Monday, January 7, 2019

Who Killed Cock Robin? by Henry Kuttner

Who Killed Cock Robin?

by Henry Kuttner

You, too, can become a murderer. In this article, I'll attempt to show how it may be done--in plain English, how to write whodunits.

My qualifications? Ever since I began to sell my stuff, I've sworn up and down that I couldn't write a murder mystery.

I sell regularly to other markets--adventure, fantasy, terror, science fiction. From time to time I tackled detective yarns. Comments ranged from "Not for us--sorry" to "It smells."

"It smells." Much as I hate to admit it, the editors were right.

"You're trying too hard to write a detective story," Leo Margulies finally told me. "Make a story first, not a chess problem. Make the problem a strongly personal one."

"I can't!" I wailed. "Every time I try--"

"That's it. You're trying too hard. You're too self-conscious. You keep saying, 'This is going to be a detective story, first, last, and always.' The result is mechanical. It just isn't interesting."

"But..." I said.

"Just do as I say. Write a story. Then let me see it."

"Well," I said sadly, "all right. But it won't be any good."

So I went home and read a batch of detective magazines. I analyzed the stories in them carefully. Some were good. Some weren't. The latter suffered from the same faults as my own previous ones.

They were too closely slanted to the formula. Technically, they were perfect in several cases. Like the girders of a building. But that's all they were--girders. Technique alone wasn't enough--I could see that. A corpse can be deadly dull. To paraphrase the old gag, no matter how you still slice it, it's still a corpse.

I listed three vital points, which I'll give here: (1) Necessity of immediately interesting the reader, (2) keeping that interest sustained, and (3) having a strong, satisfactory climax.

Under the first item I noted the following: (a) Through sympathetic characters, (b) Through problem vitally important to (a), (c) Through novel setup.

Let's glance at "Double Frame-up," by Richard L. Hobart in Thrilling Detective. Here's how it starts:
Johnny Mann, not very tall, thin, and with a fatigued droop to his shoulders, slipped like a ghost out of the misty rain into the haven offered by the narrow space between the two buildings. He was cold yt his overcoat and suit coat were unbuttoned and he wore no vest. And his right hand hung free, though the left was deeply buried in the pocket of his overcoat.
It was close to nine-thirty at night. The rain, swirling in from the river, had driven pedestrians off the streets, and only an occasional tax or private car disturbed the silence. Johnny Mann was hungry. There was a gnawing pain in his stomach and a sort of weakness in his knees that told him he was very tired--pretty well worn out.
He leaned his slim body against the wet and dripping bricks and sighed. But the damp coldness seeped through his thin coat and made a shiver run up and down his backbone. He straightened up, coughing softly.
That opening made Johnny Mann sympathetic to me. And it made me curious, too. Why would he keep his hand in his overcoat pocket? Well, you know the answer as well as I do.

I read on. Johnny's problem made him even more sympathetic. He was a detective, in a city flooded with dope, and "it was generally believed Rex Alaya was masterminding the smuggling...Johnny told his chief that if he could be discredited as a detective and kicked from the force it might put ideas into Rex Alaya's head." So he'd staged a sham fight with old Sam Bell, another detective, and the plan had gone through.

Everybody but those in on the plot thought Johnny a complete heel. So there it was. A game kid taking it on the chin in order to get a line on a gang of dope smugglers.

But there are other problems, too. The detective may himself be accused of murder. He may be put on the spot by a killer. He may fall in love with his feminine prisoner, as in W. T. Ballard's "Thirty Miles to Albuquerque," in Black Mask--a honey of a yarn, by the way. Or a particular pal of his may be killed, or faced with suspicion of murder. There are plenty of problems from which to choose, as long as they fit neatly into a murder mystery or a crime story.


As for a novel set-up, you can get that in a variety of ways--through unusual characters, striking atmosphere, a unique murder method, tricks of dialogue, tags, minor conflicts, and problems, subplots, "business," and so on. In "Double Frame-up," Johnny Mann, "son of a western sheriff and just newly come from Arizona, could do things with his old-fashioned 'hog-leg' that was the talk of police circles." He puts on a display of fancy shooting to impress a racketeer.
Too fast for the eye to follow, Johnny made his draw. Just as he was coming into aiming position with his right arm he jerked it, simulating a bullet smacking into his shoulder or arm. The heavy 36-ounce Colt described a perfect parabola up and to the left slowly twisting in midair.
Johnny's left hand jabbed upward for the gun. It was a blind grab, for his keen blue eyes never left the target. His splayed fingers seemed to writhe like snakes. The gun came down. Johnny's finger worked the hammer in a blur of action. There were six shots that blended into one continuous roll of the rapid fire. 
I've got five "Pocket Books" on my desk that I recommend to anyone who wants to write mystery yarns--Philip MacDonald's Mystery of the Dead Police, Mrs. Belloc Lowndes' The Lodger, Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Dorothy Sayers' Murder Must Advertise, and John Buchan's The 39 Steps.

