Good-night Mister Sherlock Holmes

March 2, 2009

You must act, man, or you are lost.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mark Loper @ 3:53 pm
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The Five Orange Pips is a wonderful story and demonstrates Holmes at his very best. He is decisive, succinct, and dispenses some of the most sage advice of his entire career. We also get a rare glimpse of his emotional side. That’s the good. The “bad” are a couple of procedural errors that I just cannot imagine Sherlock Holmes making.

When Holmes returns from his investigation into the Openshaw case:

“He took an orange from the cupboard, and tearing it to pieces he squeezed out the pips upon the table. Of these he took five and thrust them into an envelope…

Two things here, when Holmes squeezed out the pips and thrust them into an envelope, would not they still be wet?  On the three previous occasions when we hear of orange pips, they are specifically noted to be “dry”.

  1. When Col. Elias Openshaw opened the original letter, “… out there jumped five little dried orange pips”
  2. When Joseph Openshaw (Elias’s Openshaw’s brother and John Openshaw’s father) opened the Dundee letter, “… and five dried orange pips in the outstretched palm of the other one.”
  3. In John Openshaw’s (the nephew) letter from East London, “… he shook out upon it five little dried orange pips.”

We can’t even argue that the other orange pips were put in their respective envelopes while still wet (from the orange juice) and later dried while inside the envelope. If that had been the case, they would not have jumped out (in the case of Col. Openshaw) or shaken out (in the case of John Openshaw), they would have stuck to the inside of the envelope.

You think I’m being picky, right? Well, how about this: after Holmes thrusts the five (wet) orange pips in the envelope, what does he do then? He seals and addresses the envelope!  Can you imagine addressing an envelope with orange pips inside? Or coins? Or anything other than flat paper? No, simple human expediency would cause anyone to first address the envelope then add the enclosure. Holmes would never have done it otherwise.  Never.

I also wonder at the newspaper account of young John Openshaw’s death. The morning after Openshaw’s Baker Street interview, Holmes prepares to go out and investigate the case.  Watson describes the scenario:

It had cleared in the morning, and the sun was shining with a subdued brightness through the dim veil which hangs over the great city. Sherlock Holmes was already at breakfast when I came down.

“You will excuse me for not waiting for you,” said he; “I have, I foresee, a very busy day before me in looking into this case of young Openshaw’s.”

“What steps will you take?” I asked.

“It will very much depend upon the results of my first inquiries. I may have to go down to Horsham, after all.”

“You will not go there first?”

“No, I shall commence with the City. Just ring the bell and the maid will bring up your coffee.”

As I waited, I lifted the unopened newspaper from the table and glanced my eye over it. It rested upon a heading which sent a chill to my heart.

“Holmes,” I cried, “you are too late.”

“Ah!” said he, laying down his cup, “I feared as much. How was it done?” He spoke calmly, but I could see that he was deeply moved.

“My eye caught the name of Openshaw, and the heading ‘Tragedy Near Waterloo Bridge.’ Here is the account:

“ ‘Between nine and ten last night Police-Constable Cook, of the H Division, on duty near Waterloo Bridge, heard a cry for help and a splash in the water. The night, however, was extremely dark and stormy, so that, in spite of the help of several passers-by, it was quite impossible to effect a rescue. The alarm, however, was given, and, by the aid of the water-police, the body was eventually recovered. It proved to be that of a young gentleman whose name, as it appears from an envelope which was found in his pocket, was John Openshaw, and whose residence is near Horsham.’ ”

I have two questions here. First, would not Holmes have already at least glanced at the newspaper? It was laying on the table when Watson picked it up so it was available for Holmes as well.  Plus, Holmes anticipated the possibility of harm coming to Openshaw so would have all the more motivation to check the morning paper.

I also wonder if the story would have made it into the newspapers at all?  The murder took place between “nine and ten” (according to the newspaper, which corresponds with Openshaw leaving Baker Street before nine) so the body would have to be recovered, identified, the newspapers would have to (somehow) learn of the incident and dispatch a reporter, and then include it in the morning paper. Could it happen? Maybe.

OK, enough of that. In some ways this is my favorite Sherlock Holmes storie because Holmes give John Openshaw some of the best advice possible, not just for this circumstance but for anyone in despair.

“What have you done?” asked Holmes.



“To tell the truth”—he sank his face into his thin, white hands—“I have felt helpless. I have felt like one of those poor rabbits when the snake is writhing towards it. I seem to be in the grasp of some resistless, inexorable evil, which no foresight and no precautions can guard against.”

“Tut! tut!” cried Sherlock Holmes. “You must act, man, or you are lost. Nothing but energy can save you. This is no time for despair.”

Later Holmes reiterated the necessity of doing first things first:

“Do not think of revenge, or anything of the sort, at present. I think that we may gain that by means of the law; but we have our web to weave, while theirs is already woven. The first consideration is to remove the pressing danger which threatens you. The second is to clear up the mystery and to punish the guilty parties.”

“You must act, man, or you are lost. Nothing but energy can save you.”  

What brilliant advice and how many times would action have saved the day and yet we do nothing.

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