O. Henry Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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O. Henry’s involvement in the mystery and detective genre was almost accidental. He did write a few mysteries, some detective stories, some narratives about con artists, but all served his larger purpose of experimenting with the surprise ending. His intermittent writing in the genre produced no definite theory of mystery or detective fiction and seldom a consistent hero. The common ground for the whole of his fiction seems to be the theme of appearance and reality: Things are not what they seem, and they do not turn out as one might expect. It is not necessarily that the author gives false leads; he simply might not tell the whole story or give all the evidence at once.

In some of his stories, O. Henry stretches the notion of things not being what they appear by turning traditional expectations of the mystery and detective genre upside down and writing spoofs. He satirizes François-Eugène Vidocq , the French criminal who started the first modern detective agency and whose reputation as a master of disguise had an immense influence on writers of crime fiction. One of O. Henry’s satires, entitled “Tictocq” (Rolling Stones, 1912), has its eponymous detective investigate a stolen pair of socks that turns out not to be missing after all. In “Tracked to Doom” (Rolling Stones), Tictocq and murderer Gray Wolf are disguised as each other, and despite Tictocq’s witnessing a murder and Gray Wolf’s confessing to it, the murderer is not discovered. Three humorous parodies of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes are “The Sleuths” (Sixes and Sevens, 1911), “The Adventures of Shamrock Jolnes” (Sixes and Sevens), and “The Detective Detector” (Waifs and Strays, 1917); these stories present the detective as compulsively tedious and illogical, wrongheadedly instructing sidekick Whatsup on the fine points of investigation. Another crime story, “Tommy’s Burglar” (Whirligigs, 1910), is in fact a contrived but delightful spoof on crime stories in general, showing a criminal following the orders of an eight-year-old and repenting before he really completes the crime. They are detective mysteries with an absurd twist.

Cabbages and Kings

Cabbages and Kings was O. Henry’s first published collection of stories, and it is also the volume that most consistently contains a common hero, Frank Goodwin. The book is based on O. Henry’s experiences in Honduras and is set in South America—fictive Coralio, Anchuria—and also briefly in New Orleans and New York City. In this work some important character types and techniques begin to appear. There are detectives, grafters and schemers who have a change of heart, a starving artist, a deposed president, a disguised hero (the president’s son), beautiful women, and a likable drunkard who commits blackmail. There are mysteries and clues that are dropped one by one and a convoluted plot with a generous dose of political revolution and intrigue. The volume opens with a proem introducing the main characters and closes with three separate “scenes,” which present solutions to the mysteries.

The title of the book is borrowed from Lewis Carroll’s well-known ballad in which the Walrus instructs the oysters to listen to his tale of many things—shoes, ships, sealing wax, cabbages, and kings. O. Henry gives his reader “many things” in the book—prose, rhymes, theatrical contrivances, stories that are cycles or tangents, and parallel intrigues. Some of the stories directly carry forward the main plot, but others seem almost independent of it. These interpolated stories carry the mystery along in the sense that they are red herrings, leading the reader onto false paths and delaying the solution.

O. Henry sets the stage for the pseudonovel by evaluating his intention:So, there is a little tale to tell of many things. Perhaps to the promiscuous ear of the Walrus it shall come with most avail; for in it there are indeed shoes and ships and sealing-wax and cabbage-palms and presidents instead of kings. Add to these a little love and counterplotting, and scatter everywhere throughout the maze a trail of tropical dollars—dollars warmed no more by the torrid sun than by the hot palms of the scouts of Fortune—and, after all, here seems to be Life, itself, with talk enough to weary the most garrulous of Walruses.

The book is a loose sort of novel that revolves around a complicated and ingenious plot—the theft by the book’s hero of what seems to be Anchuria’s national treasury and the mistaken identities of the Anchurian president and a fugitive American insurance company president who embezzles funds. The main mystery is rooted in a mistake; it is not the Anchurian president who shoots himself when it becomes apparent that he will lose the money he has stolen but the insurance company president.

