Given the nature of the more recent works we’ve read (Huckleberry Finn, for example), I had almost forgotten that Mark Twain was known as a humorous first and foremost, and that his satire is in addition, rather than in spite, of that.
A Double-Barreled Detective Story was one of the stories Twain penned during the detective boom of the late Victorian period, a time when Britain couldn’t get enough of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. What began as a simple digression in Tramps Abroad actually became a piece in a collection of detective tales published in 1882, the result of several years of him dipping his toe in the genre. While it’s unsure if his interest began satirically or through genuine interest, the result of this interest intersected with the rising popularity of True Crime, in which many citizens followed the work of detectives such as the Pinkerton Detective Agency as if they were the characters in their fiction novels. Like many areas of popular culture during the Victorian period, Twain was quick to express his thoughts on such a cultural phenomenon with a humorous burlesque of such a situation as well as provide subtle social commentary on the dangers of the ideological implications surrounding the idolization of detective work and modern technology.
Much like the structure of A Double-Barreled Detective Story itself, Twain takes the conventional expectations of the detective genre and inverts them. Unlike the two part structure of Sherlock Holmes novels that typically involve a “mystery” and then a “revenge” plot that follows, Twain’s work begins with a revenge plot that leads to a mystery. The structure sets the foundation for the work that the text performs, which takes common conventions of the detective genre and flips in a way that reflects back on the society that endorses them. After the explosion that claims the life of the silver-miner Flint Buckner, the “Extraordinary Man” Sherlock Holmes investigates arbitrary “clues” in the crime scene using a ridiculous selection of scientific gadgets, including a “pocket-aneroid” (Twain 118). While The Stolen White Elephant also hinted at the idea, Detective Story directly addresses the effect of society’s preoccupation with conveniently placed clues, a reminder that detail-oriented focus on “facts” doesn’t make the conclusions gained from an inaccurate interpretation infallible. The excessive focus on clue collection and the absurd amount of portable “investigation tools” Holmes manages to include (while gaining nothing of relevance to the real perpetrator’s identity from doing so) jabs at the cultural reliance on science and logic as a basis for solving crimes that involve people’s lives. Science and all the logic in the world is not what led the true killer to being revealed, but simply a strong sense of smell, a trait honed by a man who was ruled by his emotions rather than the robotic logic so often praised in the personalities of fictive detectives.Twain, an investor in innovative technology himself, doesn’t seem to be completely denouncing the importance of technology as a whole. In another work, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, it is the innovative technology of fingerprinting that ultimately solves the case plaguing the novel. What Twain seems to be critiquing is the Victorian fascination with technology, and the idea that using that technology can, itself, solve problems through the expectations projected that it and the detective that utilize it could never be wrong.