Good-night Mister Sherlock Holmes

February 28, 2009

Holmes, Holmes, Holmes…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mark Loper @ 12:32 pm
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I will start by reiterating that Sherlock Holmes is my favorite literary character and, to quote our friend, Dr. Watson, Holmes is “the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known.”  Further, The Adventure of the Speckled Band is one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories but he makes an error so un-Holmes-like, I have to bring it to light. 

In this offering, Holmes is masterful.  He listens to the narrative of Miss Stoner, visits Stoke Moran, and has all but solved the case needing only to spend the night in Miss Stoner’s room to verify his conclusions and simultaneously “drive away the dangers that threaten” her. 

“I believe, Mr. Holmes, that you have already made up your mind,” said Miss Stoner, laying her hand upon my companion’s sleeve. 

“Perhaps I have.” 

Then, for pity’s sake, tell me what was the cause of my sister’s death.” 

“I should prefer to have clearer proofs before I speak.” 

“You can at least tell me whether my own thought is correct, and if she died from some sudden fright.” 

“No, I do not think so. I think that there was probably some more tangible cause. And now, Miss Stoner, we must leave you for if Dr. Roylott returned and saw us, our journey would be in vain. Good-bye, and be brave, for if you will do what I have told you may rest assured that we shall soon drive away the dangers that threaten you.” 

Classic Holmes, right?  Yes, but when Holmes and Watson later enter Miss Stoner’s room, Holmes gives Watson detailed instructions on what part he (Watson) is to play and what he should expect.  

… after following Holmes’s example and slipping off my shoes, I found myself inside the bedroom. My companion noiselessly closed the shutters, moved the lamp onto the table, and cast his eyes round the room. All was as we had seen it in the daytime. Then creeping up to me and making a trumpet of his hand, he whispered into my ear again so gently that it was all that I could do to distinguish the words: 

“The least sound would be fatal to our plans.”  I nodded to show that I had heard.  “We must sit without light. He would see it through the ventilator.”  I nodded again.  “Do not go asleep; your very life may depend upon it. Have your pistol ready in case we should need it. I will sit on the side of the bed, and you in that chair.” 

Holmes specifically makes the point that the least sound would be fatal to their plans and goes on to impress upon Watson the extreme danger of the situation.  My question is, why would Holmes not have given this critical instruction to Watson while they were sitting in the relaxed comfort of the Crown Inn?

Holmes had already been in Miss Stoner’s room and knows the exact layout.  He already knows the extreme danger of the situation.  He knows all this before he takes possession of the bedroom yet only then does he give Watson instructions?  This is not the Holmes I know.

Otherwise the story is Holmes and Watson at their zenith.  I say Holmes and Watson because the scene in the sitting-room at the Crown Inn before they begin their vigil is one of the warmest and intimate you are likely to read between these two: 

“Do you know, Watson,” said Holmes as we sat together in the gathering darkness, “I have really some scruples as to taking you to-night. There is a distinct element of danger.” 

“Can I be of assistance?” 

“Your presence might be invaluable.” 

“Then I shall certainly come.” 

“It is very kind of you.” 

It is typically understated but as sincere and heart-felt as any between two men waiting to enter harm’s way.

God Bless you both.

February 27, 2009

Oh, it won’t do—really it won’t.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mark Loper @ 11:14 am
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First I have to confess A Case of Identity is not one my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories.  It’s not that Holmes does anything unworthy of himself nor does Conan Doyle let us down with a weak plot line, it’s just that the story is so, so… so mediocre.  It is quite too transparent.

Could anyone – no matter how slow-witted or weak-sighted – fall for such a charade as did Mary Sutherland?  And as onerous as Mr. Windibank’s actions are, one would hardly expect Mary Sutherland’s own mother to take part.  But it could happen… I guess.

Clearly Holmes has sorted out the situation very early in the narrative but that’s what Holmes does.  Heck, I probably could have sorted this one out except I would not have suspected the stepfather.  But then again Holmes has the advantage of being familiar with two parallel cases: 

“You will find parallel cases, if you consult my index, in Andover in ’77, and there was something of the sort at The Hague last year.”

