Chapter 26 of The Techniques of Mystery

contents

FINAL ADVICES

  1. General Qualities of the Detective Story
  2. Correctness
  3. Names
  4. Titles
  5.  

  Until lately the Detective Story has not been looked upon as worthy of serious consideration from a technical point of view. But in the minds of many it has now risen to a place where it calls for standardization. Detective Stories in the last half century have progressed in two directions, good and bad. In fact they have fairly mushroomed out in all grades of quality. And so, to meet the growing appreciation of a good Detective Story, it is worth while to do one’s best in writing them as they should be written.

  True, hundreds of them are published every year, whose authors belong to “The mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease.”

  But although Pope made that very expressive line, he said also:

 

“True ease in writing, comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.”

  In a recent book on the subject of the game of Bridge, the author cleverly designates the grades of Bridge players thus: Idiots, Butchers, Tinkers, Artists, and Necromancers. The student of Detective Stories will at once recognize that these designations very aptly describe writers of detective fiction.

  As Poe was the master of this sort of technique, he was of course a necromancer; but the other names to be put in his class are exceedingly few. We have many Artists writing detective stories, and many more who may be called Tinkers. The lower grades, though voluminous their output, we will not consider here.

 

1. General Qualities of the Detective Story

  But as a keynote to the story we would write let us remember that its success depends first of all upon the interest of the mystery. Perhaps the voice of the public as expressed by the literary critic best tells us what is desired. To quote from the review of a very recent Detective Story:

  “The new physician sets about a stealthy investigation. He finds that in the neighboring house, behind the blue wall, something odd is in progress — the doors are locked against him. The eager question which keeps the reader hurrying through the four hundred pages is ‘What will he discover?’ As often happens, the solution scarcely supports the weight of the mystery. The story is a fantastic tangle, written with polished literary craftsmanship. But it is too ingenious in its opening to live up to its promises. It leaves one disappointed.”

  It is a blot on our escutcheon that we should be accused of often presenting an explanation too slight to support the mystery. Even polished literary craftsmanship cannot make up for the unpardonable sin of a disappointing solution. But this by no means disparages the value of literary excellence. This ought ye to have done, but not to leave the other undone. With all the power that in you lies make for literary craftsmanship; but strive equally hard to perfect a plot which though built on accepted even if hackneyed models, has a few points of absolute originality.

  Notice in Anna Katharine Green’s books how there is invariably some clever original touch which has never been used before. In, for instance, “Initials Only,” the young woman is shot, fatally, but no bullet can be found. As we discover later, instead of a bullet, the assassin used an icicle! Could anything be more unexpected? The sharp needle of ice pierced her heart and of course melted immediately and left no trace.

  But the novel and original touches, though greatly desirable, are incidental to the plot, which should be built on the strong and rational foundations used by our best writers.

  As examples of excellent construction, read, “Hand and Ring,” “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab,” “The DeBercy Affair,” “That Mainwaring Affair,” or “The Accomplice.” All of these are plotted entirely in accordance with the best usage, and may serve as models of construction.

  In the case of short-stories, such definite and careful building of the plot is less imperative, as the author has room only for the single incident of the crime, and a short and swift account of its solution.

  Specially ingenious plots, like “Big Bow Mystery” or “The mystery of the Yellow Room,” may not be achieved by everyone; but all may pay heed to the soundness of construction required by even the simplest plot.

  

2. Correctness

  As in everything else, the writer should be careful of his diction. In a way, the detective story demands accurate English even more than polished expression. We have seen the word suspicion used as a verb, in a story by an educated author. Even Sir Conan Doyle allows his wonderful work to be marred by such slips as inferred for implied; relation for relative; and even an absolute grammatical error, when Holmes says, “It would be robbing you of the credit of the case if I was to presume to help you.”

  Again, one frequently meets with such errors as a reference to a “Frankenstein,” when what they really mean is Frankenstein’s Monster.

  All of these things are unpardonable, and especially so in a field of literature where accuracy is a prime element.

  Without overworking the poor words, learn to use intelligently and correctly — deduce, connote; vital, and incidental; fact, and truth; and all of the catch words that belong to the peculiar conditions of our subject, — even ratiocination.

  

3. Names

  Especial attention should be paid to the names of the characters in our story.

