Writers Tackle Mark Twain Challenge
Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) - Mark Twain made a deal with the editor of The Atlantic Monthly more than a century ago: He would write a story, then ask other well-known authors to compose their own versions from the same outline.

In return, editor William Dean Howells agreed to publish all of the stories in his literary magazine.

No one took up the challenge - until now.

Twain's novella, "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage," has finally gone to print, 125 years after he wrote it. The story appears in the July/August issue of the Atlantic. And more than 700 people have accepted Twain's challenge and submitted their own versions as part of a contest run by the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library in New York.

The top three entries will be selected by a panel of novelists and announced in October. The Atlantic will not say whether it will publish the winners.

"If he were here today I think he'd be extremely pleased," said Patrick Martin, a Twain enthusiast and the attorney for the library, which owns a handwritten manuscript of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Twain could not find any takers back then, "and now he has people from around the world doing it. It's a great last laugh for him 125 years later."

Entrants were given the first part of the tale and invited to finish it. Apparently none of the contestants are major writers.

The 1876 story, which Twain wrote just after "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and just before "Huckleberry Finn," is the tale of a Missouri man who tries to marry off his daughter. The mystery begins when the father finds a strange man lying in the snow with no tracks around him. The man claims to be a French count and seeks the daughter's hand in marriage. By the end of the story, the mystery is solved, a murder committed and the daughter married off.

"I wouldn't call it a great story, and I don't think anyone else would either," said novelist Roy Blount, a contributing editor at the Atlantic. "Twain was a great user of language and wonderful writer and creator of characters, but when it came to plot structure he always was weak. He wanted to contribute the thing he was worst at to a bunch of writers, and that didn't make much sense."

All the writers Twain approached for the contest including Henry James, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Bret Harte turned him down.

"These were all writers who regarded themselves as superior to Twain," said Atlantic editor Michael Kelly. "And they probably realized that writing a version of a story that Twain had plotted to showcase his own strengths was not a good idea. You could lose in a competition like that."

When Twain died in 1910, the story was not in his papers, but it somehow turned up in the possession of a doctor. The story eventually found its way to author Frederick Dannay, who donated it in 1958 to the University of Texas at Austin. That is where Martin discovered it in 1995.

The Atlantic bought the rights to the story, and it will also come out in a hardback edition published by W.W. Norton in September.

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