In Medias Res

I’m taking a break from other topics to discuss one of my favorite writers, J. S. Fletcher. The Latin term in medias res means “in the middle of things,” as when an author undertakes his narrative somewhere other than “in the beginning…” He relies on flashbacks to bring his readers up to speed. Take for example the opening to Fletcher’s tale “The Inner Room” (The Massingham Butterfly, 1926):

Pembridge had purposely chosen a late, but not the latest train of the evening by which to go down to Albansbury. The last train was always full of people returning from London theatres. It would be impossible, travelling by it, to avoid falling under the notice of many eyes, and he had good reasons for wishing to be seen by as few persons as possible.

Fletcher has captured our interest. We want to know why this fellow, a rogue by implication, prefers to travel unnoticed. Fortunately the author’s discussion of events leading up to this point is brief and engaging. If there’s anything worse, in my mind, than a meandering “artsy” narrative that takes forever to get to the action, it’s a tale that begins promisingly enough then gets stuck in a lot of dull backtracking.

In Fletcher’s short stories every sentence packs the right amount of detail and interest. Fletcher is also one of the few authors who manages to convey the facets of place in a convincing manner, particularly nature scenes. Many writers can handle the urban setting well enough. But for whatever reason, the natural landscape is more elusive. Too many authors fall back on cliché phrases about shrubs, twittering birds, colorful flowers and billowing clouds… and it makes no impression whatsoever.

But I only mention this as an aside. To return to Fletcher’s story “The Inner Room,” it is one of his more uncanny tales, with a hidden trap reminiscent of Poe; though the denouement is not nearly so gruesome as Poe. (Admittedly Fletcher’s Victorian/Edwardian sense of courtesy, both stylistically and morally, is one of the things that appeals to me.)

His tales are often lighthearted, like the title story “The Massingham Butterfly” in which it turns out that a theft is not a theft at all, but the work of a protective old uncle who senses his nephew and wife are incapable of taking care of a valuable piece of heirloom jewelry, for which he substitutes a clever imitation. This leads to all sorts of complications and clever sleuthing. The story wraps up with the uncle explaining his motives and then fussily returning to his study and stacks of books, declaring: “Anything more? Then please go away, all of you—I am at a very interesting point in my paper on the reason why the early Britons wore no clothes.”

Related posts: Fiction Holiday, Preserving Endangered Detective Novels and More English Mysteries.

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