Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Closing Off Possibilities

In this week's reading of Hound, I'd like to look at a technique that is probably especially important to mystery writers. Then again, aren't all works of fiction mysteries in some way? The questions, in the end, are the same: What happened in the past? What is going to happen? How will the characters understand what happened, and how will we?

Also, I'll wager that all fiction writers, especially novelists, have run into the problem of having seemingly too many options to choose from. At a certain point in the writing process, you start to realize that the story could go, well, a thousand different ways. How do you know which one is right? Having experienced this a ton of times myself, I'll say that the only solution is just to plunge ahead through the weeds until you crash into a brick wall, then backtrack to the fork in the road and try another branch. (How's that for an overgrown thicket of cliches?) Otherwise, your fate may be paralysis.

Having eventually chosen a path, however, you will still have to go back and clear it for your readers in the revision process. That is, you have to make sure your reader--while possibly seeing all the different forks in the road that you could have taken--understands why the path you took is the right one. You can't leave a bunch of loopholes open in the plot, or in your characters' motivations, which would immediately allow your protagonist to solve the problem easily--and bring the story to a dead halt. It's the old "why doesn't someone just kill Ahab?" question, which you have to resolve in some convincing way.

In the early going of Hound, Conan Doyle shows us one way to block off possible avenues for solving the mystery too early. Sir Henry Baskerville, heir to the Baskerville estate and possibly to its giant, slavering devil-dog, has just arrived in London, where he receives this immortal message: "As you value your life or your reason keep away from the moor." All but one of the words, "moor," were clipped from a newspaper and pasted onto a piece of paper. Holmes, through his obsessive knowledge of fonts, determines that the newspaper was yesterday's Times. He also determines that the letter was created in a hotel room, because the word "moor" (the only one that did not appear in the paper, so had to be written by hand), is in the kind of dried-out ink you'd only find in a hotel room. (Don't you hate that?)

So, to find out who sent the note, Holmes pays a kid to go to every hotel in the area and ask to see yesterday's trash--looking for a Times with words cut out of it. Meanwhile, he and Watson have also spotted a mysterious bearded man following Baskerville in a cab, and Sir Henry suggests it might be Barrymore, the butler of Baskerville Hall. Holmes sends a telegram addressed to Barrymore there, to see if he's home. Soon:

Just before dinner two telegrams were handed in. The first ran:—

"Have just heard that Barrymore is at the Hall.—BASKERVILLE." The second:—

"Visited twenty-three hotels as directed, but sorry, to report unable to trace cut sheet of Times.—CARTWRIGHT."
"There go two of my threads, Watson. There is nothing more stimulating than a case where everything goes against you. We must cast round for another scent."

Holmes is right; there is nothing more stimulating than a case (or a story) where everything goes against you. Obstacles are mounting, increasing the challenge to Holmes, and thus allowing the story to move onward and upward. The key point is that the obstacles mount plausibly: without slowing the story down too much, Conan Doyle shows Holmes addressing two clear paths to solving the case, and being convincingly thwarted by each one. Then, literally in the next line, a third path opens up:

"We have still the cabman who drove the spy."

"Exactly. I have wired to get his name and address from the Official Registry. I should not be surprised if this were an answer to my question."

The ring at the bell proved to be something even more satisfactory than an answer, however, for the door opened and a rough-looking fellow entered who was evidently the man himself.

"I got a message from the head office that a gent at this address had been inquiring for 2704," said he. "I've driven my cab this seven years and never a word of complaint. I came here straight from the Yard to ask you to your face what you had against me."

The relative ease of contacting the cabman would have been really annoying, if Conan Doyle had not preceded it with the failed efforts at locating the newspaper and identifying Barrymore. The cabman's appearance still seems a little convenient, but now we suspect whatever information he tells us will not be as helpful or as straightforward as it might otherwise seem. The chapter is called "Three Broken Threads," after all, and Holmes has just said that everything is going against him in this case. The author has trained us to read his story as Holmes would: with enthusiastic suspicion.

We shall see...

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