Good-night Mister Sherlock Holmes

March 12, 2009

“The curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

I believe The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes to be the best of the Sherlock Holmes stories. This is only opinion and others will obviously disagree with me — and this is not to say there’re aren’t some great stories in the other collections and that there aren’t some average stories among the Memoirs — but these, ah, these seem to me to depict Holmes at his very finest.

Silver Blaze — the first story in the collection — is a perennial favorite among Holmes fans (and one of Doyle’s favorites too).  It has a little something for everyone and one line in particular has found its way into English speaker’s lexicon:  “The curious incident of the dog in the night-time” has become almost cliche for something that is counter-intuitive and is sure to ferret out Holmes fans if uttered in a group of any size.

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Beautiful.

Holmes handily solves the problem — though Watson too was first rate, recognizing the possibility Silver Blaze walking out of the stable behind the stable boy and the likelihood John Straker’s leg wound was accidentally self inflected.  Holmes makes the pivotal conclusion Fitzroy Simpson could not have anticipated curried-mutton was to be served the night of the horse abduction (which would have masked the taste of the powered opium) thereby eliminating him as a suspect. And of course the curious incident of the dog in the night-time in which Holmes garners a clue based on what the dog did not do.

The story itself is very tightly written but there were a couple errors or inconsistencies describing the sport of horse racing which Author Conan Doyle acknowledges in an essay entitled “Highlights of Sherlock Holmes”:

“I have, for example, never been a racing man, and yet I ventured to write “Silver Blaze”, in which the mystery depends upon the laws of training and racing. The story is alright, and Holmes may have been at the top of his form, but my ignorance cries aloud to heaven. I read an excellent and damaging criticism of the story in some sporting paper, written clearly by a man who did know, in which he explained the exact penalties which would have come upon every one concerned if they had acted as I described. Half would have been in jail and the other half warned off the turf forever.”

I noticed at least one of these when I first read Silver Blaze. It occurred to me that Silas Brown — the horse-faker who, at Holmes instruction, was holding Silver Blaze at Mapleton until the day of the race — stood to gain a great deal even though he was culpable in the abduction of the horse. Brown was the only one who knew Silver Blaze was going to run (other than Holmes) so he could have — and apparently did — influence the betting in his favor. It’s unlike Holmes to allow a criminal to profit.

No, other than the errors that Doyle has himself acknowledged, Sliver Blaze is Holmes at his finest. The only irregularity I found — and remember, Holmes is held to a higher standard than regular men — concerned Dawson the stable-boy from Mapleton.  Holmes offered Dawson a half-crown for information about the missing horse but he was prevented from collecting by the arrival Silas Brown.  Yet there is no mention of any further interaction between Dawson and Holmes. Surely Holmes didn’t stiff the kid?

That is not at all like Holmes.  We’ll assume he left it atop a fence post on his way off the Mapleton property. No doubt young Dawson was watching from a distance and Holmes would surly have been aware of that.

I also wondered how Silas Brown was able to keep the disguised Silver Blaze hidden until race day?  Probably Holmes had it right when he observed of Mr. Brown:

“Oh, an old horse-faker like him has many a dodge.”

March 10, 2009

The wages of sin, Watson – the wages of sin!

In an exchange between Sherlock Holmes and John Openshaw in The Five Orange Pips, Holmes acknowledges four defeats:

“He said that you could solve anything.”

“He said too much.”

“That you are never beaten.”

“I have been beaten four times—three times by men, and once by a woman.”

We can be reasonably sure the woman Mr. Holmes refers to is Irene Adler from A Scandal in Bohemia. The remaining three (men) are not altogether clear but surely Mr. Holmes counts the defeat he suffered at the hands of Baron Adelbert Gruner in the The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.

While it is true Holmes brought the case to a successful resolution, he could have never done it without the unexpected — and serendipitous — actions of Miss Kitty Winter. Holmes dispatched Watson to occupy Baron Gruner while he (Holmes) attempts to burgle the Baron’s house. In the process, the Baron hears Holmes and rushes into the room being burgled.

