O. Henry Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 2,358 words.)