Showing posts with label O. Henry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label O. Henry. Show all posts

10 December 2016

The Twist


At this time of year, it seems appropriate to focus on a short story that would make almost anybody's list of Christmas favorites, especially since that story offers valuable lessons to mystery writers. O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" isn't a mystery, but it does a brilliant job of pulling off something many mysteries strive to achieve. I'm talking, of course, about The Twist. An excellent twist, like an excellent gift, reflects both generosity and good judgment. An expensive gift that doesn't suit the recipient probably won't delight, and a suitable but stingy gift isn't likely to inspire much gratitude. By being generous with the reader but exercising good judgment as a writer, O.Henry gives "The Gift of the Magi" the perfect twist.

It's hard to imagine that anyone reading this post hasn't already read "The Gift of the Magi." But if Scrooge-like middle-school teachers and the perversity of fate have conspired to rob you of that experience, please read the story here before going on. It will take you only a few minutes, and I can almost guarantee you'll enjoy it. If you can't spare those few minutes, please don't go on. For I'm about to spoil a classic ending.

It's fairly easy to surprise readers with a twist that pops up out of nowhere. A bomb explodes without a trace of foreshadowing, or the murderer turns out to be a minor character who makes only two brief appearances in the novel, never saying or doing anything that could arouse rational suspicion. It's much harder to create a surprising twist if we shower readers with all the evidence they need to see the ending coming.

That's exactly what O. Henry does in "The Gift of the Magi." From the opening paragraphs on, it's clear Della and Jim have little money to spare for Christmas gifts. It's also clear they love each other. True, the story emphasizes her love for him, not his for her, but her devotion is so sweet and unreserved we assume, rightly, it can't be a tragically unrequited passion. We also learn, in the first two pages, that Della and Jim each have one treasure. Della has long, magnificent hair, and Jim has a fine gold watch he inherited from his father and grandfather. O. Henry spends a long paragraph explicitly comparing these treasures: Della's hair would put the Queen of Sheba's jewels to shame, and even King Solomon, with all his wealth, would envy Jim's watch.

That's all we need to know. No writer could be more generous with helpful information--and O. Henry is so completely generous that he also doesn't try to distract us with the easy tricks of red herrings or irrelevant details. He is utterly open and fair. If he cheats at all, he cheats with his title. "The Gift of the Magi"--singular, not plural. But the magi gave more than one gift, and there's more than one gift in this story. By using "gift" and not "gifts" in his title, O. Henry may be trying to trick us into thinking Della's gift for Jim is the only one that matters. It's a tiny trick, though, and a clever, subtle one. I think we can forgive him.

At any rate, O. Henry gives us all the evidence we need to figure out his crime-free mystery, and he gives it to us early. Less than halfway through the story, when Della sells her hair so she can buy a chain for Jim's watch, we should be able to conclude, "Well, Della and Jim love each other, neither has much money, and each has one treasure. And it's Christmas. If Della sacrifices her one treasure to give Jim something to enhance his watch, I bet Jim will sacrifice his one treasure to give Della something to enhance her hair. No doubt about it--there are some ironic twists coming."

But I don't think many readers do see the twists coming. (And if they do, chances are they first read the story so long ago that they no longer remember how prescient they were--unlike those irritating people who say, "Really? You were actually surprised by the ending of The Sixth Sense? Not me. I figured it out halfway through the opening credits." I can't stand those people.)

How does O.Henry keep us from predicting his ending? I think we can ascribe his success to his good judgment as a writer. First, he wisely chooses to make "The Gift of the Magi" a short story, not a novel. I don't think the plot would work nearly as well if we couldn't read the story in one sitting. First of all, O. Henry would have to destroy its focus by filling pages with extraneous subplots and details. And if we took a break before reaching the last page, if we put "The Gift of the Magi"" down to go for a walk or drive to work, we'd have time to think things over, and we might figure out what the ending will be. (I've read plenty of mystery novels that would have worked better as short stories, that might well have sneaked their twists past me if I hadn't had time to analyze the evidence while folding laundry or letting my mind wander during a boring meeting.)

But "The Gift of the Magi" is a very short story, and also a very absorbing one--I'd guess few if any readers can put it down before reaching the last page. The action pushes us forward without pause, and the protagonist is so lovable and so troubled that she instantly wins our sympathies and our full attention. That's another example of O. Henry's good judgment. He keeps us so intent on Della's dilemmas and decisions that we don't stop to think about what Jim might be feeling or doing.

O. Henry accomplishes that, partly, by not letting us see Jim until the final pages. Imagine how different the story's effect on us might be if O. Henry had begun with a scene of the couple at breakfast, had let us hear Jim make some gloomy remark about Christmas gifts, or let us see him holding his watch in his hand and gazing at it moodily. Instead, O. Henry begins his story after Jim has gone to work, when Della is alone in the flat, counting and recounting her pitiful hoard of coins. Jim gets mentioned often, but we see him only as the reason for Della's despair, not as an independent character who might be grieving over similarly meager stacks of coins and contemplating desperate measures of his own.

