Table of Contents

+ Add to Library

Previous Next

5\. The Narrator in the Detective Story

  • The Teller of the Detective Story is an important factor in its technique.
  • Many a good plot is spoiled because it is narrated by the wrong person.
  • Poe, with his quick sense of fitness, chose the narrator best calculated for
  • the exploitation of his clever Dupin. This was a stroke of real genius, for
  • the reader becomes acquainted with the principal through the subordinate. He
  • is taught to look upon the work of a detective intelligently; taught to
  • appreciate and understand it. He knows when it is time to applaud, because the
  • narrator tells him. It is a pity that this narrator is nameless, for as Mrs.
  • Harris, with even less personality, is a household word, so his name would
  • have been. It is this narrator who rouses our interest, tantalizes our
  • impatience, and piques our curiosity, in harmony with his own halting almost
  • unbelieving observance of the marvels revealed to him. He teaches us to be
  • amazed at the proper time and then at the proper time he explains what so
  • amazed us.
  • Dr. Watson, narrator of the Sherlock Holmes stories, is a parallel character,
  • though in no sense an imitation or plagiarism. The conditions of the
  • revelations to be made require just such a person to make them; and without a
  • doubt, Sherlock Holmes would have had his Dr. Watson even if Dupin had never
  • had his.
  • Aside from the glory and honor cast upon the hero by this humble but adoring
  • satellite, this means of narration has another decided advantage. Since the
  • detective confides in his friend or not, as he chooses, the author can reveal
  • or conceal facts as he chooses, and so mislead the reader at will. What the
  • subordinate does not know he can not tell, and thus is the secret preserved.
  • Again, the subordinate being but fallible, may surmise mistakenly. So then
  • does the reader, and again the author's ends are served.
  • Sometimes the author prefers that the tale be told in the third person, but
  • even so, the character of "Harris" is still usually in evidence. Often he is a
  • reporter, for this gives him opportunity to go uninvited, yet free from the
  • stigma of idle curiosity into the scenes of interest. A reporter eager for a
  • "scoop" for his paper, sets a fine example of alert interest and close
  • scrutiny for the reader to profit by.
  • In the foreword to "The Silent Bullet" the hero detective picks out his
  • reporter and tells him how useful he will be to him in his work. "The Thinking
  • Machine" has the reporter "Hutchinson Hatch," while "Rouletabille" has a
  • clever reporter named "Sainclair."
  • Of course the story may be told directly from the mouth of the author. But the
  • proportion of this manner of telling is not so large in Detective Story work
  • as in other fiction; because there are secrets to be preserved. Not only the
  • main secret of the mystery, but also the secrets of what the strange
  • proceedings of the detective may mean. And if the author is telling the tale,
  • it is manifestly difficult for him to preserve an ingenuous and veracious
  • manner, though this may be done if the author maintains a certain aloofness
  • and an arbitrary standard of what to tell and what not.
  • Gaboriau's stories are all told in the third person; so are DuBoisgobey's and
  • many of Anna Katharine Green's. Gaston Leroux uses this form and so does Mr.
  • Webster in "The Whispering Man."
  • "The Moonstone" is a conglomeration of forms. The narrator is changed to suit
  • the needs of the author, and the book is made up of the stories of the diaries
  • of several people interested; "The Woman in White" follows the same narrative
  • method. "The Leavenworth Case" is also told by various people, and sometimes
  • in diary form.
  • While not always effective in other fiction, the diary is a most useful form
  • for Detective Stories. For secrets can be confided to a diary, and though thus
  • revealed to the reader, they are not disclosed to the other characters in the
  • book; which is frequently a necessary condition. While never used for the
  • whole book, the diary form often appears on certain pages of the story. "The
  • Mystery of the Yellow Room," "The Hound of the Baskervilles," and many of our
  • best authors' works show more or less of the useful and often necessary diary
  • form.
  • But whatever narrator is chosen, let the choice be made after careful
  • consideration of the conditions of the story. If there is a great surprise
  • which must be concealed until the end, the narrator must be kept in ignorance
  • of it until the end. If the story hinges on the marvelous brain work of a
  • transcendent detective, give him a Dr. Watson to expatiate on it and to be
  • awed by it. If a scientific or other straightforward recital of procedure, it
  • may be told by the author. These points can best be learned and understood by
  • reading the works of the best authors and noting what kind of narrator they
  • choose and why.