  If the influence of a right name is felt in real life, how much more so in fiction! In real life it is a matter of chance or of lucky accident if the baptismal name prove a just and congruous one, suited to the character and the circumstances of the owner. The natural parent may claim forgiveness for error on the score that he could not foresee the possible career of the child whom he may have handicapped at the altar. The author of a work of fiction can make no such plea. His characters should take form in his brain, like Minerva in the skull of Jupiter; they should be armed at all points, and the most vulnerable point of their equipment is an unworthy name. Yet knowledge of the thing desired does not necessarily lead to its easy discovery. It is a matter for thought, for research, for studious inquiry. Great skill and nicety of perception must be called into play. The effect must not be too crudely palpable. Suggestion, not insistence, is needed. The good old trick which pleased our simpler forefathers, that which consists in merely labelling a character, — all ingenuous, but not ingenious, stratagem, — has had its day. It was carried to an extreme in the early English drama, where even Shakespeare gives us such names among his minor characters as Mouldy, Feeble, Shadow, Shallow, etc., and it retained its hold on the comic stage down to the time of the Lydia Languishes, the Sneerwells, the Mrs. Malaprops of Sheridan, the Sir Fopling Flutters of Vanbrugh.

  While such definitely descriptive names are perhaps not to be used, let us at least choose names that will seem to connote the effect intended.

  “Scientific Sprague” is a good name because it is especially descriptive; and perhaps also because it is alliterative. We remember that name when we would not remember “Ledroit Conners” who figures in an equally good series of stories. “Craig Kennedy” does not stick in our memory like the “Thinking Machine,” and “Rouletabille,” though expressive in intent, has not the arrestiveness of “Raffles.”

  

4. Titles

  And if the names of the characters are in their way important, how much more so is the title of the story. When Poe began his stories, no titles were hackneyed and he was at liberty to use “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget” without being trite.

  But as both these titles have been borrowed hundreds of times, it is wise for the young writer to endeavor to think up an original title. Conan Doyle was an artist at this, and though all of his titles were “The Adventure of —,” the rest of the phrase was so striking as to command interest at once. Whose curiosity would not be aroused by “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” or “The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips”? Incidentally, Conan Doyle has mentioned a dozen or more attractive titles, to which he has never yet written stories. We wish we might read of “The Adventure of the Paradol Chamber,” “The Singular Tragedy of the Atkinson Brothers at Trincomalee,” and many others of this list of equally fascinating titles:

  “The Darlington Substitution Scandal,” “The Arnsworth Castle Affair,” “The Affair of the Amateur Mendicant Society,” “The Loss of the ‘Sophy Anderson’,” “The Adventure of the Grice Patersons in Uffa,” “The Camberwell Poisoning Case,” “The Dundas Separation Case,” “The Affair of the Reigning Family of Holland,” “The Adventure of the Tired Captain,” “The Trepoff Murder,” “The Affair of the Netherland Sumatra Company,” “The Tankerville Club Scandal,” “The Case of Mrs. Etheredge,” “The Affair of the King of Scandinavia,” “The Manor House Case,” “The Tarleton Murder,” “The Affair of the Aluminum Crutch,” “The Case of Vamberry, the Wine Merchant,” “Ricoletti of the Club Foot and His Abominable Wife,” “The Adventure of the Old Russian Woman.

  But many authors content themselves with “The Mystery of Maple Hollow,” or “The Connolly Case.” Such titles as, “That Mainwaring Affair,” “That Affair at Elizabeth,” “That Affair Next door” are good in their way, but the phrase has been overworked.

  Some titles are so obvious that they are repeated, probably unwittingly, by various authors. “The Long Arm” has been chosen as a title by Samuel N. Gardenhire, E. Phillips Oppenheim, Richard Harding Davis, and Mary E. Wilkins.

  “A Mysterious Disappearance,” appealed to the taste of three or four authors, while “The Corpus Delicti” took the fancy of two or three more.

  Such titles as “The Scales of Justice,” or “Vengeance is Mine” are entirely legitimate, though not novel. Titles like those chosen by Anna Katharine Green are much more to be commended: “The Woman in the Alcove,” “The Doctor, his Wife and the Clock,” “Initials Only” or “One of my Sons,” are unique and therefore arrestive.

  “The Trevor Case,” is a hackneyed style of title, while “The Circular Staircase” is not.

  As a general rule avoid unpleasant words in a title. Omit the words Murder, Crime, or Blood. These words are inevitable in your text, but unattractive in your title.

  In fine, do your best to make both matter and manner of your story the best that in you lies; and never for a moment commit the error of thinking that because you are writing a detective story you may scamp your efforts to achieve good literature.

   We quote by permission the following advice by Mr. Arlo Bates. Though written for the benefit of young authors in all fields of literature, it may be applied especially to writers of detective fiction.

