WILLIAM FAULKNER (1897-1962)
When William Faulkner, a Nobel laureate in literature, turned his hand to writing «An Error in Chemistry,» it was in response to the First Short-Story Contest, held by «Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine» in 1946. Faulkner wrote his story with the prize money in mind. The pool of contestants was particularly talented. Faulkner tied with six others for second prize.
That Faulkner went on to write five more stories, collected in the anthology «Knight's Gambit,» and a novel, «Intruder in the Dust,» featuring series character Uncle Gavin Stevens proves that the detective form has long attracted first-rate writers. In the introduction to «An Error in Chemistry» in «Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,» Queen compares Faulkner's strong moral sense with that of Melville Davisson Post. Whether or not Faulkner was acquainted with Post's work is uncertain, but Queen is on the mark in pointing out the similarities between the two.
Born William Falkner (he was to change the spelling of his name as a young man) in New Albany, Mississippi, he was the great-grandson of a colourful character, William Clark Falkner, who was a lawyer, planter, railroad builder, novelist, poet, playwright, and travel writer. Faulkner himself studied for two years at the University of Mississippi, served in World War I in both the Canadian Flying Corps and the British Royal Air Force, worked at a number of jobs including postmaster, and launched his literary career in 1924 with «The Marble faun,» a book of poetry. He then began his long list of unforgettable novels about the corruption and decadence of southern values and southern families.
«An Error in Chemistry» offers a fascinating look at what a writer of Faulkner's calibre can do with a form that-when Faulkner tried his hand at it-was still dominated by the depiction of 'ratiocination.' There is little doubt that Faulkner had learned from earlier writers of detective fiction. For example, his use of Uncle Gavin Stevens as a foil for the sheriff's thinking brings to mind Dr. John H. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. The story begins with a puzzle, focuses on it throughout, and uses a clue that any reader can see to provide the solution. But it is a superlative story because of its Faulknerian qualities-the dark and twisted pride motivating the criminal, the pathos, the authentic sound of the dialogue, the local colour, and the provincial stage on which Faulkner plays out his little drama.
From its thought-provoking title to the biblical references at its close, «An Error in Chemistry» demonstrates that a tale of detection can rise to the level of true tragedy featuring, as Faulkner puts it, "that triumvirate of murderer, victim, and bereaved." In Faulkner's hands, murder is not merely the occasion to determine whodunit; violent death gives substance to the victim.