Instead, we focus only on Della, and there's plenty to keep that focus constant and sharp. Della's misery touches us, and so does her admiration for Jim--we're moved by her capacity for affection. (By "we," I mean readers capable of being moved by sweetness and innocence. A Grinch would think Della's being silly. If you are a Grinch offended by any story tainted by sentimentality, you don't like "The Gift of the Magi," and you won't like anything I'm going to say about it. Perhaps you'd rather go read some Sartre.) When Della looks in the mirror, turns pale, and abruptly lets down her hair, we wonder what's going on in her mind. Moments later, when she quickly puts her hair up again and hurries out of the flat, we get a glimmer of what she plans to do. Before we can think it through, we come to the quick little drama of her encounter with the horrible Madame Sofronie, memorably characterized in four well-chosen words--"large, too white, chilly." After only a few lines of dialogue, the hair is gone, and Della leaves clutching her twenty dollars. We may feel torn between conflicting emotions, impressed by Della's ingenuity and courage but appalled by the harshness of her sacrifice.

We have no time to dwell on those emotions, though, because the story rushes on. Now we're caught up in Della's search for the perfect present for Jim. She never pauses to wonder about what Jim might be giving her for Christmas, never takes a moment to gaze into a shop window and sigh over the tortoise shell combs on display. That's consistent with Della's character--she's so selfless that she thinks only about Jim's present, cares only about his happiness. It's also further proof of O. Henry's good judgment. If it ever occurred to Della that Jim might be shopping, too, we might start speculating, and that might spoil the twist. By making Della's quest so single minded, O. Henry keeps our thoughts from drifting off in dangerous directions.

And he never lets the pace slow. Della's two-hour search is described in three short sentences. Then, for one paragraph, we share her joy when she finds the perfect watch chain. But the next paragraph plunges us into new anxieties as Della gets busy with her curling irons and frets about how Jim will respond when he sees her shorn. We ache for her as she hears Jim's steps in the hallway and whispers a quick prayer: "Please, God, make him think I am still pretty."

Jim's reaction, we think, will provide the story's climax, and we wait to see what it will be. The nastiest-minded noir addicts among us may hope Jim will respond with rage, may hope the story will end with a nice little murder-suicide demonstrating the cruel absurdity of human existence. Most of us probably expect Jim to be dismayed and perhaps angry at first but then to embrace his wife, declaring that he now loves her more than ever, that in his eyes she's now more beautiful than ever. This is, after all, a Christmas story.

Few of us, I think, expect any climax beyond Jim's reaction. O. Henry has done such a masterful job of ensnaring us in Della's thoughts and emotions that we don't see any further ahead than she does. When Jim stares at his wife, stunned into speechlessness, we think, as she does, it's because he can't adjust to the change in her appearance. As she pleads with him, it doesn't occur to us that there might be a deeper reason for what O. Henry describes as Jim's "trance." Not until Jim pulls a package from his pocket, not until Della opens it and sees the combs Jim bought for her to wear in her long, beautiful hair, do we realize why he was so paralyzed by surprise. We don't see that twist coming until Della does.

It's a clever twist, an ironic twist, a satisfying twist--and not an utterly devastating one. Della weeps when she first sees the combs, but she recovers quickly. "My hair grows so fast, Jim!" she says, and we share her relief. Soon, Della will be able to wear the combs. What a nice climax.

But it's not the climax. There's one more twist coming--a twist we could have foreseen but probably didn't. When Della assures Jim that her hair will grow back soon, it probably doesn't occur to her to wonder about how Jim paid for the combs. Since we share her perspective so completely, it probably doesn't occur to us, either. And when she remembers the watch chain, we may, like her, think Jim's delight in it will erase any lingering regrets about Della's hair.

Then we get the final twist, and everything makes sense. Of course, we think. Earlier in the story, Della says only "something fine and rare and sterling" would do as a gift for Jim, and anything she offers him must reflect his "quietness and value." Just as someone as selfless and loving as Della would give up her most prized possession to buy a present for her husband, someone as "fine and rare and sterling" as Jim would give up his most prized possession to buy a present for his wife. Della has told us everything we need to know about Jim. We should have seen this twist coming. But we probably didn't, because Della didn't. So the final twist hits us as hard as it hits her, and it's even more devastating than the first one. Della's hair will grow back, but the watch Jim inherited from his father and grandfather is gone forever.

Now O. Henry's good judgment as a writer comes into play again. He didn't begin his story too early by letting us see Jim brooding at breakfast, and he doesn't extend it too long by letting us see Della's reaction to the news that Jim has sold his watch. We've already seen Della weep when Jim gives her the combs. We don't need to see her weep again. So when she gives Jim the watch chain, he demonstrates his "quietness and value" by smiling, telling her he sold his watch, and suggesting they sit down to dinner. That's our final glimpse of Della and Jim. The last twist has fallen into place, and its impact is profound. No need to drag things out by belaboring the irony, or by showing us their dismay and recovery. I think O. Henry ends his narrative at exactly the right moment.

He does, however, add one paragraph of commentary, and I suspect many modern readers will criticize him for that. In this last paragraph, O. Henry is teaching us how to interpret his story. He is making its moral explicit. He is--horrors!--telling and not showing. We sophisticated modern readers know how wrong that is. We know writers must let their stories speak for themselves and leave the work of interpretation to the reader. Writers must never sermonize, must never end their stories with paragraphs such as this one:
The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise, let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest. Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the magi.
I'll admit it--I'm not sophisticated enough to despise this paragraph. Schmaltzy as it is, I love it. I choke up every time I reread it. I enjoy the quiet humor of the suggestion that the original magi may have given gifts "bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication," enjoy the juxtaposition of different uses of "wise." I'm moved by what the paragraph says about true wisdom, and about how some kinds of foolishness rise to become wisdom of the highest sort. And I appreciate the help this paragraph gives me, for I'm not completely confident I would have seen all the story's implications on my own.

