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The Lock and Key Library The most interesting stories of all nations: American   By: (1842-1914?)

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Edited by Julian Hawthorne


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"Riddle Stories"

F. MARION CRAWFORD (1854 ) By the Waters of Paradise

MARY E. WILKINS FREEMAN (1862 ) The Shadows on the Wall

MELVILLE D. POST (1871 ) The Corpus Delicti

AMBROSE BIERCE (1842 ) An Heiress from Redhorse The Man and the Snake

EDGAR ALLAN POE (1809 49) The Oblong Box The Gold Bug

WASHINGTON IRVING (1783 1859) Wolfert Webber, or Golden Dreams Adventure of the Black Fisherman

CHARLES BROCKDEN BROWN (1771 1810) Wieland's Madness

FITZJAMES O'BRIEN (1828 1862) The Golden Ingot My Wife's Tempter

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE (1804 1864) The Minister's Black Veil

ANONYMOUS Horror: A True Tale

"Riddle Stories"

Introduction by Julian Hawthorne

When Poe wrote his immortal Dupin tales, the name "Detective" stories had not been invented; the detective of fiction not having been as yet discovered. And the title is still something of a misnomer, for many narratives involving a puzzle of some sort, though belonging to the category which I wish to discuss, are handled by the writer without expert detective aid. Sometimes the puzzle solves itself through operation of circumstance; sometimes somebody who professes no special detective skill happens upon the secret of its mystery; once in a while some venturesome genius has the courage to leave his enigma unexplained. But ever since Gaboriau created his Lecoq, the transcendent detective has been in favor; and Conan Doyle's famous gentleman analyst has given him a fresh lease of life, and reanimated the stage by reverting to the method of Poe. Sherlock Holmes is Dupin redivivus, and mutatus mutandis; personally he is a more stirring and engaging companion, but so far as kinship to probabilities or even possibilities is concerned, perhaps the older version of him is the more presentable. But in this age of marvels we seem less difficult to suit in this respect than our forefathers were.

The fact is, meanwhile, that, in the riddle story, the detective was an afterthought, or, more accurately, a deus ex machina to make the story go. The riddle had to be unriddled; and who could do it so naturally and readily as a detective? The detective, as Poe saw him, was a means to this end; and it was only afterwards that writers perceived his availability as a character. Lecoq accordingly becomes a figure in fiction, and Sherlock, while he was as yet a novelty, was nearly as attractive as the complications in which he involved himself. Riddle story writers in general, however, encounter the obvious embarrassment that their detective is obliged to lavish so much attention on the professional services which the exigencies of the tale demand of him, that he has very little leisure to expound his own personal equation the rather since the attitude of peering into a millstone is not, of itself, conducive to elucidations of oneself; the professional endowment obscures all the others. We ordinarily find, therefore, our author dismissing the individuality of his detective with a few strong black chalk outlines, and devoting his main labor upon what he feels the reader will chiefly occupy his own ingenuity with, namely, the elaboration of the riddle itself. Reader and writer sit down to a game, as it were, with the odds, of course, altogether on the latter's side, apart from the fact that a writer sometimes permits himself a little cheating. It more often happens that the detective appears to be in the writer's pay, and aids the deception by leading the reader off on false scents. Be that as it may, the professional sleuth is in nine cases out of ten a dummy by malice prepense; and it might be plausibly argued that, in the interests of pure art, that is what he ought to be. But genius always finds a way that is better than the rules, and I think it will be found that the very best riddle stories contrive to drive character and riddle side by side, and to make each somehow enhance the effect of the other... Continue reading book >>

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