Sunday, December 6, 2015

"Detective Stories, Bah!"

"One Hundred in the Dark."
By Owen Johnson (1878-1952).
First appearance: The Saturday Evening Post, October 21, 1911.
Collected in Murder in Any Degree (1913).
Reprinted in EQMM, June 1953, EQMM (UK), June 1953, EQMM (Australia), August 1953, Fourteen Great Detective Stories (1928), and Masterpieces of Mystery: Stories Not to Be Missed (1978).
Short story (~ 15 pages).
Online HERE (Project Gutenberg) and HERE (Read Central) and in HERE.
"As far as it concerns a woman, quite the most remarkable woman I have ever met, the story is complete. As for the rest, it is what it is, because it is one example where literature can do nothing better than record."
At a sort of Algonquin Round Table gathering of the great and the good and the witty-at-all-costs, the perfunctory conversation turns to crime, prompting one of them, Quinny, to expatiate on the attractions of the detective story:
. . . "What is the peculiar fascination that the detective problem exercises over the human mind? You will say curiosity. Yes and no. Admit at once that the whole art of a detective story consists in the statement of the problem. Any one can do it. I can do it. Steingall even can do it. The solution doesn't count. It is usually banal; it should be prohibited. What interests us is, can we guess it? Just as an able-minded man will sit down for hours and fiddle over the puzzle column in a Sunday balderdash. Same idea. There you have it, the problem—the detective story. Now why the fascination? I'll tell you. It appeals to our curiosity, yes—but deeper to a sort of intellectual vanity. Here are six matches, arrange them to make four squares; five men present, a theft takes place—who's the thief? Who will guess it first? Whose brain will show its superior cleverness—see? That's all—that's all there is to it."  . . .
. . . which stirs the others to recount their own real-life experiences with thievery:
. . . "Of course, of course, my dear gentlemen," said Quinny impatiently, for he had been silent too long, "you are glorifying commonplaces. Every crime, I tell you, expresses itself in the terms of the picture puzzle that you feed to your six-year-old. It's only the variation that is interesting." . . .
Then Peters, who has been silent during all of this back-and-forth, comes in with his own story-within-a-story of Mrs. Kildair, "quite the most remarkable woman I have ever met," and her sapphire and diamond ring that goes missing at a casual dinner party, an account that certainly meets Quinny's dictum of possessing a "variation that is interesting":
. . . "Now listen!" said Mrs. Kildair. "I am not going to mince words. I am not going to stand on ceremony. I'm going to have that ring back. Listen to me carefully. I'm going to have that ring back, and until I do, not a soul shall leave this room." She tapped on the table with her nervous knuckles. "Who has taken it I do not care to know. All I want is my ring. Now I'm going to make it possible for whoever took it to restore it without possibility of detection. The doors are locked and will stay locked. I am going to put out the lights, and I am going to count one hundred slowly. You will be in absolute darkness; no one will know or see what is done. But if at the end of that time the ring is not here on this table I shall telephone the police and have every one in this room searched. Am I quite clear?"  . . .
The resolution of Peters's story—and the surprising revelation it contains—will leave his auditors—and perhaps you as well—"with a certain ill ease."
Felicitous phraseology: The story's first paragraph is a marvel of concise characterization that any aspiring writer can learn from:
They were discussing languidly, as such groups do, seeking from each topic a peg on which to hang a few epigrams that might be retold in the lip currency of the club—Steingall, the painter, florid of gesture and effete, foreign in type, with black-rimmed glasses and trailing ribbon of black silk that cut across his cropped beard and cavalry mustaches; De Gollyer, a critic, who preferred to be known as a man about town, short, feverish, incisive, who slew platitudes with one adjective and tagged a reputation with three; Rankin, the architect, always in a defensive explanatory attitude, who held his elbows on the table, his hands before his long sliding nose, and gestured with his fingers; Quinny, the illustrator, long and gaunt, with a predatory eloquence that charged irresistibly down on any subject, cut it off, surrounded it, and raked it with enfilading wit and satire; and Peters, whose methods of existence were a mystery, a young man of fifty, who had done nothing and who knew every one by his first name, the club postman, who carried the tittle-tattle, the bon mots and the news of the day, who drew up a petition a week and pursued the house committee with a daily grievance.  . . .
- Even though he got reprinted in EQMM, Owen Johnson was never known as a detective story writer; for further clarification go to Wikipedia HERE. FictionMags lists his short stories HERE.

The bottom line: "Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you'll just rattle your jewelry."
— John Lennon

No comments:

Post a Comment