Mark Twain Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis
As Mark Twain explains in his essay “How to Tell a Story,” the art of the humorous tale relies more on how a story is told than what it tells, on its manner rather than its matter. Nowhere is this distinction clearer than in those Twain stories that depend heavily on mystery and detection, in which these literary forms meet Twain’s particular use of southwestern humor and the oral tradition. In “A Ghost Story,” for example, the particularly clumsy ghost of a petrified man known as the Cardiff Giant learns from the tale’s narrator that he has been mistakenly haunting a plaster cast of himself on display in New York rather than the actual petrified figure on exhibit in Albany.
“The Great Landslide Case”
In another short piece, “The Great Landslide Case,” a tall tale in Roughing It, Twain works a variation on the familiar squatter-and-the-tenderfoot plot. The tenderfoot in this instance is General Buncombe, the recently appointed United States attorney general to the Nevada Territory. Buncombe readily agrees to represent Dick Hyde, who seeks to “evict” Tom Morgan, whose farm has slid from the side of the mountain and now lies atop Hyde’s farm to a depth of thirty-eight feet. The judge rules against Hyde, claiming that he has been deprived of his farm by a “visitation of God! And from this decision there is no appeal.” Although Hyde may dig his farm out, if he so chooses, Buncombe is furious. His anger is so intense that it takes two months for him to realize that he has been the butt of the town’s vast joke.
“A Dying Man’s Confession”
Similarly structured but more intricately involved in its telling and less obvious in its humor, “A Dying Man’s Confession,” a story in Life on the Mississippi, is a tale-within-a-tale. The long inside narrative takes the form of a dying man’s confession. Ritter, nightwatchman in a German charnel house, recounts to the frame tale’s narrator the murder of his wife and child and how he tracked down the murderer and his accomplice (using the then-new science of fingerprinting) and took his revenge, only to discover years later that he has murdered the wrong man. As nightwatchman, Ritter has the satisfaction of seeing the right man die after having twice risen from the dead—once as a result of Ritter’s mistake and again in the charnel house where the bodies of the dead are briefly kept to ensure that no one is buried alive. Against this grisly background, Twain sets the additional tale of Ritter’s efforts to locate the murderer’s secret loot and give it to the son of the man he mistakenly killed so many years ago. Ritter succeeds in finding where the money has been hidden—in Napoleon, Arkansas—and charges the frame tale’s narrator with securing it for the murdered man’s son.
Only as this “double-barreled” story draws to its close does the reader learn that he is Twain’s victim. Aboard a Mississippi steamboat, the narrator finishes telling Ritter’s tale to his two listeners; together they decide to split the money among themselves and, after much thought, to send the son “a chromo” (that is, a chromolithograph, an inexpensive colored picture). At this point, they (and the reader) learn that the town they seek has been swept away by one of the river’s sudden shifts. The story’s joke—or its “nub,” as Twain termed it—is on them and, naturally, the reader.
“The Stolen White Elephant”
Twain’s overturning or inverting of the conventions of mystery and detective fiction to suit the needs of his comic style and vision reaches a more satiric pitch in works such as “The Stolen White Elephant” and A Double-Barrelled Detective Story (1902). Like “The Great Landslide Case,” the former story quickly telegraphs its comic intentions and settles down to the task at hand: ridiculing detective fiction in general and police detectives in particular. The police inspector’s “instinct” triumphs over all the facts, including the...
(The entire section is 2,045 words.)