Friday, January 27, 2012

ANOTHER UNUSUAL WESTERN: Mark Twain's "DOUBLE BARRELLED DETECTIVE STORY"

In 1902 Sam Clemens was 67 years old and he and his alter ego Mark Twain were already safely lionized as "the Lincoln of our literature" [according to the oft-quoted assessment by William Dean Howells.]   His greatest literary achievements were all behind him to be sure, and he was by all accounts dogged by increasing depression and skepticism,  but he was still churning out cleverly crafted tales and essays which, amazingly enough, are mostly still worth reading today.

That same year he decided to return to the "mining camp" settings of his earliest  successes, and lampoon the current craze for mystery fiction all at once in one tersely entertaining novella called "The Double Barrelled Detective Story."

Now... I like old westerns of all kinds, and I was raised on Mark Twain [my father was an enormous fan-- his favorite book beside THE BIBLE was THE INNOCENTS ABROAD] so it was natural that, when scrolling through the free offerings on my new Kindle device I would jump at the chance to read this story.

"We ought never to do wrong when people are looking."

These are the very first words spoken in this detailed and complicated little story. Twain quickly introduces us to one Archy Stillman, the bastard son of a wronged woman who is blessed with superhuman olfactory senses -- basically a human bloodhound.

When he's sixteen, Archie's mother convinces him to find the trail of his biological father and then enact a scheme to elaborately wreak havoc on his life and reputation, all to fulfill her own pathological blood-lust for revenge.

Five years later, after Archy's quest has literally taken him around the world, he ends up in a mining camp in Denver, Colorado where the nephew of Sherlock Holmes [Yes, the Great Detective actually makes a cameo in this forgotten Twain classic] has murdered a man by blowing up his cabin. Holmes uses all of his bizarrely detailed scientific methods to reach a brilliant-- and totally preposterous-- conclusion, only to be completely disproven by humble Archy's common sense and amazing sense of smell.

If old Twain is known for any one thing above all else, it is probably his epic, legendary, and thoroughly American Irreverence, which is, all said, in fine form here.  In fact, if you are a huge fan of the Doyle tales of Holmes and Watson,  the fun the author has here just might make you cringe.  I guess it figures that a world-class hater of pomp and snobbery like Twain would have no patience for a mastermind like Sherlock, and this may just be the earliest "Holmesian pastiche" to derive its humor entirely from painting the world's favorite consulting sleuth as a glorified and duly worshiped blowhard, idiot and fascist megalomaniac. [The portrayal here reminded me most of the Michael Caine movie version in the 1994 revisionist classic WITHOUT A CLUE.]

As usual with Twain, the plot is convoluted and relies heavily on coincidence, but these are hardly even negatives at this stage-- they are now more like essential  elements we expect as part of the charm of this greatest of American Authors.

All in all I recommend it.  It never fails to entertain... and more than once it even made me chuckle as I read it.  Also it contains some great  prose and really evocative frontier descriptions.

I give it 4 stars out of 5.

PEACE.


2 comments:

Oscar said...

You can't beat a good Mark Twain story. I'll have to check these out when I get time.

Albie The Good said...

OSCAR: I think you would like it, bro.

The story is almost farcical but the descriptions really take you to the old-time, mining west.

Plus, as you say, Twain is always worth reading.

Thanks for commenting :)