 Just a few things caught my attention in this story.  

When Holmes asked Watson to give his impressions of Mary Sutherland, Watson notices, among other things, that her right glove was torn at the forefinger but failed to notice the violet ink that was on the glove and also on the woman’s finger-tip? 

“You observed that her right glove was torn at the forefinger, but you did not apparently see that both glove and finger were stained with violet ink. She had written in a hurry and dipped her pen too deep.”

Dipped her finger too deep in the inkwell?  Think about that for a moment, what would it take to so misjudge the pen to the inkwell that you actually immerse your finger in it?  And how was it possible for Watson to notice that the right forefinger of Mary Sutherland’s glove to be torn but not notice the violet ink?  The gloves were grayish and the ink was violet, maybe not a striking contrast but a contrast nonetheless.

Also, why did Windibank type the signature instead of sign his letters to Mary Sutherland?  Holmes surmises that Mary would have recognized her stepfather’s writing , “even the smallest sample of it”, but the Hosmer Angel signature could have been nothing more than an illegible scratch which Mary could not possibly have recognized as Windibank’s.

Finally, it seems coincidental that Holmes realizes that, “The only drawback is that there is no law, I fear, that can touch the scoundrel.” And then the first thing out of Windibank’s mouth by way of defense, is that it’s not actionable (i.e. he’s broken no law).  This may just be classic Holmes; he’s two steps of me and realizes that criminal prosecution will be Windibank’s first concern.

But all is not lost!  

Holmes was never so masterful as when he confronted Windibank.  Can you even imagine being under the full scrutiny and control of Sherlock Holmes as is the criminal Windibank?  “Cat and mouse” hardly does the situation justice.

“If you can catch the man, catch him, and let me know when you have done it.” 

“Certainly,” said Holmes, stepping over and turning the key in the door. “I let you know, then, that I have caught him!” 

“What! where?” shouted Mr. Windibank, turning white to his lips and glancing about him like a rat in a trap. 

“Oh, it won’t do—really it won’t,” said Holmes suavely. “There is no possible getting out of it, Mr. Windibank. It is quite too transparent, and it was a very bad compliment when you said that it was impossible for me to solve so simple a question. That’s right! Sit down and let us talk it over.” 

We will have to assume Holmes only made a half-hearted attempt to actually assault Windibank as it is hard to imagine anyone escaping the wrath of Holmes had he genuinely been interested in causing bodily harm. 

“The law cannot, as you say, touch you,” said Holmes, unlocking and throwing open the door, “yet there never was a man who deserved punishment more. If the young lady has a brother or a friend, he ought to lay a whip across your shoulders. By Jove!” he continued, flushing up at the sight of the bitter sneer upon the man’s face, “it is not part of my duties to my client, but here’s a hunting crop handy, and I think I shall just treat myself to—” He took two swift steps to the whip, but before he could grasp it there was a wild clatter of steps upon the stairs, the heavy hall door banged, and from the window we could see Mr. James Windibank running at the top of his speed down the road. 

Windibank is clearly a bottom-feeder but I wonder does Holmes not overestimate his criminal future?

“There’s a cold-blooded scoundrel!” said Holmes, laughing, as he threw himself down into his chair once more. “That fellow will rise from crime to crime until he does something very bad, and ends on a gallows.”

No question his behavior was reprehensible but should we assume he will eventually commit a capital crime?  Maybe so, Holmes is Holmes and he knows these sort of things.

Holmes’ brilliant summation to Watson (and Watson’s concern for Mary Sutherland) go a long way toward salvaging the story.

“If I tell her she will not believe me. You may remember the old Persian saying, ‘There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.’ There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world.” 

Maybe not the best but still a little something for the Holmes aficionado.

February 26, 2009

It is a little off the beaten track, isn’t it?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mark Loper @ 4:03 pm
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The Red Headed League is the second Sherlock Holmes short-story from Author Conan Doyle.  This time Sherlock Holmes is in fine form, it is Mr. Doyle who makes the faux pas.