Don't mistake the novel for the fantastic. Detective yarns should be thoroughly logical. Van Dine's The Bishop Murder Case was fascinatingly bizarre, but it was diabolically logical. Remember how each murder in that book fulfilled some Mother Goose nursery rhyme, which was twisted to contain a homicidal meaning?

The characters shouldn't be puppets revolving around the detective. They should be complete and vivid in their own right. And--important!--they shouldn't be all flung at the reader at once. I've found it helpful to introduce each character in some significant, interesting little scene of his own. You can't just say, "Here are Mr. A, Mr. B, Mr. C, and Mr. D. One of them killed Mr. E." Even if you do say it, the reader won't care worth a damn. But let the characters emerge as intriguing personalities, and it's another matter entirely.

The basic problems in the detective story remain, as always, "Who, how, and why?" The "how" shouldn't be ridiculously far-fetched. It's a grand idea to stab someone with an icicle, or swing him by the heels till he gets apoplexy, but Rube Goldberg contrivances are definitely de trop. The reader, with perfect logic, will ask, "Why didn't the killer use a gun or a knife?" Unless you can answer that convincingly, you've failed to write a sound story.

Quite often the simplest methods are the best. A yarn called I believe, "The English Filter," posed the problem of how poison could be introduced into a water cooler within a locked office. It was thrown in, through an open window--a solution so obvious the reader usually overlooked it. Remember "The Purloined Letter"? That method is still effective.

"Who"--well, the killer should be neither too obvious nor too unobtrusive. Here's a trick that may be helpful: Be sure to give your characters, and especially the murderer, a convincing raison d'etre. Let's check this point by Robert Reeves' Black Mask yarn, "The Flying Hearse," laid aboard a passenger plane in midair.

There are four characters immediately involved: the detective, the hostess, a racketeer, and a businessman. None is on the plane by accident. The tycoon is flying west to open a branch office in Los Angeles. The racketeer is searching for greener and more lucrative pastures. Fair enough. But suppose one of those characters had no motive for being on the plane at the critical moment? Suspicion would instantly fall on him--and, if he turned out to be the killer, the reader would be disappointed.

So the minor characters are important, too. More than one facet of their lives should be shown, or, at least, known to the author. That's the way to make them convincing and interesting In Reeves' story, for example, a subplot deals with the conflict between the racketeer and his wife, who hates him. Nor is this padding, for the woman hires the protagonist to prove that her husband is the murderer.

Even minor characters can and should be made something more than names. See how Reeves does it:
Cellini [Smith] made for a mild little man who was trying very hard not to look at him.
"What's your name?" asked Cellini abruptly.
The man gave a start. "Burke. What's it to you?" 
"Okay, Burke.. You're supposed to tail me, and--"
"What are you talking about?"
A porter brought Cellini his Gladstone. He glanced at the Cadillac. Luggage was being piled on the trunk rack. He spoke urgently. "Drop it, Burke. I'm an old billiard drinker and I can spot a rail in a football stadium."
Burke seemed ready to weep. "Just because I'm little," he complained bitterly. "Why don't you leave me alone? You big guys always step over me."
A less capable writer would have made Burke, who is fairly unimportant to the main story, either a stock character or merely a name. Here's another quotation, from the same yarn, showing how Reeves handles a fight scene in a "different" way:
As Cellini walked into the hot haze he abruptly dropped to one knee as a ham-like fist whizzed harmlessly over his head. His arms shot out, tangled between a pair of ankles, and Lou came crashing down on the marble floor. 
"God, what a fool that Lou is," said Tubby Moore calmly. He carefully closed the door behind them as Lou stood up groggily and began weaving towards Cellini.
Cellini accepted a pawing, harmless blow on the shoulder. With cool, precision-like exactitude he drew a bead on Lou's wide mouth, then his knees bent slightly, his right shoulder swung back and his fist shot forward. The gorilla went down like an eyelid.
"A hit," cried Tubby, "a palpable hit."
A thin, cadaverous man who sat sweating in a corner said: "I ain't taking sides. I got nothing to do with this. Leave me out."
Aside from the fact that this scene is set in a Turkish bath, the way this passage is handled keeps it from being just another knock-'em-down fight sequence. Humor, by the way, has its place in the detective story. But as a rule it should only be used for comic relief. When Cellini, the sleuth, faces deadly peril, the author stops cracking wise. Instead, he underwrites tersely and dramatically, and such scenes are more effective by contrast with the genuine humor of previous scenes.

