Most critics agree that “A Municipal Report”—set in Nashville, Tennessee, as a challenge to Frank Norris’s assertion that the only “story cities” in the United States are New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans—is O. Henry’s best. It is often singled out to suggest that O. Henry could have written better stories if he had tried harder, took himself and his writing more seriously, and had more discipline. The story is more sophisticated than other O. Henry stories because of its complex narrative structure and its creation of two compelling characters—the southern lady writer abused by her husband and the African American carriage driver who rescues her. As a result, the story is more ambitious than merely an illustration that an exciting story can be based in such an ordinary place like Nashville.
Alternating quotations from encyclopedias and atlases about the geography and history of Nashville with the first-person narrative of one man’s discovery of a little personal drama of cruelty, avarice, endurance, and loyalty, O. Henry creates what some have called his masterpiece. Although it makes use of the conventions of melodrama, it exceeds those conventions. The villain of the piece is Major Caswell, the worst kind of cardboard southerner who bangs his fist on the bar and replays the Civil War from Fort Sumter to Appomattox. The hero is Uncle Caesar, a noble African American man with a regal bearing who tries to protect a southern lady. The heroine is Azalea Adair, a genteel, educated, and gentle lady of the old South. What Alfred Hitchcock once called the maguffin, a key device that eventually reveals the secret that propels the plot, is a torn dollar bill held together with blue tissue paper and a button from the carriage driver’s coat. The story ends with the narrator’s complicity in the death of Caswell by picking the button up at the crime scene and tossing it out the window into the Cumberland River as he leaves town.