Yes and No: Problems of Closure in Collins’s “I Say No”

Relatively little critical attention has been paid to Wilkie Collins’s “I Say No“. For example, Catherine Peters summarises it as “a mystery story, with no message beyond a practical warning that it is best to tell children the truth about their parents” (404). She goes on to say that “It eventually comes out that … (the) death was suicide, not murder” (405). Ian Ousby states that “the central figure is involved in a mystery which the officials of society have failed to solve and have conspired to forget” (134). However, a careful reading of “I Say No“ reveals a solution of the mystery which is different from Peters’s, and which provides an explanation of why the officials in the novel could not be blamed for their failure to convict the fictional murderer. Sue Lonoff states about the novels of Collins in general that “He also took pride in tying up the various strands of a plot to resolve all outstanding difficulties, a practice that mitigated against a subtle or problematic denouement” (101). The solution to the mystery in “I Say No“ represents a significant exception to this generalization.

Two of the themes which recur in Collins’s work are the limitations of the legal system in punishing malefactors, and the question of interpretation of evidence.

Many of Collins’s villains are punished other than through the operation of the law: for example, Fosco inThe Woman in White and Ablewhitein The Moonstone are killed unlawfully, and Lydia Gwilt in Armadalecommits suicide. This could be interpreted either as social commentary on the legal system, or, more broadly, as a commentary on the limitations of any system of rationality.

The question of interpretation of evidence also crops up repeatedly in Collins’s work. In the Prologue toThe Moonstone, Herncastle’s cousin writes, after catching Herncastle with a dagger in his hand:

If I made the matter public, I have no evidence but moral evidence to bring forward. I have not only no proof that he killed the two men at the door; I cannot even declare that he killed the third man inside—for I cannot say that my own eyes saw the deed committed… Let our relatives, on either side, form their own opinion on what I have written… (38)

The framing of this narrative within a Collins novel leads the reader to believe the moral evidence of the writer, in the absence of legal proof. We are also told by Herncastle’s cousin that “[t]he deity predicted certain disaster to the presumptuous mortal who laid hands on the sacred gem” (34), and that “I am influenced by a certain superstition of my own in this matter. It is my conviction, or my delusion, no matter which, that crime brings its own fatality…” (38). Again, the placing of these predictions within a novel leads the reader to believe them, even though the characters in the book have no rational reason to do so.

In Armadale, Allan Armadale has a dream (141-142), which is interpreted by Ozias Midwinter as being a supernatural warning of future events (151). The reader gives credence to this interpretation solely because of the framing of the dream within a novel.

The solution of the mystery in “I Say No“ provides a continuation of the two themes of the limitations of the legal system, and of questions of interpretation caused by the framing of events within a work of fiction.

In “I Say No“, James Brown, the heroine’s father, is found with his throat cut in the Hand-in-Hand inn. The medical evidence at the inquest is that “the wound could not have been inflicted, in the act of suicide, by the hand of the deceased person” (100). There are two suspects, Miles Mirabel, and Mrs Rook. In an attempt to solve the mystery, the hero of the novel, Alban Morris, tracks down James Brown’s lover, Sara Jethro, and discovers that she had turned down his proposal of marriage, thus giving him a motive for committing suicide.

However, Collins misleads the reader. Cecilia (a friend of the heroine) introduces Alban Morris’s discovery with the words: “Mr Morris has seen Miss Jethro, and has discovered that Mr Mirabel has been wrongly suspected of a dreadful crime” (261). Alban says, in his narrative: “He died, despairing, by his own hand—and you knew it?” (266). The narrator states: “Emily closed the pages which told her that her father had died by his own hand” (267).

Now while the discovery of a motive for suicide may be sufficient to establish a “reasonable doubt” in the minds of a murder jury, it does not by itself provide conclusive proof that a death actually was suicide rather than murder; and certainly cannot overrule medical evidence that suicide was a physical impossibility. So in this case, Collins appears to have misled the casual reader into wrongly accepting the solution that his heroine accepts.

Thus James Brown was murdered after all, either by Miles Mirabel or Mrs Rook. The text does not provide conclusive evidence against either of them. However, in the final chapter of the novel, it is revealed that Miles Mirabel has died (271), and Mrs Rook has made “a most remarkable recovery. It is the first case on record of any person getting over such an injury as she has received” (272). If we assume that a Collins mystery must have a determinate solution, then it follows that the (constructed) author of “I Say No” knows who killed James Brown, even though he has not chosen to embed any conclusive evidence against that character in the text. In the absence of any other selection principle, we have to use poetic justice—the convention that the villain is always punished. So Mirabel, who dies, is guilty, and Mrs Rook, who survives, is innocent. In this case, as in the case of Herncastle’s guilt in The Moonstone, and in the case of Midwinter’s belief that Allan Armadale’s dream has a supernatural explanation, the reader has moral evidence but no legal proof. However, in this case as in the others, the framing of the events within a novel gives credence to the moral evidence. The crucial difference is that in the other two novels, the arguments rely only upon the framing supplying relevance to the events: that is, the reader assumes that the events would not be mentioned unless they were important. The argument for Mirabel’s guilt, on the other hand, relies crucially not just on relevance but also upon the moral order which may be posited in a fictional universe: poetic justice is here— uniquely—not just a moral luxury, as it is in other mysteries, but the only possible means of assigning guilt to the murderer.

By the very nature of the text, the indeterminacy about the identity of Brown’s murderer can be resolved by the reader who is prepared to accept an extraneous assumption about mystery stories, but not by a reader who is not prepared to accept such an assumption, nor by the characters in the story itself. Thus Collins raises in this book questions about the nature of the reading process which in some ways are as deep as the philosophical issues raised by the dream in Armadale.

Works Cited

Collins, Wilkie. Armadale. Ed. John Sutherland. London: Penguin 1995.

_________. “I Say No“. Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1995.

_________. The Moonstone. Ed. J.I.M. Stewart. London: Penguin 1986.

_________. The Woman in White. Ed. H.P. Sucksmith. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1980.

Lonoff, Sue. Wilkie Collins and His Victorian Readers: A Study in the Rhetoric of
. New York: AMS Press 1982.

Ousby, Ian. Bloodhounds of Heaven: The Detective in English Fiction from Godwin to Doyle. London: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Peters, Catherine. The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. London: Secker & Warburg, 1991.

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