A publicity agent for a motion picture studio is ordered by is firm's promotion director to meet in New York six headhunting cannibals who are being shipped over from Africa to public ize a recent African picture the studio has made. Along with the cannibals, he is to meet the young actress who is the star of the film and somehow transport the seven of them to Chicago where the picture's publicity campaign is to begin. Naturally, any news stories he can whip up on the way will be appreciated. To make matters more difficult, the Midwest is currently inundated by seasonal floods.
The enterprising young publicity agent intends to turn the catastrophe to his own ends by telling the press that the cannibals escaped, are fearfully dangerous, and are at large in the flooded areas. In the meantime, the promotion director, the agent's boss, receives word that the cannibals who he had understood were actually harmless are in reality genuine headhunters. He tries to get word to the agent before he begins his trip. But too late—the agent has started cross-country in a touring car.
The party is marooned in the flooded area, and it turns out that the cannibals—not cannibals at all, —save the populace of an entire town through their resourcefulness. The publicity obtained becau se of the rescue surpasses all expectations. The party gets safely t o Chicago. All is well. The mystery writer will do his darnedest to conceal the criminal, then give his detective genius so that the criminal can be found out. The "impossible-assignment " story relies on the same kind of trick. Instead of a crime having been committed, a hero assumes an assignment. Difficulty upon difficulty is put in the way of the hero so that he can see no way clear to accomplishing his mission. Finally, instead of the detective using the subtlest clues to identify the criminal, astounding good fortune or the hero's extraordinary inventiveness see him through his impossible assignment.
Just as the reader of the mystery never for a moment doubts that the detective will reveal the criminal, so the reader of the "impossible-assignment " tale is at all times certain that, despite the seeming impossibility of the hero's task, he will accomplish it. In a sense, the impossible assignment stories have largely taken the place of the who-dun-its. Both types of story are synthetic, chess-game affairs in which only the show of emotional entanglements are made. No real anxiety is ever ar oused for the hero. But just as the magician would never admit to the fact that he is not really cutting the woman °n the stage in half, so the writer must never admit that his hero has a chance of accomplishing his assignment. It's a tried -and-true theatrical mannerism which the audience has come to expect and which will disappoint by its absence. A young, promising member of an engineering firm is by his boss back to his alma mater to sign up a graduatsienngt engineer for the company. Engineers have become intolerably scarce. None but the biggest firms seems to be able to get enough of them. The scout's job is made doubly difficult by two facts: his firm is a small one, and the student he has been sent to get is top man in his class.
The scout's first stop on reaching the campus is at his old frat house. And, although he is only thirty-one and considers himself still a boy, he is immediately made to feel like an old man by the distant, respectful treatment he gets from the frat members. He gets the lowdown on the prize engineering student, though, and makes his first move by looking up the student's girl. His situation is further complicated when he promptly falls in love with the girl. After various tries with both the girl and the prize student, he about gives up on both counts, when the girl finally convinces the student to go with the scout's firm, and the girl herself admits her affection for the scout. As a premium, three additional students sign up with the firm along with the top man.
Not all, not even a majority, of these "impossible-assignment" stories are as lighthearted as the two described. The plot-type may concern a soldier who undertakes a behind the-lines mission when the chances of returning to safety are negligible; or a detective who goes out singlehanded to get a criminal gang which murdered a friend; or the hunter who insists on tracking down the killer tiger no one else has been able to capture.
This type of assignment is not merely dangerous, but impossible by virtue of the fact either that the hero himself does not believe it can be accomplished, or that no one in the story but the hero believes it can be accomplished. If the hero himself doubts that the feat can be done, the writer must take pains to provide him with an unusual motive for undertaking the business. A strong sense of duty is good, the behest of another, perhaps even the desire to prove the very impossibility of the assignment is sufficient. A suggestion and a warning. Slick editors and readers are always open to gentle parodies and unexpected switches. To turn a standard slick story-type inside out successfully (successfully according to slick standards) is always welcome. Such tricks in respect to impossible-assignment stories would dictate that the assignment not be accomplished, after the writer has seemed to go through all the motions of writing a standard product. The warning: a reader must not be tricked unfairly. If the writer is certain that leaving an assignment unaccomplished will improv e his story, or even make his story, he must gently telegrap h the fact to the reader. If a reader, on finishing a story, says in outrage, "What!", the story is a failure. If he says in sudden recognition, "Of courser, it's a success.