The Speckled Casket of Death

JacquesFutrelleDEEP silence, then a long shuddering wail of terror, a stifled, strangling cry for help, the sound of a body falling, and again deep silence. A pause, and after awhile the tramp, tramp of heavy shoes through a lower hall. A door slammed and a man staggered out into a deserted street, haggard, trembling and with lips hard set. He reeled down the street and turned the first corner, waving his trembling hands fantastically.

Another pause, and spears of light flashed through the black night from the second floor of a great six-story tenement in South Boston, then came the sound of stockinged feet hurrying along the hall. Half a dozen horror-stricken men and women gathered at the door of the room whence had come the cry, helplessly gazing into one another’s eyes, waiting, waiting, listening.

This wonderful opening, that reads almost like a screenplay, is not that of some Black Mask or later hardboiled mystery but that of The Mystery of the Grip of Death, written by Jacques Futrelle in… 1907. 

Now here are the opening sentences of R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke short story The Magic Casket:

IT was in the near neighbourhood of King’s Road, Chelsea, that chance, aided by Thorndyke’s sharp and observant eyes, introduced us to the dramatic story of the Magic Casket. Not that there was anything strikingly dramatic in the opening phase of the affair, nor even in the story of the casket itself. It was Thorndyke who added the dramatic touch, and most of the magic, too; and I record the affair principally as an illustration of his extraordinary capacity for producing odd items of out-of-the-way knowledge and instantly applying them in the most unexpected manner.


Pretty different, isn’t it? What’s more, Freeman’s story first appeared in print in 1927, exactly twenty years after Futrelle’s. 

The point of this comparison is not to extol or belittle either writer’s reputation. I am a known Freeman fan and defender, having devoted one of my first blog posts to rescue him from the outer darkness critics like Julian Symons had unfairly cast him into. I am also a no less fervent Futrelle admirer as this post and some others demonstrate. What I am trying to show is how far apart two crime writers who got their start roughly at the same time were in terms of writing and storytelling.

Freeman unlike Futrelle lived to see the Golden Age that his fiction contributed to make possible but changing fashions didn’t affect him a little bit. He remained to his death in 1942 an « old fashioned writer » as Raymond Chandler and Curtis Evans called him, probably because he had been so from the start. Some may regret it but it’s worth reminding that being faithful to oneself is a virtue for a writer, not a drawback.

What may account for the differences between both writers is ultimately their attitude to their elders – or rather their elder, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Their respective attitudes are important not only on an anecdotal level but because they reflect and explain the radically different trajectories crime fiction in their countries would go on to take. Freeman departed in many ways from the Doylean approach, most notably with the invention of the inverted detective story and the greater scientific rigour and credibility of his stories, not to mention that Thorndyke is a much warmer and less saturnine character than his Baker Street colleague*. What he retained however was the first-person narration and the somewhat stilted prose – his narrators, whether they are Dr. Jarvis or some other secondary character, « speak » very much like Dr. Watson as the extract above demonstrates. Also, Freeman has no intention to fool the reader or surprise him with a shock solution. The main appeal of his fiction is its sound logic and in this he easily outdoes his model whose plots have often been challenged on logical grounds. Freeman reads sometimes like he is not trying to innovate but instead to improve on Doyle, writing the kind of detective stories he would have liked his predecessor to write. The Great Detective according to Freeman is a professional, serious and even tempered individual who uses rigorous reasoning and the scientific method to solve cases that might happen in real life. This is not the Golden Age approach at all, and one wonders whether his increasing « old-fashionedness » was not at least in part a response and a rebuttal to the new ways. As another Freeman admirer, French writer and critic Thomas Narcejac, put it, Freeman took the detective story seriously and wouldn’t have countenanced it becoming a game.

