Chapter 5 of The Techniques of Mystery

contents

RIDDLE STORIES

  1. Some Notable Riddle Stories
  2. The Nature of the Riddle Story and Its Types
  3.  

     

   Riddle Stories, as we have chosen to designate them, are Mystery Stories concerned with a question and answer of absorbing interest, but one which in no way implies or includes the work of a detective, either professional or amateur. As a rule, Riddle Stories are not based upon a crime, but on some mysterious situation which is apparently inexplicable, but which turns out to have a most rational and logical explanation.

 

1. Some Notable Riddle Stories

   “The Sending Of Dana Da,” by Kipling, is one of the best stories of this type.

   Here we have such a commonplace, ordinary medium as kittens, so employed as to make an unsolvable riddle.

   When a man who hates cats wakes up in the morning and finds a little squirming kitten on his breast, or puts his hand into his ulster pocket and finds a little half-dead kitten where his gloves should be, or opens his trunk and finds a vile kitten among his dress shirts or goes for a long ride with his mackintosh strapped on his saddlebow and shakes a little sprawling kitten from its folds when he opens it, or goes out to dinner and finds a little blind kitten under his chair, or stays at home and finds a writhing kitten under the quilt, or wriggling among his boots, or hanging, head downward, in his tobacco jar, or being mangled by his terrier in the veranda — when such a man finds one kitten, neither more nor less, once a day in a place where no kitten rightly could or should be, he is naturally upset. When he dare not murder his daily trove because he believes it to be a manifestation, an emissary, an embodiment, and half a dozen other things all out of the regular course of nature, he is more than upset. He is actually distressed.

   No one could know the truth until told and the explanation is entirely logical and satisfactory. Indeed, as the author says, finally: “Consider the gorgeous simplicity of it all.”

   A clever Riddle Story is one by Cleveland Moffett, entitled “The Mysterious Card.”

   In this story, a New Yorker, while in a Paris restaurant, is presented with a card by a charming and richly clad lady. The card bore some French words written in purple ink, but not knowing that language he was unable to make out their meaning.

   He returned at once to his hotel to inquire concerning the message on the card.

   In the words of the story:

   Proceeding directly to the office and taking the manager aside, Burwell asked if he would be kind enough to translate a few words of French into English. There were no more than twenty words in all.

   “Why, certainly,” said the manager, with French politeness, and cast his eyes over the card. As he read, his face grew rigid with astonishment, and, looking at his questioner sharply, he exclaimed: “Where did you get this, monsieur?”

   Burwell started to explain, but was interrupted by: “That will do, that will do. You must leave the hotel.”

   “What do you mean?” asked the man from New York, in amazement.

   “You must leave the hotel now — to-night — without fail,” commanded the manager, excitedly.

   Now it was Burwell’s turn to grow angry, and he declared heatedly that if he wasn’t wanted in this hotel there were plenty of others in Paris where he would be welcome. And, with an assumption of dignity, but piqued at heart, he settled his bill, sent for his belongings, and drove up the Rue de la Paix to the Hotel Bellevue, where he spent the night. The next morning he met the proprietor, who seemed to be a good fellow, and, being inclined now to view the incident of the previous evening from its ridiculous side, Burwell explained what had befallen him, and was pleased to find a sympathetic listener.

   “Why, the man was a fool,” declared the proprietor. “Let me see the card; I will tell you what it means.” But as he read, his face and manner changed instantly.

   “This is a serious matter,” he said sternly. ” Now I understand why my confrère refused to entertain you. I regret, monsieur, but I shall be obliged to do as he did.”

   “What do you mean?”

   “Simply that you cannot remain here.”

   With that he turned on his heel, and the indignant guest could not prevail upon him to give any explanation.

   “We’ll see about this,” said Burwell, thoroughly angered.

