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Mark Twain's Medieval Romance

BOOK: Mark Twain's Medieval Romance
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M
ARK
T
WAIN’S

MEDIEVAL ROMANCE

And Other Classic Mystery Stories

E
DITED BY

Otto Penzler

PEGASUS CRIME

NEW YORK

F
OR
H
OWARD
S
TRINGER

T
O
S
IR, WITH
L
OVE

Acknowledgments

“The Whole Town’s Sleeping” copyright © 1950 by Ray Bradbury; renewed. First published by
McCall’s
, September 1950. Reprinted by permission of the author and his agent, Don Congdon Associates, Inc.

“At Midnight, in the Month of June” copyright © 1954 by Ray Bradbury; renewed. First published by
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
, June 1954. Reprinted by permission of the author and his agent, Don Congdon Associates, Inc.

“Nunc Dimittis” copyright © 1953 by Roald Dahl; renewed. First published by
Collier’s
, September 4, 1953. Reprinted by permission of the author’s agent, David Higham Associates.

“Unreasonable Doubt” copyright © 1958 by Stanley Ellin; renewed. First published by
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
, September 1958. Reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown.

“The Moment of Decision” copyright © 1955 by Stanley Ellin; renewed. First published by
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
, March 1955. Reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown.

“The Lady and the Dragon” copyright © 1950 by Peter Godfrey; renewed. First published by
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
, September 1950. Reprinted by permission of R.M. Godfrey.

“The Gioconda Smile” copyright © 1921 by Aldous Huxley; renewed by the Literary Estate of Aldous Huxley. First published by
The English Review
, August 1921. Reprinted by permission of Doris Halsey as agent for the Literary Estate of Aldous Huxley.

“The Blind Spot” copyright © 1945; renewed. First published by
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
, November 1945. Reprinted by permission of A.P. Watt.

CONTENTS

O
TTO
P
ENZLER
·
Introduction

S
TANLEY
E
LLIN
·
Unreasonable Doubt

S. W
EIR
M
ITCHELL
·
A Dilemma

R
OALD
D
AHL
·
Nunc Dimittis

F
RANK
S
TOCKTON
·
The Lady, or the Tiger?

F
RANK
S
TOCKTON
·
The Discourager of Hesitancy

J
ACK
M
OFFITT
·
The Lady and the Tiger

B
ARRY
P
EROWNE
·
The Blind Spot

C
LEVELAND
M
OFFETT
·
The Mysterious Card

C
LEVELAND
M
OFFETT
·
The Mysterious Card Unveiled

G
ERALD
K
ERSH
·
Karmesin and the Meter

O
WEN
J
OHNSON
·
One Hundred in the Dark

R
AY
B
RADBURY
·
The Whole Town’s Sleeping

R
AY
B
RADBURY
·
At Midnight, in the Month of June

O. H
ENRY
·
Thimble, Thimble

A
LDOUS
H
UXLEY
·
The Gioconda Smile

L
AURIE
Y
ORK
E
RSKINE
·
Tea for Two

P
ETER
G
ODFREY
·
The Lady and the Dragon

M
ARK
T
WAIN
·
A Medieval Romance

S
TANLEY
E
LLIN
·
The Moment of Decision

INTRODUCTION

A
COMMONLY ASKED QUESTION
about mystery fiction is: Why do we read this stuff? Any number of theories have been offered, all of which have some degree of validity.

The one that equates detective stories with fairy tales carries serious weight. They are essentially battles between Good and Evil. In the bedtime stories that allow children to sleep peacefully, the forces of Right inevitably triumph over those on the opposite end of the moral spectrum.

The same philosophical premise has been in evidence since the first detective tales were created. A criminal represents the dark side, and a detective, whether official police officer, private detective, or curious amateur, draws his sword in the sunlight to vanquish Evil.

Another argument for the continued popularity of mysteries is that they are one of the only literary forms that continues to correspond to the ideal of storytelling, with an arc that goes from beginning to middle to end, which has proven to be the most satisfying method of fiction writing since the Greeks began writing plays a couple of millennia ago. Much of contemporary fiction, as has been true for the past three-quarters of a century, provides no more than an abstract view of a period of time in a person’s life. It does not often present a crisis situation, followed by conflict, and ending with a satisfying resolution—all standard elements of the detective story.

An additional theory in support of the relentless success of crime fiction is that it appeals to the conservative nature of humanity. When our environment is comfortable, as it is to a large degree even for those who live in squalor, because it is familiar and secure, we do not want some untoward act to change it. That unhappy event may be an earthquake, a flood, a famine, or a murder.

A serious criminal assault rends the fabric of society, and the desire is to restore it, just as we would want to mend a tear in a tapestry or a shirt. It may never be exactly as it was, but the desire is to have it come out nearly the same as it was before the traumatic incident. When a murder causes an enormous wound in an established environment, the surviving members of that damaged community seek restoration. This is brought about by the detective, who pursues the offending member of that society and brings him to justice, reestablishing order and healing the wound as much as it is possible, given the fact that at least two members of the community (the victim and the perpetrator) have been removed forever.

