So far, my trip to the fictional (and uncanny) town of Four Corners has been fun. The first tale, Ghoul’s Paradise, was in line with my type of mystery. It featured an impossible crime replete with elements of ghastly horror. It also had a chain of murder (not carried out with any rigor but hey, we’re dealing with a short story), a fantastic will, and zombies. The fact that the solution was not sensational didn’t bother me much. The second story, The Man Who Hated Lincoln, was not my sort of mystery, but I enjoyed it all the same. What it lacked in problem-investigation-solution, it made up for in intensity.
This week brings us There are Smiles that Make you Happy. It is my favorite of the three stories and yet I must make one thing perfectly clear to you. I’ll do it now to get it out of the way. The misdirection presented here is worthless. I don’t think it would fool a 10-year-old. This sort of thing has been done forever with better results — my favorite is in The Madman’s Room where Halter pulls off the deception masterfully in one line! Roscoe doesn’t even try. When I read the event (I cannot even call it attempted deception), I had the urge to toss the book aside. But this story turns out to deliver something else, something quite satisfying.
There are different types of suspense. The author can give clues but withhold information and the suspense will come from the reader trying to deduce the plot. This is the most typical tactic — at least with the mysteries that I like to read. Another tactic is when the author gives the information and the suspense will come from the reader not knowing how things will play out. Vertigo famously uses both types of suspense. Technically, Smiles is a clue-based mystery, but it ends up using the other tactic. What’s a bit odd is that this is not really an inverted mystery. It’s a poetic tale of macabre happenings — a sort of love child of Flannery O’Connor and Edgar Allen Poe.
Our narrator is an 11-year-old boy (Bud) and we truly see the events of the story through his eyes. A pity he doesn’t see things quite so clearly. Roscoe does a fantastic job of limiting his understanding. The “adults” are often whispering things that Bud only catches in passing. He hears half of the conversation and though it hints at something dreadful, he can’t piece together the whole. Bud is in love with his 19-year-old cousin Mary Farwell. It’s the type of longing to which most of us can relate. Mary is young enough to still relate to Bud, but she’s also oh-so-cool in the early stages of adulthood.
Bud loves another person too. That would be “Smiling” Charlie Knight, a crooner who’s a free spirit with gold teeth and lots of rock-star energy. Everybody loves Charlie. The local kids follow him around and women swoon after him. Mary certainly likes him, but she also has feelings for the local dentist with the fantastic name Horace Danglers. The love triangle between Mary, Charlie, and Horace drives the first half of the story. Charlie goes off to Europe to fight in the war. He disappears and is presumed dead. Mary agrees to wed Horace and the town prepares for a big ceremony.
But then Charlie returns. Back from the dead with a story about amnesia and time spent recovering. He looks different, gaunt and frail, but he’s still got those gold teeth. Soon, he vanishes again and the wedding is called off, for Mary can’t rightly marry Horace while Charlie is still around. But where is he? Why did he stop in town and then disappear? Does anyone else find it amusing that a dentist named Danglers has a rivalry with “Smiling” Charlie? All fine questions.
Roscoe gets a lot of mileage from the narrator’s innocence. Bud unknowingly drifts into danger, leading the story to a tense climax atop a cliff. It’s here that Roscoe’s plotting ability really shines. The story reveals a complexity I hadn’t considered. Granted, some of that complexity is because it was not clued, but a lot of it has to do with Roscoe’s ability to weave his tale with revelations at the proper time. His pitch-perfect sense of place (a constant in everything I’ve read from him) is here matched by the measurement of his plotting. The mystery is unraveled by adults, but it’s experienced by a child. This is terrific stuff.