  “A youth who decides to follow a life of letters will not do amiss to be frank with himself at the start. He may say to his inner self: ‘I can make money with my pen. It is a business, like another. I should find it pleasant, to be sure, to try to produce literature; but I see that it does not pay. I prefer the flesh pots of Egypt, hot, well filled, highly spiced, to any vague promises of the delights of a far-off and rather doubtful Canaan of art. I will write what people will buy; and I will take my reward as I go, in pleasant applause and good hard cash.’ Or if he be of another mind, he may have the hardihood to say to himself something of this sort: ‘It is true that if I do the best I can in literature, I shall be hard put to it to pay the butcher and the baker. The candlestick-maker will dwell in abundance, while by the glimmer of a tallow dip set in the meanest of his wares I wearily and very likely hungrily write that which not one man in a thousand would care to read, and not one woman in ten thousand would think of taking out of the circulating library. There is, moreover, the gravest doubt whether, even after I am dead and cannot enjoy it if it comes, reputation will crown my work. Yet in spite of all this, I am so constituted that the delight of doing my best, the pleasure of serving my art, will make up to me for all that I forego in choosing to strive toward literary perfection. I elect to walk while others ride, to be splashed by mud from the carriage wheels of the wife of the man whose rubbish is sold by the million copies and given away with the popular brand of soap; I will starve if it must be, but I will live my own life.’ Something of one of these decisions it will be well to adopt at the start.

  “When the decision is made, it is to he abided by. A man has no more right to complain at the loss of the thing he deliberately let go than he has to be angry that two and two make four. It is true that few are able to make the higher choice without some secret thought, — that unacknowledged hope which, all intangible as it is, is one of the most comforting delusions of life; that hope not put into word even in the most secret chamber of the heart, yet without which so many heroisms would be impossible — some deeply hidden conviction that fortune will to them be so propitious that all discouraging precedents will be violated. It is so hard for youth to believe that anything it desires is impossible. The ardent young author, working steadfastly in his attic, has a firm faith that fame and fortune will one day be his in abundance. That this dream is so often false is profoundly pathetic; but it is not a vital misfortune if the man be virile enough not to be soured by disappointment and disillusion. Character is the great stake for which one plays the game of life; and if this is won, the rest is of less, no matter how grave, weight. The failure of literary aspirations is bitter, but the worst is escaped as long as one is able firmly to say: ‘I chose the pleasure of an unviolated literary conscience, the delight of serving art with my best endeavor, rather than the rewards of meretricious work. I have had what I bargained for; and I stand by that ungrudgingly. If I hoped for a bonus at the hand of Fortune and have not got it, at least I have received the price which I stipulated.’

  “The price stipulated in such a bargain with life is at least sure. He who elects to serve literature and to do his best for the pleasure of such doing, cannot be robbed of his reward; while he who works for other advantages may and often does fail of securing them. He who makes the pleasure of being true to his best instincts his purpose, is secure of the satisfaction which comes of nobility of intention and consciousness of high aim, while the man who seeks money and notoriety often comes to grief. A writer may even be willing to stoop to any and every low device to gain popularity, and yet may miss it. It is one thing for a mail to be willing to sell himself to the devil, and quite another to induce the devil to pay his price.

  “No man devotes his life to any work without some more or less clearly defined idea of what he shall gain from such a muse The reward of literature is not money, although occasionally that will come in abundance, and in these days usually rewards in moderation any literary labor done at all well. The reward is not reputation, albeit that cannot but be pleasant to any man who wins it, for no sane human being can remain totally indifferent to the approval and applause of his follows. These things are good, but they are net the true guerdons of art. The real reward of literature is the joy of producing it. There arc few earthly delights which can compare with the pleasure of artistic creation: to feel a work grow in the mind and take shape under the hand; to look on a new found idea as a ‘watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken;’ to be lifted above whatever is small or petty or annoying, whatever is unsatisfactory in human life, by the power of the creative impulse, — that is the true good of the literary worker; and it is a good so great that all others may well seem petty beside it. There is much else which is attractive and desirable, — contact with alert minds, familiarity with the thought of the world, and the enjoyment of an artistic atmosphere, — but these are less certain, and are really of less importance. The most admirable return for all one’s labors that he hath under the sun, is the joy of a congenial pursuit and the inspiration of creative effort.

  “This may seem somewhat far from the standards of a workaday world. It is certain that no transports of literary creation will pay the coal bill or settle an account at the grocer’s. Necessity knows no law, and a man may be forced to drudgery with the pen as with the pickaxe. To him, however, who is willing and able to sacrifice material to intellectual ends, what I have said is of actual and practical application.”

(End of Chapter XXVI)

contents

Published on June 21, 2009 at 7:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

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