Not all crime stories deal with murder. A yarn about the numbers racket, or a variation of the old badger game, can be a straight-line humorous story. Eric Howard has often written such, and so have others.

But put this in the little black book and underline it in red: Murder isn't funny!

It's often a good idea to use humor, either of the wisecracking or macabre type, but only as comic relief, when your basic dramatic problem is a serious one. For example, here's a Hollywood detective yarn, "Blackmail, Theft & Murder, Inc.," by A. Boy Correll, in Black Mask:
The dame Sime Schwartz brought into my office was a lulu. Her swank was real and not just on the surface. There was nothing hand-me-down about the mink that hugged her streamlined curves like a mountain stream hugs its banks, but she didn't give the impression of having dressed just to make underpaid stenos start whistling at top hats. She had class. 
When she came in I popped up from the desk and caught myself just as I was about to bow like a flunky. My profession threw me with so many skirts who wore their complexions an inch thick and lost their broad a's after the third Old Fashioned, that I had forgotten how to act around the real article. I piloted her to my favorite chair and pushed it forward as if she were an invalid, which was silly as hell. She looked about twenty-one and healthy as a Dionne quintuplet.
Correll's story is written in this same breezy, amusing manner, but when he reaches the climax, he changes his style somewhat:
Vicker snarled and backed away. Slipping his hand in his coat pocket, he snatched out a closed knife that, with a click, exposed a six-inch gleaming steel blade. He charged me, and I tackled low. We struck the floor in a mad tangle. I only had time to roll aside and take the thrust in my arm. I felt a sickening throb of pain and my arm went numb. Vicker planted his knees in my chest. With my good hand I grabbed his wrist and held back the knife but the pain in my arm and loss of blood were telling on me.
Once, when I was discussing a proposed yarn with Mort Weisinger of Standard Magazines, he told me "Give it a light treatment. Make it funny--it's supposed to be--but when you get your hero in a dramatic spot, don't wisecrack. Play up the drama instead."

An excellent point to remember!

The old-fashioned yarn of pure deduction is seldom used today. On the other hand, don't make the mistake of thinking that a detective yarn should be merely a ten-round bout. Interest, not action, should be the keynote. You can create interest in a number of ways--through characterization, through dramatic interplay, through suspense, through novelty. Interviewing a dangerous racketeer in a Turkish bath, as in Reeves' yarn, can hold interest as well--or, more likely, far better--than a slugfest or shooting scrape. Perhaps this point, too, should be underlined in red. Create minor characters who are interesting in their own right.

A page or so back, I mentioned tricks of holding the reader's attention. One way to do that is through sustained suspense regarding the protagonist's personal problem. If your dick has been kicked off the force through no fault of his own, don't mention it briefly once and then ignore it. Remind the reader,--unobtrusively. One of his enemies may taunt him about being a renegade cop. Or he may see a uniformed officer and involuntarily touch the place where his own shield used to be.

Keep things moving. Don't depend on a single stunt. Introduce a murder, or its equivalent, speedily. And cover the lag after the murder by other business. This is important. Don't let the detective simply line up the characters and ask them questions. The place for that is on Information, Please. In the Reeves story, for example, Cellini, who is a private operator, must follow each of the suspects and question them, including getting involved in seduction, assault, and minor skullduggery. Employ the personal problems of your characters to create interest.

I've developed my own system for doing this. I simply list my characters, paste the sheet on the wall facing my desk, and from time to time refer to it. "Jimber Jake," I'll say. "Let's see, his tag is stupid brutality. Well, I'll bring him in later. But what about Oscar the Gimp? He's a crooked lawyer, and Susan Smeech is his mistress. What would he do, now that Sherlock's stumbled on the clue of the tattooed liver? He'd get Sherlock into a trap, maybe."