Watson describes the incident:

“The window leading out to the garden was wide open. Beside it, looking like some terrible ghost, his head gin with bloody bandages, his face drawn and white, stood Sherlock Holmes. The next instant he was through the gap, and I heard the crash of his body among the laurel bushes outside. With a howl of rage the master of the house rushed after him to the open window.

And then! It was done in an instant, and yet I clearly saw it. An arm – a woman’s arm – shot out from among the leaves. At the same instant the Baron uttered a horrible cry – a yell which will always ring in my memory. He clapped his two hands to his face and rushed round the room, beating his head horribly against the walls. Then he fell upon the carpet, rolling and writhing, while scream after scream resounded through the house.”

Had not Miss Winter stopped the Baron, by throwing vitriol in his face, surely he would have apprehended or accosted Holmes.  How could he not? Holmes was injured (and had only just gotten out of the hospital) and unarmed, all the baron had to do was overpower Holmes and retrieve his property.

Was the Baron up to it? Well, Holmes himself considers the Baron:

“Mighty dangerous. I disregard the blusterer, but this is the sort of man who says rather less than he means.”

And Miss Winter notes:

“Adelbert is no coward. His worst enemy couldn’t say that of him. He can look after himself.”

So it’s pretty clear the Baron could have easily handled an injured and unarmed Holmes.

Holmes may not have been up to snuff mentally either.  How could Sherlock Holmes not have noticed that Kitty Winter secreted a bottle of vitriol under her coat?

“Therefore I gathered the girl up at the last moment. How could I guess what the little packet was that she carried so carefully under her cloak? I thought she had come altogether on my business, but it seems she had some of her own.”

He apparently observed that she had something under her cloak because she carried it carefully, but he failed to make the connection to the case. I suggest he was off his game, possibly do to his injuries, making it even more likely the Baron would have bested him had not Kitty Winters intervened.

Clearly Baron Gruner is one of the three men who have beaten Holmes. Now, who were the other two?

March 9, 2009

Shoulder or Leg?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mark Loper @ 3:06 pm
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In what might be called the Mother of All Blunders (MOAB), we have to wonder: was Watson wounded in the shoulder, the leg, or both?

A Study in Scarlet — the first Sherlock Holmes story — opens with Watson recounting his wartime service in Afghanistan:

“I was removed from my brigade and attached to the Berkshires, with whom I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery.”

He was struck on the shoulder by a Jazail bullet. Pretty unequivocal.

Why then, in the very next Sherlock Holmes installment, The Sign of the Four — published just three years later — does Watson say he was wounded in the leg?

“I made no remark, however, but sat nursing my wounded leg. I had a Jezail bullet through it some time before, and, though it did not prevent me from walking, it ached wearily at every change of the weather.”

And, later in the same story:

“I sprang from my chair and limped impatiently about the room with considerable bitterness in my heart.”

There are some explanations that could fit the facts but the whole thing is a bit suspect.

We know Watson cannot have confused his shoulder and his leg because both had physical manifestations. In the case of the shoulder, Holmes specifically notices Watson’s unnatural way of holding his arm.

“Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.” [emphasis added]

In the case of the leg, Watson himself describes nursing his wounded leg and he has an actual limp.

These have to be two separate wounds.

What causes all the consternation is that the two stories were written so close together; A Study in Scarlet was written in 1887 and The Sign of the Four was written in 1890. You may argue that three years is long enough for an author to forget some of specifics from his first book but would not Doyle have referred to his original story before writing the second? And even if he didn’t, was not the second story edited before being released?

No, these are two separate wounds. They have to be.  Isn’t that what Sherlock Holmes would have deduced?

“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” [emphasis added]

But wouldn’t Holmes have noticed two separate wounds?

Watson notes his leg “ached wearily at every change of the weather”. Can we not assume London was enjoying particularly nice weather when Watson first met Holmes? If that was the case — and we have no reason to think it wasn’t — Watson would not have been limping and Holmes would have only observed the unnatural way Watson carried his injured arm.