I may be wrong. This paragraph may in fact be merely clumsy and inartistic. (I'd definitely never write a story ending with a similar paragraph. Old fashioned as my own tastes may be, I'm savvy enough to know almost any modern editor would reject a story containing such a paragraph, and almost any modern reader would condemn it.) In any case, this paragraph drives home the point that the best twists are more than clever bits of plotting. The best twists illuminate both character and theme. They express ideas. Informed by the writer's generosity and good judgment, they can transform a story into a delightful, perceptive gift to the reader.

Happy holidays to all!

20 December 2015

O Henry Meets the Magi


Norman Rockwell : The Gift of the Magi
© Norman Rockwell
It’s the Christmas season. The countdown to the holiday stands at -5 until we begin the twelve days of Christmas. In recent weeks, I’ve been uncharacteristically uncharitable to an iconic American author, O Henry, revisiting Shamrock Jolnes parodies that might be better forgotten (here and here). But frankly, I admire O Henry’s tales. To make up for past sins, here is one the most famous Christmas stories ever.

William Sydney Porter wrote it in 1905, possibly in the second booth from the front at Pete’s Tavern, Irving Place and East 18th in New York City. O Henry apparently spent a lot of time at Pete’s place, which now honors O Henry on its awning: “The Tavern O Henry made famous.”

The New York Sunday World published the story 10 December. O Henry reissued it the following spring of 1906 in the collection The Four Million.

You know the tale, but Christmas is about tradition. Take a sentimental journey with us as we read…

The Gift of The Magi

by O Henry
(© 1905)


One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”

The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling– something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: “Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”

“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.

“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”

Down rippled the brown cascade.

“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.

“Give it to me quick,” said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation– as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value– the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends– a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do– oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty- seven cents?”

At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.”

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two– and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again– you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice– what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”

“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.

“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”

Jim looked about the room curiously.

“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you– sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year– what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs– the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims– just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”

And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ‘em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”

The magi, as you know, were wise men– wonderfully wise men– who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

Gift of the Magi (© illustrator unknown)
I don’t know who the illustrator is, but he managed to capture the poignancy and joy of the story.



Be safe, be warm (no problem for our friends in South Africa and New Zealand) and have a wonderful Christmas holiday! See you here next year.

13 December 2015

Sherlock Holmes meets O Henry, 2


O Henry
If you thought last week’s story featuring O Henry’s Shamrock Jolnes was dull, er, droll, wait until you read this week’s clunker.

I admire O Henry’s stories, I really do, but his heavy drinking shows, drinking that led to an early death by liver failure. But that’s just my opinion. These turkeys managed to get published posthumously.

The ‘O’ in William Sydney Porter’s O Henry pseudonym originally stood for Olivier. He used that pen name only once and changed it to simply ‘O’ to disguise the fact he was writing while in federal prison for bank embezzlement. A friend forwarded manuscripts to publishers to further obscure Porter’s whereabouts.

Athol, Margaret, William Porter, 1895
Without doubt, he loved his wife, Athol. Porter married her knowing she suffered from consumption, the disease tuberculosis that would eventually take her life.

Athol encouraged her husband to write, which he began while working in Austin and Houston. After a boy who died in childbirth, Athol bore a daughter, Margaret.

After Porter’s indictment for bank fraud, he fled the country, arriving in Trujillo, Honduras. Porter planned for his wife and daughter to join him, but upon learning she was dying of tuberculosis, Porter returned and gave himself up. While serving three years of a five-year sentence in an Ohio federal prison, he wrote short stories to help support his young daughter, Margaret.

After prison, Porter moved to New York where he commenced his literary career in earnest. These Shamrock Jolnes stories were written shortly before his 1910 death at age 47.

The Sleuths

by O Henry
(© 1911)


In the Big City a man will disappear with the suddenness and completeness of the flame of a candle that is blown out. All the agencies of inquisition – the hounds of the trail, the sleuths of the city’s labyrinths, the closet detectives of theory and induction – will be invoked to the search. Most often the man’s face will be seen no more. Sometimes he will re-appear in Sheboygan or in the wilds of Terre Haute, calling himself one of the synonyms of ‘Smith’, and without memory of events up to a certain time, including his grocer’s bill. Sometimes it will be found, after dragging the rivers, and polling the restaurants to see if he may be waitng for a well-done sirloin, that he has moved next door.

This snuffing out of a human being like the erasure of a chalk man from a blackboard is one of the most impressive themes in dramaturgy

The case of Mary Snyder, in point, should not be without interest.

A man of middle age, of the name of Meeks, came from the West to New York to find his sister, Mrs. Mary Snyder, a widow, aged fifty-two who had been living for a year in a tenement house in a crowded neighborhood.

At her address he was told that Mary Snyder had moved away longer than a month before. No one could tell him the new address.

On coming out Mr. Meeks addressed a policeman who was standing on the corner, and explained his dilemma.

“My sister is very poor,” he said, “and I am anxious to find her. I have recently made quite a lot of money in a lead mine, and I want her to share my prosperity. There is no use in advertising her, because she cannot read.”

The policeman pulled his mustache and looked so thoughtful and mighty that Meeks could almost feel the joyful tears of his sister Mary drooping upon his bright blue tie.