   The rest of the story is a succession of the hero’s unfortunate experiences in endeavoring to solve the mystery of the card. He referred it to his dearest friend, to a detective agency, to the American Minister, and finally to his wife, but in every case the reader of the card turned from him in horror and dismay and refused to see or speak to him again. In the sequel to the story, called “The Mysterious Card Unveiled” the mystery is explained to the satisfaction of the reader.

   Of course the best Riddle Story of its kind ever written is that masterpiece of Frank R. Stockton, “The Lady or The Tiger?” but this principle of leaving a question unanswered is not to be advised for any writer not possessing Stockton’s peculiar genius.

   As well as short-stories, there are many entire novels with a mystery interest but which are in no sense Detective Stories. “The Woman In White” is a good example. This book is said to have been the most popular serial story ever printed. On the publication day of the weekly in which the story was appearing in parts, the street in front of the office was thronged with people anxiously waiting for a new instalment of the adventures of Laura Fairleigh, Ann Catherick, the treacherous Baronet, and the diabolically fascinating Count Fosco.

   The secret of Collins’s power lies not in mere description but in suggestion. He excites us not by what he tells us but what he does not tell us. The compelling interest which holds the reader of “The Woman In White” is due less to the vivid description of dramatic incidents than to the artful suggestion of some impending fate.

 

2. The Nature of the Riddle Story and its Types

   The distinguishing feature of the Riddle Story is that the reader should be confronted with a number of mysterious facts of which the explanation is reserved till the end. Now this reservation of the final solution, in order to pique the reader’s curiosity, excite his ingenuity, and lead him on to an unexpected climax, is a quite legitimate artistic effect. The only question to be asked about it in any particular instance is whether it succeeds, whether the effect is really accomplished? And for its success two primary qualifications are necessary, — first, that the mystery should really be mysterious; second, that the explanation should really explain.

   The Riddle Story, then, is based entirely on a puzzle whose solution is a clever trick of the author and usually not to be guessed by the reader. Unlike the Detective Story, there are no clues, either true or misleading. The reader goes swiftly from his first surprise to sustained wonder, and then to an intense and abiding curiosity that lasts until the solution is flashed upon him. The plot is meant to catch the reader napping, and seldom indeed is he wide awake enough to solve the riddle.

   A distinct type of Riddle Story is that which describes a search for lost treasure. In so far as the searchers encounter mysterious conditions, or the reader is held in suspense concerning the meaning or outcome of the situations, in so far is the tale a Riddle Story. But to be a real Riddle Story, the mystery must be carefully built up, sustained and finally revealed with careful and coherent sequences.

   Poe’s story, “The Oblong Box,” is one of the greatest Riddle Stories ever written. The mystery is seemingly inexplicable. The interest is intense and the conditions partake of all the elements of ghastliness and horror. The solution is unguessable but entirely logical, and Poe’s inimitable workmanship makes the story a masterpiece of its kind.

   Equally clever, in a totally different vein, is Kipling’s “His Wedded Wife,” and, different still, Aldrich’s “Marjory Daw.”

   In both of these, the surprise is perfect, and so inherent a part of the plot, so skillfully and swiftly worked up, that all demands of the true Riddle Story are complied with.

   In some Riddle Stories the interest is not in the unraveling of the web, but in the weaving of it. In De Quincey’s “The Avenger” this is the case, and also in Bulwer’s “A Strange Story.” It is the strangeness of the story that captivates in these instances. The maze of mystery and hazard, and the confidence that it will all be made plain to us at last, provide sufficient charm to the lover of the Riddle Story. Crime and its detection have no part here, but mystery and paradox reign supreme.

   Another sort of Riddle Story employs the cypher or cryptogram plot, but this is of such importance as to require a chapter to itself.

   Poe’s “Gold Bug” includes both the cryptogram and the buried treasure, and is of course the greatest story built upon either or both of these plots.

   A novel by James DeMille is called “The Cryptogram,” and the cypher is the main point of the story. But more often, cypher or secret writing is used as a side issue or a picturesque device in a stronger mystery plot.

(End of Chapter V)

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Published on June 21, 2009 at 10:48 am  Leave a Comment  

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