O. Henry liked to write stories with surprise endings, and sometimes the surprise involves the frustration of a villain. I once read a series of O. Henry stories about the activities of a man who sold non-existent property to unwary buyers. I cannot remember his name, but O. Henry referred to him as “the gentle grafter.”
After he had accumulated sufficient money, he decided to retire from his not so honorable business. He used his money to invest in some property. If I remember correctly, it was supposed to be located in California. However, he soon learned that he was the victim of a scam similar to those that he had been perpetrating on others.
Sometimes the human nature of a criminal prevents him from committing a crime. In a story entitled “Makes the Whole World Kin,” a burglar enters a house. The master of the house awakens, so the burglar points a gun at him and orders him to hold up his hands. The master of the house holds up one of his hands and explains that he cannot hold up the other because he has arthritis. Since the burglar also has arthritis, the two men start discussing the efficacy of various remedies. The burglar puts his gun away and tries to think of some remedy that will help his victim.
Finally, the burglar says that the only thing that gives temporary relief is booze. He suggests that they go out and have a drink. He helps his arthritic victim get dressed, and they start walking out the door.
Then the victim remembers that he forgot his money. The burglar tells him not to worry about it and offers to pay the expenses.
A similar thing happens in “Squaring the Circle.” In this story, geometry prevents a crime. O. Henry claims that circles occur in nature, while art occurs in straight lines. So in the countryside, a man who is lost inevitably walks around till he comes to the same place where he was in the beginning, thus completing the circle. In contrast, human art manifests itself in all aspects of city life. As a result, straight lines prevail. For example, city streets are characterized by intersecting straight lines.
Two feuding families lived in the wild Cumberland Mountains. They shot one another with squirrel rifles for forty years. Finally, only two individuals were left, one from each family. Their names were Cal Harkness and Sam Folwell.
Cal Harkness decided to move to New York City, so the feuding stopped for a while. However, Sam eventually learned where his enemy had gone. His first impulse was to grab his squirrel rifle, but he changed his mind. In the country, he could pretend that he was merely hunting squirrels, but he realized that such a pretense would not fool anyone in New York City. So he took an old Colt revolver and a hunting knife.
He knew that Cal Harkness drove an express wagon somewhere in the city, so he went to a bustling city street and waited for him to appear. He waited a long time, but Cal did not show up.
Eventually the straight lines of New York City began to plague him. He stood at an intersection of two streets. In all four directions, people were walking in a straight line instead of moving about freely. Moreover, as people streamed passed him in a straight line, no one turned their head to look at him. He became oppressed with a foolish fear that he may have died and that no one was able to see him.
Sam became thirsty. He caught a glimpse of a bar as people entered a building through swinging doors. So he tried to enter the building. However, the swinging door did not have a familiar circular doorknob, so Sam did not know how to enter.
Sam had other unpleasant experiences. A policeman scolded him for loitering too long in the area, and his knee was grazed by a perplexing machine that somehow moved swiftly along the street even though no mules were pulling it. (In the early twentieth century, not too many people drove cars yet.)
At the end of the day, Sam happened to see Cal Harkness returning home from work. After all his harrowing experiences, he was so happy to see a familiar face that he forgot about killing him. Instead, he told Cal that he was glad to see him.
Arkive: Selected Stories from O. Henry