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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Review: Mark Twain's Medieval Romance and Other Classic Mystery Stories

Mark Twain's Medieval Romance And Other Classic Mystery Stories Otto Penzler, editor Open Road Media
Would a reader choose to read a book of mysteries that included that included some of his all-time favorites:  Roald Dahl, Ray Bradbury, and Mark Twain, yet it's theme is based around a puzzle story he absolutely loathed:  "The Lady or the Tiger?" by Frank R. Stockton?

Imagine being left there without an answer.  Are you biting your nails, anxious with anticipation?  If so, run out and buy this collection.   If you like solid closure, however, these may not be the mysteries you are looking for.  Penzler selected these riddle stories to stump confound readers.

The answer to the previous riddle is yes, apparently.  I picked this up, thinking, "Yay! Mysteries! Great authors!  I'll bite the bullet on the Stockton tale."

In case you haven't come across the Frank R. Stockton story before, it treats a young man who, after dallying with the king's daughter, is faced with picking two doors:  one he marries the lady behind it, the other he feeds his body to the hungry tiger.  The king's daughter knows which door has what behind it.  There the tale ends.  The author leaves it to you to decide.  How you think the tale ends shows what kind of person you are.

Unfortunately, if we don't the characters well enough to know what they'd do, it's not a very well written story, in this humble reviewer's opinion.  You, dear reader, are free to disagree.  Whether you agree or not show what kind of reader you are.  Nonetheless, some of these stories are more sophisticated than Stockton's.

The first two are not especially sophisticated yet clever.  Stanley Ellin's "Unreasonable Doubt" presents two young men who go to trial.  When one is on trial, the other takes the stand to confess himself the guilty party.  S. Weir Mitchell's "A Dilemma" has a poor young man receive a box of jewels that's wired with dynamite to blow should he try to open it.  However, this one has a clever  out on it's final scenario.  It asks a final question--using a key word--that adds a thin veneer of moral complexity to his characters, not present in Stockton's.

Roald Dahl's "Nunc Dimmitis" is ambiguous but in a good way.  The narrator, Lionel Lampson, is told that his girlfriend, Janet de Pelagia, thought he was a bore.  To get back at her, he has a famous artist paint her.  But the artist has an unusual method of painting:  he paints them in the nude and adds layers of clothes, so that no one know that underneath the clothes is a nude.  Lionel scraps off the paint and presents the painting to all of their friends.  Lionel's girlfriend does not respond how he expects.  However, her reaction may not show her true feelings.

Of course, Stockton's original is here, plus his own sequel, "The Discourager of Hesitancy."  Being enamored with his previous scenario.  He repeated the performance.  This time a man has married a woman, but he doesn't know which of forty beautiful women.  Is it the one who frowned or smiled?  This is slightly more sophisticated in how it presents the male's common conundrum when interpreting women, but it is essentially the same.

However, Jack Moffitt answers Stockton in "The Lady and the Tiger" in a surprising if gruesome way.  Interesting work although the many narrative layers seem unnecessary.

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