“You go down in the Canal Street neighborhood,” said the policeman, “and get a job drivin’ the biggest dray you can find. There’s old women always getting’ knocked over by drays down there. You might see ‘er among ‘em. If you don’t want to do that you better go ‘round to headquarters and get ‘em to put a fly cop onto the dame.”

At police headquarters, Meeks received ready assistance. A general alarm was sent out and copies of a photograph of Mary Snyder that her brother had were distributed among the stations. In Mulberry Street the chief assigned Detective Mullins to the case.

The detective took Meeks aside and said:

“This is not a very difficult case to unravel. Shave off your whiskers, fill your pockets with good cigars, and meet me in the cafĂ© of the Waldorf at three o’clock this afternoon.”

Meeks obeyed. He found Mullins there. They had a bottle of wine, while the detective asked questions concerning the missing woman.

“Now,” said Mullins, “New York is a big city, but we’ve got the detective business systematized. There are two ways we can go about finding your sister. We will try one of ‘em first. You say she’s fifty-two?”

“A little past,” said Meeks.

The detective conducted the Westerner to a branch advertising office of one of the largest dailies. There he wrote the following “ad” and submitted it to Meeks.

“Wanted, at once – one hundred attractive chorus girls for a new musical comedy. Apply all day at No.–- Broadway.”

Meeks was indignant.

“My sister,” said he, “is a poor, hard-working, elderly woman. I do not see what aid an advertisement of this kind would be toward finding her.”

“All right,” said the detective. “I guess you don’t know New York. But if you’ve got a grouch against this scheme we’ll try the other one. It’s a sure thing. But it’ll cost you more.”

“Never mind the expense,” said Meeks; “we’ll try it.”

The sleuth led him back to the Waldorf. “Engage a couple of bedrooms and a parlor,” he advised, “and let’s go up.”

This was done, and the two were shown to a superb suite on the fourth floor. Meeks looked puzzled. The detective sank into a velvet armchair, and pulled out his cigar case.

“I forgot to suggest, old man,” he said, “that you should have taken the rooms by the month. They wouldn’t have stuck you so much for em.”

“By the month!” exclaimed Meeks. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, it’ll take time to work the game this way. I told you it would cost you more. We’ll have to wait till spring. There’ll be a new city directory out then. Very likely your sister’s name and address will be in it.”

Meeks rid himself of the city detective at once. On the next day some one advised him to consult Shamrock Jolnes, New York’s famous private detective, who demanded fabulous fees, but performed miracles in the way of solving mysteries and crimes.

After waiting for two hours in the anteroom of the great detective’s apartment, Meeks was shown into his presence. Jolnes sat in a purple dressing gown at an inlaid ivory chess table, with a magazine before him, trying to solve the mystery of “They.” The famous sleuth’s thin, intellectual face, piercing eyes, and rate per word are too well known to need description.

Meeks set forth his errand. “My fee, if successful, will be $500,” said Shamrock Jolnes.

Meeks bowed his agreement to the price.

“I will undertake your case, Mr. Meeks,” said Jones, finally. “The disappearance of people in this city has always been an interesting problem to me. I remember a case that I brought to a successful outcome a year ago. A family bearing the name of Clark disappeared suddenly from a small flat in which they were living I watched the flat building for two months for a clue. One day it struck me that a certain milkman and a grocer’s boy always walked backward when they carried their wares upstairs. Following out by induction the idea that this observation gave me, I at once located the missing family. They had moved into the flat across the hall and changed their name to Kralc.”

Shamrock Jolnes and his client went to the tenement house where Mary Snyder had lived, and the detective demanded to be shown the room in which she had lived. It had been occupied by no tenant since her disappearance.

The room was small, dingy, and poorly furnished. Meeks seated himself dejectedly on a broken chair, while the great detective searched the walls and floors and the few sticks of old, rickety furniture for a clue.

At the end of half an hour Jolnes had collected a few seemingly umintelligible articles – a cheap black hatpin, a piece torn off a theatre programme, and the end of a small torn card on which was the word “Left” and the characters “C 12.”

Shamrock Jolnes leaned against the mantel for ten minutes, with his head resting upon his hand, and an absorbed look upon his intellectual face. At the end of that time he exclaimed, with animation:

“Come, Mr. Meeks; the problem is solved. I can take you directly to the house where your sister is living. And you may have no fears concerning her welfare, for she is amply provided with funds – for the present at least.”

Meeks felt joy and wonder in equal proportions.

“How did you manage it?” he asked, with admiration in his tones.

Perhaps Jolnes’s only weakness was a professional pride in his wonderful achievements in induction. He was ever ready to astound and charm his listeners by describing his methods.

“By elimination,” said Jolnes, spreading his clues upon a little table, “I got rid of certain parts of the city to which Mrs. Snyder might have removed. You see this hatpin? That eliminates Brooklyn. No woman attempts to board a car at the Brooklyn Bridge without being sure that she carries a hatpin with which to fight her way into a seat. And now I will demonstrate to you that she could not have gone to Harlem. Behind this door are two hooks in the wall. Upon one of these Mrs. Snyder has hung her bonnet, and upon the other her shawl. You will observe that the bottom the hanging shawl has gradually made a soiled streak against the plastered wall. The mark is clean-out, proving that there is no fringe on the shawl. Now, was there ever a case where a middle-aged woman, wearing a shawl, boarded a Harlem train without there being a fringe on the shawl to catch in the gate and delay the passengers behind her? So we eliminate Harlem.

