Frank R. Stockton Essay - Critical Essays

Francis Richard Stockton

Frank R. Stockton Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

Indifferent to literary movements and unconfined by traditional genre divisions, Frank R. Stockton wrote delightful tales that mix romance, adventure, satire, fairy tale, intrigue, and derring-do. These stories were best when his imagination was not tied down by geographical or historical circumstances (more than half of his tales are set at sea) but could freely range in a mixed world of fantasy and reality. Their basic pattern, no matter what the dominant genre, is parody through inverting convention. Only a handful contain elements of mystery and detection, but because of Stockton’s popularity and his innovative tinkering with formulas, these few are significant.

Although he wrote a number of novels, Stockton’s forte was the short story, of which he wrote hundreds, and even his novels actually consist of short episodes bound together into longer units. All are characterized by the Stockton formula: what Martin I. J. Griffin calls “the calm, realistic recital of absurdity.” Stockton describes the most amazing or ludicrous adventures and the most frightening horrors with a serene objectivity, a plain matter-of-factness, and the most ordinary with such a sense of wonder and intrigue that one’s expectations are continually reversed. His fairies enter the human domain like wary strangers in a strange land, so that the real world partakes of the fanciful and the fantastic, while his descriptions of fairyland infuse it with realism. His ghosts are haunted by their human counterparts, and his stolid middle-aged women are drawn into incredible adventures. Mixing the normal and the incongruous, his narrator usually recites events in so detached and distant a manner that the passionate seems dispassionate, the heroic ordinary, the complex simple.

“Struck by a Boomerang”

Stockton’s one tale of ratiocination, “Struck by a Boomerang,” approaches the murder mystery in a typically skewed fashion. Reuben Farris has been murdered, and the narrator, a reclusive lawyer, sets out to detect the murderer by collecting incontrovertible evidence and presenting it logically. What he discovers is that there is a large amount of circumstantial evidence that indicates that he himself is the murderer. Luckily, he is saved by the timely confession of the true murderer, but he has learned the hard way how misleading circumstances can be. He concludes:I have had very good success in the law, but for some years I never pressed an investigation, never endeavored to find out the origin of some evil action, without stopping to consider whether it might not be possible that under some peculiar circumstances, and in some way I did not understand at the time, I might not be the man I was looking for, and that the legal blow I was about to deliver might not be turned, boomerang-like, on my astonished self.

While satirizing the unquestioning self-assurance of a Sherlock Holmes, Stockton questions the legal system and the reliance on circumstantial evidence to win a conviction.

“The Lady, or the Tiger?”

Although Stockton has only one real tale of detection, some of his other works contain intriguing elements of that genre. The most famous of these is “The Lady, or the Tiger?” Persuaded to prepare a story to read at a literary party, Stockton wrote “The King’s Arena” but could not complete it to his satisfaction in time. Toying with it, he could not decide how to conclude it; after rewriting the ending five times, he finally left the solution open-ended. He published it as what is now known as his classic riddle story, “The Lady, or the Tiger?” It is the story of a handsome youth whose love for a king’s daughter leads the king to condemn him to a choice of two doors, behind one of which lies a ferocious, bloodthirsty tiger that will most certainly eat him, behind the other a beautiful young woman who will be his willing and joyous bride. After a night of anguished consideration, the king’s daughter, having bribed a guard for the secret of the doors, firmly directs her beloved to the door on the right, but the reader is left to unravel the psychology of her choice. Would she rather have her handsome young man alive, but in the arms of a rival, or dead, and safely hers for eternity? Stockton spends two sentences on her fears about “the cruel fangs of the tiger” and two paragraphs on her deliberations about the other door, emphasizing her “hot-blooded, semi-barbaric” nature, her gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair, her dreams of her young lover’s “start of rapturous delight” on viewing her rival, her “despairing shriek” at the thought of their nuptials.

“The Discourager of Hesitancy”

To thousands of letters begging an answer, Stockton finally replied, “If...

(The entire section is 1957 words.)