Monday, October 30, 2017
In the Fog by Richard Harding Davis
Dining room tales of murder and larceny
In the Fog is a novella by Richard Harding Davis, one of America’s most popular writers in both journalism and fiction from the 1890s through the First World War. Published in 1901, In the Fog is a mystery story, or rather three mystery stories. On a foggy London night, a small group of gentlemen gather at an exclusive club and swap stories over the dinner table. The book is divided into three somewhat lengthy short stories, each of which is told by a different patron of the club, yet all of which relate to the same people and events. Together these three tales, combined with the goings-on among the members of the club, form an intricate and innovative mystery.
When the men in the club—some regulars, some strangers—begin to engage in small talk, it is revealed that one of the gentlemen—Sir Andrew, a member of Parliament—is a fan of detective fiction. This inspires a visiting American naval attaché to reveal a mysterious adventure he undertook the previous evening. Out walking in London, he became lost in the impenetrable fog and wandered into a random house seeking directions. There he stumbled upon two dead bodies, apparently murdered just moments before his arrival. The naval attaché provides a detailed account of his unusual experience, thereby giving his listeners the opportunity to speculate on the identity and motive of the murderer. In turn, two other speakers step up to relate their own narratives pertaining to persons involved in the case. Davis does a fine job of drawing the reader into the atmosphere of the club, as if you were sitting at the lamplit table in evening dress, enjoying the warmth of the fireplace and sipping a Scotch with the storytellers.
The biggest problem with In the Fog is that the second story is almost completely pointless. Its relationship to the main narrative of the murder mystery is only tangential. It is so irrelevant, in fact, that upon completion of the story, one of the characters in the club even pipes up to ask, Why did you waste my time with this? The third story, however, returns to the murder and gets things properly back on track. Davis caps his novella off with a clever ending that ties all the loose ends together into an ingenious package. The resolution of the mystery involves about four or five twists, some of which are surprises and some of which aren’t. Depending on the reader, the conclusion may inspire a shocking eureka moment, a satisfying chuckle, or an I-should-have-known eye roll.
Though In the Fog was published during the heyday of Sherlock Holmes, to his credit Davis doesn’t settle for the detective-fiction template established by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but pushes the envelope to make the genre his own. With the exception of its (perhaps deliberately) meandering mid-section, In the Fog is a well-crafted piece of mystery fiction. It may not be as baffling as some of the better cases of Sherlock Holmes, but it is certainly well worth a read.
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