The Inexplicable Vice Is Revealed as a Virtue
Detective Johnson, who has served the city long and honorably, is suddenly dismissed from the Police Force without public explanation. Rumors circulate that Johnson was too friendly with some unsavory underworld characters. To the public eye, Johnson seems to be taking his dismissal hard: he is hanging out in bars, drunkenly swearing to have revenge on the Commissioner and the other high municipal officials responsible for his dismissal. Before long, Johnson is approached by members of a highly organized syndicate which has terrorized the city for years. They proposition him. He accepts. By dint of seemingly faithful service to the syndicate, Johnson is finally taken into the full confidence of the gangsters. As soon as he has garnered enough evidence to send the syndicate members to jail, he is able to show his true colors—and is forgiven by his family, friends, and fellow policemen, most of whom had been convinced that he had lost all sense of decency. The Mayor gives Johnson a citation, and Johnson is promoted to the rank of Inspector. Then there is the fellow who has been enlisted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to join the Communist Party. He is forbidden to tell anyone of his mission, not his wife, his mother, his neighbors. . . . And there is the soldier who apparently has been dishonorably discharged from the Army and proceeds to offer his services to the enemy—in order, of course, to do intelligence work for his own country.
The pull and tug of "inexplicable-vice" stories derives from the necessity of the hero keeping the truth from his loved ones and the consequent hardship of suffering their contempt. The story ends when the hero at last is permitted to explain the situation and regain the lost love and respect. The actual accomplishment of the hero's mission is only a secondary matter in these stories, and often can be handled quite cavalierly by the writer. The interest of the reader is pointedly directed toward the hero's embarrassment and anguish at having to feign dishonor or defection. Of course, there are stories in the slicks, and plenty of them, in which the reader's attention is focused almost exclusively on the hero's accomplishment of a mission. They will be discussed at length later. The point being made here is that these stories which contain the "inexplicable- vice" complication need not have original or exciting movement. Popular stories are almost invariably built around either a physical or an emotional problem—rarely both. A story of emotional stress will certainly have its physical movement, but most often this tends to be trite or insubstantial.
And the story primarily of physical movement—say, a derring-do adventure piece—will have its descriptions of fear and pain and uncertainty, but they will receive straight, standard handling. This stingyness is not a necessity; it is merely sufficiently in evidence to seem a virtue. It might be well to point out here a fact which will become more and more apparent the further you read into slick plot types. The stories of physical movement mentioned above—mechanical-action pieces which once filled all the pulps—are in a minority in the slicks and generally seem to be on the decline. Explain it by the everincreasing acquaintance of the public with Freudian and pseudo-Freudian theory or however you will, but the psychic difficulty is the stock-in-trade of today's slick story. In reference to the inexplicable-vice stories, this fact is important. The effort and ingenuity of the writer must be expended not on the dangers the hero meets in the prosecution of his mission or the courage and fortitude he manifests but on the doubt and anxiety he feels at being forced to mislead his loved ones—be it the girl whom the hero loves and chances to lose because of his enforced silence, or a dying mother who the hero fears may pass on, thinking ill of her son, or children who must bear the scorn of their companions on the hero's account. With all stories for the slicks, the writer must first decide what one question, what one mood he wishes to create, and then turn all his energies to that task. In this type of story, the question is HOW and WHEN will the hero be able to make the truth known and the mood is one of turmoil and torment. With that in mind, the initial task of the writer is to make a convincing case for the hero misleading his loved ones. Then his spiritual pain must be brought to a point almost beyond bearing. Finally, the revelation must come swiftly, cleanly, and immediately following upon the hero's worst crisis. In the majority of stories dealing with an "inexplicable vice," the reader is made acquainted with the true allegiance of the hero at the very outset. But there is an interesting variation which makes for an extraordinarily strong and suspenseful story. In the variation, an explanation of the vice is kept not only from the characters within the story framework but from the reader as well. And, of course, the primary question arising in the reader's mind changes from HOW and WHEN will the hero be able to make his true nature known to a simple WHY is a seemingly good man acting this way. But first an example. A broken-down jockey arrives at a big-time track and persuades a wealthy horse owner to give him a tryout, even though his only experience has been restricted to second-rate tracks. The jockey makes out well, is given steady work, and begins to collect large purses. Nonetheless, he and his son continue to dress shabbily, to eat and live cheaply. The jockey, who otherwise seems to be a likable fellow, comes in for a good deal of criticism from his stablemates for not taking better care of the boy. At the close, it is revealed that the jockey had only a short time to live and wanted to save enough money before he died to take care of his son after he was gone.
There's the extra premium of the stable owner adopting the boy after the jockey's death, and the intensifier of the jockey having further shortened his life by his exhaustive riding at the end. But the suspense, the reason for the reader finishing the story, lies in the mystery of the jockey's parsimonious behavior. Pains must be taken in a tale such as this to surround the single, enigmatic vice with an abundance of virtues, not only for the sake of contrast but to create an interesting mystery. If an ordinary chap were to act viciously in some single respect, neither the reader nor the supporting players in the story would be much puzzled. But when a fine fellow becomes needlessly cruel, unsympathetic, petty, miserly, or unaffectionate, curiosity is stimulated. In these two types of "inexplicable-vice" stories, there is a nice contrast made between two of the three suspense questions at the writer's disposal. When the reader is aware of the reason for the hero's defection, the question HOW is posed. How will the hero accomplish his mission and consequently be free to counter the false impression he has been forced to give? At no point is there a serious doubt in the reader's mind that the hero will accomplish his mission. The only question concerns the method. As a result, it is up to the writer to play a delaying action against the accomplishment of the mission, injecting at every opportunity added cause for the hero's embarrassment. When the explanation of the vice is withheld from the reader the question is a simple, straightforward WHAT. What could possibly lead such a man as the hero to be so detestable, so cowardly, so ignoble? The success of such a story does not depend on the writer eliciting the reader's sympathies (always a tricky and difficult business when dealing with a mass audience). He must be able to mystify the reader. The problems of genuinely mystifying the reader will be discussed under the "puzzling-identity" category. Category:information