The contemporary reader, whenever she is not watching Netflix, assumes that she is a detective. Since Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue, readers, rather than experience literature, investigate it. Previous to Poe’s invention in Detective Fiction, literature pursued a very different mystery: the portrayal of empathy, human intuition, and their combined relationship with our imponderable Human Condition and its connection to the meaning of all. Good things. However, from the Enlightenment’s rampant rise of science and Modernity’s subsequent Industrial Revolution came electric lighting, from electric lighting the ability to combat darkness, from the ability to combat darkness the opportunity to read books late into the night, from the opportunity to read books late into the night to highly increased literacy rates, from highly increased literacy rates to the profuse outpouring of a million new authors, nearly all of whom learning their trade by way of the Detective Story, the most seminal of those being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation in Sherlock Holmes. This is what bakers call bitter-sweet, for more people can read, but, as with all businesses that bloat beyond good means, the quality of the readership, and–as can be readily reviewed today by a cursory dekko at contemporary bookstores–the quality of the authors, and, therefore, the work. Our infatuation with Sherlock Holmes and the narrative form pursuant thereto thusly permeated into all writerly attempts. Identical to the formulaic armature of a Sherlock Holmes story, the familiar Preferred Modern Narrative includes a gripping introduction to warrant the case, suspense by way of narrative secret, sleuthing by way of narrative clues, the ever-ubiquitous Red Herring, and finally the story’s solving. To modestly bolster the assertion that we are indeed, until this very moment, unknowingly rewriting Sherlock Holmes, a brief investigation of Silver Blaze, Doyle’s first story from his collection The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, may be in order.
First impressions are not everything, but they are darn close. Story introductions retain a similar logic. And the contemporary reader, an entity exceedingly impatient with such initial conferences, does not like to pursue a subject without an official writ issued by the normative authorial power. To warrant the case of a story is to create, through the pithy portrayal of narrative circumstances, enough reasonable suspicion for the reader to begin investigation. The contemporary reader, as do the junkies at the main train station, lives hard and fast, and similar dossiers arrive fresh at the grocery store daily; therefore, this warrant should arrive first-thing and full of intrigue. What the contemporary reader finds intriguing is up to the color of her humors, but it is the swiftness with which it is served where the Detective Story, unfortunately, excels. Consider Silver Blaze’s immediate writ of narrative execution in the following:
“The tragedy has been so uncommon, so complete, and of such personal importance to so many people, that we are suffering from a plethora of surmise, conjecture, and hypothesis. The difficulty is to detach the framework of fact—of absolute, undeniable fact—from the embellishments of theorists and reporters. Then, having established ourselves upon this sound basis, it is our duty to see what inferences may be drawn and what are the special points upon which the whole mystery turns. On Tuesday evening…”
There is much promised here: tragedy, personal importance, surmise, conjecture, hypothesis, social critique, Truth—Doyle even posits the meta-suggestion that it is our, the readers’, duty to see what inferences may be drawn, even being so kind as to supply us with the information that it all began on a Tuesday evening. Herein provided are the contemporary craft essentials so sought-after by those so hungry to make it to the supermarket shelves, or, nowadays, any shelf at all: a sense of tension, meaning, reader participation, mystery, and the much envied sense-of-time—all within the first-two-page instant gratification we desire. Someone’s life is on the line. The issue with this model, however, remains: why we should care? The Modern writer says to herself, between said binge-bouts of Netflix, as Classical Literature, she knows, is merely social control (isn’t university easy?): Why write good character when one can write a secret?
We shall all go to our graves having hid something from those we love. Thus, the establishment of a narrative motive by way of secret is indeed a natural and poignant choice. Contemporary fiction would stand dumbfounded, mouth and eyes agape, without this Detective Fiction-based parlor trick. From Humbert Humbert’s arguably illegal psychology portrayed in Lolita to the farcically low-stakes outings propelling any P.G. Wodehouse story, a secret may be of any magnitude. How a secret is written, however, has been relatively similar since the Detective Fiction’s incipience. Something as simple as the expositive confirmation that “it [was] obvious…that there were many people who had the strongest interest in preventing Silver Blaze [a horse] from being there at the fall of the flag, next Tuesday” is enough.
