Retyping the Speckled Band, Part 5: Suspense is a Good Thing

Originally posted April 3, 2010. Yes, that’s quite the time skip.

Previously we looked at how Doyle dealt with description as we began to descend into the Muddled Middle that plagues so many works, including published ones.

Today we’ll deal with the aspect of suspense.

Man, it’s been over a year since I wrote the previous part of this series. Let’s hope I’ve actually scraped together enough experience to deal with this bit….

Suspense: Try to Have Some

I don’t want to blast people for this fault, especially when I’ve had (and who knows, may continue to have for years) this problem in my fiction. But suspense almost always makes the difference between a bad story and a good one. It doesn’t have to be garish—but there has to be something.

As Wilson comments in the Agony Booth’s recap of Star Trek V:

One of the immutable laws of drama is that you don’t make a story more exciting or suspenseful by lowering the stakes. (And not even the screenwriters of Star Trek: Insurrection could grasp that basic truth.) Despite Star Trek V‘s supposedly weighty subject matter, half of the scenes are played for laughs. So at no point do we feel that anything important is at stake, or that anyone’s life is in danger, and by the end of the film, the audience has been lulled into a bored, apathetic coma.

Truer words, etc. Actually, almost the entirety of that recap is a lesson on how to make your readers/viewers not care.

So does Doyle pass the test in “The Speckled Band”? Let’s find out.

Questions, Questions, Questions

The last time, Sherlock Holmes and Watson were about to conduct an investigation of Dr. Roylott’s rooms after the merely odd features of his stepdaughter’s. The scene that now follows begins to put these oddities into a more disturbing context, but we don’t yet know exactly what the danger is. We do know there is one, however.

Dr. Grimesby Roylott’s chamber was larger than that of his stepdaughter, but was as plainly furnished. A camp-bed, a small wooden shelf full of books, mostly of a technical character, an armchair beside the bed, a plain wooden chair against the wall, a round table, and a large iron safe were the principal things which met the eye. Holmes walked slowly round and examined each and all of them with the keenest interest.

“What’s in here?” he asked, tapping the safe.

“My stepfather’s business papers.”

“Oh! you have seen the inside, then?”

“Only once, some years ago. I remember that it was full of papers.”

“There isn’t a cat in it, for example?”

“No. What a strange idea!”

Oh, that Sherlock Holmes. Because non-sequiturs are awesome. At least, it’s a non-sequitur to Watson, the narrator, and thus conveyed as such to the reader without, for instance, attempting to assure the reader that Holmes is not crazy.

Indeed, the entire purpose of this is to raise the reader’s interest by suggesting questions—in Holmes’ most desultory, “Oh, you haven’t guessed at it yet?” demeanor.

“Well, look at this!” He took up a small saucer of milk which stood on top of it.

At this point, I feel I have to say this: “Really, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Really?” Dr. Roylott is kind of stupid or lazy, it would seem; but then again, perhaps he simply didn’t think anybody would dare come visit—he’s made sure to cultivate a fear of the place, and of course all the servants are long since gone as well.

On the other hand, despite being so clunkily obvious, it works. Because while the first thought to most everybody is indeed a cat, most people don’t immediately think [SPOILER]. You know it’s a clue—it’s just not obvious what it means, yet. All part and parcel of fueling suspense.

“No; we don’t keep a cat. But there is a cheetah and a baboon.”

“Ah, yes, of course! Well, a cheetah is jut a bit cat, and yet a saucer of milk does not go very far in satisfying its wants, I daresay. There is one point which I should wish to determine.” He squatted down in front of the wooden chair and examined the seat of it with the greatest attention.

“Thank you. That is quite settled,” said he, rising and putting his lens in his pocket. “Hello! Here is something interesting!”

I have to say: “Really, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? A cheetah and a baboon are plausible here at all? Someone would actually suggest this?” Although I would have to qualify that; Holmes does debunk this, but we have nothing to replace it with but a question. It’s not a big question, but bringing exotic animals along is either a giveaway to the attentive reader or ensuring unease in the reader.

