The Adventure Of The Speckled Band by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1892
The magic trick:
Turning the process of exposition – setting up the mystery – into an advantage
When I was a kid I had a cassette of some radio play version of this story. I listened to it probably 30 times. It scared me every time. So it seems like a perfect way to celebrate Halloween all these years later.
The thing with these Sherlock mysteries is that the formula necessitates someone – a troubled client – coming to Baker Street and telling of their misfortunes. It’s great, but it does mean that the action tends to be buried. We have to start with lots of talking and backstory first.
Well, “The Speckled Band” circumvents this problem by making the backstory arguably the most exciting part of the story. Certainly, it’s the part that always scared me as a kid. Mrs. Stoner relates the strange and tragic tale of her sister’s death. The solving of the case is incredibly exciting in its own right, but her setting up of the mystery is alone worth the price of admission. And that’s quite a trick on Doyle’s part.
“‘Tell me, Helen,’ said she, ‘have you ever heard anyone whistle in the dead of the night?’
“‘Never,’ said I.
“‘I suppose that you could not possibly whistle, yourself, in your sleep?’
“‘Certainly not. But why?’
“‘Because during the last few nights I have al- ways, about three in the morning, heard a low, clear whistle. I am a light sleeper, and it has awakened me. I cannot tell where it came from—perhaps from the next room, perhaps from the lawn. I thought that I would just ask you whether you had heard it.’”
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