So it goes. I don't look at the story merely from the protagonist's viewpoint. Instead, I consider the yarn as a chess game, in which the moves of each of the men are important. And--they move. They don't stand still, waiting for the detective to encounter them.

Now what about planting? After all, this is a whodunit. Planting should be done fairly and unobtrusively. And here's where misplaced emphasis comes in.

Let's take a leaf from Joe Miller. What has four wheels and flies? A garbage wagon. As a joke, that's awful. It typifies the red herring, in which the reader is fairly misled into believing that a bit of important evidence is really unimportant. Correll has it in his Black Mask yarn. A girl, upon discovering a corpse, faints. "The vandyked redhead pulled her up to a sitting position and slapped her wrists." The emphasis here is on the fact that the girl has fainted. But in the denouement the detective says, "I knew he was a phony doctor as soon as I saw him trying to revive Virginia by pulling her upright instead of putting her head lower than her feet."

Here's another example, in "The Flying Hearse," Cellini Smith and the hostess discover that one of the passengers is dead, with a vial of white pills in her lap. All the emphasis is on the matter of not causing the other passengers alarm. The hostess pretends the victim is still alive, and, as the plane lands, she pauses to say, "Here, let me help you with your [safety] belt. It fastens like this. There. That's fine."

The emphasis, as you see, is on keeping the murder quiet for a time. Also, the scene builds up the hostess as a clever, courageous kid, who arouses sympathy in the reader's mind. Later, it's discovered that someone has substituted harmless pills for the deadly morphine tablets in the corpse's lap. Who could have had the opportunity for doing that?

Not all readers will be shrewd enough to remember that the hostess herself had the best chance for making the substitution.

Misplaced emphasis means an apparently logical motivation created by the author to divert the reader's attention from the real motive. Handled deftly and fairly, it's one of the most effective tricks of detective fiction.

And now we reach the climax.

It should be dramatic and exciting. The point needs a little amplification. Perhaps the most familiar gag is the scene where the killer gets the drop on the detective, and the latter, talking to gain time, clears up the mystery. It's trite, but it can still be used, with the proper trimmings. Remember that explanations can be long-winded and dreary. I've found it helpful to clear up minor points earlier in the story, before reaching the climax. The main mystery is still kept unsolved, of course, but there is much less left to explain in the denouement.

Make the evidence sufficient to convict. Underline that twice. Remember that actual legal proof is necessary to convict a murderer. Suspicions aren't enough, even though the detective and the reader may feel sure that they're justified. I've seen innumerable yarns that feel down on just this point.

In that regard, be wary of letting the sleuth bluff the criminal, and try to force him into making a betraying move. The trick itself is okay, but don't make your protagonist a jackass who fails to take simple precautions, If his trick succeeds, he should expect the killer to whip out a gun and make a break for freedom. Unless he is prevented in some logical manner from doing so, he should take precautions against just this contingency, either by secretly unloading the murderer's gun,, or by another method.
Finally, give the tale a whip-lash tag. But don't strain for it. Correll has a good pulp gag at the end of his yarn.
I left them and went out to the garage to let my telegraph boy out. He was still reading the old movie magazine. 
He glanced up as I came in. "Look, mister! Here's a swell story by a doctor what says actors and actresses has the highest intelligence of any groups of people. Wanna read it?" 
I reached out to smack him, but thought, what the hell--let him have his Hollywood illusions.
That's that. How to commit a murder, and sell it. But--could I sell it? Remember, I hadn't written my own detective yarn yet.

I sat down and wrote it. I made my hero an ex-newsboy who had been unofficially adopted by a sympathetic racketeer. When the kid grew up, I had him refuse to be the gangster's heir and, instead, turn to the police force, where he became a detective. The rest of the boys regarded him with suspicion because of his apparent underworld connections. I let him be torn between two loyalties--to the force, and to his foster father.

Then what? Well, I decided that the racketeer would retire. At a bon voyage party, the lights go out and a gun goes off. When the switch is clicked back, a couple of promising young mobsmen are found dead on the carpet. And all the evidence points to the racketeer.

After that it was up to the young detective to find the killer--even though he suspected his foster father of the crime.

I tried to follow the formula I worked out, and apparently I succeeded, for Leo Margulies bought the yarn, "Death in the Dark." He even said it was good. Worse than that--he rashly suggested that I try my hand at a 45,000 word lead detective novel for him, and I did it for a $400 payday.

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