Friday, March 4, 2016

A Locked-Room Mystery -- Inside-Out!

Reading here and there, in America’s literary incunabula,  I happened upon an excellent tale by Mr Washington Irving:  “The Stout Gentleman:  a stage-coach romance” (1822).

The story, set at an inn, concerns a scant multiplicity (they are nothing so coherent as a group) of travellers, trapped by a day of rain.  It opens with abundant atmospherics: 

It was a rainy Sunday in the gloomy month of November. … The rain pattered against the casements …

That will put the modern cynic  immediately in mind of the “Bulwer-Lytton” awards for bad beginnings, after the classic “It was a dark and stormy night.”  That, however, for anyone who knows how to tell a tale, or to thrill to one, rather than to patronize, was an excellent beginning, worthy of imitation and expatiation.

A dark and dreary night; people nestling in their beds, or circling late about the fire….
-- Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), beginning of Ch. 15

It was a wild night.  The wind was howling outside, and the rain was beating and splashing against the windows.
-- Conan Doyle, "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" (part-way through)

At any event, “The Stout Gentleman” ultimately advances but little upon its promising opening.  It proves to be a writerly exercise, to show how many bricks  may be made, with how little straw.   It is an early, but inverted version, of a Locked Room mystery  -- yet in spirit, more like Paul Auster than like John Dickson Carr.

A locked room mystery  is narratively locked as well -- like a constructed chess-problem, walled off from the unpredictable rough-and-tumble of actual play.  At the center is a sort of black box, in which some untoward thing is thought to have happened;  but you cannot penetrate it directly (nothing so puerile as an auxiliary door hidden behind the cheval-glass), nor does it let its guarded secrets out.  The detective must use deduction.  He is like the scientist, deducing what may be inside the black-box, from its fitful and ambiguous meter-readings.

Yet, oddly for so early a work (prior to Poe), the tale seems almost post the locked-room subgenre. For although the stout gentleman of the title, whose likely or imagined or projected characteristics form the slender nub of the tale, does keep to his room in the inn, he is not locked off;  inn staff go in and out, the narrator is at liberty to look in on him if he so desired:  yet the narrator is as though paralyzed in will, keeping to the dreary common-room on this rainy day, and attempting to deduce from the distant sounds, or bits of overheard conversations of the servants, just what kind of gentleman  this unseen stout gentleman might be.  The story is more about the process of detection -- or rather, induction -- itself, than about the ‘mystery’ of the stout gentleman, which never rises above something wherewith to beguile the idle hours of a rained-in day.

This (let us call it) sub-subgenre of the whodunit, in which it is the (amateur) detective who is “locked in”, and -- denied sight -- must judge by muffled sounds, is brought to the pitch of perfection, and indeed to spiritual depth, in G.K. Chesterton’s short story, “The Queer Feet” (1910; collected in The Innocence of Father Brown).  Here Father Brown is temporarily sequestered in a closed chamber off a back passageway;  and from this vantage, deduces all, both factual and spiritual, based simply upon the footfalls of an unnatural gait.  Indeed, the story is a kind of rhythmic pendant to the visual-geometrical masterpiece, "The Wrong Shape".

Hawthorne’s American notebooks from the mid-1840s  contain many brief notes for possible future stories, most of which he never got around to writing.  The following struck us, in connection with Irving’s (already published!) tale:

A story, the principal personage of which  shall seem always on the point of entering the scene; but shall never appear.

Such, indeed, is the dénoument of Irving’s finger-exercise.  Only at the very end, as the stout gentleman is climbing into a coach to leave the inn (his secret safe for ever) does the feckless narrator get a glimpse, but only of his broad back.   The author leaves us le miel sur les lèvres  -- it has been a snack, and not a meal.

Later, this motif of a title character being ever awaited, but never quite seen, became familiar:  En attendant Godot; l’Arlesienne.   The prophetic underpinning, to which those are a sort of fey parody:  the Mahdi; the Second Coming.


A brief but interesting essay offers some ruminative reflections, going so far as bringing in God to Moses in Exodus 33: “thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.”

To recur to our Chestertonian approximations, we may mention that mere rear-view of Sunday, in GKC’s The Man Who Was Thursday.

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