Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Carolyn Wells Technique, or: How I Learned to Stop Thinking and Love the Mess

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

One of the most prolific American writers of the early 20th century Carolyn Wells did it all – childrens' series, poetry, light verse, humorous fiction, a parody of Sinclair Lewis' best selling Main Street called Ptomaine Street, non-fiction essays, and of course her numerous detective novels. With only four published detective novels to her name she felt to be such an authority on the genre that she was the first to write a manual on writing detective fiction called 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.

Spooky Hollow
(1923) Fleming Stone, the Wells detective who appears most often in her abundant output, is the sleuth here. Like many of Wells books he shows up only in the final third of the story. I can't say what he is like in her other work but here he is dull, dull, dull. In this book he has a teenage boy sidekick named Terence "Fibsy" McGuire who actually does most of the detecting even if ALL of it is done offstage. Stone does little but ask a few pointed questions and dismisses nearly everything that the reader would think is important. The most mysterious parts of this book are actually proven to be superfluous in the end. What a cheat! There is the usual Wellsian haunted mansion with a legend attached to it. A murder was committed in the past and the sound of a harp emanates from a mausoleum situated near a bog on the rear of the estate. If anyone hears the harp playing it is supposed to be an omen of violent death to come. The harps plays, of course, and Anne Vincent, sister of Homer Vincent a reclusive eccentric inventor, is found stabbed in her locked bedroom. A visiting stranger also mysteriously disappears that very night and the bulk of the book is spent trying to discover where he went and who he is. But we already know who he is because Wells told us in the very first chapter. Ugh. Stone's supposed detection is nothing more than manipulative grilling of the suspects and melodramatic pronouncements punctuated with an ample supply of exclamation marks. The locked room solution relies on a "hackneyed device" I'm sorry to say, and is the lazy's writer's way out. Anytime I encounter it I groan in disgust. It comes up way too often in the Golden Age and rarely does anyone put enough of a spin on this method to really make it seem clever. The explanation of the ghost-like harp, of course, is not supernatural but it made no sense to me whatsoever. Still, it finally gave a reason for Homer Vincent calling himself an inventor. The fact that it took years to be discovered is absurd when you pause to think about it.

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 Room with the Tassels (1918) marks the first appearance of Wells' series occult detective Pennington "Penny" Wise and his female sidekick Zizi. According to Wells' bibliography this is her twelfth book and if it is any sign of her early work then this is where I suggest people start if they are compelled to sample Carolyn Wells' mystery writing. This book had a lively and witty beginning and had more genuine humor in it than the other two I read. Wise and Zizi are all the more interesting because they are not really detectives - they are con artists. Zizi, when not teamed up with Wise on their "sleuthing" adventures is a silent movie star and she uses her talents as an actress and stuntwoman to her advantage as a sleuth. Wise tends to be drawn to cases that involve apparent supernatural events and he fancies himself a ghost buster. Zizi plays the part of his mysterious assistant and pretends to be psychic. She dresses all in black, floats in and out of rooms as quietly as the specters they are exposing, and frightens the heck out of the suspects with her freakish behavior and insinuating accusations. They're a great duo and it is largely due to their presence that I liked this book the best.

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.


  1. This might come across as a crazy, somewhat inane thought, but is it possible that The Technique of the Mystery Story was ghostwritten by a professional writer in the employ of the publisher and they paid Wells to slap her name on the cover in order to lend the book a sense of authority?

    Wells was still an up-and-coming mystery writer who had published four books, but wasn't established enough to turn down such an offer. It would explain the lack of consistency in the stated opinions in the book and what can be found in her work as well as the reason for the long print-run the book enjoyed.

    There's a reason why everyone always refers to me as Mycroft... well... actually nobody ever calls me Mycroft, but you get my drift.

  2. Hmmm... interesting theory. But I think doubtful. Her prose style in Technique... is very similiar to her fiction. She was probably one of those people who makes up her own rules as she goes along. I meet lots of them where I work. Own own ex-governor is a great example of such a person taken to the extreme.

  3. One thing I know about Carolyn Wells, she was greatly attracted to the nonsense humor of such people as Edward Lear, She also was fixated on the idea that her readers loved lovely, simpering, idiot coquettes. Maybe they did!

    Carr liked her a lot when he read her as an adolescent and she also wrote some still-beloved girl's books, so I wonder whether perhaps her mysteries appealed most strongly to the juvenile (and tired adult) reader?

    I agree with John, I'm sure she wrote her genre study herself (by the way, it relies very heavily on quotations) and it's an interesting study, but her serious contribution to the genre as a fiction writer is pretty piffling, I would say. What I found most interesting about her is that she reveals that some American mystery novels could be as snobbish and wealth worshiping as the English ones are purported to be.

