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O. Henry’s short story ‘The Clarion Call’ recounts the reunion of a detective and a criminal just after the criminal has committed murder. This lesson summarizes and analyzes the story.

Murderer and Detective Meet on the Street

At the beginning of The Clarion Call, O.

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Henry sets up the meeting of the two main characters in a way that immediately catches the attention of his readers:”One afternoon two weeks after Millionaire Norcross was found in his apartment murdered by a burglar, the murderer, while strolling serenely down Broadway ran plump against Detective Barney Woods.”So right away, we know that there has been a murder and that the person who committed it is now face to face with a detective. We quickly find out that they know each other from years before.

Before the murderer, Kernan, can walk away, the detective, Woods, asks him out to lunch.

William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) in Austin
William Sydney Porter

The Gold Pencil

Not long into the lunch conversation, Woods abruptly asks Kernan why he killed Norcross.

This surprises the reader just as much as it surprises Kernan, who clearly was not expecting Woods to know that he committed the crime. It turns out that Woods had found a gold pencil under the corner of a rug in Norcross’s home, which he recognised as belonging to a watch charm that Kernan owned.

Kernan is Not Intimidated

We might have expected Kernan at this point to begin to worry, but he doesn’t. Woods advises him to be very careful of what he says, but Kernan goes on to detail exactly how the murder took place. Woods tries to remind him that he shouldn’t be speaking so freely, but Kernan replies:”. being Barney Woods, born as true as steel, and bound to play a white man’s game, can’t lift a finger to arrest the man you’re indebted to.”It turns out that, some time ago, Woods had borrowed one thousand dollars from Kernan and had never paid it back, and Kernan is confident that this debt will prevent Woods from turning him in. Woods admits that Kernan is correct; he doesn’t feel comfortable arresting a man who once helped him, and whom he never repaid.

Kernan Continues to Boast

Once Woods acknowledges that he will not arrest Kernan, Kernan’s confidence grows and he decides to brag to Woods about his various exploits:”He recounted story after story of his successful plundering, ingenious plots, and infamous transgressions until Woods, with all his familiarity with evil-doers, felt growing within him a cold abhorrence toward the utterly vicious man who had once been his benefactor.

Woods Raises the Topic of Newspapers

After listening to Kernan boast for awhile, Woods warns him that he might want to be careful since the newspapers might decide to pursue the issue of Norcross’s murder. Kernan laughs off this suggestion, claiming that it is even easier to fool journalists than it is to fool police officers.

Kernan Calls the Paper

To illustrate his point, Kernan actually calls the Morning Mars newspaper to confess his crime. It takes him awhile to convince the editor that he is telling the truth, so he eventually supplies a detail about the crime: he tells them that half of a button on Mrs. Norcross’s nightgown is broken off. They finally believe him, and decide to run with the story.

The Plot Twist

Woods stews throughout the night as he sits with Kernan in the restaurant, wishing he could do something to bring this terrible man to justice.

An idea strikes him at dawn when he hears the morning papers being sold. Woods asks an employee of the restaurant to bring him a paper. He sees the article about Kernan, and immediately tears a piece of paper out of his memorandum book and writes something on it. He shows the writing to Kernan:”The New York Morning Mars: Please pay to the order of John Kernan the one thousand dollars reward coming to me for his arrest and conviction.

”In other words, the paper had decided to offer a reward for the identification of Norcross’s killer, likely because the killer had been so boastful and taunting on the phone. The story ends with Woods telling Kernan that he will be escorting him to the police station since he no longer has to worry about his debt.


The central point of this story is that people tend to cause their own downfall. Kernan had literally managed to get away with murder – and countless other crimes – and would have been fine if he had not decided to press his luck. However, by bragging to Woods, he managed to turn his friend against him and make it even more important to Woods to find a way to arrest him.

Secondly, his call to the newspaper was not only risky and completely unnecessary, but his taunting very likely inspired them to offer the large amount of money for his arrest. In the end, it is not the crime itself that brought Kernan down, but his ego and boastfulness.

Lesson Summary

The Clarion Call starts out with a bang, as a murderer and detective meet on the street and recognize each other from years before. Woods, the detective, is aware that Kernan committed the murder because Woods found one of his belongings at the scene. Woods does not feel comfortable arresting Kernan, though, because he is in debt to him for one thousand dollars.

Kernan ends up boasting to Woods and then to an editor of a newspaper, however, which leads to the newspaper offering a reward for his arrest. Woods arrests him with a promise to pay him back with the one thousand dollars he will receive as a reward.

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