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Writing - Stories Of Mystery

( Originally Published 1922 )

The Detective Story.-Many of my readers will be especially fitted to write detective stories, stories involving the untying of a knot that seemingly has worked itself into a dizzy jumble of strands leading nowhere and incapable of any sensible solution. For their benefit I am appending an analysis of the detective story.

Working from Puzzle to Solution.—As the reader doubt-less will recall by casting his mind back over any detective stories he has read, this type of story follows the principle of ratiocination, or the deductive method, that procedure of reasoning which considers certain truths or hypotheses at hand and from them forms an opinion, or solves some puzzling situation. Therefore, the usual detective story starts off with a deep puzzle. A man has been murdered, a young girl has disappeared, the family jewels have dissolved, seemingly into mid-air, important diplomatic papers have been spirited away. The complication to be solved is set forth in the first few paragraphs. The remainder of the story concerns itself solely with the method of finding out why, who, and where —it consists of resolving the complication to a sensible conclusion.

The Degree of Mystery.—The more unusual the theft, the more bizarre the disappearance, the more meaningless the murder, the greater is the reader's eagerness to follow the mode of procedure by which the mystery is explained. Suppose a man is found murdered in his apartment. It is known that he had not an enemy in the world. We will assume he possesses no great amount of wealth or abilities which might make him a source of envy to any individual, and that he has always been disposed to sacrifice himself for the comfort of others. The problem is: who killed the man and why? There are absolutely no tangible reasons, no visible signs of a struggle, no slightest clue to work upon—the most imaginative fail to conjecture a plausible reason why this particular man should have been struck down.

When the crime consummated has no plausible motive to actuate it, then the reader's curiosity is very apt to be piqued to an extreme degree. The greater the mystery to be solved, the greater will be the reader's fervor in following the method of the individual who attempts to find the solution.

Maintaining the Suspense.—The author, however, must not commit the mistake of starting off with a very promising mystery to be solved and then allow the detective to triumph by any ordinary or unheroic means. The pleasure that the reader derives from the detective story rests largely in the enthralling adventures, chases and clashes the detective falls into, the setbacks, seemingly insurmountable, that he comes face to face with, and the very ingenious methods he resorts to for a solution of the problem.

In some detective stories the conclusion has not been reached even after the criminal is apprehended, for not yet do we know all the details of his capture and the brilliant maneuver of the detective in trapping his victim is not clearly revealed to us. Hence, the detective must tell, usually in his own words, as a conversation to a friend or accomplice, the manner in which he finally seized the criminal. Other stories of the detective variety are concluded immediately upon the confession or capture of the criminal or criminals, for the method by which the hero solved the mystery is explained step by step just as it occurred.

Giving the Reader a Hint.—It will be wise, occasion-ally, to allow the reader to get a look ahead into the story so that he will realize faintly just what is coming before the author allows the detective himself to know. To reveal some coming movement of your plot to a reader in this manner is very complimentary to the latter; the reader pats himself on the back for being more clever than the detective himself. This device is useful because it puts the reader in a kindly mood toward the author. You see, the reader himself is taking an active, positive part in your story just as much as the hero; hence, the former should be allowed the liberty, every now and then, of doing a little detective work himself and of flattering himself that he is a wee bit wiser than the detective. And inasmuch as the individual reads the story to derive pleasure from it, why not?

Varieties of Detective Stories.—It must not be sup-posed, though, that all detective or mystery stories have criminals to be run down, or that a man found dead has been killed by some human agency. The detective story based upon some accident, upon the scientific, or upon a unique move of fate, has been in vogue for some time and countless numbers of them, excellently and plausibly presented, too, have been published. A man may be killed in a multitude of ways, the author must remember. Any agency that will deprive a person of breath or of food or other means of existence, takes his life. A character might be killed by the agency of some gas, generated in some odd manner and disappearing almost immediately after the character's demise.

Making Your Villain Clever.—All the criminal characters of the detective story need not be vile, loathesome, dirty, atrophied individuals, embodying in their appearance the evils which they seem to delight in. The more intellectual and innocent in appearance the criminal, the greater will be the conflict between the two forces involved—one to keep the mystery unsolved and to prevent the approach of just punishment, the other to ferret out the criminal and triumph over the latter's fabrication of evil.

