and his habits were regular. It was rare for him to be up after ten at night, and he had invariably breakfasted and gone out before I rose in the morning. Sometimes he spent his day at the chemical laboratory, sometimes in the dissecting-rooms, and occasionally in long walks, which appeared to take him into the lowest portions of the city. Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him; but now and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night. On these occasions I have noticed such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.

  Later, Dr. Watson’s suspicions were confirmed.

  Lecoq’s eccentricity was his habit of silent communion with a portrait of his wife which he carried with him:

  M. Lecoq had recourse to the portrait on the lozenge-box. His look was more than a glance, it was a confidence. He was evidently saying something to the dear defunct, which he dared not utter aloud.

  This habit is also noted in Mr. Gryce. This delightful old gentleman had a way of addressing himself to any small inanimate object in his neighborhood. It might be an inkstand or a doorknob, but he treated it, to all appearance, as his guide, philosopher and friend. On one occasion he became very chummy with a statue at the foot of a staircase:

  Whereupon I repeated my words, this time very quietly but clearly, while Mr. Gryce continued to frown at the bronze figure he had taken into his confidence. When I had finished, Mr. Van Burnam’s countenance had changed, so had his manner. He held himself as erect as before, but not with as much bravado. He showed haste and impatience also, but not the same kind of haste and not quite the same kind of impatience. The corners of Mr. Gryce’s mouth betrayed that he noted this change, but he did not turn away from the newel-post.

  And, upon occasion, Mr. Gryce is unable to take active interest in the evidence being deposed by a witness because of his intense absorption in a “close and confidential confab with his own finger-tips.”

  Sergeant Cuff, however, has a very sane and pleasant fad of his own, but he puts it to its proper use when he employs it to evade impertinent or unwelcome queries. Instead of dashing madly into his “investigations” the celebrated detective goes off on a side track thus:

  “Ah, you’ve got the right exposure here to the south and sou’west,” says the Sergeant, with a wag of his grizzled head, and a streak of pleasure in his melancholy voice. “This is the shape for a rosery — nothing like a circle set in a square. Yes, yes; with walks between all the beds. But they oughtn’t to be gravel-walks like these. Grass, Mr. Gardener — grass-walks between your roses; gravel’s too hard for them. That’s a sweet pretty bed of white roses and blush roses. They always mix well together, don’t they? Here’s the white musk-rose, Mr. Betteredge — our old English rose holding up his head along with the best and newest of them. Pretty dear!” says the Sergeant, fondling the musk-rose with his lanky fingers, and speaking to it as if he were speaking to a child.

  This was a nice sort of a man to recover Miss Rachel’s Diamond, and to find out the thief who stole it!

  “You seem to be fond of roses, Sergeant?” I remarked.

  “I haven’t much time to be fond of anything,” says Sergeant Cuff. “But, when I have a moment’s fondness to bestow, most times, Mr. Betteredge, the roses get it. I began my life among them in my father’s nursery garden, and I shall end my life among them if I can. Yes. One of these days (please God) I shall retire from catching thieves, and try my hand at growing roses. There will be grass-walks, Mr. Gardener, between my beds,” says the Sergeant, on whose mind the gravel-paths of a rosery seemed to dwell unpleasantly.

  “It seems an odd taste, sir,” I ventured to say, “for a man in your line of life.”

  “If you will look about you (which most people won’t do),” says Sergeant Cuff, “you will see that the nature of a man’s tastes is, most times, as opposite as possible to the nature of a man’s business. Show me any two things more opposite one from the other than a rose and a thief, and I’ll correct my tastes accordingly — if it isn’t too late at my time of life. You find the damask-rose a goodish stock for most of the tender sorts, don’t you, Mr. Gardener? Ah! I thought so. Here’s a lady coming. Is it Lady Verinder?”

  The peculiarity of “The Whispering Man,” and what gives him his title, is a curious vocal defect which at times prevents his audible speech.

  

5. Favorite Phrases of Detectives

  “The Thinking Machine,” aside from his petulance and impatience, continually repeats two or three favorite phrases that annoy the reader quite as much as the clients annoy this astute detective. One of them is, “Don’t say it is impossible! that annoys me exceedingly! Nothing is impossible to the human mind!” This assertion, innocent enough in itself, is so frequently repeated as to become intolerable. Another phrase of which Professor Van Dusen is inordinately fond, is, “Two and two make four, not sometimes, but all the time.” This also is repeated so often as to become tiresome. To quote the Professor:

  “Two and two make four, not sometimes, but all the time,” he began, at last as if disputing some previous assertion. “As the figure two, wholly disconnected from any other, gives small indication of a result, so is an isolated fact of little consequence. Yet that fact added to another, and the resulting fact added to a third, and so on, will give a final result. That result, if every fact is considered must be correct. Thus any problem may be solved by logic; logic is inevitable.

  Indeed, variations on a theme of two and two making four are hackneyed in detective fiction.

  As a figure of speech, the proposition that two and two make four except in unusual cases, is fair enough. It is paraphrased thus: in “A Mysterious Disappearance:”

  “I can’t s’y as I know anythink about it, sir, but by puttin’ two and two together it makes four sometimes — not always.”

  “Quite right. You’re a philosopher. Let me hear the two two’s. We’ll see about the addition afterwards.”

  And it is humorously referred to in “The Circular Staircase,” by Mary Roberts Rinehart:

  At this point in my story, Halsey always says:

  “Trust a woman to add two and two together, and make six” To which I retort that if two and two plus X make six, then to discover the unknown quantity is the simplest thing in the world. That a houseful of detectives missed it entirely was because they were busy trying to prove that two and two make four.

  The same proposition is quoted as the keynote of a detective’s method in “The Holladay Case” where, in praise of the detective, it is remarked, “Your work convinced us that you know how to put two and two together, which is more than can be said for the ordinary mortal.”

  And in “The House Opposite” the detective declares that to succeed in his profession requires, “accurate and most minute powers of observation, unlimited patience, and a capacity for putting two and two together.”

  Sherlock Holmes shows a grasp of the principle, when he says, “If you were asked to prove that two and two make four, you might find some difficulty, and yet you are quite sure of the fact.”

  Poe disdained the simple reference to two plus two, but embodied a similar idea in this subtle manner:

  In short, I never yet encountered the mere mathematician who could be trusted out of equal roots, or one who did not clandestinely hold it as a point of his faith that X2 plus px was absolutely and unconditionally equal to q. Say to one of these gentlemen, by way of experiment, if you please, that you believe occasions may occur where X2 plus px is not altogether equal to q, and, having made him understand what you mean, get out of his reach as speedily as convenient, for, beyond doubt, he will endeavor to knock you down.

  The aspiring author, then, will do well to omit further references to the adding of two and two as an illuminating point in his story. Eccentricities or freakish habits on the part of his detective are permissible if not harped upon too continuously. But let them be of a pleasant or at least of an unobjectionable nature, and not like a habit attributed to a detective in a series of stories now current, who pulled at the lobe of his ear, until a fastidious reader was fain to close the book in disgust. Let the habits of your hero be whimsical, mysterious, or erratic, if you choose; but let them be agreeable and not too frequently reiterated.

(End of Chapter XIII)

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Published on June 21, 2009 at 6:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

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