By the by, I’ll note that some inexperienced writers wouldn’t actually put Holmes’ reaction to something strange here, simply segueing into something similar to the next paragraph, thus breaking the first-person narrative structure with the narrator mind-reading another character. Not a good idea.

The object which had caught his eye was a small dog lash hung on one corner of the bed. The lash, however, was curled upon itself and tied so as to make a loop of whipcord.

“What do you make of that, Watson?”

“It’s a common enough las. But I don’t know why it should be tied.”

“That is not quite so common, is it? Ah, me! it’s a wicked world, and when a clever man turns his brains to crime it is the worst of all. I think that I have seen enough now, Miss Stoner, and with your permission we shall walk out upon the lawn.”

I had never seen my friend’s face so grim or his brow so dark as it was when we turned from the scene of this investigation. We had walked several times up and down the lawn, neither Miss Stoner nor myself liking to break in upon his thoughts before he roused himself from his reverie.

We have questions. Holmes has answers, sort of, or at least apparently so to us. And they don’t look to be nice answers. Indication of this darkness is necessary in order to keep a smooth build-up of suspense.

“It is very essential, Miss Stoner,” said he, “that you should absolutely follow my advice in every respect.”

“I shall most certainly do so.”

“The matter is too serious for any hesitation. Your life may depend upon your compliance.”

The stakes are suddenly raised here. Very obviously, but after a build-up of anonymous dread, which is essential for making it seem less out of the blue and melodramatic.

One of the advantages of the detective/narrator structure for a mystery story is that the detective is often himself a mystery, in terms of what his thinking is: a riddle within the bigger mystery, offering implicit clues. The more arrogant the detective, the more implicit the clues and tantalizing his hidden thought process. This is why Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe worked so well together, and is why House works so well with the rest of the hospital as his foil.

A first-person smart detective story is actually difficult to pull off without annoying the reader all to hell; if we’re in his brain, why won’t he tell us crap? Unreliable narrators are all and well, but there has to be a damn good reason, or else you’ve pretty much betrayed the reader. There are other ways around having a POV that’s centered on the detective; for instance, Lord Peter Wimsey stories are third-person smart detective, and the narrator, while not a character in the story, plays a large role in selectively revealing intention and hiding the rest.

“I assure you that I am in your hands.”

“In the first place, both my friend and I must spend the night in your room.”

Well, it’s not going to be an enjoyable night, not even if you’re into Holmes/Watson. Also, didn’t the story start with Holmes walking into Watson’s room while Watson was asleep in his jammies without knocking? What are we supposed to think, Doyle?

Yes, I’m joking here, I know this is to watch out for [SPOILER], not to make out. But I can’t help myself. Blame the New Movie if you must.

Both Miss Stoner and I gazed at him in astonishment.

“Yes, it must be so. Let me explain. ((But not really.)) I believe that is the village inn over there?”

“Yes, that is the Crown.”

“Very good. Your windows would be visible from there?”

“Certainly.”

“You must confine yourself to your room, on pretence of a headache, when your stepfather comes back. Then when you hear him retire for the night, you must open the shutters of your window, undo the hasp, put your lamp there as a signal to us, and then withdraw quietly with everything which you are likely to want into the room which you used to occupy. I have no doubt that, in spite of the repairs, you could manage there for one night.”

“Oh, yes, easily.”

“The rest you will leave in our hands.”

“But what will you do?”

“We shall spend the night in your room, and we shall investigate the cause of this noise which had disturbed you.”

“I believe, Mr. Holmes, that you have already made up your mind,” said Miss Stoner, laying her hand upon my companion’s sleeve.

“Perhaps I have.”

“Then, for pity’s sake, tell me what was the cause of my sister’s death.”

“I should prefer to have clearer proofs before I speak.”

“You can at least tell me whether my own thought is correct, and if she died from some sudden fright.”

“No, I do not think so. I think that there was probably some more tangible cause. And now, Miss Stoner, we must leave you, for if Dr. Roylott returned and saw us our journey would be in vain. Good-bye, and be brave, for if you will do what I have told you you may rest assured that we shall soon drive away the dangers that threaten you.”

