It is always unpleasant to contemplate the hanging or the electrocuting of the fiction criminal. For this reason he not infrequently takes poison (which he has ready in his pocket), as soon as he is discovered, and dies peacefully, close upon the last words of his confession. This is one of the conventions adopted to spare the reader's feelings. For a criminal that can hold the reader's interest throughout the story is often too attractive a character to be permitted a horrible taking off.
from The Technique of the Mystery Novel by Carolyn Wells
The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913). That it was published by a firm calling itself The Home Correspondence School may tell you something about the intended target audience. It must have been popular, though in reading select chapters I really can't see why, for it remained in print through 1928.
For anyone acquainted with Wells' own oddball brand of detective novel reading her handbook for writers can be as unintentionally funny as reading her mystery novels. She repeatedly advises writers to avoid cliched mystery novel conventions that she herself used ad nauseam. An example is this paragraph taken from the chapter called "Devious Devices"
Another hackneyed device is the secret panel in the wall, which slides open by pressing a hidden spring. This was overdone in sensational fiction, before Detective Stories began, but was seized upon as a valuable device for Mystery tales. But it is easily suspected, and is unsatisfactory in modern settings.Wells was IN LOVE with secret passages, hidden entryways, and secret panels. It is laughable that she would call them "unsatisfactory in modern settings" when her books are littered with them. One particularly egregious example occurs in Spooky Hollow - the worst of the books I read - in which the solution of a missing jewel relies on not one, not two, but three secret panels hidden in a wall safe -- itself a hidden panel operated by a hidden spring! Perhaps she thought this some kind of neat twist but to me it was self-parody.
Wells also calls to tasks her fellow mystery writers of the period for relying too heavily on tiresome plot devices like birds that steal jewels, clothing threads as clues, initialed guns, calling cards and handkerchiefs left at the scene of a crime, and crimes committed during snowy, foggy or rainy weather. In giving examples of some of the better conventions to emulate Wells also reveals the identity of the murderers in five classic mysteries. Nice! Luckily I had read most of them. Finally, she also has the nerve to describe other writers' work as "bordering on self-parody." In response to that I think of a wisecrack one of my theater friends often used for people suffering from lack of self-awareness: "Alice, there's the looking glass!"
I recently went through a sampling of the Wells books I own. I selected three for their locked room and impossible crime elements, a subgenre Wells was drawn to, hoping that at least one of them would show her to be the kind of imaginative teacher she presents herself as in her handbook, one who at least avoids cliches and "hackneyed devices." I was miserably disappointed. Even as "alternative classic" reading it was a torturous couple of days. Only one of the three proved to have any lasting entertainment value. Below are my discussions of the books starting with the worst of the lot and ending with the one that I found most worthwhile.
Deep Lake Mystery (1928) The premise of this book seemed very promising. Sampson Tracy, a typical millionaire Wellsian victim, is found in his locked bedroom dressed up like something out of an ancient burial ritual. There is a garland of flowers draped around his neck, a women's scarf on his head, an inverted feather duster propped up behind his head giving him the appearance of an Indian chief. Also, an orange and some crackers are set beside him and a crucifix is placed in his hand. But does any of this come into play in the solution of the crime? No. Once again the most interesting bizarre elements are extraneous. Speaking of bizarre: the murder method is one that is lifted from a real story called "The Nail," by Pedro de Alarçon. At one point a character (who apparently has the same arcane knowledge of crime fiction as Wells does) purports that someone must have read the story and if they can find a copy of it which happens to be in volume eight of Mystery Tales of All Nations then they may get closer to finding the killer. Believe it or not, it will turn out that the book is in the library of someone's home and the killer did in fact read the story!