“Therefore I conclude that Mrs. Snyder has not moved very far away. On this torn piece of card you see the word ‘Left, the letter ‘C,’ and the number ‘12.’ Now, I happen to know that No. 12 Avenue C is a first-class boarding house, far beyond your sister’s means – as we suppose. But then I find this piece of a theatre programme, crumpled into an odd shape. What meaning does it convey? None to you, very likely, Mr. Meeks; but it is eloquent to one whose habits and training take cognizance of the smallest things.

“You have told me that your sister was a scrub woman. She scrubbed the floors of offices and hallways. Let us assume that she procured such work to perform in a theatre. Where is valuable jewellery lost the oftenest, Mr. Meeks? In the theatres, of course. Look at that piece of programme, Mr. Meeks. Observe the round impression in it. It has been wrapped around a ring – perhaps a ring of great value. Mrs. Snyder found the ring while at work in the theatre. She hastily tore off a piece of a programme, wrapped the ring carefully, and thrust it into her bosom. The next day she disposed of it, and with her increased means, looked about her for a more comfortable place in which to live. When I reach thus far in the chain I see nothing impossible about No. 12 Avenue C. It is there we will find your sister, Mr. Meeks.”

Shamrock Jolnes concluded his convincing speech with the smile of a successful artist. Meeks’s admiration was too great for words. Together they went to No. 12 Avenue C. It was an old-fashioned brownstone house in a prosperous and respectable neighborhood.

They rang the bell, and on inquiry were told that no Mrs. Snyder was known there, and that not within six months had a new occupant come to the house.

When they reached the sidewalk again, Meeks examined the clues which he had brought away from his sister’s old room.

“I am no detective,” he remarked to Jolnes as he raised the piece of theatre programme to his nose, “but it seems to me that instead of a ring having been wrapped in this paper it was one of those round peppermint drops. And this piece with the address on it looks to me like the end of a seat coupon – No. 12, row C, left aisle.”

Shamrock Jolnes had a far-away look in his eyes.

“I think you would do well to consult Juggins,” said he.

“Who is Juggins?” asked Meeks.

“He is the leader,” said Jolnes, “of a new modern school of detectives. Their methods are different from ours, but it is said that Juggins has solved some extremely puzzling cases. I will take you to him.”

They found the greater Juggins in his office. He was a small man with light hair, deeply absorbed in reading one of the bourgeois works of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The two great detectives of different schools shook hands with ceremony, and Meeks was introduced.

“State the facts,” said Juggins, going on with his reading.

When Meeks ceased, the greater one closed his book and said:

“Do I understand that your sister is fifty-two years of age, with a large mole on the side of her nose, and that she is a very poor widow, making a scanty living by scrubbing, and with a very homely face and figure?”

“That describes her exactly,” admitted Meeks. Juggins rose and put on his hat.

“In fifteen minutes,” he said, “I will return, bringing you her present address.”

Shamrock Jolnes turned pale, but forced a smile.

Within the specified time Juggins returned and consulted a little slip of paper held in his hand.

“Your sister, Mary Snyder,” he announced calmly, “will be found at No. 162 Chilton Street. She is living in the back hall bedroom, five flights up. The house is only four blocks from here,” he continued addressing Meeks. Suppose you go and verify the statement and then return here. Mr Jolnes will await you, I dare say.”

Meeks hurried away. In twenty minutes he was back again, with a beaming face.

“She is there and well!” he cried. “Name your fee!”

“Two dollars,” said Juggins.

When Meeks had settled his bill and departed, Shamrock Jolnes stood with his hat in his hand before Juggins.

“If it would not be asking too much,” he stammered , “if you would favor me so far – would you object to ––”

“Certainly not,” said Juggins, pleasantly. “I will tell you how I did it. You remember the description of Mrs. Snyder? Did you ever know a woman like that who wasn’t paying weekly instalments on an enlarged crayon portrait of herself? The biggest factory of that kind in the country is just around the corner. I went there and got her address off the books. That’s all.”


Trivia: Kids of yesteryear might remember The Cisco Kid, a popular movie and western television series. The name, although not the plot, was taken from a short story by… O Henry.

06 December 2015

Sherlock Holmes meets O Henry, 1


Last month, we brought you a Sherlock Holmes parody by the author of Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie. A number of famous writers have penned takeoffs on Holmes. Today, we bring you a Holmesian tale from one of America’s best known authors.

O Henry
You might not recognize the name William Sydney Porter (spelled Sidney on his birth record) because he’s much more famous under his pen name, O Henry.

The author is known for his contemporary humor and twist endings. He wrote at least two Sherlock Holmes parodies featuring the characters Shamrock Jolnes and Dr. Whatsup. Not O Henry’s best works, the stories contain tepid joke endings. A number of jests and witticisms of the time can be found in this story, such as a comment on the price of gas for heating in New York City where O Henry’s characters reside.

We see here another example of British spellings still in use, much as we found in the works of Horatio Alger, Jr in post-Civil War America. Here the publish date is 1911, the eve of World War I, a year after O Henry's death.

After reading this, you’ll probably head to the bar for a stiff one, muttering, “Oh, man. O Henry gets this trash published and I can’t get an editor to look at my Sherlock in Love opus?”

You’ve been warned.

The Adventures of Shamrock Jolnes

by O Henry
(© 1911)


I am so fortunate as to count Shamrock Jolnes, the great New York detective, among my muster of friends. Jolnes is what is called the “inside man” of the city detective force. He is an expert in the use of the typewriter, and it is his duty, whenever there is a “murder mystery” to be solved, to sit at a desk telephone at headquarters and take down the messages of “cranks” who ’phone in their confessions to having committed the crime.