The deception in the book extends to its tone. Early in the story, O. Henry calls Coralio an “Eden” and writes poetically about a sunset:The mountains reached up their bulky shoulders to receive the level gallop of Apollo’s homing steeds, the day died in the lagoons and in the shadowed banana groves and in the mangrove swamps, where the great blue crabs were beginning to crawl to land for their nightly ramble. And it died, at last, on the highest peaks. Then the brief twilight, ephemeral as the flight of a moth, came and went; the Southern Cross peeped with its topmost eye above a row of palms, and the fire-flies heralded with their torches the approach of soft-footed night.

Later, O. Henry debases Coralio as a “monkey town”:Dinky little mud houses; grass over your shoe tops in the streets; ladies in low-neck-and-short-sleeves walking around smoking cigars; tree frogs rattling like a hose cart going to a ten blow; big mountains dropping gravel in the back yard; and the sea licking the paint off in front—no, sir—a man had better be in God’s country living on free lunch than there.

The purposeful inconsistency in tone emphasizes the distinction between appearance and reality that is so central to all O. Henry’s mysteries.

The Gentle Grafter

The Gentle Grafter is the next nearest thing in O. Henry’s writings to an extended and unified work in the mystery and detective genre. The book includes fourteen stories that are all con games of one sort or another. Biographers believe that O. Henry picked up the plots for these stories in the prison hospital while doing his rounds of visits to sick or wounded inmates. One relatively well-rounded character, Jeff Peters, dominates all but three stories in the volume. Only two other short stories use this character—“Cupid à la Carte,” in Heart of the West (1907), and a story that O. Henry thought was the best of his Jeff Peters stories, “The Atavism of John Tom Little Bear,” published in Rolling Stones.

The stories in The Gentle Grafter add an unusual ingredient to mystery and detective fiction; they are tall tales, picaresque fiction, and are told, in the fashion of American humor, as oral tales. Roughly half of them are set in the South. They feature amusing dialogue, with puns, colloquial speech, and academic buffoonery from a rogue who is very much in the tradition of Lazarillo de Tormes and Robin Hood. His sidekick, Andy Tucker, shares in the petty grafting ruses, whether hawking “Resurrection Bitters” or conspiring with a third swindler, a resort owner, to dupe a group of schoolteachers into believing that they are in the company of the explorer Admiral Peary and the duke of Marlborough. In “Jeff Peters as a Personal Magnet,” the reader is led to believe that Peters will fall into a trap. The author, however, has simply tricked the audience by presenting dialogue without interpreting it. At the end, the disguises are lifted and Peters goes scot-free.

O. Henry writes about street fakers and small-town swindlers in a melodramatic way to achieve humor. A serious point behind the humor might be his observation that there really was not much difference between inmates in the penitentiary and the robber baron financiers of New York City to whom he referred as “caliphs.” “The Man Higher Up,” like many of O. Henry’s stories, suggests that the line between wealth and crime is a thin one indeed. Swindling is profitable.

Although the criminals in The Gentle Grafter are nonviolent, O. Henry also memorialized street fighters such as the Stovepipe Gang in “Vanity and Some Sables.” After O. Henry called on real-life safecracker Jimmy Connors in the hospital of the Ohio penitentiary, he portrayed the criminal as Jimmy Valentine in “A Retrieved Reformation” (Roads of Destiny, 1909). The Valentine story was later made into a play and even became a popular song. A vogue for “crook plays” soon developed on Broadway, for which O. Henry was in part responsible.

