Monday, June 1, 2015

Criminous Nonsense from O. Henry

The man best known to posterity as O. Henry (1862-1910) was born William Sidney Porter in Greensboro, North Carolina and died in New York City, which he had come to love as a "Bagdad-on-the-Subway."
From his arrival in New York until his death roughly eight years later (sadly, from complications of alcoholism), he found more than enough material in that bustling metropolis for his stories. He once observed: "You can't write a story that's got any life in it by sitting at a writing table and thinking. You've got to get out into the streets, into the crowds, talk with people, and feel the rush and throb of real life—that's the stimulant for a story writer." (He should've taken his own advice.)

Porter was an acknowledged master of the clever twist ending, and his stories were in vogue several decades after his demise; it was only when revisionist critics began to deconstruct his works that his reputation went into eclipse. 

Regardless of what the critics have said, however, the reading public has continued to demand O. Henry's writings, and most if not all of his more than 600 stories are still in print.

What's surprising about several of Porter's stories is how they veer from the soft optimism and sentimentality that he is most remembered for into outright farce and parody; you might think you're reading something by S. J. Perelman or Mark Twain rather than the author of "The Gift of the Magi."

We were able to pin down six of O. Henry's tales that aimed at both being funny and having criminal activity of the Perelman/Twain variety as their nuclei:

(1) "Tictocq: The Great French Detective, in Austin" (The Rolling Stone - 1894):

Mystery lovers may recall the exploits of Vidocq; certainly Porter had him in mind here. One of Porter's entrepreneurial enterprises was The Rolling Stone, a weekly humorous paper which he founded, wrote for, edited, and managed to run into bankruptcy within a year. (His troubles with the law, resulting ultimately in prison time, may have stemmed from his problems with it.) By this time, Porter was married to an Austin socialite, and his local color humor, like Twain, was aimed primarily at folks he knew; hence the appearance of "The Great French Detective" in Austin:
The professor [who has been playing the piano] looks around.
The room is empty.
Empty with the exception of Tictocq, the great French detective, who springs from a mass of tropical plants to his side.
The professor rises in alarm.
"Hush," says Tictocq: "Make no noise at all. You have already made enough."
Footsteps are heard outside.
"Be quick," says Tictocq: "give me those socks. There is not a moment to spare."
"Vas sagst du?"
"Ah, he confesses," says Tictocq.
You can read the entire story HERE.

(2) "Tracked to Doom; Or The Mystery of the Rue De Peychaud" (The Rolling Stone - 1894):

The Great French Detective resurfaces in Paris, hot on the trail of a master criminal known as Gray Wolf:
The horrified sans-culottes shrink back in terror as the Gray Wolf seizes Maria by the hair and cuts her into twenty-nine pieces, exactly the same size.
As he stands with reeking hands above the corpse, amid a deep silence, the old, gray-bearded man who has been watching the scene springs forward, tears off his false beard and locks, and Tictocq, the famous French detective, stands before them. Spellbound and immovable, the denizens of the cellar gaze at the greatest modern detective as he goes about the customary duties of his office.
He first measures the distance from the murdered woman to a point on the wall, then he takes down the name of the bartender and the day of the month and the year. Then drawing from his pocket a powerful microscope, he examines a little of the blood that stands upon the floor in little pools.
"Mon Dieu!" he mutters, "it is as I feared—human blood."
He then enters rapidly in a memorandum book the result of his investigations, and then leaves the cellar.
Tictocq bends his rapid steps in the direction of the headquarters of the Paris gendarmerie, but suddenly pausing, he strikes his hand upon his brow with a gesture of impatience.
"Mille tonnerre," he mutters. "I should have asked the name of that man with the knife in his hand."
The full story is HERE.

(3) "The Adventures of Shamrock Jolnes" (New York Sunday World Magazine - February 1904):

It seems Porter wasn't finished with parodic stories of defective detectives just yet, and when he settled in New York he contrived an Americanized Tictocq/Sherlock Holmes knock-off:
I am so fortunate as to count Shamrock Jolnes, the great New York detective, among my muster of friends. Jolnes is what is called the "inside man" of the city detective force. He is an expert in the use of the typewriter, and it is his duty, whenever there is a "murder mystery" to be solved, to sit at a desk telephone at headquarters and take down the message of "cranks" who 'phone in their confessions to having committed the crime.
But on certain "off" days when confessions are coming in slowly and three or four newspapers have run to earth as many different guilty persons, Jolnes will knock about the town with me, exhibiting, to my great delight and instruction, his marvellous powers of observation and deduction.
The other day I dropped in at Headquarters and found the great detective gazing thoughtfully at a string that was tied tightly around his little finger.
"Good morning, Whatsup," he said without turning his head . . . .
You can read "The Adventures of Shamrock Jolnes" HERE.

