Frank R. Stockton Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1957

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.

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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 you decide which it was—the lady, or the tiger—you find out what kind of a person you are yourself.” Later, the pleas of readers still desperate for a final answer led to “The Discourager of Hesitancy” in The Christmas Wreck, and Other Stories (1886), but therein Stockton merely poses another question: whether the lady who smiles or the lady who frowns at the handsome prince is the king’s choice for his bride, a choice he must duplicate or go to his death. The impact of Stockton’s “The Lady, or the Tiger?” is clear from the fact that twenty-five thousand copies of it were sold by 1891. Critics still speak of it as “a great link in the development of the short story.”

Stockton’s story typifies his most intriguing characteristics: the difficulty of labeling his works in traditional ways, the ambiguity that teases and challenges readers, the realistic detail coupled with elements of fantasy, the deep-rooted cynicism beneath a surface idealism. Its concern with the choice between love and jealousy, self-sacrifice and blind possessiveness gives it a universality that has made it endure.

“What I Found in the Sea”

Another tale, involving greed, betrayal, and attempted murder, takes place on the high seas. In “What I Found in the Sea,” a former sailor, John Gayther, tells of his near demise. His ship having run aground on some unknown obstacle, Gayther constructs a glass box through which to view the damage, only to discover a Spanish galleon and an English ship, sunk during a sea battle and now forever locked in combat in a watery grave. Curious, Gayther explores the ruined vessels in a diver’s suit while his fellow sailors repair their boat. On finding a treasure in sixteenth century gold coins, he makes a secret agreement with the captain for the crew, the captain, and Gayther to mark the location and share the wealth. A passenger, a villainous stockbroker, suspects however, that he is missing out on a treasure; having watched shipboard movements “like a snake watching a bird,” he cuts the line and hose on the diver’s suit the next time Gayther is underwater. When Gayther finds an ingenious way to survive (breathing “the air of the sixteenth century”), the stockbroker tries to stir the crew against him. Stockton lightens this story of the way greed drives a man to madness, treachery, and murder by focusing on the peculiar psychological transformation wrought in Gayther by the preserved air from more reckless, swashbuckling days.

The Stories of the Three Burglars

The Stories of the Three Burglars (1889), a novelette, portrays three burglars caught by means of wine into which a powerful narcotic has been placed; in an attempt to account for their presence in a strange house, each tells an ingenious but unconvincing tale. Through such stories, Stockton satirizes realists such as Stephen Crane, who insisted that art mirror firsthand experience. At the same time he sets forth a middle-class view of society, with the rich equated with oppressors and socialist attempts to organize the poor denounced as forms of burglary.

The Late Mrs. Null

The Late Mrs. Null (1886), a romance, involves an investigation and disguise, with a cautious young lover, Lawrence Croft, trying to determine the character of his rival, one Junius Keswick, whose previous engagement to Croft’s beloved had been broken by his aunt, Mrs. Keswick. Croft hires Annie Peyton, an employee of a New York information agency, to undertake the investigation for him. To facilitate the performance of her job, she disguises herself as “Mrs. Null,” for as a married woman she can “go where she pleases and take care of herself.” Mrs. Keswick proves to be a terrible, vengeful woman who drove her husband to suicide and unrelentingly harried her childhood lover until he agreed to marry her, only for the pleasure of castigating him mercilessly at the altar and humiliating him in front of family and friends by refusing to continue with the marriage rites. “Mrs. Null,” in turn, is full of dash, spirit, and bravery. She cannot reconcile the feuding families, but she does prove fully capable of determining her own fate and fulfilling her contract. She teaches her employer the importance of both emotion and intellect in human relationships. A minor novelty in the book is the introduction of the antidetective squad, a group of private citizens who have taken it on themselves to counter the efforts of detectives worldwide and who, for an appropriate sum, will undertake to divert and mislead whatever detectives are pursuing the payee.

Five thousand copies of this story sold the first day and more than twenty thousand within five months. In it, Stockton brought together the elements of a potential detective story but avoided using detection as his final approach. Nevertheless, his portrait of a young, active woman, intelligent, perceptive, and capable, paved the way for the modern female detective. Though marriage eventually becomes Annie Peyton’s goal, throughout the story she proves her ability to thrive and to conduct her investigations without male assistance. Indeed, in his excellent work on Stockton, Henry Golemba comments, “I know of no American writer who investigates the question of women’s liberation in so many permutations who has been as summarily neglected as Stockton.”

Ardis Claverden

Ardis Claverden (1890), whose plot features a lynching, the burning of a house and a barn, horse theft, a murder, and two hangings, focuses on a woman who beneath a bland, conventional exterior proves somewhat sinister and destructive, driven by dark, overpowering psychological forces. Riding a hot-blooded horse at top speed makes her feel wild and free, especially when she has just stolen back her lover’s horse from thieves, and bringing two men to the gallows exhilarates her even more.

“The Knife That Killed Po Hancy”

“The Knife That Killed Po Hancy” further exemplifies Stockton’s interest in the darker forces that may possess a human being. Therein an effete, civilized lawyer accidentally cuts himself with a knife stained with the blood of a Burmese robber chieftain, Po Hancy, and finds himself first displaying that long-dead man’s uncivilized physical abilities and then his primitive passions. He plots burglaries, considers murder, and finds uncontrollable impulses waging war against his own better self. Humankind’s cruel and inhuman designs are examined in other of Stockton’s works, particularly in descriptions of the fury of a lynch mob such as that in Amos Kilbright: His Adscititious Experiences, with Other Stories (1888) or in tales of ruthless pirates.

Stockton has been praised for his psychological sense, particularly for his understanding of how to depict for children the realities adults must face and how to involve adults in the escapist fantasies of youth, for his treatment of middle-aged women, and for his colorful but sympathetic depiction of southern blacks. In the history of detective fiction he is best known for his competent female investigator, Mrs. Null, for his reversal of Holmesian logic, and for his teasing ending to “The Lady, or the Tiger?”—an ending that forces the reader to play detective.

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