But on certain “off” days when confessions are coming in slowly and three or four newspapers have run to earth as many different guilty persons, Jolnes will knock about the town with me, exhibiting, to my great delight and instruction, his marvellous powers of observation and deduction.

The other day I dropped in at Headquarters and found the great detective gazing thoughtfully at a string that was tied tightly around his little finger.

“Good morning, Whatsup,” he said, without turning his head. “I’m glad to notice that you’ve had your house fitted up with electric lights at last.”

“Will you please tell me,” I said, in surprise, “how you knew that? I am sure that I never mentioned the fact to any one, and the wiring was a rush order not completed until this morning.”

“Nothing easier,” said Jolnes, genially. “As you came in I caught the odour of the cigar you are smoking. I know an expensive cigar; and I know that not more than three men in New York can afford to smoke cigars and pay gas bills too at the present time. That was an easy one. But I am working just now on a little problem of my own.”

“Why have you that string on your finger?” I asked.

“That’s the problem,” said Jolnes. “My wife tied that on this morning to remind me of something I was to send up to the house. Sit down, Whatsup, and excuse me for a few moments.”

The distinguished detective went to a wall telephone, and stood with the receiver to his ear for probably ten minutes.

“Were you listening to a confession?” I asked, when he had returned to his chair.

“Perhaps,” said Jolnes, with a smile, “it might be called something of the sort. To be frank with you, Whatsup, I’ve cut out the dope. I’ve been increasing the quantity for so long that morphine doesn’t have much effect on me any more. I’ve got to have something more powerful. That telephone I just went to is connected with a room in the Waldorf where there’s an author’s reading in progress. Now, to get at the solution of this string.”

After five minutes of silent pondering, Jolnes looked at me, with a smile, and nodded his head.

“Wonderful man!” I exclaimed; “already?”

“It is quite simple,” he said, holding up his finger. “You see that knot? That is to prevent my forgetting. It is, therefore, a forget-me-knot. A forget-me-not is a flower. It was a sack of flour that I was to send home!”

“Beautiful!” I could not help crying out in admiration.

“Suppose we go out for a ramble,” suggested Jolnes.

“There is only one case of importance on hand just now. Old man McCarty, one hundred and four years old, died from eating too many bananas. The evidence points so strongly to the Mafia that the police have surrounded the Second Avenue Katzenjammer Gambrinus Club No. 2, and the capture of the assassin is only the matter of a few hours. The detective force has not yet been called on for assistance.”

Jolnes and I went out and up the street toward the corner, where we were to catch a surface car.

Half-way up the block we met Rheingelder, an acquaintance of ours, who held a City Hall position.

“Good morning, Rheingelder,” said Jolnes, halting.

“Nice breakfast that was you had this morning.” Always on the lookout for the detective’s remarkable feats of deduction, I saw Jolnes’s eye flash for an instant upon a long yellow splash on the shirt bosom and a smaller one upon the chin of Rheingelder -- both undoubtedly made by the yolk of an egg.

“Oh, dot is some of your detectiveness,” said Rheingelder, shaking all over with a smile. “Vell, I pet you trinks und cigars all round dot you cannot tell vot I haf eaten for breakfast.”

“Done,” said Jolnes. “Sausage, pumpernickel and coffee.”

Rheingelder admitted the correctness of the surmise and paid the bet. When we had proceeded on our way I said to Jolnes:

“I thought you looked at the egg spilled on his chin and shirt front.”

“I did,” said Jolnes. “That is where I began my deduction. Rheingelder is a very economical, saving man. Yesterday eggs dropped in the market to twenty-eight cents per dozen. To-day they are quoted at forty-two. Rheingelder ate eggs yesterday, and to-day he went back to his usual fare. A little thing like this isn’t anything, Whatsup; it belongs to the primary arithmetic class.”

When we boarded the street car we found the seats all occupied -- principally by ladies. Jolnes and I stood on the rear platform.

About the middle of the car there sat an elderly man with a short, gray beard, who looked to be the typical, well-dressed New Yorker. At successive corners other ladies climbed aboard, and soon three or four of them were standing over the man, clinging to straps and glaring meaningly at the man who occupied the coveted seat. But he resolutely retained his place.

“We New Yorkers,” I remarked to Jolnes, “have about lost our manners, as far as the exercise of them in public goes.”

“Perhaps so,” said Jolnes, lightly; “but the man you evidently refer to happens to be a very chivalrous and courteous gentleman from Old Virginia. He is spending a few days in New York with his wife and two daughters, and he leaves for the South to-night.”

“You know him, then?” I said, in amazement.

“I never saw him before we stepped on the car,” declared the detective, smilingly.

“By the gold tooth of the Witch of Endor!” I cried, “if you can construe all that from his appearance you are dealing in nothing else than black art.”

“The habit of observation -- nothing more,” said Jolnes. “If the old gentleman gets off the car before we do, I think I can demonstrate to you the accuracy of my deduction.”

Three blocks farther along the gentleman rose to leave the car. Jolnes addressed him at the door: “Pardon me, sir, but are you not Colonel Hunter, of Norfolk, Virginia?”

