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3\. Devices Which Are Not Plausible

  • In "The Accomplice," an unusually good court-room story, by Frederick Trevor Hill, we have this sort of evidence reduced almost to an absurdity. To quote from page 13:
  • > "The first error consisted in leaving the drippings of candle-grease on the veranda roof, and the second was in kneeling on those drippings before they were quite dry. As though it had been a hand gripping the skirt of the criminal, that wax held in its clutch, half a dozen threads of a hairy cloth, blue in color, and of a texture known to the trade as dress goods. When you have found the wearer of the cloth from which those threads were torn, gentlemen, you will have found the murderer of Mr. Gregory Shaw."
  • At the end of the book it was revealed that sure enough the criminal, who, however, was a man instead of the young woman at first suspected, had knelt in the candle drippings, and had left there bits of blue wool shreds from his trouser knees.
  • We can scarcely imagine a candle-dripping sufficiently tenacious to grasp in its clutch and hold for evidence a portion of material necessarily drawn tightly over the bent knees of the criminal. Even granting the especially hairy cloth from which the murderer obligingly had his costume made for the occasion, candle-grease of any sort does not possess such strongly adherent, not to say bull-dog, qualities as would allow it to clutch and keep pieces of that cloth.
  • Mr. Jacques Futrelle uses the thread clue with a little more plausibility, though still slightly forced:
  • > The Thinking Machine opened his pocketbook and took from it the scarlet thread which he had picked from the rope of the flagpole.
  • >
  • > "Here, I believe, is the real clue to the problem," he explained to Hatch.
  • "What does it seem to be?"
  • >
  • > Hatch examined it closely.
  • >
  • > "I should say a strand from a Turkish bath robe," was his final judgment.
  • >
  • > "Possibly. Ask some cloth expert what he makes of it, then if it sounds promising look into it. Find out if by any possibility it can be any part of any garment worn by any person in the apartment house."
  • >
  • > "But, it's so slight——" Hatch began.
  • >
  • > "I know," the other interrupted, tartly. "It's slight, but I believe it is a part of the wearing apparel of the person, man or woman, who has four times attempted to kill Mr. Henley and who did kill the girl. Therefore it is important."
  • Of course this thread led to the capture of the criminal, and as it was found caught in a rope near the scene of the crime it was a fairly good clue; but as a matter of fact, the threads of Turkish toweling are of fairly stout calibre, and are not likely to be broken off as they trail across a rope. So much depends on the plausibility of these clues, that not only care but common sense must be exercised in their selection. In the Thinking Machine story, another scarlet thread from the same bath-robe attached itself importantly and conspicuously to a metal corner of a trunk, and so by the trail of red threads the criminal was hunted down. Here again we see the beautiful workings of the salted mine. In real life those tell-tale threads would have stayed stubbornly in their own warp or woof; or if they did leave their rightful abiding place they would creep behind the bureau or somehow get into the dust bin undiscovered.
  • In Samuel Gardenhire's story, "The Abduction of Mary Ellis," the discovery of the criminal hinges on a piece of brown wrapping-paper, on which the kidnappers wrote an advertisement asking for ransom. This paper, after passing through several hands, was examined microscopically by the Transcendent Detective, and he discovered wax and a strand or two of floss doll's hair.
  • Now, think of the thousands of dolls that are bought and never leave a hair of their heads fastened by a bit of their own wax face to their wrapping paper!
  • and then think of this doll intelligently leaving these traces at the critical juncture, where such a clue was necessary, and then judge for yourself the relationship between truth and fiction.
  • This habit of using shredded evidence is not confined to writers in our own language. An exceedingly good detective story is by a Russian, Anton Chekhov, and is called the "Safety Match." There was a bushy burdock growing under the window, which was greatly trampled. On its upper branches, Detective Dukovski succeeded in finding some fine hairs of dark blue wool. Now, had the bushy burdock pulled out a jagged piece of woolen cloth we might have forgiven it, but to catch and hold up for inspection a few fine hairs is drawing too long a bow. However, they cut off these twigs of burdock and care fully wrapped them in paper in true conventional style. These few fine hairs lead directly to the trousers of the murderer and the naive author quite calmly acknowledges his debt to an illustrious predecessor: "See what a fellow who has read Gaboriau can do!" he exclaimed, which is not too self-depreciatory, for even in the same story he has adapted to his own use many more of Lecoq's devices.
  • The most logical and plausible instance of detection by the means of tiny threads for clues is found in Mary E. Wilkins's "The Long Arm."
  • > "I began to-day at the bottom—that is, with the room least likely to contain any clue, the parlour. I took a chalk-line and a yard-stick, and divided the floor into square yards, and every one of these squares I examined on my hands and knees. I found in this way literally nothing on the carpet but dust, lint, two common white pins, and three inches of blue sewing silk.
  • >
  • > "At last I got the dustpan and brush, and yard by yard swept the floor. I took the sweepings in a white pasteboard box out into the yard in the strong sunlight, and examined them. There was nothing but dust and lint and five inches of brown woollen thread—evidently a ravelling of some dress material.
  • The blue silk and the brown thread are the only possible clues which I found today and they are hardly possible. Rufus's wife can probably account for them."
  • These two threads were very naturally dropped from the clothing of a dressmaker, who has a perfect right to shed her snippings and ravelings wherever she may list.
  • It is wise to be careful in the use of shreds and threads that the author may not bring a smile to the face of the "gentle reader." Think of the absurdity of this statement, quoted from a modern English story:
  • > It all began with the murder of Mr. Andrew Carrthwaite, at Palermo.
  • >
  • > He had been found dead in the garden of his villa just outside the town, with a stiletto between his shoulder blades and a piece of rough Irish tweed, obviously torn from his assailant's coat, clutched tightly in his hand.
  • It would be interesting to see a hand that could tear a piece out of a coat of rough Irish tweed! The strength of such a clutch would put to blush the feats of the Murderer of the Rue Morgue.