The majority of the story is annoying and repetitive - a recurring trait of Wells. The Watson character Gray Norris has fallen head over heals in love with the prime suspect Alma Remsen, Tracy's niece. Even though all the evidence points to Alma, even though three separate eyewitnesses claim to have seen her at the scene of the crime (including Norris who watched her paddle a canoe away from the house), no one believes her guilty. Why? Because she is so darling and sweet that she could not possibly have murdered anyone, let alone her own uncle. Nice people never commit murders in a Wells book. Here's some more of Wells' writer's philosophy:
The next character to be chosen must be our criminal. Here again is one, who, if he is to be convicted, must not be too deeply in the reader's sympathy. [...] The drawing of the criminal calls for fine shading and strong effects. He must be both intelligent and ingenious, in order to give the Transcendent Detective a foeman worthy of his steel. The reader must have no liking or pity for him.Finally, in Deep Lake Mystery we get another Wells staple and another "hackneyed device" for the murderer turns out to be a mad killer of the Mrs. Rochester variety. That's right -- someone who was thought to be dead was locked away in a room, managed to escape one night, and committed the dirty deed. But what of the locked room where the murder was committed? Well, there was that large window and it did happen to be directly above a lake - three stories above, that is. Look for the character who knows how to swim and dive, of course. And make sure that swimmer is the one who could dive perfectly into the safest spot in a rock-filled cove in the middle of the night with only the full moon as illumination. Oh. Are you sorry that I spoiled that for you? Didn't think so.
The story opens with a group of bored New Yorkers looking to enliven their dull summer by spending a weekend in a haunted house. They find the perfect place in Black Aspens, a mansion in a remote portion of Green Mountains of Vermont. Years ago a woman killed her husband with cyanide at 4:00 am. She ran out into the street in hysterics proclaiming the deed. A doctor chased her down, brought her back to the house and found what she said was true. He locked her in the room with the dead body and called the police. When they arrived and the room was opened the body was gone and the woman was raving mad. Now the "room with the tassels" where the two were temporarily imprisoned is said to be haunted by the ghost of the murderess who shows up looking for her dead husband. When the New Yorkers decide to take turns sleeping in the haunted room strange events take place. During the weekend two people are poisoned in the room while four others are present and the intended summertime lark of a weekend turns into a month long murder investigation. And later when one of the bodies disappears from the locked room with the tassels the suspects are convinced that a supernatural force is at work. Will it come as a surprise if I tell you there is no ghost? And that the massive pillars in front of Black Aspens have secret all their own? Yes, that's right -- more secret entrances. Double ugh.
For me the major flaw with Wells is her insistence on the inclusion of protracted "confab" scenes. Confab is a favorite Wells term. She uses these scenes repeatedly as "tabulation devices" in which the preceding events are discussed at length and mulled over by the numerous characters. She also has a habit of creating other private detectives as minor characters who come into the story to try their hand when the police (always inept) have failed. So when the series detective finally appears we have usually read about the events of the crime two or three times and must endure yet another confab by the REAL detective of the piece. It's her biggest failure as a mystery writer and yet it is something that she strongly believes is essential to the construction of a suspenseful mystery story. For me this endless reiteration and repetition is a suspense killer. An interest deadener. A brain numbing snoozefest.
In The Technique of the Mystery Story it is clear Wells has a wide reading knowledge of the writers of her period and those who came before her. Doyle, Gaboriau, Zangwill and Green are the most often mentioned in her discussion of what to strive for and what to avoid in writing a mystery story. Other minor writers like Burton Stevenson and Arthur Train are also cited in her numerous examples. Clearly she knew her stuff from the late Victorian and early Edwardian era. Yet with all this knowledge she still has no real understanding of how to construct and write a detective novel. She is quick to condemn the "hackneyed devices" but will use them herself. She discards useful conventions that move a story forward and invents some of her own that bog down the flow of the action. When it comes to putting it all together Carolyn Wells is more like the wannabe painter who throws buckets of paint on a canvas and sloshes around in it and then expects it to be accepted as art. Anyone else will look at it and call it a mess. But a loveable mess if you have an appreciation for her mastery of the early American alternative classic mystery.