Moral Clues, Moral Tales

Consider these stories:

  • A bottle of vitriolic acid with no stopper is the only clue at a murder scene. The murderer is discovered when a stolen check is found to be discolored, and a scientific experiment reveals that the discoloration was caused by vitriolic acid. The same markings are found on the guilty party’s pocket, where he had kept the stopper — and the murderer is revealed.
  • A years-old robbery is solved, and a fortune is restored, when one piece of stolen property resurfaces, and is recognized as part of a set. The set is traced back to the thief.
  • A treasonous remark is printed on a china vase, and the artist is wrongly accused. At the trial his lawyer pieces together the clues, calling as witnesses several men involved in making the vase and outlining the china-making process.

What these stories have in common is that each narrates a crime. The narrative unfolds as the clues are discovered and the guilty party revealed. These are features of the detective story, a genre that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century with Edgar Allen Poe, became famous in the Victorian period, and took off in the twentieth century in the hands of writers like Agatha Christie, Dashiel Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. TV shows like Law and Order and CSI descend from this genre, and none of the plots above would be out of place in an episode.

But these plots aren’t from detective stories at all. They’re from Maria Edgeworth’s Moral Tales for Young People (1800), and they’re not at all atypical. Not all of her tales deal with crimes, but many are resolved through clues like marked coins (in “Lazy Lawrence” and “The Orphans”) or recognizable objects (in “The White Pigeon” and “The Good French Governess”). Take “The Prussian Vase,” for example — the third of the plots given above (the first two are “Forester” and “The Good Aunt.”) In this story Augustus Laniska is supposed to write “Frederick the Great” on the bottom of the eponymous vase, but when it is printed it reads “Frederick the Great tyrant,” and Laniska is accused of treason. The second half of the story consists of Laniska’s trial, as his friend Albert comes to his defense. Using his knowledge of the process for making china, Albert pieces together the clues to reveal that a Jew named Solomon wrote the word “tyrant” in order to revenge himself on Laniska.

Before he reveals these clues and proves Laniska’s innocence, however, Albert tells the jury, “To you, judges of my friend, all the probabilities of his supposed guilt have been stated. Weigh and compare them with those, which I shall produce in favour of his innocence. His education, his character, his understanding, are all in his favour . . . The extreme improbability, that any man, in the situation, which the character, habits, and capacity of count Laniska, should have acted in this manner, amounts, in my judgment, almost to a moral impossibility.” Albert undertakes Laniska’s defense — and must wager his own freedom to do so — based solely on his interpretation of Laniska’s character. Like Sherlock Holmes, Albert omits what he considers impossible (that Laniska is guilty) and from there collects the clues that prove his friend’s innocence.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, moral tales have their own narrative conventions, requiring readers to pick up on clues about characters — early in the story a reader has to know whom to emulate, whom to avoid (categories I’ve termed mimetic and emetic, respectively). Edgeworth was widely read throughout the nineteenth century, both in England and in America. And her tales, both for children and for adults, are credited in the history of the short story, the genre that would introduce the detective to the literary world. What does it mean, then, that her tales are built from clues, the formal feature that by 1900 (as Franco Morretti has argued) comes to characterize the best detective stories? This isn’t a question I’ve yet taken up — but I plan to.

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