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OBSERVED IN THE BREACH
by James Lincoln Warren
One of the supreme moments in mystery fiction occurs when Watson asks the Great Detective a pointed question:
“Is there any point to which you wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident.”1
The sheer genius of that short interchange is one of the reasons I was inspired to take up my pen and take a crack at writing detective fiction. The insight that what is missing can be as important, or even more important, than what is present may appear to be mere commonsense; e.g., the absence of prized property or cash at a crime scene, provided there be a judicious expectation of its presence, is a frequent indication of robbery or theft. So much is obvious. Where the genius comes in is when it ain’t so obvious and yet turns out to be significant.
The first story I had accepted at AHMM was named “The Dioscuri2 Deception”. In that story, the crew and cargo of a Hudson’s Bay Company merchant ship vanish in a manner that is nothing short of prodigious. The thing I was proudest of in that story was that the very presence of such a prodigy was one of the facts that pointed to who done the misdeed—but it was a feature more interesting in its strangeness than for what it insinuated, and so aided in misdirecting the reader.
Of course, the occurrence of an extraordinary circumstance, such as depicted in “The Discouri Deception”, is one of the most common and characteristic traits of the ratiocinative mystery story. My mentor Sir Arthur understood this, and even described it to his audience in his very first contribution to The Strand magazine.3 What makes the inactivity of the dog in the above-quoted passage such a precocious touch is that it maintains the guise of the ordinary, when in truth, it is quite the opposite.
And this is a rather sophisticated trick. More often than not in detective stories, as with mine, there is the “outré accompaniment” that turns out to have a prosaic exegesis. What makes this case so interesting is that it is the not the “accompaniment” per se, but rather the observation of it that surprises and engages the reader. I’ve written before concerning my surmise that good mystery stories maintain a positive tension between convention and creativity, a kind of contest between satisfying immediate expectations on the one hand and surpassing them on the other. In the hands of a master, they can both be gratified at the same time, and by the same device—here, it’s done not by adding some new ingredient, but by bringing to our attention what is not there.
I wish I’d thought of that.
Mozart said that the moments of quiet “between the notes are as important as the notes.”
As with the dog that did nothing in the night-time. I think that Mozart’s observation is a fair description of good crime fiction, too.
- Arthur Conan Doyle: “Silver Blaze”, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
- A description of the twin brothers Castor and Pollux in Greek mythology, more commonly called the “Gemini”—the word in the title comes from the Greek dios kouroi, meaning literally “(unbearded) youths of the God” and idiomatically “the Sons of Zeus”. In contrast to our contest this week, the title was a clue to the solution to the mystery.
- Holmes tells Watson: “It is a mistake to confound strangeness with mystery. The most commonplace crime is often the most mysterious because it presents no new or special features from which deductions may be drawn. This murder would have been infinitely more difficult to unravel had the body of the victim been simply found lying in the roadway without any of those outré and sensational accompaniments which have rendered it remarkable. These strange details, far from making the case more difficult, have really had the effect of making it less so.” —A Study in Scarlet