Holmes prompts Jabez Wilson to explain his living circumstances, to which he makes this innocuous statement:

“Well, it is just as I have been telling you, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” said Jabez Wilson, mopping his forehead; “I have a small pawnbroker’s business at Coburg Square, near the City. It’s not a very large affair, and of late years it has not done more than just give me a living. I used to be able to keep two assistants, but now I only keep one; and I would have a job to pay him but that he is willing to come for half wages so as to learn the business.” 

“What is the name of this obliging youth?” asked Sherlock Holmes. 

“His name is Vincent Spaulding, and he’s not such a youth, either. It’s hard to say his age. I should not wish a smarter assistant, Mr. Holmes; and I know very well that he could better himself and earn twice what I am able to give him. But, after all, if he is satisfied, why should I put ideas in his head?” 

“Why, indeed? You seem most fortunate in having an employé who comes under the full market price. It is not a common experience among employers in this age. I don’t know that your assistant is not as remarkable as your advertisement.” 

Why would Holmes ask the name of the “obliging youth”?  There is no reason whatsoever for him to do so.  He has yet to hear that it was the obliging youth (Spaulding) who first brought the Red Headed League advertisement to Wilson’s attention – which would indeed have been cause for Holmes to inquire after Spaulding – so Holmes should not suspect anything out of the ordinary.

Besides, Mr. Wilson has already told Holmes that Spaulding works for half-wages because he wants to learn the business (and whom Holmes is apparently satisfied is indeed a “youth”).   A perfectly reasonable explanation… and yet, for reasons apparently known only to Doyle, Holmes asks,  “I don’t know that your assistant is not as remarkable as your advertisement.”

The real kicker, though, is that Spaulding answered an advertisement by Jabez Wilson for an assistant.  Isn’t that a bit much to believe?  Spaulding (actually, John Clay) answers an advertisement from the exact business he needs to gain access to?  To push credulity even further, John Clay’s partner (Duncan Ross) just happens to have, like Wilson, a shock of very red hair!  I will allow that Ross may have dyed his hair red in order to pull off the Red Headed League charade though the story doesn’t give any reason to believe it so.

Finally, why would the Red Headed League dissolve on the very day the bank was to be robbed?  Why?  Why not just let Mr. Wilson keep believing that the League is still fully operational?  Better still, why not send Mr. Wilson on some type Red Headed League business?  It could have been a one-time errand so even if Mr. Wilson balked at having to travel for the League, he could be assuaged by knowing it was a one-time errand to, say, meet the president of the League?  As it turned out, John Clay began the bank assault with Mr. Wilson upstairs asleep in the house.  

No, it just won’t do Mr. Doyle.

February 25, 2009

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mark Loper @ 2:01 pm
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So begins the first short-story by Author Conan Doyle about his super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes. In A Scandal in Bohemia — probably one of the best know Sherlock Holmes Stories but not one of the best — Holmes openly admits that he was bested by Irene Adler but there seems to be more to it than that.

What I find interesting is that Holmes was so completely taken in by Irene Adler. Sure she was able to fly from London before Holmes could actually bring the case home but that’s happened before and is even to be expected in the private detective business, but the incident in front of 221-b Baker Street was the most telling:

“We had reached Baker Street and had stopped at the door. He was searching his pockets for the key when someone passing said:

Good-night, Mister Sherlock Holmes.”

There were several people on the pavement at the time, but the greeting appeared to come from a slim youth in an ulster who had hurried by.

“I’ve heard that voice before,” said Holmes, staring down the dimly lit street. “Now, I wonder who the deuce that could have been.”

Forgetting for the moment that Holmes was searching his pockets for the key – which seems very un-Holmes-like, wouldn’t you expect Holmes to have the key ready before he approached the door? – how could Irene Adler have followed Holmes home without his knowledge and then actually speak to him without him realizing what was going on?

In all fairness, Holmes was concerned who the deuce it was but considering he was so embroiled in the case and considering he’d heard Irene’s voice earlier that day, shouldn’t he have sorted it sooner than he did? In fact, it seems as though he never figured it out until the until the next day when Irene herself confessed to have “imprudently, wished you good-night”.

Come on, we’re talking Sherlock Holmes here.

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