COMMA COMMA COM— *squashes down internal copyeditor*

Man, there were a lot of pictures illustrating this story. We don’t really get that anymore, more’s the pity.

Sherlock Holmes and I had no difficulty in engaging a bedroom and sitting-room at the Crown Inn. They were on the upper floor, and from our window we could command a view of the avenue gate, and of the inhabited wing of Stoke Moran Manor House. At dusk we saw Dr. Grimesby Roylott drive past, his huge form looming up beside the little figure of the lad who drove him. The boy had some slight difficulty in undoing the heavy iron gates, and we heard the hoarse roar of the doctor’s voice and saw the fury with which he shook his clinched fists at him. The trap drove on, and a few minutes later we saw a sudden light spring up among the trees as the lamp was lit in one of the sitting-rooms.

This could have been a boring segue into the real action-adventure meat of this story, such as it is, but Doyle chose to liven it up by reminding us who the villain is. Heavily telegraphed, but we remember the threat of Dr. Roylott, and it’s colorful. Consider this part of raising the stakes: not only does Holmes say earlier that Miss Roylott’s life is in danger, we see the physical evidence of at least the secondary (and very obvious) threat of her stepfather.

“Do you know, Watson,” said Holmes as we sat together in the gathering darkness, “I have really some scruples as to taking you to-night. There is a distinct element of danger.”

Sorry. This is actually decent, if very telegraphed, suspense-building. There actually is suspense. Partly because Holmes is such a tease at times, but that’s mainly because he dislikes disgracing himself with an invalid hypothesis.

Also because he’s a tease.

Another note: the heightening of stakes is not merely told to us, but also fully supported, as the following brainstorm conversation between Holmes and Watson shows. If we didn’t have the following passage, then Holmes really would have been melodramatic, rather than dramatic.

“Can I be of assistance?”

“Your presence might be invaluable.”

“Then I shall certainly come.”

“It is very kind of you.”

“You speak of danger. You have evidently seen more in these rooms than was visible to me.”

“No, but I fancy that I may have deduced a little more. I imagine that you saw all that I did.”

“I saw nothing remarkable save the bell-rope, and what purpose that could answer I confess is more than I can imagine.”

“You saw the ventilator, too?”

“Yes, but I do not think that it is such a very unusual thing to have a small opening between two rooms. It was so small that a rat could hardly pass through.”

“I knew that we should find a ventilator before ever we came to Stoke Moran.”

“My dear Holmes!”

“Oh, yes, I did. You remember in her statement she said that her sister could smell Dr. Roylott’s cigar. Now, of course that suggested at once that there must be a communication between the two rooms. It could only be a small one, or it would have been remarked upon at the coroner’s inquiry. I deduced a ventilator.”

“But what harm can there be in that?”

“Well, there is at least a curious coincidence of dates. A ventilator is made, a cord is hung, and a lady who sleeps in the bed dies. Does not that strike you?”

“I cannot as yet see any connection.”

“Did you observe anything very peculiar about that bed?”

“No.”

“It was clamped to the floor. Did you ever see a bed fastened like that before?”

“I cannot say that I have.”

“The lady could not move her bed. It must always be in the same relative position to the ventilator and to the rope—or so we may call it, since it was clearly never meant for a bell-pull.”

“Holmes,” I cried, “I seem to see dimly what you are hinting at. We are only just in time to prevent some subtle and horrible crime.”

“Subtle enough and horrible enough. When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge. Palmer and Pritchard were among the heads of their profession. This man strikes even deeper, but I think, Watson, that we shall be able to strike deeper still. But we shall have horrors enough before the night is over; for goodness’ sake let us have a quiet pipe and turn our minds for a few hours to something more cheerful.”

Watson caps off the current suspense, and Holmes finishes it off. There is the beginning of a quiet period mentioned, but it’s never shown—because that would have been boring, not suspense-raising.

Next Time…

… we’ll talk about action. Real, honest to gods, we have earned this, action.

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