In The Markenmore Mystery (1922) by J. S. Fletcher, a detective was answering his companion after the latter asked about how to find a mysterious man, whose identity was unknown for them

But now, my dear fellow—this mysterious person? How are you going to get on his trail?”

“The queer thing about that,” observed Blick, “is this—at least, it’s a surface difficulty. Taking Roper’s story to be true—as I do—here’s a strange man, a Londoner by his speech, says Roper, by which he probably means a man of the educated classes, on the downs with Guy Markenmore, late on Monday evening. Who is he? Did he come down with Markenmore from London? Did they meet in the train? Did they foregather on the way between Mitbourne and Markenmore? We don’t know. But there are more important questions than any of these—for one, where was that man going? Where did he go when he and Markenmore parted?—for another. And for a third, and most important one—if he’s the man who shot Guy Markenmore next morning, where had he been in the meantime? Where did he spend Monday night? It couldn’t have been far away from hereabouts, if he laid in wait for his victim at four o’clock next morning!”

I find that "surface" may mean "superficial", and this indicates that this matter was "easier at its core", but this contradicts with the rest of the paragraph, which suggests that the matter was really hard; because they didn't know the answer of any of the mentioned questions! So how could it be just "a surface difficulty"?

  • Can it mean that "it's much more difficult at its core"? Jun 1, 2021 at 12:28
  • I'm reading it as simply commenting that "it's difficult from the start" with no particular implication that it will get easier or harder. Jun 1, 2021 at 13:33
  • @SeanDuggan Here is the potential meaning of "surface" as an adjective: "appearing in a particular way but not always showing the truth", according to Cambridge. So, how can it mean "from the start"? Jun 1, 2021 at 13:45
  • 1
    Because, until you can get deeper into something, you have to start at its surface. Jun 1, 2021 at 14:05

1 Answer 1


The meaning here is:

surface, n. 2.b. figurative. The most superficial layer or element of anything; that part or aspect which is apparent on casual consideration; outward appearance.

Oxford English Dictionary.

So Blick means that getting onto the trail of the mysterious man is the immediate difficulty, the one that is “apparent on casual consideration”, but that there are going to be other difficulties, ones that become apparent only after thinking more deeply: in particular, even if they do get on his trail, how are they going to prove the mysterious man was involved in the Markenmore murder?

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