“No, suh,” was the extremely courteous answer. “My name, suh, is Ellison -- Major Winfield R. Ellison, from Fairfax County, in the same state. I know a good many people, suh, in Norfolk -- the Goodriches, the Tollivers, and the Crabtrees, suh, but I never had the pleasure of meeting yo’ friend, Colonel Hunter. I am happy to say, suh, that I am going back to Virginia to-night, after having spent a week in yo’ city with my wife and three daughters. I shall be in Norfolk in about ten days, and if you will give me yo’ name, suh, I will take pleasure in looking up Colonel Hunter and telling him that you inquired after him, suh.”

“Thank you,” said Jolnes; “tell him that Reynolds sent his regards, if you will be so kind.”

I glanced at the great New York detective and saw that a look of intense chagrin had come upon his clear-cut features. Failure in the slightest point always galled Shamrock Jolnes.

“Did you say your _three_ daughters?” he asked of the Virginia gentleman.

“Yes, suh, my three daughters, all as fine girls as there are in Fairfax County,” was the answer.

With that Major Ellison stopped the car and began to descend the step.

Shamrock Jolnes clutched his arm.

“One moment, sir,” he begged, in an urbane voice in which I alone detected the anxiety -- “am I not right in believing that one of the young ladies is an _adopted_ daughter?”

“You are, suh,” admitted the major, from the ground, “but how the devil you knew it, suh, is mo’ than I can tell.”

“And mo’ than I can tell, too,” I said, as the car went on.

Jolnes was restored to his calm, observant serenity by having wrested victory from his apparent failure; so after we got off the car he invited me into a cafe, promising to reveal the process of his latest wonderful feat.

“In the first place,” he began after we were comfortably seated, “I knew the gentleman was no New Yorker because he was flushed and uneasy and restless on account of the ladies that were standing, although he did not rise and give them his seat. I decided from his appearance that he was a Southerner rather than a Westerner.

“Next I began to figure out his reason for not relinquishing his seat to a lady when he evidently felt strongly, but not overpoweringly, impelled to do so. I very quickly decided upon that. I noticed that one of his eyes had received a severe jab in one corner, which was red and inflamed, and that all over his face were tiny round marks about the size of the end of an uncut lead pencil. Also upon both of his patent leather shoes were a number of deep imprints shaped like ovals cut off square at one end.

“Now, there is only one district in New York City where a man is bound to receive scars and wounds and indentations of that sort -- and that is along the sidewalks of Twenty-third Street and a portion of Sixth Avenue south of there. I knew from the imprints of trampling French heels on his feet and the marks of countless jabs in the face from umbrellas and parasols carried by women in the shopping district that he had been in conflict with the amazonian troops. And as he was a man of intelligent appearance, I knew he would not have braved such dangers unless he had been dragged thither by his own women folk. Therefore, when he got on the car his anger at the treatment he had received was sufficient to make him keep his seat in spite of his traditions of Southern chivalry.”

“That is all very well,” I said, “but why did you insist upon daughters -- and especially two daughters? Why couldn’t a wife alone have taken him shopping?”

“There had to be daughters,” said Jolnes, calmly. “If he had only a wife, and she near his own age, he could have bluffed her into going alone. If he had a young wife she would prefer to go alone. So there you are.”

“I’ll admit that,” I said; “but, now, why two daughters? And how, in the name of all the prophets, did you guess that one was adopted when he told you he had three?”

“Don’t say guess,” said Jolnes, with a touch of pride in his air; “there is no such word in the lexicon of ratiocination. In Major Ellison’s buttonhole there was a carnation and a rosebud backed by a geranium leaf. No woman ever combined a carnation and a rosebud into a boutonniere. Close your eyes, Whatsup, and give the logic of your imagination a chance. Cannot you see the lovely Adele fastening the carnation to the lapel so that papa may be gay upon the street? And then the romping Edith May dancing up with sisterly jealousy to add her rosebud to the adornment?”

“And then,” I cried, beginning to feel enthusiasm, “when he declared that he had three daughters” --

“I could see,” said Jolnes, “one in the background who added no flower; and I knew that she must be --”

“Adopted!” I broke in. “I give you every credit; but how did you know he was leaving for the South to-night?”

“In his breast pocket,” said the great detective, “something large and oval made a protuberance. Good liquor is scarce on trains, and it is a long journey from New York to Fairfax County.”

“Again, I must bow to you,” I said. “And tell me this, so that my last shred of doubt will be cleared away; why did you decide that he was from Virginia?”

“It was very faint, I admit,” answered Shamrock Jolnes, “but no trained observer could have failed to detect the odour of mint in the car.”



Coming next week, another painful classic.

06 August 2012

Surprise Endings


O. Henry was one of my favorite writers when I was a child.  I loved the surprise endings in each of his tales.  Almost everyone is familiar with some of his short stories, especially "Gift of the Magi" and "Ransom of Red Chief."  My favorite was "Mammon and the Archer." 

Periodically, I survey my universe and eradicate the negatives, which has frequently led to breakups with gentlemen friends. This tends to correspond with "cleaning out my library" which results in my giving away books which I later wish I'd kept.  Inevitably, I've changed my mind and wanted those stories back, (though not the gentlemen friends), so I've bought numerous copies of the Complete Works of O. Henry through the years. I enjoy his work now as much as I ever did.

William Sydney Porter
aka O. Henry
aka Olivier Henry
William Sydney Porter was born in Asheville, North Carolina, but began receiving recognition for his writing under the pseudonym Olivier Henry while living in Texas, where he was convicted of embezzlement and spent time in prison.  Upon his release, he moved to New York City and began writing under the pen name O. Henry

Since his death at age forty-seven, O. Henry has had several supporters offer evidence that he was innocent of the embezzlement.  There is an O. Henry Museum in his honor in Texas. 

