14 January 2013


When I was reading a review of a new biography of Thornton Wilder, I came across the information that he had collaborated with Mrs. Hitchcock, among others, on the screenplay for the great Shadow of a Doubt. Any who do not know this classic psychological suspense movie from 1943 are in for a treat. It’s Hitchcock at his bland, safe, suburban best (but don’t you relax for a minute) and Joseph Cotton is perfect as the visiting relative who may, or may not, be a lady-killing serial  murderer.

Thoughts of Shadow of a Doubt led me to think about the importance of doubt in mysteries in general. Sure, we tend to think of mysteries as the genre of certainty. Detectives spend their time trying to establish the perpetrator to prosecutors’ satisfaction, and much of the pleasure of the genre rests in a tidy wind up with a ‘sure thing’ result.

But on the way to certainty, doubt can be a very useful device and one that produces a maximum amount of painful reflection and anxiety in the characters it afflicts. Young Charlie in Shadow loves her uncle, enjoys his company, and appreciates the whiff of big city sophistication he brings to sleepy Santa Rosa. The arrival of a detective with suspicions arouses first, her indignation, then her suspicion, and finally a realization that all is not right with her beloved uncle.

I’ve used a similar progression twice in novels. In Night Bus, the heroine must decide if she is paranoid or if her husband and sister-in-law are really plotting against her. This is an admittedly venerable story line but a useful variant of the much-favored ‘woman in jeopardy’. In Voices, the shoe is on the other foot. A family must decide if the earnest and vulnerable young woman who comes to call really is their long lost child or a deluded (or larcenous) intruder.

Doubt in short stories presents a greater challenge than in novels because everything must unfold quickly, preferably, as close as possible to the climax of the action. Nonetheless, I’ve tried stories with a high doubt quotient several times. In The Armies of the Night, a return to her old home forces the narrator to confront fearful, but hitherto suppressed, suspicions. In The Helpful Stranger, a woman is caught between her natural courtesy and a fear that the helpful stranger with his offer of a ride has another, more sinister, agenda.

I found these fun to do, especially The Helpful Stranger where I was able to combine rising doubt with a reversal of the two character’s roles. But in every case, doubt adds another layer to suspense. Someone pursued about an old dark house by a bad guy lives in straight-forward terror. But someone who is uncertain whether to be wary of a companion is in a different, more complex place, where fear of bodily harm is enhanced by fear of making a crucial social gaffe. The latter is often a feature of older UK mysteries, Eric Ambler making good use of it in Journey into Fear for one.

Film buffs and mystery fanatics will undoubtedly have a long list of stories with ambiguous characters and doubtful situations – Gaslight and Notorious come instantly to mind. But one of the great masters of doubt is neither a mystery writer nor a filmmaker. Nathaniel Hawthorne summed up the psychology of doubt as well as anyone: “Blessed are all simple emotions,” he wrote in Rappaccini’s Daughter, “be they dark or bright! It is the lurid intermixture of the two that produces the illuminating blaze of the internal regions."

This is literally so in perhaps his greatest story, Young Goodman Brown. Young Brown ventures out to the night woods (bad idea) to attend a witches’ Sabbath (worse idea) for just this once (one of the few things my students understood immediately about this tale). He meets a stranger who strongly resembles his father, but neither Goodman Brown nor the reader has any doubt that this is the Prince of Darkness or, as the old Calvinists termed him, the Old Deceiver.

Rather, Brown’s doubt turns out to be of a fundamental and existential nature. Should he believe the fantastic events in the forest, the evidence of his senses? Should he conclude that his neighbors are all bound to the devil and only he has escaped damnation? Or is the deception the other way around, and is he the one, who, succumbing to momentary temptation, has had his life, his faith, and his happiness destroyed by the devil?

Now that is doubt with a capital D.


  1. Never having considered doubt's importance in fiction, your word this morning have set me to thinking and make a conscious decision to include a significant doubt in the plot of what I'm working on. I will also definitely make it a point to look into SHADOW OF A DOUBT. It definitely sounds like my kind of movie.

  2. Just thought I'd use the word "definitely" one more time this morning.

  3. Some very interesting thoughts, Janice. I just read "Goodman Brown" a few months ago, and it had already popped into my mind before I got to it in your article. Wonderful story--I love the almost matter-of-fact treatment of the presence of the supernatural. Doubt and uncertainty, the province of the noon day devil.

  4. Loved this, Janice. Nathaniel Hawthorne used the idea of doubt more than once, including in my favorite of his, "The Minister's Black Veil" - why did the minister wear that veil? Whose guilt was he veiling? Or was he just mad?

    One thing I think that we, in modern times, have lost is the ability to depict and understand guilt. We have criminals, we have detectives, but nobody really feels guilty, at least not compared to the Victorians, who were masters at it, and sometimes just plain wallowed in it. (Hawthorne was very good at guilt as well as doubt.) Have we gotten past guilt? Is everything societal? Is everything situational? I think the last best study I saw of guilt was in "Crimes and Misdemeanors", and eventually, he got over it. Just a thought.

  5. I can't think of a single instance when doubt was a part of a story I have written. But your examples are excellent, and certainly food for thought. There have been many movies made where things are not as they seem. In some cases overdone. (I am thinking of the first Mission Impossible among others). Many noir movies use doubt very effectively.

    BTW I was amused by "sleepy" Santa Rosa. That adjective hardly applies today.

  6. Alistair MacLean at his best was a master of certainty and doubt, the good guy you were certain of is the bad guy, or vice versa. Truly masterful, although predictable once you grew to watch for it.

    Reflecting upon at Herschel's comment, I guess I use doubt in my stories: Who is this character? Who is the odd foreign duck who can bowl magnificently… and continues bowling through an armed robbery in English? Who is the stranger in the bar in Swamped? What is going on in the Alzheimer's story Quality of Mercy? So yes, I do deploy doubt.

  7. Patricia Highsmith (who wrote STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and the Ripley books) is a master of doubt, and ambiguity, its second cousin, mixed motives being one of the engines of noir. Fran's point is well-taken that mysteries are inherently conservative, in that justice is done and order restored, the crime---murder in particular---being an act of anarchy, an attack on the social compact. Doubt can sometimes be more subversive, though. Look at the ending of Sue Grafton's F IS FOR FUGITIVE, for example, which leaves the answers open to question.

  8. My bad, I should have said Janice's point, not Fran's, about the solution to the mystery squaring the circle.


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