Mark Twain: “Tom Sawyer, Detective” (1896)

“You bet. Some day there’ll be a big reward offered for them—a thousand dollars, sure. That’s our money! Now we’ll trot in and see the folks. And mind you we don’t know anything about any murder, or any di’monds, or any thieves—don’t you forget that.” (768)

Surprisingly, the last of the Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn novels written by Mark Twain—Tom Sawyer, Detective—is not entirely superfluous. It is an extremely short novel (around 60 pages) covering Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn’s trip to the Phelps farm, sometime after the events of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This was the location where they freed Jim. The plot centers on three brothers, the Dunlap. Jubiter Dunlap is Silas’ farm laborer. Jack Dunlap is a convict escaped from jail and stole some diamonds from his ex-partners. Brace Dunlap is a more established man in the community but no dear friend of Silas. Tom and Huck first get involved in this mess when they begin to aid Jack in evading his former partners. When Jubiter goes missing, Silas gets accused of murder and is put on trial.

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Indeed, Silas confesses to striking Jubiter. Perhaps this is to surprising in a slave society build on terror and violence. Of course, such violence only became a legal issue of import when a free man was harmed (women and slaves were not so protected by the law). “He [Silas] said Jubiter pestered him and aggravated him till he was so mad he just sort of lost his mind and grabbed up a stick and hit him over the head with all his might, and Jubiter dropped in his tracks. Then he was scared and sorry, and got down on his knees and lifted his head up, and begged him to speak and say he wasn’t dead.” (785) Jubiter only fled the scene, but it does show the true character of Silas and the nature of rural slave society in antebellum America.

The final chapter shows Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as detectives, trying to prove that Silas did not murder Jubiter. He did this before in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a witness, but he is closer to Silas’ lawyer in this novel, suggesting once again that Tom’s future is in the adult world of law, profit, and capital. I opened this post with a quote by Tom discussing the financial boon he could look forward too, if the duo played their cards right.

The resolution of the case is revealed by Tom at the trial. Jubiter came back to town, unable to talk and in disguise. The murdered man was Jake Dunlap, who was killed by his ex-partners for the diamonds, and his body was made up to look like Jubiter. Brace Dunlap used the murder as a way to get revenge on Silas for not allowing him to marry the young Phelps girl. In the end, Tom gets the reward for the missing diamonds and splits his financial windfall with Huck.

We see the return of several of the themes of the Tom Sawyer novels, such as the odious nature of the adult world, the violence implicit in the search for wealth and power, and the potential of vernacular understandings. Although Tom does seem to be growing up into his future role as a rich lawyer (or something akin to that), he still depended on Huck for solving the mystery and gained information through an understanding of the community from the perspective of the gutter. Lost in this (as in Tom Sawyer, Abroad) is the strong discourse on freedom that were in the earlier books in this series. Huck is important as a narrator and his is still humorous and fun to read, but he is more of a foil for Tom, giving him someone to talk to and at times correct. In both of these later Tom Sawyer novels, Huck makes few autonomous choices. This is in sharp contrast to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where he confronted deep moral questions.

For me, the most tragic element of this novel is the growing gravitas of Tom Sawyer, seen in the final court scene. The child who tried to get out of going to school, fought neighbors, and played pirate is slowly dying. Any future novels in the series must be about Tom finding a career. As for Huck, by not following through on his wish to go West, he really does not have a place in the world. But there are signs in this novel and in Tom Sawyer Abroad that Huck is being slowly civilized. This is all very sad.

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