- Tracking Twain: The Unfulfilled Pursuit in Mark Twain’s Detective Fiction
As early as 1960, Franklin R. Rogers proposed that “in its early stages Huck-leberry Finn was to be a burlesque detective story.”1 This hypothesis is supported by the fact that during that period Mark Twain was writing such works as Cap’n Simon Wheeler, the Amateur Detective and “A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage.”2 Rogers’ reasoning is based mainly on Twain’s working notes, which contain repeated references to the death and disappearance of Pap Finn.3 Twain’s notes also hint at the possibility of Jim’s indictment for the murder of Pap; therefore, Rogers concludes, at one time “Twain intended his novel to culminate in a courtroom scene.”4 I have elsewhere supplied a potential missing link between Pap’s murder and the originally proposed courtroom dénouement (presenting Pap’s unsolved murder in light of Twain’s interest in the Oedipus myth).5 My theory is based on the distinct image of Pap’s left footprint that Huck finds in the snow one winter morning. Pap’s left boot has a cross nailed into its heel, which creates a unique footprint. Interestingly enough, when Huck and Jim find Pap’s murdered body in the floating house on the river, it is naked. That is, Twain carefully wrote this scene to enable the reader to deduce the absence of Pap’s clothing and boots by having Huck and Jim meticulously list every item that they find at the scene from “an old tin lantern” to “a wooden leg.”6 Pap’s belongings are gone presumably because his murderer has disguised him- or herself in Pap’s clothes and boots before fleeing. However, deciding to wear Pap’s boots was deeply unwise, because the murderer would have unknowingly left a trail of Pap’s idiosyncratic footprints. Whoever is investigating the murder (likely Tom Sawyer) would need only to track this distinct trail to catch the culprit. [End Page 166]
My main goal in this article is to strengthen the case for the aforementioned reading of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by reading Twain’s other (burlesque) detective stories and pointing out his use in them of the footprint and cross motifs as clues that help investigators to solve mysteries. More importantly, however, and paradoxically, in each case Twain fails to use (or avoids using) those clues to reveal the whole truth about the murderer and the victim.
Of course, this occurs partly due to the incompetence of the detectives. Reflecting Twain’s apparent intention to “very extravagantly [burlesque] the detective business,”7 critics often disregard Twain’s detective fiction as being merely satirical.8 But if ridicule is Twain’s chief motivation, why is he so obsessed with detective fiction that he returns to the genre again and again? Twain once expressed his contradictory feelings about the genre: “What a curious thing a detective story is. And was there ever one that the author needn’t be ashamed of, except the ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’?”9 This comment expresses Twain’s inexplicable fascination and obscure feelings of shame toward the detective genre, and makes motives like satire, polemic, and even moneymaking seem inadequate to fully explain what lies behind his ambivalence.
To appreciate Twain’s attitude toward detective fiction, a helpful vantage point is offered by another favorite subject of his—conscience. For Twain, the conscience serves the same function as the detective: to reveal dark truths about criminals. Twain portrays his hatred of his own conscience powerfully in “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut” (1876). In the story, the conscience of the protagonist appears in the visible form of a dwarf and reminds him of every minor “crime” (or moral infraction) that he has committed. Although the story ends with the protagonist slaying his conscience, Twain’s struggle with his own conscience never ended until his death. His conscience, or at least his sense of shame, was the main reason that he allowed his revealing autobiography only to be published posthumously.10 In the same way that he was simultaneously disdainful of and obsessed with detective fiction...