‘The Clarion Call’ by O. Henry

O. Henry 1905a

The Clarion Call by O. Henry, 1905

The magic trick:

Waxing poetic about the city and the newspaper business

Here we have a murder mystery without a mystery. The suspense lies in not how the cop (Barney Woods) cracks the case but in the emotional turmoil Woods suffers trying to decide how to balance his duty as a police officer with his duty as an indebted friend. O. Henry really doesn’t plunge too deep into that conflict, though. That’s not really his style. The ending satisfies at gut level our craving for surprise and justice. What lasts is the section of writing just before the end in which we get a lyrical description of the sleeping city awaking to ensure justice. It’s enough to make you tear up thinking about the big city as a tight-knit, just community, and the newspaper business as a proud and noble entity. And that’s quite a trick on O. Henry’s part.

The selection:

And then outside the cafe the comparative stillness of the early morning was punctured by faint, uncertain cries that seemed mere fireflies of sound, some growing louder, some fainter, waxing and waning amid the rumble of milk wagons and infrequent cars. Shrill cries they were when near — well-known cries that conveyed many meanings to the ears of those of the slumbering millions of the great city who waked to hear them. Cries that bore upon their significant, small volume the weight of a world’s woe and laughter and delight and stress. To some, cowering beneath the protection of a night’s ephemeral cover, they brought news of the hideous, bright day; to others, wrapped in happy sleep, they announced a morning that would dawn blacker than sable night. To many of the rich they brought a besom to sweep away what had been theirs while the stars shone; to the poor they brought — another day.

All over the city the cries were starting up, keen and sonorous, heralding the chances that the slip- ping of one cogwheel in the machinery of time had made; apportioning to the sleepers while they lay at the mercy of fate, the vengeance, profit, grief, reward and doom that the new figure in the calendar had brought them. Shrill and yet plaintive were the cries, as if the young voices grieved that so much evil and so little good was in their irresponsible hands. Thus echoed in the streets of the helpless city the transmission of the latest decrees of the gods, the cries of the newsboys — the Clarion Call of the Press.

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