Harriet Prescott Spofford | Herman Melville | Rebecca Harding Davis | W. H. Hudson | Thomas Bailey Aldrich | Edward Everett Hale | Frank R. Stockton
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
"The Trailor Murder Mystery" (1843)
The Amber Gods
"Life in the Iron Mills" (1861)
"The Man Without a Country" (1863)
"Marjorie Daw" (collected 1873)
"The Lady or the Tiger?" (1882)
"A Tale of Negative Gravity" (1884)
"Our Archery Club"
Cranquebille (collected 1904)
Their stories tend to be heavily plotted, and often are directly ancestral to such modern genres as the mystery story and science fiction, both of which tend to feature complex plots. The stories tend to be highly imaginative, but not especially realistic. They are written in a rich, complex prose style, which seems derived from poetry, especially the works of Shakespeare, and such Romantic poets as Coleridge. Oftentimes there is considerable direct discussion in the tales of matters of philosophy, culture, human thought, and life. There are also often symbolic meanings contained in the stories.
Poe, Hawthorne and Melville were not the only writers whose fiction shared the traits listed above. Some of their American contemporaries, such as Edward Everett Hale and Fitz-James O'Brien also showed some or all of these features in their work. And while many of the writers of the next generation, such as Mark Twain, wrote in more realistic styles, there were a few, such as Harriet Prescott Spofford, who carried on their tradition.
Spofford's style is self consciously literary, with a (successful) attempt at fine writing throughout; it appeared in a high toned literary magazine, The Atlantic Monthly. Spofford's story deals with the highest reaches of Parisian Society, with its narrator distinctly snobbish, and there is a great deal about politics in the tale. Spofford's story also includes thriller elements, including the sort of political conspiracies popular later in Harry Blyth's Sexton Blake tales in the 1890's, and which spread from him to such later writers as Chesterton, Christie and Sayers. It is a very early example of such thriller fiction, too, and I do not know of what sources, if any, Spofford could have drawn on for such elements.
Spofford's storytelling technique in "In a Cellar" alternates between two modes. Some passages are dialogue oriented. In these two speakers try to top each other with clever repartee, ingenious thrusts, and complex challenges to each other's ideas. The dialogue sections alternate between descriptive passages, in which the narrator describes events and settings, and introduces his ideas on life, morality, politics, romance, and culture, all written in a very elaborate literary style. These sections seem to draw on the American Renaissance tradition of such writers as Melville and Hawthorne.
Spofford's detective work is uneven by modern standards. At least three times in the tale her hero stumbles on evidence purely by chance. This is pushing coincidence way too far. However, when he does get clues, he is good at following them up. There is an attempt to suggest that his approach to cornering bad guys is more "sophisticated" than other detectives. It is full of irony and attempts at clever twists. One gets the impression that Spofford is trying to produce a "Literary" version of a conventional detective story, one with better writing, and one in which the plot shows signs of sophisticated, clever variations on standard approaches. 1859 is awfully darned early for someone to be producing a literary variation on detective fiction; one associates this approach with Sayers and S.S. Van Dine in the 1920's. Still, this is the impression I got from her tale.
"Mr. Furbush" has some characteristics of other early mysteries. One of the suspects has an alibi, something treated as a routine part of the world of detection. There are references to newspaper accounts of the crime, just as in Poe. One suspects that newspapers published a great deal of true crime material, and that fictional mystery stories echoed this in a great many ways. We also have what was later to be a cliché in mysteries, the police detective who becomes so enamored of a murder case that he investigates it himself in his spare time.
Herman Melville's first novel Typee seems to me to be model, in both style and content, for W. H. Hudson's fiction, especially The Purple Land and "El Ombu". (Green Mansions seems to be written in a slightly different style, one that evolved out of Hudson's early style, but distinct none the less.)
The Purple Land shares with Typee the subject of a first person narrative by a European in an exotic foreign country. Both Typee and the Hudson books share an apparently simple, straightforward style of narration and description. And both share an ability to have simply described details evoke beautiful images of the countries in which they are set. This style is the most miraculous part of Hudson's writing. It is also the part of his work that is most personal and individualistic. Before I read Melville's work I knew nothing like it in literature. Now I think of Typee as an ancestor to Hudson. Melville's own later works, such as his short stories or Moby-Dick, are written with much more "complex" prose. I put "complex" in quotes because there is nothing artistically simple about the Typee - Hudson style. It is merely much more straightforward in surface syntax and description.
English writers of this period often wrote "sensation novels", thrillers with some elements of mystery. Sometimes the mystery elements were fairly thin, and subjugated to the suspense elements of the plot. It is often suggested in histories of the mystery that the modern puzzle form of the mystery story gradually evolved out of these works, that Wilkie Collins and Mrs. Braddon's tales gave rise to the mystery in its modern form in the works of Anna Katherine Green and Conan Doyle. This seems doubtful to me. Poe's tales are great, mature mysteries. And Melville's work, though lacking a detective, is a full blown mystery of plot in the modern sense.
It would be interesting to know where Melville found his genre in "Benito Cereno". Did he make it up? Are there earlier works of this format I have not read? Is it lurking in tales of popular fiction, or did the mystery originate in works of "serious fiction"? One clue: most of the important early examples of mystery are non-British, being either French, German or American.
