Mark Twain Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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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...

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satiric pitch in works such as “The Stolen White Elephant” andA 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 discovery of the elephant, now dead, in the basement of police headquarters.

A Double-Barrelled Detective Story

First published in 1902, A Double-Barrelled Detective Story is a more intricately written burlesque. Far from being “probably the worst story Mark Twain ever wrote,” as Everett Emerson has claimed, it provides some of the best evidence of Twain’s parodic mastery of late nineteenth century detective fiction as practiced by Arthur Conan Doyle. Especially noteworthy is the fact that Twain does not merely switch from the serious to the ludicrous, from convention to parody, or from mimetic illusion to the reader’s disillusionment but oddly switches back and forth, repeatedly winning back the gullible reader’s credence despite repeated flights into parodic absurdity. What begins as a rather compelling tale of offense taken and revenge given is soon doubled, with the second story quickly turning into farce. The vehicle of the wife’s revenge on her husband is a son who literally rather than metaphorically embodies the traits of a bloodhound and who eventually discovers that he has been “hounding” the wrong man. Twain adds story to story, mystery to mystery until the original—and by this point virtually forgotten—narrative of the wife’s revenge is at last resolved, with no thanks due either to the bloodhound son or Sherlock Holmes, whose arrival in a Nevada mining camp is simply one of the story’s absurd givens. That Holmes becomes an accessory to murder at one point and at another accuses an innocent man of the deed on the basis that he is left-handed makes clear Twain’s attitude toward Doyle’s “pompous sentimental ’extraordinary man’ and his cheap and ineffectual ingenuities.”

As a committed realist, Twain had as little patience for the implausibilities of Doyle’s stories and the posturings of that sham genius, Sherlock Holmes, as he had for the narrative inconsistencies he found in James Fenimore Cooper’s fiction. He preferred the competence and common sense displayed by Tom Sawyer—not the character in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, who prefers romance to reality, but the title character of his own earlier The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and of the later Tom Sawyer, Detective. The contrast in the structure of these two works and the relative greatness of the one coupled with the general obscurity of the other show the difficulty that a writer of Twain’s temperament and writing habits might have in attempting to write a detective story. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, nearly one-third of the novel goes by before Tom and Huck witness the event that evokes most of the novel’s most interesting action: Injun Joe’s murder of Dr. Robinson and his blaming an unsuspecting Muff Potter. The internal conflict between the boys’ fear of Injun Joe and their pangs of conscience as they witness the wrong man on trial culminates in Tom’s heroic courtroom testimony (immediately followed by Injun Joe’s escape). Another third of the novel then transpires before Twain resumes this narrative line and ends his novel on a note of high adventure that, like the plots of many of Twain’s longer works, is as contrived as those discoveries of Sherlock Holmes that Twain loved to pillory.

Tom Sawyer, Detective

As A Double-Barrelled Detective Story constitutes one side of Twain’s double-barreled response to the Holmes mania, Tom Sawyer, Detective represents the other. It is Twain’s fullest and most serious attempt to capitalize on Holmes’s popularity while managing to restrain both his satiric impulse and his own wayward imagination. It is, with “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” (another of his longer though still not novel-length works), one of Twain’s most tightly plotted and narrowly focused works, and perhaps for that reason one of his least successful and in many ways least representative. Read in the context of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it seems slight; read as detective fiction, however, it takes on considerable power.

The narrator of Tom Sawyer, Detective is Huck Finn, not the Huck Finn who narrated his own earlier adventures and whose vernacular language and perspective play such an important role in that book, but a boy version of Dr. Watson to Tom Sawyer’s Sherlock Holmes. Although the setting is that of the end of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—the Phelps farm in Arkansas, about one year later—the plot is drawn from Steen Steenson Blicher’s Danish murder mystery Praesten i Vejlbye (1829; The Parson at Vejlby). As Blicher weaves together his American materials and his Danish source, Twain weaves two stories of theft, murder, and revenge into a single mystery that points all too clearly to Tom’s gentle but recently deranged Uncle Silas Phelps, whose delusions cause him to become his own worst accuser. Silas’s lawyer is, like Wilhelm Meidling in Twain’s later “The Chronicle of Young Satan” thoroughly incompetent. Proving Silas’s innocence falls therefore entirely on Tom, whose legal status in the trial Twain takes pains to authenticate according to Arkansas law. Twain proves equally determined to demonstrate that the proof of Silas’s innocence and therefore the solution to the mystery depends on nothing more than Tom’s ability to see what is before him and to draw the simple conclusions that anyone (not simply a Sherlock Holmes) can draw—that, for example, a certain gesture may identify a man better than his clothing, hairstyle, or other physical description. What characterizes Tom Sawyer, detective, is therefore not any supernatural powers or intellectual genius but his native intelligence coupled with a very human desire for attention and fame and, like his creator, his love of melodrama.

Like the arrival of mysterious strangers in many of Twain’s novels and stories, melodramatic courtroom scenes play an important role in several of his works: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; Tom Sawyer, Detective; “The Chronicle of Young Satan”; Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896); “The Great Landslide Case,” in which the judicial process is burlesqued; The Gilded Age (1873), where it is made the vehicle for scathing social satire; and most significant, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson.

The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson

If Tom Sawyer, Detective stands as Twain’s most complete and most consistent work of detective fiction, then The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson stands as the work in which Twain makes the most interesting use of mystery and detection. In it, Twain transfers his own interest in scientific and pseudoscientific theories and inventions to David Wilson, a lawyer, whose intelligence, irony, and interest in palmistry and the new science of fingerprinting mark his distance from the other citizens of Dawson’s Landing, where the shams and superstitions of the Cavalier South continue to reign. Thematically, the novel concerns the triumph of science over superstition, the modern over the medieval. More specifically, Twain uses fingerprinting not merely to expose the real murderer, but, more important, to expose the baselessness of the southern myth of the inherent supremacy of the white race.

Throughout his career, and in his later writings in particular, Twain makes clear his belief that no human trait is inherent, that everything is the result of training. Thus, in the novel’s climactic courtroom scene, Wilson demonstrates not only that the murderer is Tom Driscoll but also that Tom is not the heir of the First Families of Virginia tradition. He is rather a black slave reared, which is to say trained, as a white man after being switched in the cradle with the child who is the rightful heir but who is now an illiterate black slave, again a result of training. (As for any difference in color, Twain points to the reality of miscegenation in southern life.) After suffering the town’s jokes for twenty years, Wilson triumphs, as does the scientific spirit he represents. There is, however, little reason for the reader to rejoice, as there is in “Tom Sawyer, Detective,” for while evil does not triumph, neither does good. What emerges is that sense of irony and cynicism that Wilson shares not only with his maker, Twain, but also with his progeny: the hard-boiled detectives of a later literary generation.


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