Futrelle’s opinion on Golden Age crime fiction we’ll never know since he died long before it was a thing but we can assume it would have been much more approving. Futrelle like his French contemporary Gaston Leroux conceived of the detective story as a magic trick and a challenge for both the reader and the writer: coming up with a rational, if not necessarily plausible, explanation to the baffling and seemingly inexplicable. While early twentieth century American detective fiction was heavily undebted to Doyle, Futrelle is one of a trio of writers – Melville Davisson Post and Mary Roberts Rinehart being the other two – who would break with the Sherlockian model and declare independence. The story I quoted from earlier is a good example of the way Futrelle radically departs from Doyle even when he ventures onto his territory.

Grip of Death is basically a retelling of The Adventure of the Speckled Band – and to say that is enough of a spoiler for the seasoned reader. Futrelle often borrowed ideas from earlier writers to cook them his own way. Both stories couldn’t be more different, however. Speckled Band is a prime example of Straight Plotting – problem, investigation, solution. There is a Person in Danger and the detective himself is briefly in jeopardy in the end, but the narration remains urbane and deliberate throughout. Grip of Death retains the same components but give them a thoroughly different treatment. The story is told in omniscient third-person mode, which allows Futrelle to use different viewpoints instead of sticking to that of the detective or his sidekick. Part of the first chapter for instance is told from the point of view of a « stranger » who may or may not be the culprit – Futrelle keeps it ambiguous enough to leave the reader in doubt. Then enters reporter Hutchinson Hatch, the usual « Watson » of the Thinking Machine series – except that he is nothing like Watson. His behaviour, languag and overall cocky attitude especially with regard to the police, reminds one more of Archie Goodwin than of the good doctor. Also unlike Watson he has a mind as sharp as his tongue and makes some clever observations:

« About halfpast 8 o’clock tonight a man called here to see Boyd. He knew Boyd very well—was probably a friend of several years’ standing—and had called here frequently. We have an accurate description of him. He was seen by several persons who knew him by sight, therefore will be able to absolutely identify him when we arrest him.

« Now, those two men were together in this room for possibly two hours. They were playing cards. More than half the murders on record are committed in the heat of passion. These men quarrelled over their game, probably ‘pitch’ or ‘casino’— »

« It’s a pinochle pack, » said Hatch.

« Then the crime was committed, » the detective went on, not heeding the interruption, « the unknown man was sitting here, » and Mallory indicated an overturned chair to his right.

« He leaped like this, » and the detective, with a full eye for dramatic effect, illustrated, « seized Boyd by the throat, there was a struggle, notice the other overturned chair—and the unknown man bore Boyd down gripping his throat. He choked him to death. »

« I thought the dead man was undressed when he was found? » asked Hatch. « The bed, too, » and he indicated its disordered condition.

« He was, but—but it must have happened as I said, » said the detective. He didn’t like reporters who asked embarrassing questions. « His victim dead, the murderer went out by that door, » and he pointed dramatically.

« Through the keyhole, I suppose? » said Hatch, quietly. « That door was fastened inside as no mere mortal could fasten it after he left the room. »

Ultimately of course it is up to S.F.X. Van Dusen, the aforementioned « Thinking Machine » to identify the « murderer » and confront « him » in a dramatic fashion, saving an innocent man’s life and marital prospects in the process and ending a story of which six chapters are filled with events, red herrings and a tension hardly found in Doyle’s. Also, Futrelle unlike his elder gives the reader actual clues to chew on – one of which, the sudden disappearance of rats and mice in the building, is both transparent to the attentive reader and extremely clever. Upon finishing reading it, this reader thought Futrelle while « stealing » the core idea from Doyle had material enough with this story to write a novel. His preference for the short story format may well be what cost him enduring fame – how many lay readers know of Sherlock Holmes for The Hound of the Baskervilles rather than his shorter exploits, frequently anthologized as they are?

Futrelle only had five years left to live and would soon be forgotten except by the connoisseurs and historians of the genre and still his incredibly modern work paved the way for a distinctly American way of doing crime fiction, a way that transcends subgenres divisions and that was radically different from that that developed on the other side of the Atlantic (though it paradoxically displayed some elements in common with the French school) and would someday become crime fiction’s lingua franca. Open any modern crime novel and it’s more likely to read like Futrelle than Freeman.

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