False Devices by Carolyn Wells

False Devices

Mistaken Beliefs of Mystery Story Writers & Readers

by Carolyn Wells

Aside from these false and erroneous notions which are common, let the writer of detective fiction be careful to avoid absolute mistakes, paradoxes, or anachronisms. In this class of story, accuracy and logic are imperative, and nothing can excuse carelessness in descriptive details or sequential happenings.

Table of Contents

Several false notions which have been so often exploited as to command belief, the young writer should strive to correct.

The "Trace" Fallacy

One hackneyed statement, though of great value to a fiction detective, is far from being true. This is the assertion that it is impossible for a human being to go into a room for any purpose and out again without leaving trace of his presence. Sherlock Holmes insists on this, and says, on one occasion:

"My good Hopkins, I have investigated many crimes, but I have never yet seen one which was committed by a flying creature. As long as the criminal remains upon two legs so long must there be some indentation, some abrasion, some trifling displacement which can be detected by the scientific searcher. It is incredible that this blood- bespattered room contained no trace which could have aided us. I understand, however, from the inquest that there were some objects which you failed to overlook?"

And Mary E. Wilkins in her fine detective story, "The Long Arm," makes the same impressive statement:

"I have a theory that it is impossible for any human being to enter any house, and commit in it a deed of this kind, and not leave behind traces which are the known quantities in an algebraic equation to those who can use them."

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred any one can go into a room, stay for a time and come out again, and leave absolutely no trace of his presence there. A practical test, or a series of them will convince anyone of this. Let your criminal or your innocent suspect leave as many traces and clues as you will, but don't allow your detective to assert that this is inevitable.

Back to Top

The Destruction of Evidence

Another useful but false notion is the great difficulty that the criminal experiences in getting rid of his blood-stained garments or other incriminating impedimenta. If he endeavors to burn them, or throw them in the river or ashbarrel, they come back with feline certainty. Now it is not so difficult to destroy or conceal material successfully, and al that is necessary in this regard is to make the proceedings of your criminal natural and not forced. But let the destruction or concealment be done with common sense, and at least an elementary knowledge of your subject.

One of the most absurd incidents of destruction is the burning of large packets of papers. A case in point is found in "The Adventure of Milverton," where we are told:

With perfect coolness Holmes slipped across to the safe, filled his two arms with bundles of letters, and poured them all into the fire. Again and again he did it, until the safe was empty.

Someone turned the handle and beat upon the outside of the door. Holmes looked swiftly round. The letter which had been the messenger of death for Milverton lay, all mottled with his blood, upon the table. Holmes tossed it in among the blazing papers. Then he drew the key from the outer door, passed through after me, and locked it on the outside. "This way, Watson," said he, "we can scale the garden wall in this direction."

Although we are told that it was "a good fire" that was burning in the fireplace, nothing short of a crematory furnace could have continued to burn when these letters were thrown upon it. Remember that Holmes "filled his two arms with bundles of letters and poured them all into the fire." "Again and again he did this," until he must have had, by a conservative estimate, some hundreds of letters. Anyone who has tried to burn even three or four letters without unfolding their pages knows the result. As a matter of fact, when Holmes departed, leaving those letters lying on the fire, very few of them could have been greatly injured. If papers must be burned, as is sometimes the case, let them be unfolded and each sheet crumpled a little, and then give sufficient time to the operation. If this is not possible, omit the incident. How often a will or a deed has been "tossed into the grate and reduced to ashes at once." A folded paper of four or five thicknesses obstinately refuses to burn, except around the edges, and these instantaneous holocausts rouse only amusement in the mind of the common-sense reader.

Back to Top

False Hypotheses

Another entirely false notion is that "Murder will out." As to the real fact of this matter, Arthur C. Train, in his admirable work, "Courts, Criminals and the Camorra," asserts that the prisoners tried for murder are only a mere fraction of those who commit the crime.

In the stories of Luther Trant, we are informed "that for ninety-three out of every one hundred homicides no one is ever punished," and in "The Scales of Justice," George L. Knapp tells us, "If you'd cut out the proverbs and stick to the evidence, you'd find out that about one murder in six comes to light enough to get the murderer convicted." Then too, Samuel N. Gardenhire asserts that "thousands of murders are never found out. Given a doctor, a lack of motive and a good chance, and detection may be laughed at."

But though the authors quoted understand this, scores of other Detective Story writers persist in standing by the old adage.

Again the beliefs that "a murderer is involuntarily drawn back to the scene of his crime," and that "a murderer can't help talking of his crime to somebody," are the basis of many false situations. These hypotheses may be used as working arguments, if desired, but should not be quoted as universal laws.