The universally loved literary genre of detective stories illustrates and champions the triumph of Good over Evil, brightens the darkness, celebrates justice, and challenges the intellect. Mystery fiction is not for dullards, nor is it for those ignoble enough not to celebrate the victory of Right in a world too filled with Wrong. The central figure in the classic stories of mystery, the detective, is, as Raymond Chandler pointed out, a modern knight, whose Holy Grail is Truth and Justice. It is the satisfaction of the discovery of that grail that has held readers for more than two centuries.

That will not happen in this volume.

No, here you will find no happy endings, no last irregular piece pressed into place to complete the jigsaw puzzle, no thrilling or surprising denouement.

If you read mysteries only for the final moment, that last chapter when all is explained, when the disparate elements are shuffled into place so that the inevitable solution is displayed for your delight and satisfaction, then you will despise this collection.

Here, you will not find unsatisfying endings. You will find
no
endings.

You will not find eccentric or stolid detectives who stupify with their brilliance or doggedness. All these stories have the same detective, and the challenge will be immense, because these mysteries have been constructed by some of the greatest literary minds ever to sit at a desk, plotting to stump whichever crime-solving figure absorbed their pages. Who is that unfortunate detective, the one almost surely doomed to failure? Why, it’s you, of course!

These are riddle stories, dilemmas, paradoxes, brain-teasers, all guaranteed to flummox the most astute mind.

It would be impossible to point to any particular story in this unique anthology and state unequivocally that it is the most perfect conundrum ever conceived. The most famous is probably Frank Stockton’s “The Lady, or the Tiger?” but is it a better puzzle than Mark Twain’s awful, terrible, joke? O. Henry, famous the world over for his surprise endings, has pulled off the perfect double-cross by providing the perfect non-ending. And never was the genius of Stanley Ellin in greater evidence than in the two stories that begin and end the book.

It is recommended that you read this collection in the order in which it has been compiled, as several stories have sequels that immediately follow them. Sometimes these sequels provide a reasonably satisfying conclusion, a tour de force of storytelling that seemed impossible when the original was fully digested. Stockton, Ray Bradbury, and Cleveland Moffett all wrote sequels to their own stories, with varying levels of relief from the hopelessness of attempting to arrive at a plausible solution to their challenges to the reader. Laurie York Erskine read Aldous Huxley’s masterly “The Gioconda Smile” and arrived at an alternative ending. Jack Moffett set himself the Herculean task of producing a resolution to “The Lady, or the Tiger?” that was superior to the author’s own.

One of the great disappointments one can experience is to be amazed by a magic trick and then have it explained. Learning that the apparent miracle was caused by nothing more than a clever mechanical device reduces the sense of wonder that the illusion inspired, ruining the memory of it forever. The same is often true of detective fiction, notably in locked-room or “impossible” crime stories, in which the denouement leaves one with a Peggy Lee moment: “Is that all there is?”

That will not happen among these pages. There is no opportunity for the reader to be disappointed with the final explanation because, well, there are no final explanations.

Two elements can be guaranteed between these covers. You will read some of the most extraordinary mystery stories ever penned. And you will be frustrated beyond measure.

— O
TTO
P
ENZLER

UNREASONABLE DOUBT

S
TANLEY
E
LLIN

Some may choose Raymond Carver, or Joyce Carol Oates, or John Updike, but my choice for the greatest short story writer of the second half of the twentieth century is Stanley Ellin (1916–1986). The noted British critic Julian Symons stated that his
Mystery Stories
(1956) was “the finest collection of stories in the crime form published in the past half-century.”

Dealing with such significant subjects as the rights of the elderly (in the Edgar-winning “The Blessington Method”), the morality of economic development (in “Unacceptable Procedures”), and capital punishment (in “The Question”), these and other stories transcend the genre, to use a dreadful phrase that is always true of the genuinely first-rate works of any genre. His most famous short work is “The Specialty of the House,” the delicious story of a cozy but terrifying gourmet club which was intelligently filmed by Alfred Hitchcock for his TV series, as were so many of Ellin’s stories.

Ellin won three Edgars, two for stories and for his novel
The Eighth Circle
, as well as being named Grand Master for lifetime achievement by the Mystery Writers of America.

“Unreasonable Doubt” will haunt you as a flawless riddle story, and here is a fair warning. The last story in the anthology also is by Stanley Ellin—and it’s just as frustrating! “Unreasonable Doubt” was first published in the September 1958 issue of
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
.

UNREASONABLE DOUBT

B
Y
S
TANLEY
E
LLIN

Mr. Willoughby was just starting a much-needed vacation. It was imperative that his mind be free of worry, tension—of any problems whatsoever. Relax, the doctor had ordered—and that’s good advice to the reader too

IF YOU CAN!

M
R.
W
ILLOUGHBY FOUND
a seat in the club car and gingerly settled into it. So far, he reflected with overwhelming gratitude, the vacation was a complete success. Not a hint of the headaches he had lived with the past year. Not a suggestion of the iron band drawing tight around the skull, the gimlet boring into it, the hammers tapping away at it.

“Tension,” the doctor had said. “Physically you’re sound as a nut, but you sit over your desk all day worrying over one problem after another until your mind is as tight as a mainspring. Then you take the problems home and worry them to death there. Don’t get much sleep, do you?”

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