    I reviewed a bunch of her books over at mysteryfile. I think Steve declined my last one (The Master Murderer)--only time this has ever ahppened--because he felt she wasn't worth all the attention. But she's fun to review because she's so trippy, I think (and of course she's one of Bill Pronzini's famous alternative classics).

    Incredibly, though, I did actually find one I liked, that was fairly serious and relatively fair play. It's the only one so far. The Furthest Fury. I would actually recommend it. Maybe that means she wrote some other decent ones, but I'm not sure I want to take the time and effort to look anymore.

  4. I like most of the Pennington Wise books because of Wise and Zizi. They are genuinely funny, often witty, and in The Room with The Tassels their dialogue shows Well's love of nonsense rhymes and puns. And they truly are fraudulent detectives which is why I call them con artists. In their scenes together they reveal that they love messing around with the people who hired them. Zizi is a kick and a half. Trouble is you have to wade through all those confab scenes before the two of them ever show up in one of their books.

    I recently bought a copy of IN THE TIGER'S CAGE because it was cheap, in excellent condition, and the plot blurb was too weird to resist. If it turns out to be one of her better books (as the seller told me) I may review it legitimately instead of writing a spoiler ridden one as I did here. I'll have to read your Wells overview at Steve's blog.

  5. Well, I love the Nancy Drew stories and The Dana Girls stories.

    But even in the rest of her output is lacking, at least the covers of the books were gorgeous.

    I have FOUR IN ONE Mystery book that a friend gave me a while back.
    The four stories are:

    THE DEATH BELL by Edison Marshall
    FLAT 2 by Edgar Wallace
    THE REMITTANCE WOMAN by Achmed Abdullah
    THE MOSS MYSTERY by Carolyn Wells.

    Read them long ago and damn if I can remember much. Maybe I'll take another look at the Wells one.

  6. Yvette-

    You're thinking of Carolyn Keene. Wells wrote a series of books about a character named Patty and another series about Marjorie. I know nothing about them.

    If you want an example of how loopy Wells can get, go read Curt's review of The Umbrella Murder. I wish I had found and read that one. Sounds unintentionally hilarious.

  7. Oops, sorry, John. Just take the top couple of sentences away and burn them. :)

    At any rate, the book I mentioned does have a story by Carolyn Wells. THE MOSS MYSTERY.

  8. Thanks for linking the review, John. that's one of the few times I revealed the solution (it's marked with a spoiler warning), because you have to read it to believe it, it's so loopy.

    If nothing else, her books are fun to review, if one has a sense of humor!

  9. True, Wells is a delightfully loopy author. I loved the scene in The Diamond Pin where the heroine, abjured to stay under close guard for peril of her life, is lured away in a moment by her missing dog. She is then (who would have suspected it?) kidnapped!

    That said, the wordplay clues in The Diamond Pin are ingenious. The lady is readable enough, if one suppresses one's giggles...

  10. Great review -- I laughed throughout. And I think I'll take a pass on reading Ms. Wells.

    Off-topic -- I followed your link to Mystery Tales of All Nations (which I might read if I get the chance), and it illustrates one of the problems with scanning books: It has a chaper dedicated to 'Puny the Younger'.

  11. That Wells failed to follow her own advice is actually not that surprising: mystery theoricians from S.S. Van Dine to Raymond Chandler to Julian Symons always adopt the same motto, "Do as I say, not as I do". She seems to have taken it to the extreme, though.

  12. Bob-

    Glad you saw the humor in this post. I had to be a spoiler villain in this one. You can't truly appreciate the wackiness of her books without knowing at least a few bits of the finale of any given book. "Puny the younger" is one of the funnier optical scanning errors I've heard of.

    Xavier -

    I guess you're right about other writers who choose not to follow the rules. Anthony Berkely rarely folowed the tenets of The Detection Club that he helped establish.

  13. I tried reading THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS (I think that's the title) by Anthony Berkeley and boy was I a victim of disappointment.

    Simply unreadable as far as I'm concerned.

  14. They sound so interesting. Project Gutenberg has 32 of her books but not one of the mysteries :(

  15. You're wrong, Peggy. I just went to Project Gutenberg and I found these mystery novels by Wells: In the Onyx Lobby, The Come Back, The Diamond Pin, The Gold Bag, Raspberry Jam and Vicky Van. The first two are Pennington Wise detective novels and the others are Fleming Stone mysteries. Not surprisingly all of those books are also available in great numbers as dreadful POD (print on demand) editions for ridiculous amounts of money.

    For anyone who still enjoys real books a huge variety of her mystery novels is ALWAYS available from on-line sellers and most of them are very affordable AND in excellent condition. Why don't people buy used books anymore? Please buy from reputable used bookstores and keep them in business! This country needs all the help it can get and I think small businesses deserve your patronage now more than ever. I don't want to keep writing posts about the demise of bookstores like Bookman's Alley. This is primarily why I do not promote free on-line books.