Another false notion inherent in the average citizen is, that a bystander is forbidden by law to touch the body of a murdered man before the arrival of the coroner. There never was any such law, is not now, and probably never will be. The citizen who is of an inquiring turn of mind has a perfect right to examine dead bodies he runs across in the course of his travels, to move the remains and even search the pockets of the deceased, provided, of course, that his motives are honest. That is all that is necessary.

Back to Top

Errors of Fact and of Inference

Aside from these false and erroneous notions which are common, let the writer of detective fiction be careful to avoid absolute mistakes, paradoxes, or anachronisms. In this class of story, accuracy and logic are imperative, and nothing can excuse carelessness in descriptive details or sequential happenings.

Our greatest and best writers have been caught napping in this respect, and though we can forgive it when Homer nods, it is not excusable in a tyro.

To take one of the most flagrant errors, let us look at a page in Poe's "The Mystery of Marie Roget."

If the clothing and the condition of the clothing of the drowned girl had been hastily or superficially described, it would not be so surprising. But Poe, with his wonderful "minuteness of detail which does not leave a pin or a button unnoted," makes this absurd statement:

The clothing was much torn and otherwise disordered.

In the outer garment, a slit, about a foot wide, had been torn upward from the bottom hem to the waist, but not torn off. It was wound three times around the waist, and secured by a sort of hitch in the back.

Assuming the young girl to have a waist measure, outside her clothing, of at least twenty inches, simple arithmetic allows us that that strip "torn upward," "wound three times around the waist," "and secured by a sort of hitch in the back" (said "hitch" being enough to serve as a loop or handle), must have been at least seventy-two inches long. Therefore, as Marie Roget's skirt from hem to waist measured six feet, the young lady herself must have been nearly nine feet tall!

Other details of this extraordinary young woman's costume are also absurd to a rational mind, but perhaps Poe's genius did not include millinery.

However, Poe was often careless, even in important matters. The idea that supports the story of "The Purloined Letter," is so very good that it is a pity to have such an absurd contradiction as this creep in:

"At length my eyes, in going the circuit of the room, fell upon a trumpery filigree card-rack of pasteboard, that hung dangling by a dirty blue ribbon from a little brass knob just beneath the middle of the mantel-piece. In this rack, which had three or four compartments, were five or six visiting cards and a solitary letter. This last was much soiled and crumpled. It was torn nearly in two, across the middle—as if a design, in the first instance, to tear it entirely up as worthless, had been altered, or stayed in the second. It had a large black seal, bearing the D—cipher very conspicuously, and was addressed, in a diminutive female hand, to D—, the Minister, himself. It was thrust carelessly, and even, as it seemed, contemptuously, into one of the upper divisions of the rack."

It is not probable that any eccentricity on the part of the writer of the missive resulted in having the seal and the address on the same side of the letter; it is more likely a slip of Poe's fertile pen.

The well-known impossible condition mentioned in "The Raven," where the lamp-light streams over the bird and casts his shadow on the floor, while the bird himself is sitting on a bust over the door, can perhaps be explained by a transom and a hall light. But one rarely places a bust in front of a transom, as it would mean decreased efficiency for both, and we prefer to think this another of Poe's slips of attention.

From Poe's "The Oblong Box," we quote this description:

The box in question was, as I say, oblong. It was about six feet in length by two and a half in breadth;—I observed it attentively, and like to be precise. Now this shape was peculiar; and no sooner had I seen it, than I took credit to myself for the accuracy of my guessing. I had reached the conclusion, it will be remembered, that the extra baggage of my friend, the artist, would prove to be pictures, or at least a picture; for I knew he had been for several weeks in conference with Nicolino; and now here was a box which, from its shape, could possibly contain nothing in the world but a copy of Leonardo's "Last Supper;" and a copy of this very "Last Supper" done by Rubini the younger, at Florence, I had known for some time to be in the possession of Nicolino. This point, therefore, I considered as sufficiently settled. I chuckled excessively when I thought of my acumen.

As the box was really a coffin, containing a dead body, it seems scarcely possible that it could look like a flat picture! At any rate, a coffin could not be mistaken for a box, which from its shape, could possibly contain nothing but a copy of "The Last Supper." It would need several superimposed pictures to fill a box of that shape.