If Watson was indeed wounded in the shoulder and the leg, then there is no other explanation other than he was wounded twice — both times by a Jezail bullet.  Hey, stranger things have happened.

It’s a little suspect Mr. Doyle but we’re going to give you the benefit of the doubt.

March 4, 2009

I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data.

The Adventure of the Copper Beaches is a run-of-the-mill Sherlock Holmes story.  That is not to say it is not a good story, it is, but it doesn’t stand out among Holmes’ exploits. There are, however, several distinctly Holmes traits that make the story worthy of note.

Specifically I refer to Holmes interview with Miss Violet Hunter. Hunter has just shown Holmes the letter from Mr. Rucastle where he offers her a job as governess.

“That is the letter which I have just received, Mr. Holmes, and my mind is made up that I will accept it. I thought, however, that before taking the final step I should like to submit the whole matter to your consideration.”

“Well, Miss Hunter, if your mind is made up, that settles the question,” said Holmes, smiling.

“But you would not advise me to refuse?”

“I confess that it is not the situation which I should like to see a sister of mine apply for.”

“What is the meaning of it all, Mr. Holmes?”

“Ah, I have no data. I cannot tell. Perhaps you have yourself formed some opinion?”

“Well, there seems to me to be only one possible solution. Mr. Rucastle seemed to be a very kind, good-natured man. Is it not possible that his wife is a lunatic, that he desires to keep the matter quiet for fear she should be taken to an asylum, and that he humours her fancies in every way in order to prevent an outbreak?”

“That is a possible solution—in fact, as matters stand, it is the most probable one. But in any case it does not seem to be a nice household for a young lady.”

“But the money, Mr. Holmes, the money!”

“Well, yes, of course the pay is good—too good. That is what makes me uneasy. Why should they give you £120 a year, when they could have their pick for £40? There must be some strong reason behind.”

“I thought that if I told you the circumstances you would understand afterwards if I wanted your help. I should feel so much stronger if I felt that you were at the back of me.”

“Oh, you may carry that feeling away with you. I assure you that your little problem promises to be the most interesting which has come my way for some months. There is something distinctly novel about some of the features. If you should find yourself in doubt or in danger—”

“Danger! What danger do you foresee?”

Holmes shook his head gravely. “It would cease to be a danger if we could define it,” said he. “But at any time, day or night, a telegram would bring me down to your help.”

Sherlock Holmes answers her questions precisely and succinctly avoiding any conjecture. He only answers the questions he is asked, not reading any more into the question than is there, which is a uncommon trait when talking with people.

When Miss Hunter asks, “What is the meaning of it all, Mr. Holmes?”, he answers, “Ah, I have no data. I cannot tell. Perhaps you have yourself formed some opinion?” In other words, he resists the temptation to be sucked into useless conversation, conversation not supported by data. He only answers the question as asked and only based on the data he actually had.

He then goes onto do something only the most confident professional is willing to do: he asks Miss Hunter her opinion. It is unlikely that she will suggest anything Holmes has not already considered but she might reveal some information that she has, for whatever reason, failed to disclose.

The mystery itself is quite transparent to Holmes once he has the facts and he demonstrates some acute psychological insight that is rare even today:

“The most serious point in the case is the disposition of the child.”

“What on earth has that to do with it?” I ejaculated.

“My dear Watson, you as a medical man are continually gaining light as to the tendencies of a child by the study of the parents. Don’t you see that the converse is equally valid. I have frequently gained my first real insight into the character of parents by studying their children. This child’s disposition is abnormally cruel, merely for cruelty’s sake, and whether he derives this from his smiling father, as I should suspect, or from his mother, it bodes evil for the poor girl who is in their power.”

By the way, you will notice that the motives of the father, Mr. Rucastle, is identical to the motives of Mr. Windibank in The Case of Identity.

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.

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“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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