Example by Poe.—The author might do well to study several representative detective stories, especially those of such writers as Conan Doyle, Arthur B. Reeve, Anna Katherine Green, E. Phillips Oppenheim, and Edgar A. Poe. The last author named presents the mystery of his story, "The Mystery of Marie Roget," thusly:

This event occurred about two years after the atrocity in the Rue Morgue. Marie was the only daughter of the widow Estelle Roget. The father had died during the child's infancy, and from the period of his death, until within eighteen months before the assassination which forms the subject of our narrative, the mother and daughter had dwelt together in the Rue Pavee Saint Andree; Madame there keeping a pension, assisted by Marie. Affairs went on thus until the latter had attained her twenty-second year, when her great beauty attracted the notice of a perfumer, who occupied one of the shops in the basement of the Palais Royal, and whose custom lay, chiefly, among the desperate adventurers infesting that neighborhood. Monsieur Le Blanc was not unaware of the advantages to be derived from the attendance of the fair Marie in his perfumery; and his liberal proposals were accepted eagerly by the girl, although with somewhat more of hesitation by Madame.

The anticipations of the shopkeeper were realized, and his rooms soon became notorious through the charms of the sprightly girsette. She had been in his employ about a year, when her admirers were thrown into confusion by her sudden disappearance from the shop. Monsieur Le Blanc was unable to account for her absence, and Madame Roget was distracted with anxiety and terror. The public papers immediately took up the theme, and the police were upon the point of making serious investigations, when, one fine morning, after the lapse of a week, Marie, in good health, but with a somewhat saddened air, made her re-appearance at her usual counter in the perfumery. All inquiry, except that of a private character, was, of course, immediately hushed. Monsieur Le Blanc professed total ignorance, as before. Marie, with Madame, replied to all questions, that the last week had been spent at the house of a relation in the country. Thus the affair died away, and was generally forgotten; for the girl, ostensibly to relieve herself from the impertinence of curiosity, soon bade a final adieu to the perfumer, and sought the shelter of her mother's residence in Rue Pavee Saint Andree.

It was about five months after this return home, that her friends were alarmed by her sudden disappearance for the second time. Three days elapsed, and nothing was heard of her. On the fourth, her corpse was found floating in the Seine, near the shore which is opposite the Quartier of the Rue Saint Andree, and at a point not very far distant from the secluded neighborhood of the Barriêre du Roule.

The Supernatural, or Horror Story.—In constructing a story of the supernatural, a device is involved which, if it be not taken into account, will leave the author's "ghost" story lusterless. This device is that of making all the mystery, the causation of the horror, an "unknown" quantity, a thing of Doubt. The reader must not be allowed to catch a view of the thing from which springs the horror of the story, else all suspense will collapse. Unless the author is very clever indeed he will not be able to explain away an anachronism of Nature which he might unheedingly allow to appear before the eyes of several people. Rather he must leave his ghosts, his strange noises, his weird wailing, and the gnashing of teeth, to dark, empty chambers, to dank, winding cellars and underground chambers, whispering forests, eerie moors, or to mysterious deserted battlements of partly dismantled castles, their proper breeding places. The illusion of suspense and horror is broken immediately the reader knows just what it is that causes the furori of terrible emotion on the part of the characters, and, incidentally, the reader himself. The reader may know eventually just what the mystery is, but that is the end of the story; after he does know, he is no longer interested in that particular story, for his curiosity has been fully quenched.

Some horror stories reach their conclusion without the Unknown being seen or explained. The interest lies wholly in the fact that the hero or heroine escaped the loathsome influence of the terror, or braved its presence for one ever to-be-remembered your. The hero may look into the dark chamber and his fingers may clutch spasmodically at the thin air, his features may blanch slowly and his very blood may seem to congeal, yet the true form of the unspeakable, if it have any, remains a mystery to the reader. The main personage of the story may be so horrified by the spectacle, or by the cold hand that touches his face, or the terrifying events which happen, that he is unable to tell what caused them, even if he knew, and, by this inability to articulate his experiences, will the suspense of the story be maintained.

The master of the horror story is Poe. By a close scrutiny of his mystery stories, the student will learn much of the method employed in effectively devising and building up the materials of the horror story.

Mystery Writing


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