Sir Conan Doyle is exceedingly careful in the logic of his details; and, except for rapidly burning papers in bulk, he makes few definite slips. Occasionally, however, he forgets what he has previously said about Sherlock Holmes' mental characteristics. But perhaps the reason is that instead of stepping into the pages of "A Study in Scarlet" a fully rounded and developed figure, Sherlock Holmes, during the first four or five years of his career as a public character, was in a constant state of evolution. It would be no easy matter for his creator to explain away certain striking inconsistencies of statement. For example, in an early chapter of "A Study in Scarlet," Watson tries to fathom the intentions of his reticent roommate by making a list of Holmes' curious accomplishments and limitations. His knowledge of literature was put down as "nil." "Of contemporary literature, philosophy, and politics, he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done." This is rather definite. Yet in "The Sign of the Four," the very next book, we are shown Sherlock Holmes advising Watson to read Winwood Reade's "The Martyrdom of Man," citing French aphorisms, quoting Goethe in the original German, referring to Jean Paul in reference to Carlyle, reverting once more to Win- wood Reade, and finally winding up with another bit of Goethe In "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League," he quoted from Gustave Flaubert's correspondence with George Sand and in "A Case of Identity" he makes use of a quotation from the Persian Hafiz, who, he asserts, has as much sense and as much knowledge of the world as the Latin Horace.

In "The House Opposite" by Elizabeth Kent, the heroine is greatly embarrassed for lack of funds, and makes the definite statement that she has not enough money to carry her from New York to Bar Harbor. But almost in the next paragraph she states that she has some shopping to do, and she finds this is a good opportunity.

These slips are unnecessary; and though not heinous offences, they cause the reader to lose confidence in his author.

Again, some statements, while barely possible, are too improbable for ready belief. In Gaboriau's "The Widow Lerouge," we read this:

Old Taberet examined with extreme care the dead woman's finger-nails; and, using infinite precaution, he even extracted from behind them several small particles of kid. The largest of these pieces was not above the twenty-fifth part of an inch in length; but all the same their color was easily distinguishable.

We can scarcely imagine human finger-nails scraping off sufficient lavender kid from an assailant's gloves to serve as evidence, and we doubt if it could be proved possible by practical experiment. Though original and picturesque clues are desirable, yet care should be taken to have them carry the weight of common sense.

Back to Top

The Use of Illustrative Plans

A very annoying error often met is putting the plans in the book too late. By plans, we mean, the architectural sketch showing the rooms of the house or the arrangement of the grounds, with an X "where the body was found."

In general, it is wise not to have a plan necessary to the understanding of the story. But some plots cannot be clearly understood without a plan. In such a case, have the diagram well and simply drawn, with as few lines as possible, and no unnecessary details. Moreover, present the plan at the beginning of the story. It is a most frequent error to insert the plan long after the situation has been fully described and the reader has pictured the entire scene for himself in his own mind. Then comes the plan, and it not infrequently turns his mental picture topsy-turvy. In a short-story it is less absolutely necessary, but in a book it is important to introduce the plan at the very first.

In "Hand and Ring," by Anna Katharine Green, the intricacies of the plot necessitate two plans; one of the house where the crime is committed, and another of the neighboring town and country. The first of these plans appears on page 170 and the other on page 364. Both should have been given when the scenes they represent were first brought into the story.

In "The Leavenworth Case" by Anna Katharine Green, the plan of the house is given on page 8, and thereby allows the reader to start with a correct mental picture of the scene of the crime.

"The Mystery of the Yellow Room" and "The Perfume of the Lady in Black," both by Gaston Leroux, require definite and somewhat elaborate plans. These are beautifully drawn, and occur in the book exactly at the time they are needed.

Back to Top

The Locked and Barred Room

A situation greatly beloved of mystery-mongers is a crime committed in a room so locked and barred that there is apparently no possible ingress.

This was the case in Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue,11 and the later explanation of how the intruder entered is simple, ingenious, and satisfactory. But since then, hundreds of stories have been written around a crime committed in a sealed room, with solutions of varying interest.

The plot is usually the same. The barred doors necessitate a forcible breaking in to discover the crime. Then, owing to the fact of the locks and bars, the dead man found in the room is adjudged a suicide. But, of course, later developments prove it to be murder and finally disclose how the murderer could get in and out and yet leave everything bolted on the inside.

Often a secret passage is the solution, but this is trite; and to invent a cleverer explanation is the aim of the ambitious author. Gaston Leroux succeeded perfectly, in his "Mystery of the Yellow Room," and few authors can touch the simple subtlety of his idea.

Zangwill went at the matter deliberately. To quote from the introduction to "Big Bow Mystery":

"For a long time before the book was written I said to myself that no mystery-monger had ever murdered a man in a room to which there was no possible access.

The puzzle was scarcely propounded ere the solution flew up and the idea lay stored in my mind till years later."

This particular problem and its solution, in Zangwill's hands, is a masterpiece; and though incidentally in his book he tells of many suggested solutions, none compares with his own in simple though daring ingenuity.

A writer does well to use this always arrestive plot, if he have some new and interesting explanation to offer.

Back to Top