Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Conan Doyle's "The Speckled Band" and G. K Chesterton's "The Blue Cross"

Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” is a paradigm of the classic detective story formula, widely imitated since its publication. A visitor comes to Sherlock Holmes’ residence, distraught because of a mysterious crime already committed.  The “romance of detail” is laid bare when Holmes says that “there is no mystery” in his mysterious knowledge that his visitor has come by dog cart and by train to see him—only his observation of details and the conclusions he draws from them--deductions which Watson says are as “swift as intuitions, and yet always founded on a logical basis.” As usual, Holmes’s task is to “throw a little light through the dense darkness” which surrounds the lady, whose situation is horrible precisely because her fears are so vague and her suspicious “depend so entirely upon small points, which might seem trivial to another.”

The story is a variant of the locked-door mystery, which Poe explored in “The Murders of the Rue Morgue.”  The visitor tells of the death of her sister, supposedly by fear, and her last words: “It was the band! The speckled band!” As is also usual, the story is fraught with red herrings—that the stepfather keeps a baboon and a cheetah (which might make one suspect the “Rue Morgue” solution) and that there are often gypsies about the place.

In the detective story, however, as in the short story generally, it is not by the obvious solution that the mystery is laid bare.  The reference to the speckled band itself it the most obvious clue, which would seem to point to a band of gypsies or the band that a gypsy wears on his head--a direction which Holmes considers and rejects, but only after he has visited the home and discovered the meaning of the meaningless—the two clues of the bell rope which is a dummy and the ventilators which do no ventilate. Because these two items have no function within the naturalistic realm of the story they must obviously have a function in the mystery of the story.  That is, they are aesthetic motifs purely—motifs that constitute the hidden plot.

The hidden plot is not revealed until the speckled band itself, a swamp adder, is seen wound around the head of the stepfather.  As is also common for the detective story, and is appropriate to the process of analysis of a text, the laying bare of the plot can only take place at the conclusion of the events of the tale, as Holmes reveals to the average reader Watson the events which took place in the narrative that has preceded the story.

What makes “The Speckled Band” so paradigmatic of the detective story is that it lays bare the previous story at the same time that it prevents the recurrence of that story.  The fact that the threatened woman is a twin to the sister previously killed by the serpent, and that the second murder is to take place in the same room on the same fastened-down bed, indicates that what we have here is a previous event that will be repeated in duplicate unless the critic detective reveals the story’s mystery.  Thus the “plot” rebounds on its creator when the serpent returns to bite the doctor.  As Holmes says, “Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another.” 

The central clue is seen by Holmes when he first enters the doctor’s room and utters the words the sister uttered just before her death, the words of the title of the story.  Thus, the ambiguity of the title of the story is transformed into the solution—a solution pointed to by the purely aesthetic clues of the mock rope and the mock ventilator.

Mock clues which reveal themselves to be the real clues are also central in G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown story, “The Blue Cross”; the aesthetic resolution is the true solution.  The tone of “The Blue Cross” is considerably lighter than that of “The Speckled Band,” both because the crime is one of theft rather than of murder and because the story depends on the device of roleplaying as well as the convention of playing with the presentation of clues themselves.

In the classic triangle of victim, pursuer, and detective, roles are manipulated in such a way that the victim Father Brown, plays the roles both of the criminal, leaving clues to his actions, and the detective, who has solved the crime before it has been committed.  Thus, the meaningless clues only have meaning aesthetically within the “plot as plot” of the story itself.  The professional detective, Valentin, head of the Paris police, serves as the reader of the text which Father Brown creates.

Three basic character images are set up in the story: the criminal Flambeau, noted for his great height (six feet, four inches) and his powerful physical strength, so much so that he takes on the folklore image of a powerful Paul Bunyan-like figure; Valentin, who is one of the most powerful intellects in Europe and a man who reasons from strong, undisputed first principles; and Father Brown, who from the perspective of both Flambeau and Valentin, is only a little priest with a face as “”round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling,” with “eyes as empty as the North Sea.”  The story does not focus, however, on Father Brown and Flambeau, who accompanies him dressed as a priest, but rather on the traces that Father Brown leaves behind for Valentin to follow.

And the clues are indeed such that appeal to Valentin’s penchant for following the unreasonable when he cannot follow the trail of the reasonable. His encounter with the sugar bowl which has salt in it and with the cross-labeled oranges and nuts are of course true clues to the reversal of roles being played by Father Brown, in which the victim is really the detective.

As Valentine follows “the first odd finger that pointed,” he begins to fit the “natural”: side of the story together—that Flambeau has posed as a priest to steal the jeweled cross from the greenhorn Father Brown.  All this he says is the “most natural thing in all natural history,” with nothing wonderful in it at all.

Thus the crime seems clear enough.   But the reversal or game that this story plays with the usual detective convention is that Valentin cannot determine the connection between the mysterious traces of events which have lead him to Flambeau and the crime itself.  “He had come to the end of his chase; yet somehow he had missed the middle of it.  When he failed (which was seldom), he had usually grasped the clue, but nevertheless missed the criminal.  Here he had grasped the criminal, but still he could not grasp the clue.”

The final section of the story presents the dialogue on which Valentin eavesdrops between Father Brown and Flambeau, a conversation that Valentin at first takes to be a quite ordinary theological discussion common to two prelates, in which Father Brown argues for reason and Flambeau, thinking to imitate the usual priestly view, argues for the irrational—another reversal of expectation similar to the salt/sugar, nuts/fruit reversal that Father Brown perpetuated earlier.

Reason, says Father Brown, is always reasonable, “even in the last limbo, in the lost borderland of things.” The reversal is dramatically embodied in the climax, when Flambeau declares that he has switched the parcels and thus has the jewels while Father Brown has the duplicate.  He says that Father Brown is “as good as a three-act farce.” But the switch has of course been switched, and Father Brown has left the jewels in a shop to be sent to a safe place.

Father Brown has supplied false clues for two reasons—to make sure that his companion is a criminal by finding out if he has tried to pass unnoticed (by switching the salt and sugar and by changing the bill at a shop to three times its amount) and to supply the clues which Flambeau himself would not supply.

Father Brown’s profession as a priest has enabled him to determine Flambeau’s disguise, just as his reason, which he calls just “good theology,” has enabled him to set up the plot in such a way that it will be successfully traced by Valentin.  Father Brown says he knows all the tricks of the criminal mind because by always hearing men’s sins, he is made aware of human evil.

Father Brown creates purely aesthetic clues which lead to the solution of the crime or plot.  So also, for that matter, does Sherlock Holmes, and before them both, Poe’s primal poet/detective Auguste Dupin.  From its beginnings, detective fiction has been closely aligned with the conventions of the creation and interpretation of the short story genre—a form that has always been self-consciously concerned with the creation of a latent aesthetic plot, hovering just beneath the surface of manifest mimetic details. The detective story is created for criticism or explication, and would not exist without the reader’s interpretative participation.

1 comment:

Dorryce Smelts said...

Mr. May, I follow your column and enjoy it, and your passion for short stories, very much. You must be as happy as I am (I'm Canadian) to know that Alice Munro won the Nobel prize for fiction. Actually, we're over the moon here.

Dorryce Smelts