Saturday, March 25, 2017

“Is the bull-fight a religious service?” - late Twain parodies Sherlock Holmes and I don't know what else

Two examples now of books Twain did finish in his old age, two miniature novels, A Double Barreled Detective Story (1902) and A Horse’s Tale (1906).  “Books,” “novels.”  I was confused for a while.  In editions of Twain’s Complete Stories, these texts are forty or fifty pages long – were those abridgments?  No, these pieces were published as little “books” with huge margins and almost no words per page.  I read them both in the Google Books scans of the original editions, mostly to see the illustrations, and boy did the pages fly by, in the electronic sense.

The illustrations are not worth seeking out, unfortunately.  That is Sherlock Holmes in the upper left corner, threatened by American frontier mob justice.  A Double Barreled Detective Story is in large part a Sherlock Holmes parody.  The famous non-fictional celebrity detective arrives in a Nevada mining town to visit his nephew – and why not – just as the nephew has determined to murder his employer:

“Uncle Sherlock!  The mean luck of it! – that he should come just when…”  He dropped into a reverie, and presently said to himself: “But what’s the use of being afraid of him?  Anybody that knows him the way I do knows he can’t detect a crime, except when he plans it all out beforehand and arranges the clews and hires some fellow to commit it according to instructions.”  (p. 96, ellipses in original)

This is the conceit of the story, more or less.  Holmes makes wild, unfounded accusations, while another character, who has a kind of tracking superpower, solves the crime, to the extent that there is a crime to solve.  If only this were funnier.  The story of the super-tracker involves a lifelong, cross-continental search for revenge against his father, who tortured and humiliated the man’s mother; this story crosses paths with the Holmes story.   This story was a puzzler, even aside from the copyright issues.  Maybe something besides Holmes is being parodied.

That is definitely the case with A Horses’ Tale.  Much of it is narrated by the horse of Buffalo Bill Cody, during his days with U.S. cavalry, before the Wild West show.  Buffalo Bill is barely present.  Most of the story is about a nine-year-old Spanish orphan girl who arrives at the Western fort and instantly charms everyone, general and black servant, horse and dog.

Some of the scenes with the sweet little girl are nigh on unreadable.  I hope they are parody.

The story takes a strange turn when, for no discernible reason, a couple of characters beginning discussing Spanish bullfights in the cruelest possible fashion (“’I have laughed till the tears ran down my cheeks to see it,’” 128).  The horses discuss the bullfight, too:

“Is the bull-fight a religious service?”

“I think so.  I have heard so.  It is held on Sunday.” (130)

And one horse tells another that he is pretty sure that horses do not go to heaven with men – his father “believed we do not have to go there unless we deserve it.”  Now that is the late Twain I have gotten to know.

Suddenly –

“Oh no, I will have to avert my gaze.  The cruel critic is about to ruin – spoil, even –  this novel by revealing its suspenseful twist.”

“What?  You’re not going to read this story!  Why would you read this?  What do you care?”

“Oh you don’t know that.  I might.”

“Oh you will not.”

– suddenly the horse and little girl go to Spain, where the horse is stolen and in a single chapter suffers the torments of Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), ending in a bullfighting ring, where he is horribly, graphically, killed by a bull.  The little girl happens to be in the audience – she recognizes her beloved horse – she rushes down to the horse – she is killed by a bull!  What!  The girl had been a bugler back at the fort, and the story has quite a bit of embedded music – military bugle calls – so the story ends with “Taps.”

Twain wrote A Horse’s Tale as anti-bullfight propaganda, but boy did he have a strange way of making his case.


  1. That's so utterly weird I would have suspected you of making it up if you hadn't provided the images. Boy, Twain was a weird duck. And he just kept getting weirder.

  2. I felt this stuff required an extra level of evidence. So weird.