One problem with trying to answer questions like these is that most historians of mystery fiction equate the field with "crime fiction", not with "stories where a mysterious event is solved". So we get endless references to tales of theft and murder, and very little account of tales like "Benito", which in terms of plot technique are much closer to the modern mystery. I would love to read a history of mystery fiction that points out innovations in mystery technique, not simply catalogues books about crime.
"Benito Cereno" is also outstanding for its rich analogies, metaphors and cultural allusions, used by Melville in his descriptive passages. This style of writing is found throughout Melville's later work, and finds its apogee in "Billy Budd". "Billy Budd" contains no mystery elements, but it does contain some crime, so we are citing this great story here.
"The Encantadas" (1854) is not my favorite, but it does have my favorite Melville line (in Sketch Seventh), about a bunch of mutinous seamen: "who in the name of liberty, did just what they pleased". I think this is just hilarious, and also a good satirical rebuke at people who believe in "freedom" in the abstract, but who are always trying to run other people's lives, and who regard other people's free behavior as "vices" that must be regulated. We get plenty of this from the right in this country today.
Melville in Moby-Dick (1851) shows us a whole new world, or rather a largely unfamiliar part of the real world. This look at an unfamiliar but magnificent part of nature, the world of whales, shows us something utterly new and beautiful. This revelation of the glory and originality of nature is the message of the long middle section of the book. It gives readers a new experience, one they have never had before. Interwoven with this in Moby-Dick is a second theme, a look at meditation, the process of the mind engaged in almost mystical contemplation of the Sea, Life, Time, Religious thought. Almost as interesting is the look at the Unconscious that dominates the first (and best) third of Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852). The inner world of "hidden drives" comes alive in Pierre, in a way it almost never does in other fiction. One of the best parts of Henry James' study of Hawthorne is his description of Hawthorne's subject matter as the interior of the mind. It is this that the symbolic romance is so good at doing.
Oddly enough, today's readers are in a much better position to understand and appreciate Moby-Dick than were the scholars who led the Melville revival in the 1920's through 1940's. People today have seen whales up close many times on television, and know and are familiar with them, to a degree.
Hale's "The Man Without a Country" shows plenty of ingenuity; it certainly falls within the traditions of the riddle story. This tale's combination of ingenious plot and patriotism made it famous in the 19th Century. Although the tale is not science fictional it has some odd relationships with Hale's fantasy, "Hands Off!". Anthony Boucher thought "Hands Off!" was the first "Worlds of If" tale, in which alternate universes are invented on the basis of what would have happened had events in history been different. "Man" deals not with a universe, but with one man who is punished by being kept isolated on a ship, and essentially made to believe that he is experiencing differing historical realities. It is a sort of one man version of a parallel world of if. This sort of plot shows up in modern times; the film 36 Hours (1963) worked a well done version of this.
In addition to Stockton's riddle story, "The Lady or the Tiger?", I have included a science fiction story by Stockton, "A Tale of Negative Gravity". This story unfolds with comedy and logic exactly what might happen if a small antigravity device were invented. It is quite surprising to read sf this good from the 19th Century.
Stockton wrote fiction in a huge variety of genres, most of it not riddle stories by any definition, let alone mystery fiction. His love tales include "Our Archery Club" and "Our Story". These are pleasant romances, genteel in the extreme, and filled with comedy and small, gentle observations on human nature. The characters in them are together engaged in some interesting activity - archery in "Club", and an attempt at fiction writing in "Our Story". This activity, pleasant in itself, serves as an excuse for the couple to get together and get to know one another. Stockton did not need the obstacles in the face of romance favored by other writers in this genre. There are no third party rivals, no hopeless barriers. Instead, just the sheer difficulty of speaking up and reaching out to another person forms the bulk of the story. They are unusually warm tales, and most readers can identify with the gentle, proper characters in them. The same pattern of nice people engaged in some wholesome, unusual activity forms the basis of "Negative Gravity". Only here it is the activity itself which takes center stage, not a love story between the characters.
Stockton's "The Griffin and the Minor Canon" is a "new fairy tale", an attempt by a contemporary author to write a fairy tale that would match the folk tales collected by Charles Perrault or the Brothers Grimm. Hans Christian Andersen wrote numerous classics of this type, but many other authors have also made the attempt, notably Oscar Wilde in "The Selfish Giant". "The Griffin" is notable for the unusual relation that develops between the central characters. This relationship and its symbolic and emotional complexity recalls not so much fairy tales, but the fantastic stories to come of E.M. Forster, such as "The Story of the Siren" (my favorite) or "The Story of a Panic". Stockton's linking of love and carnivory in "The Lady or the Tiger" returns in "Griffin". It seems to refer to a fear that the beloved one will eat one alive. However, it is not this simple message, but the wit and vivid imagery with which it is delivered, that makes Stockton's work interesting.
By the way, Stockton's disappointing sequel to "Tiger", "The Discourager of Hesitancy", is second rate. So is the long novella, "The Stories of the Three Burglars", which is a crime story, but not a mystery. It is a partly humorous, partly realistic story about a family that traps three burglars. The best part of this pretty weak tale are some humorous jabs at the "realistic" school of writing which was gaining ascendancy in the American literature of Stockton's day.