The trail would go blue-cold, however, without an air of general suspicion and distrust—an atmosphere rife for sleuthing—from which the reader could deduce the most pertinent facts. This may be done in any story by way of clever, perfectly paced exposition that, unbeknownst to the reader, sends her on the hunt for narrative clues. It is indeed no mystery at all as to why the Silver Blaze’s second page should, with its familiar set up, leave the contemporary reader’s ears pricked upward and in belief that the game be afoot:
“…At King’s Pyland, where the Colonel’s training-stable is situated. Every precaution was taken to guard the favorite. The trainer, John Straker, is a retired jockey, who rode in Colonel Ross’s colors before he became too heavy for the weighing-chair. He has served the Colonel for five years as a jockey, and for seven as a trainer, and has always shown himself to be a zealous and honest servant. Under him were three lads, for the establishment was a small one, containing only four horses in all. One of these lads sat up each night in the stable, while the others slept in the loft. All three bore excellent characters. John Straker, who is a married man, lived in a small villa about two hundred yards from the stables. He has no children, keeps one maid-servant, and is comfortably off. The country round is very lonely, but about half a mile to the north there is a small cluster of villas which have been built by a Travistock contractor for the use of invalids and others who may wish to enjoy the pure Dartmoor air. Travistock itself lies two miles to the west, while across the moor, also about two miles distant, is the larger training establishment of Capleton, which belongs to Lord Backwater, and is managed by Silas Brown. In every other direction the moor is complete wilderness, inhabited only by a few roaming gypsies. Such was the general situation last Monday night when the catastrophe occurred.”
Just like Mama MFA made, the above expository fiesta contains just enough precise yet enigmatic information as regards all pertinent actors and associations appurtenant to the plot that the reader has therefrom gathered enough evidence to bypass the stage of reasonable suspicion and pursue the dictates afforded to probable cause.
Due narrative process, however, gets in the way of even the most veteran literati. Familiarity with administering arrests by the dictates of lexical law proves to that reader the red herring’s reign as powerful as ever. The red herring takes many forms. The red herring is a now-common literary device that presents a kind of narrative clue to the reader that intends to mislead or distract that same reader away from the true object of pursuit. The red herring now takes on many forms of deception, but the most traditional form comes from Detective Fiction’s redirection of suspicion upon an otherwise innocent party. Silver Blaze employs a classic Sherlockian misdirection contrived by meandering the reader away from the logic of a case and towards that of an otherwise innocent character’s possible motivations for wrongdoing: “‘Yes, and that is a factor which we must certainly not neglect. As Desborough, their horse, was second in the betting, they had an interest in the disappearance of the favourite. Silas Brown, the trainer, is known to have had large bets upon the event, and he was no friend to poor Straker.’”
Again: who cares?
Consider the meta-mouthpiece for the modern narrative, Sherlock Holmes, and his egotistical epilogues at the end of each story, which are equally a treat and a chore to read. In the Silver Blaze’s case, Colonel Ross’s dialogue, during Sherlock’s ending analyses, stands in for the thoughts of the contemporary reader, stating “‘You take my breath away.” Admitting that “‘(He) ha[s] been blind.” Further confessing that “You have made it perfectly clear, Mr. Holmes.” And it is this logic-machine of a man with an athletic form of Aspergers, sociopathic cold-bloodedness, a simultaneous cocaine/heroine addiction, a near-robotic man suffering from perpetual sleep-deprived torment—Doyle’s anthropomorphized cautionary tale of Modernity’s effects on the spirit for the world—to whom we owe our thanks for the modern narrative.