Regardless of  his youthful guilt or innocence, O. Henry remains one of my favorite writers and an inspiration for the unexpected ending.  Needless to say, he immediately came to mind when I discovered PARAPROSDOKIANS.

Sir Winston Churchill
PARAPROSDOKIANS are figures of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected and frequently humorous.  Sir Winston Churchill loved them, and I'll bet O. Henry would have, too.

Some examples:

1.  Where there's a will, I want to be in it.

2.  The last thing I want to do is hurt you, but it's still on my list.

3.  Since light travels faster than sound, some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

4.  If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong.

5.  War does not determine who is right--only who is left.

6.  To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.

7.  I thought I wanted a career, turns out I just wanted paychecks.

8.  I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn't work that way, so I stole a bike and prayed for forgiveness.

9.  I didn't say it was your fault; I said I was blaming you.

"I'm sexy and I know it!"
10.  Women will never be equal to men  until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut and still think they are sexy.

11.  A clear conscience is a sign of a fuzzy memory.

12.  You don't need a parachute to skydive; you only need a parachute to skydive twice.

13.  I used to be indecisive; now I'm not so sure.

14.  To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.

15.  Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

16.  Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

17.  Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

18.  I am neither for nor against apathy.

19. Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.

20.  Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it into a fruit salad.




How about you?  Do you have a favorite of the twenty PARAPROSDOKIANS above or perhaps one not listed?  Better yet, make one up and share it!

Until we meet again. . . take care of YOU!







09 January 2012

Leave a Message



Two weeks ago, I asked if anyone wanted to share a story song or answer a new question. Rob Lopresti sent me an excellent song, which is available on the Internet if you query him about it. No one tried to guess the commonality between Abraham Lincoln and Edgar Allan Poe, so we'll move right along.

One week ago, 02/Jan/12, Leigh shared Jan Grape's answering machine message in Comments. In a flat, no-nonsense voice Jan's phone answers with this:
You have the right to remain silent.Anything you say may be taken down and used in my next book.If you understand these rights, please leave a message.
Jan's is now my favorite, though one of my long-time memorable machines said:
Yeah, this is Aaron. I'm not sure if I'm home or not, but I know I've lost my telephone again. If it's around here and I'm home, I may find it and answer before you finish your message. If not, I'll be sure to call you back whenever I'm home and can find the phone at the same time.
I loved that because I'm notorious for misplacing the cordless phone on my desk under a thousand pieces of paper. (That's hyperbole, but I exaggerate all the time. Being a fiction writer is like being given a license to lie.)

This was my message years ago, in a voice like Velma's (or Roxanne's if you're familiar with the Callie Parrish mysteries):
You've reached the machine, so there's no doubt
I'm either busy or out and about,
So leave your name and number, too
And I promise I'll get back to you.
I confess there was a whole lotta promise in the word "promise." Chuck Cannon, Nashville songwriter and performer, used to call my house just to listen to my machine. He also passed the number to friends, so I'd receive messages like, "Didn't want anything. Chuck Cannon gave me your number so I could hear your message." I suppose I should be grateful nobody wrote it on a restroom wall in Nashville!

This afternoon, my grandson texted his dad to tell him we were entering the gate to their house. His dad was home. He opened the door, stood there, and greeted us as we pulled 'round the drive. Just another example of generation differences. I would have called, but they text.

I used to say that I neither give nor take guilt trips. Now I say I neither text nor read text messages. I actually disposed of my cell phone a year ago and have enjoyed being less accessible. I've loved driving without interruption--making up songs and working out plots as I travel. Of course, that changed after Mom's fall. The new cell is with me at all times so the rehab center can reach me.

Cell phones are ultra sophisticated these days with all kinds of apps, but landlines remain my preferred telephone communication. Cell phones usually have a mechanical voice referring to the owner by number or just a quick name blurbed in when they tell you to leave a message. I like to hear a human voice that reflects an individual's personality.

My answering machine is and was my friend. Messages work both ways. My machine gives a message to the caller. The caller leaves a message for me. I learned about my first book contract when I returned from shopping and had this message. "This is your agent Jeff. When do you check your email? I've been trying for days to let you know we have an offer from Berkley for three books with a nice advance. Call me at ### ### ####." (I now check email at least once a day.)

Another great message was "This is Melanie Howard with Harland Howard Music. I listened to your demo, and we want to put a hold on one of your songs. Call me at ### ### ####."

Both of those calls came on days when I'd become so discouraged that I was considering giving up writing.

Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines the noun "message'' as a "communication by writing, by speech, or by symbols." By that definition, all of the Sleuthsayers are involved in messages each time we write a story, novel, essay, poem or song.

Some of us grew up dreaming of writing the Great American Novel. I was one of those kids, but I don't think some cozy-like Callie Parrish mysteries and a southern thriller quite fill the bill. However, I've been thinking this week about messages, and a writer doesn't have to write the Great American Novel to leave a message. In fact, it's not even necessary to write a novel. Think of the timeless messages in Guy de Maupassant's short story "The Necklace" or O Henry's "Gift of the Magi," and for Christians, the message in "Amazing Grace." Though much less global, I'm leaving a message every time a reader "falls into" what I've written or laughs at Callie and Jane.

My wish for all Sleuthsayers and readers for 2012 is that we leave memorable messages.

Until we meet again… take care of YOU.