Tom Sawyer, Detective

Tom Sawyer, Detective, a novella written by Mark Twain and published in 1896, was a parody of mystery stories, especially the Sherlock Holmes tales of Arthur Conan Doyle, which began to appear in 1887. Set in Arkansas, the novel was adapted into a movie in 1938.

In the mid-1890s, Mark Twain, near bankruptcy after unwise investments, returned to his popular characters Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to revive his fortunes. He wrote Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), a parody of the travel adventures of Jules Verne, and began a novel to be titled Tom Sawyer among the Indians, which was never completed. Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896) had an unusual origin. While visiting Europe in late 1894, Twain had been told the plot of a Danish novel, The Rector of Veilbye (1829) by Steen Blicher, which relayed the tale of a real seventeenth-century Danish pastor, Soren Jensen Quist, who was executed for a murder he did not commit. Twain transferred the story’s premise to antebellum Arkansas in Tom Sawyer, Detective, which he wrote in three weeks in early 1895. Twain had previously introduced Tom Sawyer’s uncle Silas Phelps and his wife, Sally, who had a small cotton plantation in the Arkansas Delta, in Chapter 32 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).

The novella Tom Sawyer, Detective, published first in a magazine and then as a book in late 1896, has a loosely knit plot. On a steamboat voyage from Missouri to Arkansas, Tom and Huck meet Jake Dunlap, a thief who has stolen diamonds from other crooks, who are hunting him. The boys help Jake escape and then reach the farm of Tom’s Uncle Silas, a clergyman as well as a farmer. Silas is harassed by Jake’s brother Brace Dunlap, a rich farmer who is trying to force Silas’s daughter Benny to marry him. Brace also coerces Silas to employ Jubiter, Jake’s brutish, surly twin brother. A body is found, and Silas is accused of Jubiter’s murder. At his trial, Tom cleverly exposes who killed whom. The tale is told by Huck in his regional dialect.

Critics have not been impressed by the novella. In The Mark Twain Encyclopedia, John C. Gerber wrote that the book “was frankly cobbled together” in haste, and as a result “the minor characters are pasteboard, and Tom and Huck are such exaggerated versions of Holmes and Watson that they become ridiculous.” (Some modern critics have likewise claimed that the Arkansas chapters at the end of Huck Finn are the only poorly conceived section of Twain’s masterpiece.)

In the late 1930s, Hollywood made several films based on popular works by Twain. Warner Bros. made The Prince and the Pauper (1937) with Errol Flynn, followed by Selznick International Pictures’ The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) and MGM’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939), starring Mickey Rooney as Huck. The least-remembered movie in this cycle was Paramount’s Tom Sawyer, Detective (1938), the only film of the novella. Louis King, a prolific director of B movies, made the 68-minute black-and-white film in California, starring Billy Cook as Tom and Donald O’Connor as Huck. Child star Cook had no adult career, but O’Connor went on to adult roles, including in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and the Francis the Talking Mule movies.

Screenwriters Stuart Anthony, Lewis R. Foster, and Robert Yost did a clever job simplifying Twain’s complicated story. The strange names Jubiter and Benny become Jupiter and Ruth. In the novella, Benny does little but bemoan her family’s misfortunes, and the reader is merely told that she rejects Brace Dunlap’s advances. In the movie, Ruth has more to do. She is shown rebuffing Brace and has a boyfriend of her own choosing. The film does not use a racial slur that Twain uses constantly. The movie also omits the word “dummy,” which Twain uses for a character who pretends to be deaf-mute. While the novella does not provide a date for the story, the film features excited talk about the California Gold Rush, establishing that it is set in 1849.

King’s movie presents a pleasant view of antebellum rural Arkansas, while Twain’s book paints a darker, satirical picture. The film opens with a friendly village picnic. There are two slaves with a few lines of dialogue. They like the virtuous Phelpses, dislike the villainous Dunlaps, and make no complaints about their own status. (One of the slaves is played by Etta McDaniel, sister of Hattie McDaniel, who won an Oscar for playing Mammy in 1939’s Gone with the Wind.) Both the book and the film make clear that Tom and Huck are deathly afraid of ghosts. The screenwriters added a scene not in the novella, in which Tom and Huck are locked in a tomb overnight.

In the movie, Silas has a capable lawyer (who is also Ruth’s boyfriend). In the novella, Silas’s lawyer is “only a mud-turtle of a back-settlement lawyer and didn’t know enough to come in when it rains, as the saying is.” In the film, the only villains are the three Dunlaps and two out-of-town crooks who stole the diamonds that Jake then stole from them. In Twain’s novella, no fewer than four local men accept bribes from Brace Dunlap to perjure themselves in order to hang saintly Uncle Silas. Dunlap and the perjurers are punished when “the judge had them up for trial and jailed the whole lot.” After Silas is saved, Twain writes that Silas “preached them the blamedest jumbledest sermon you ever struck, and would tangle you up so you couldn’t find your way home in daylight; but the people never let on but that they thought it was the clearest and brightest and elegantest sermon that ever was.” In the movie, Silas is easily befuddled, but the film does not reflect Twain’s anticlericalism—Silas’s religion and his congregation are not mocked.

Variety (February 15, 1939) warned that the “picture may satisfy certain juveniles but, for adult trade, it is a minor ‘B’ effort” due to “feeble scripting and equally deficient direction.” More recent commentators have been more favorable and sometimes even prefer the movie to Twain’s novella. In their chapter “Mark Twain on the Screen” in A Companion to Mark Twain, R. Kent Rasmussen and Mark Dawidziak find the movie “a short and entertaining adaptation of a slight mystery tale that serves as a kind of carefree encore for Tom and Huck—which is precisely how director Louis King treats it.” In The Mark Twain Encyclopedia, Wesley A. Britton calls the film “a faithful and entertaining adaptation…with a Twain-flavored screenplay….Because of the light nature of the original text, the story and characters made an easy transition to the screen.”

For additional information:
LeMaster, J. R., and James D. Wilson, eds. The Mark Twain Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993.

Messent, Peter, and Louis J. Budd, eds. A Companion to Mark Twain. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2015.

Tom Sawyer, Detective.” Internet Movie Database. (accessed July 14, 2020).

Twain, Mark. The Gilded Age and Later Novels. New York: The Library of America, 2002.

Twain, Mark. Tom Sawyer, Detective. Project Gutenberg. (accessed July 14, 2020).

Michael Klossner
Little Rock, Arkansas


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