Some of O. Henry’s mystery and detective fiction circumvents any horror or terror behind death. The deaths occur almost incidentally, with the brutality played down as in “The Detective Detector” (Waifs and Strays), in which New York criminal Avery Knight shoots a man in the back merely to prove a point. If the murders are not consistently bloodless in O. Henry’s fiction, they tend often to be devices of plot, moving the action along to something more important. The surprise or coincidence that evolves is often given more prominence than the crime itself. A torn concert ticket in “In Mezzotint” (O. Henry Encore, 1936) becomes more significant than a suicide. An overcoat button solves a mystery in “A Municipal Report” (Strictly Business, 1910), while a murder happens offstage. In “Bexar Scrip No. 2692” (Rolling Stones), clues do not solve a murder or even reveal that one has occurred, and the shrewd land agent who is guilty dies without incurring suspicion.

The Trimmed Lamp

In “The Guilty Party” (The Trimmed Lamp, 1907), a murder and a suicide take place within a dream, and the case is “tried” in the next world. The real villain of the story is a father who refused to play checkers with his daughter, thus consigning her to the street to become a criminal, and behind that individual villain is the larger villain eminently more culpable for O. Henry: social injustice. “Elsie in New York” (The Trimmed Lamp) shows an innocent country girl struggling against impossible odds to land an honest job; she is discouraged at every turn by false moralists, ironically becoming a prostitute because that is the path of least resistance. In a rare example of direct social satire, O. Henry ends the story by emphasizing the injustice:Lost, Your Excellency. Lost, Associations, and Societies. Lost, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Lost, Reformers and Lawmakers, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts, but with the reverence of money in your souls. And lost thus around us every day.

Emphasis is usually on the wrong people being judged or on the right people being misjudged. People are easily fooled by confidence men. Appearances are deceiving, and when appearances are all one has to act on, the wrong conclusions happen, and only the reader who sees through the eye of the omniscient narrator or hears the tale told knows that they are wrong.

O. Henry’s brand of mystery focuses on events rather than on psychological motivation. He treats his characters like puppets, allowing them to do nothing that might give away the secret until the end. He structures his tales along the lines of a riddle or an error, a pun or a coincidence, that becomes sharply and suddenly significant. His endings are strongly accentuated, and the whole plot points toward them. It is not his habit to provide analysis, reflection, extended resolution, or denouement following the story’s climax.

O. Henry granted only one interview about his work during his lifetime—to George MacAdam of The New York Times Book Review and Magazine; it first appeared in the April 4, 1909, issue, but it was not published in full until twelve years after his death. In it, he revealed his secret of writing short stories: “Rule 1: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule 2.” His technique further included writing something out quickly, even though he was not always sure from the outset exactly where it was going, thus letting the story evolve out of its own momentum. He told MacAdam that he would then send the story off unrevised and hardly recognize it when it was published. When a period of inactivity would plague him, O. Henry would let life act as a stimulus for a piece of fiction by mingling with the humanity that was his inspiration—getting out among crowds or striking up a conversation with someone.

O. Henry’s stories are very much like a game or puzzle—perhaps the reader is fooled, perhaps one of the characters is. The emphasis is often on discovering the identity of a sought-after person. Sometimes, O. Henry’s intrusive narrator parodies the process. In “A Night in New Arabia” (Strictly Business), for example, he blurts out a prediction that comes as a surprise: “I know as well as you do that Thomas is going to be the heir.” O. Henry almost cavalierly tosses off to the reader a hint that is a legitimate clue if taken seriously. He uses half of a silver dime to solve a question of identity in “No Story” (Options, 1909), money secretly spent to give rise to a marriage proposal in “Mammon and the Archer” (The Four Million, 1906), a mole by the left eyebrow to identify a suicide victim whose lover will never find her in “The Furnished Room” (The Four Million). In “The Caballero’s Way” (Heart of the West), a forged letter and a girl in her own clothes mistakenly taken for a disguised man lead the caballero to murder his beloved rather than his rival.

If O. Henry learned from his grandfather to be continually vigilant for “what’s around the corner,” as biographers commonly assert, he used that perspective well in his mystery and detective fiction, glancing sideways at the genre through rose-colored glasses until what he wrote appeared to be almost a cartoon that he himself skillfully drew.

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