Dilemma by Dorothy Sayers, 1934
The magic trick:
Leveling the plot up through three separate dilemmas
“Dilemma” plops us in the middle of a dinner conversation regarding, you guessed it, dilemmas. Would you take a bunch of money even if it meant the death of a random stranger halfway across the world? That kind of thing. It’s very much like a pulpy version of Tobias Wolff’s “The Night In Question.”
So, we get three dilemmas in all. Each one gets increasingly involved and thought-provoking. It being a progression, it’s easy to assume that they are standalone dilemmas and that that the third story is the one we should focus our attention on most. But you’d be wrong. The second dilemma is not a mere stepping stone. It turns out to be crucial to the overall story’s theme.
And that’s quite a trick on Sayers’s part.
“The terms of that problem were comparatively simple,” he observed. “The papers were undoubtedly valuable and the butler undoubtedly worthless. Now I could tell you of a problem that really was a problem. The thing actually happened to me – years ago, many years ago. And even now – especially now – it gives me the jim-jams to think about it.”
The Colonel grunted, and Timpany said:
“Go on, Popper; tell us the story.”
“I don’t know that I can,” said Popper. “I’ve tried not to dwell upon it. I’ve never mentioned it from that day to this. I don’t think – ”
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