"The Clarion Call" is a short story by the American author William Sydney Porter, who wrote under the pseudonym of O. Henry. It is included in the 1908 anthology The Voice of the City: Further Stories of the Four Million.
The story takes place in New York City. The two main characters are a police detective called Barney Woods and a criminal called Johnny Kernan. The two men had been friends back in their hometown years earlier. Barney Woods is the only person who knows that Johnny Kernan committed a murder. Johnny, however, is certain that Barney will not arrest him. He points out that the detective still owes him $1,000 which he loaned to him many years before, Barney's sense of honor prevents him from arresting the criminal before clearing his debt. However, Johnny's certainty that he is untouchable leads to him becoming boastful and arrogant. He taunts the editor of a newspaper which had helped to solve crimes in the past, which ultimately proves to be his undoing.
While walking down Broadway one afternoon, Barney Woods appears to meet up with his old acquaintance Johnny Kernan by chance. The two men both come from the same town, referred to only as "Saint Jo", further west. When Johnny asks Barney what he has been doing, Barney tells him that he has been in New York City for a few years and that he is a detective with the police department. Barney invites Johnny to join him in a nearby café.
In the café, Barney reveals to Johnny that he has been following his criminal career for years. He further reveals that he knows that Johnny robbed and murdered the millionaire Mr. Norcross two weeks earlier. Barney knows this because he found a small golden pencil, intended to be hung on a watch-chain, at the scene of the crime. Barney gave Johnny the golden pencil as a Christmas present several years earlier. Johnny admits to having committed the crime and describes in detail how he robbed Mr. Norcross and his wife. He does this because he is certain that Barney will not arrest him. The reason for that being that he lent Barney $1,000 several years earlier, a debt which Barney has still not paid back. Barney has to admit that his sense of honor prevents him from arresting a man to whom he owes money. The same sense of honor also means that Barney feels he has to resign from the police for failing to bring in a self-confessed murderer.
Johnny goes on to speak at great length and in great detail about his various crimes, which makes Barney feel increasingly uncomfortable. Barney warns Johnny to keep quiet about what he has done. He says that, although he will not arrest Johnny, the newspapers may take up the Norcross murder case. The detective goes on to say that the Morning Mars newspaper helped to solve a few crimes. It reawakened public interest in a few cases that the police had been unable to solve. Johnny scoffs at the idea that any newspaper, especially the Morning Mars, could help convict him. To prove how ineffective newspapers are, Johnny uses the café's public telephone to call the managing editor of the Morning Mars. He makes sure that Barney can hear him. Johnny taunts the managing editor by telling him that he murdered Norcross. As proof, he says that he knows that Mrs. Norcross had a broken button on her nightgown. Johnny is pleased to hear the managing editor tell someone to trace the call because it is proof that it is being taken seriously. He ridicules the editor for saying that he will be caught within two days.
Barney Woods and Johnny Kernan spend the rest of the evening together, going to the theater and two different restaurants. At 3:30am, they are both in an all-night café. Barney can hear the sounds of the city slowly waking up, including "the cries of the newsboys - the Clarion Call of the Press". He asks a waiter to get him a copy of the Morning Mars. After he reads the headline, Barney arrests Johnny. As a result of the taunting telephone call which Johnny made, the Morning Mars is offering $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the Norcross murderer. Using Johnny's golden pencil, Barney Woods writes a note, claiming the reward and asking for it to be paid directly to Johnny Kernan, thus clearing his debt.
"The Clarion Call" is one of five short stories by O. Henry to be adapted for the 1952 anthology film O. Henry's Full House. The segment based on "The Clarion Call", directed by Henry Hathaway, stars Dale Robertson as Barney Woods and Richard Widmark as Johnny Kernan. In the film, The Clarion Call, rather than the Morning Mars, is the name of the newspaper which offers a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the Norcross murderer. Johnny taunts the newspaper's editor in person, rather than over the telephone. He stops short of saying that he killed Norcross but says that the newspaper's journalists failed to question vital witnesses to the crime. Johnny later tells Barney that all of the information which he gave about the witnesses was false. Barney and Johnny both used to sing together in a quartet. The golden pencil by which Barney identifies Johnny as the murderer is not a Christmas present but a prize from a singing contest. Barney and the other two members of the quartet all received identical pencils. The $1,000 which Barney borrowed from Johnny is given even greater significance. Barney, who had already had some trouble with the law, would have risked going to jail for writing a check for $1,000 which he did not have if Johnny had not come to his aid.
- In its figurative sense, a clarion call is an appeal or a call to action. The phrase originally referred to the sound of a clarion, a kind of medieval brass instrument which was similar to a trumpet.
- Other segments in the film O. Henry's Full House are based on "The Cop and the Anthem', "The Last Leaf", "The Ransom of Red Chief" and "The Gift of the Magi".