W. W. Jacobs Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis
The few stories of W. W. Jacobs that can still be discovered in tattered anthologies are so well written that it is a mystery why his stories, aside from “The Monkey’s Paw,” have been ignored. Those that deal chiefly with crime and the supernatural are written with great control and a polished élan; they belong to the “gilt-edged classics.” Unfortunately, Jacobs became associated with yarns about the dockside, with jolly longshoremen and nagging captains’ wives. He was best known during his heyday as a humorist. Indeed, Pritchett in his essay “W. W. Jacobs” classes him chiefly as a wit. Nevertheless, Pritchett also gives him credit as a storyteller, calling Jacobs’s plots superior to those “of a writer like O. Henry.”
In “The Monkey’s Paw” as well as in the little-known thriller “The Well,” Jacobs raises a genuine chill by underplaying the threat that lies ahead. In his crime stories, such as “The Interruption,” the plot twist always lies just around the corner, and the guilty, as well as the innocent at times, are brought low.
Writing for The Strand Magazine was good training for Jacobs. There he honed his skill at alternating sophistication with popular style. His tales show careful plotting, a flair for dialogue, and a sly viewpoint. In “The Interruption,” which appeared in Sea Whispers (1926), Jacobs is at his best. Spencer Goddard is a man who, as the story opens, has just lost his wife. He is not grief stricken but relieved: “At the age of thirty-eight he had turned over a fresh page. Life, free and unencumbered, was before him.” His mood is largely the result of his having inherited a considerable amount of money from his wife.
The first doubt is planted when the maid Hannah becomes overattentive to Goddard’s comfort. She hints that she shares his “secret,” remarking, “there’s few husbands that would have done what you did.”
Then, step-by-step it is revealed that Goddard poisoned his wife. Hannah, who is in on the secret, begins making more and more demands: She wants complete control of the household and asks for a high wage—until Goddard decides that it is time to get rid of her. The reader now awaits the final twist of the plot, as Goddard tries to implicate Hannah, arranging matters to look as if she has been trying to poison him.Delay was dangerous and foolish. He had thought out every move in that contest of wits which was to remove the shadow of the rope from his own neck and place it about the neck of the woman. There was a little risk, but the stake was a high one.
This sample of Jacobs’s prose displays his technique at its swiftest and most effective. The monosyllables perfectly fit the cool and deliberate thinking of the murderer about to commit another homicide.
Goddard’s plot is foiled, but not by any discovery. Instead, he is frightened by the apparition of his dead wife, which drives him out into the rainy night. As a result of his terrorized wanderings, he catches a fatal chill. This story belongs in any comprehensive anthology of suspense tales, but its last appearance was in the Third Omnibus of Crime, published in 1935.
“The Monkey’s Paw”
Dear to the heart of Jacobs was the story with the surprise ending—perhaps the reason that Pritchett compared his plots to those of O. Henry. In “The Monkey’s Paw,” the ending is cleverly built up over a number of pages, until the tension is almost unbearable. The reader is first introduced to the White family, father, mother, and son, in their cozy parlor. Outside, a cold and stormy night is ever present. The Whites live in a distant suburb, in a boglike environment.
Sergeant-Major Morris comes to visit. He shows them the monkey’s...
(The entire section is 972 words.)