(4) "The Sleuths" (New York Sunday World Magazine - October 23, 1904):

Another case for Shamrock Jolnes involves the disappearance of a woman:
"I will undertake your case, Mr. Meeks," said Jolnes, finally. "The disappearance of people in this city has always been an interesting problem to me. I remember a case that I brought to a successful outcome a year ago. A family bearing the name of Clark disappeared suddenly from a small flat in which they were living. I watched the flat building for two months for a clue. One day it struck me that a certain milkman and a grocer's boy always walked backward when they carried their wares upstairs. Following out by induction the idea that this observation gave me, I at once located the missing family. They had moved into the flat across the hall and changed their name to Krale."
You can read "The Sleuths" HERE.

(5) "The Detective Detector" (New York Sunday World Magazine - March 26, 1905):

Things get turned on their head when the criminal goes looking for the detective:
"I've been on one or two false scents, doctor," he [the killer] admitted. "I know something of detectives' methods, and I followed out a few of them, expecting to find Jolnes at the other end. The pistol being a .45-caliber, I thought surely I would find him at work on the clue in Forty-fifth Street. Then, again, I looked for the detective at the Columbia University, as the man's being shot in the back naturally suggested hazing. But I could not find a trace of him."
This story is HERE.

(6) "Tommy's Burglar" (New York Sunday World Magazine - May 14, 1905):

Porter has some fun with fictional conventions when a 9-year-old kid encounters an intruder:
The burglar got into the house without much difficulty; because we must have action and not too much description in a 2,000-word story.
A little later:
"Aren't you afraid of me?" asked the burglar.
"You know I'm not," answered Tommy. "Don't you suppose I know fact from fiction? If this wasn't a story I'd yell like an Indian when I saw you; and you'd probably tumble downstairs and get pinched on the sidewalk."
The burglar has reason to complain:
"It's mighty little I get out of these fictional jobs, anyhow. I lose all the loot, and I have to reform every time; and all the swag I'm allowed is the blessed little fol-de-rols and luck-pieces that you kids hand over. Why, in one story, all I got was a kiss from a little girl who came in on me when I was opening a safe. And it tasted of molasses candy, too. I've a good notion to tie this table cover over your head and keep on into the silver-closet."
"Oh, no, you haven't," said Tommy, wrapping his arms around his knees. "Because if you did no editor would buy the story. You know you've got to preserve the unities."
"Tommy's Burglar" is HERE.

- The Wikipedia article about Porter HERE is pretty good.
- The Best Short Stories of O. Henry is available on HERE.
- O. Henry's Full House (1952, 20th Century-Fox, 117 mins.) is also available on HERE. Reviewer A. T. Hurley describes it thus:
O. Henry’s Full House is a recently repolished cinema gem, a must for film fans and for those who love the short stories of O. Henry (born William Sidney Porter). This collection features five of O. Henry’s tales made into short films, and released in theaters in 1952 as a collection—an experiment in adapting short stories as simple short films, not padded out to theatrical lengths. The collection features a stable of 20th Century-Fox’s top contract players, including Anne Baxter, Richard Widmark, Farley Granger, and a dewy-cheeked Marilyn Monroe, and five topnotch directors including Henry Hathaway and Howard Hawks. The five stories include O. Henry’s signature tale of grace and selflessness, "The Gift of the Magi," as well as "The Cop and the Anthem" (in which a hobo literally can’t get himself arrested); "The Clarion Call" (a noirish crime mystery with loads of side-of-the-mouth cracks, like calling a guy "You clamhead!"); "The Last Leaf" (with a radiant Baxter and Jean Peters); and "The Ransom of Red Chief," a kidnap cautionary tale. The twists that O. Henry’s stories are famous for perhaps work better on the page than on film, and yet the acting and production values are so superb the tales are moving and their short lengths are just right.
The extras are another literary treasure trove. The stories are introduced and narrated by none other than a chain-smoking John Steinbeck, whose admiration for O. Henry permeates his speeches. Other features include a commentary by Dr. Jenny Lind Porter, a featurette on the life and writing of O. Henry (every bit as tragic as his most bittersweet fiction), galleries, stills, and two additional shorts from 1927, "Girls" and "Man About Town." — A. T. Hurley

Category: Detective fiction/Sherlock Holmes spoofs

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