Good-night Mister Sherlock Holmes

April 22, 2009

“Watson, I mean to burgle Milverton’s house to-night.”

In The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, Holmes make the unprecedented decision to unlawfully enter the home of a private citizen in order to better serve his client. There were some other cases when Holmes burgled a home or business but always with at least a modicum of authorization such that had he been caught, it is unlikely he would have been prosecuted. In the case of Milverton, Holmes openly admits to Watson the illegality of his proposed actions:

“We have shared this same room for some years, and it would be amusing if we ended by sharing the same cell.”

In any event, Holmes has decided to step outside of the law, Watson has coerced Holmes into taking him along, and they set out to commit the crime. While burgling the home, they discover that Milverton is awake when intelligence indicated he would be asleep.

As it turns out, Milverton has an appointment with a client who has promised to sell him some compromising letters. The client arrives one-half hour late and is not whom she told Milverton she was; she is a woman Milverton ruined because she failed to pay the ransom for some compromising letters Milverton possesed.  Milverton released the letters to her husband who, as a result of a broken heart, died.

After a brief exchange, she pulls a pistol and kills Milverton. Watson and Holmes are secreted behind a curtain and witnessed the murder. After Milverton is dead and the assailant has fled, Holmes quickly retrieves the letter that compromised his client (as well as all other letters Milverson had), hurls them into the fire, and he and Watson flee the scene.

There were five rounds fired and the alarm was quickly raised:

“I could not have believed that an alarm could have spread so swiftly. Looking back, the huge house was one blaze of light. The front door was open, and figures were rushing down the drive. The whole garden was alive with people, and one fellow raised a view-halloa as we emerged from the veranda and followed hard at our heels. Holmes seemed to know the grounds perfectly, and he threaded his way swiftly among a plantation of small trees, I close at his heels, and our foremost pursuer panting behind us. It was a six-foot wall which barred our path, but he sprang to the top and over. As I did the same I felt the hand of the man behind me grab at my ankle, but I kicked myself free and scrambled over a grass-strewn coping.”

Forgetting for the moment that these two middle aged men easily negotiate a six-foot fence, I wonder what happened to the woman who killed Milverton? Where did she go? I will allow that Holmes and Watson spent some additional time in Milverton’s study while Holmes (without Watson’s help) made multiple trips from the safe to the fireplace but, according to Watson’s narrative, the servants were almost instantly on the scene. In fact, they were banging on the locked office door even as Holmes was dumping the material from the safe into the fire.

So where did she go? We know she exited the house because Watson felt the outside air enter the room:

“She looked again, but there was no sound or movement. I heard a sharp rustle, the night air blew into the heated room, and the avenger was gone.”

But how could she have eluded the staff when they were apparently (almost) immediately at the door? And did she too scale the six-foot wall?

Watson was actually caught by the heel as he went over the fence so clearly people were about, why would they not have seen the woman?

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March 21, 2009

“… but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position.”

So what was the deal with Sherlock Holmes and women? Was he a misogynist? Was he a homosexual? What?

He was not a homosexual.  In The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot, he specifically tells Watson:

“I have never loved, Watson, but if I did and if the woman I loved had met such an end, I might act even as our lawless lion- hunter has done.” [emphasis added]

In the Valley of Fear, Holmes makes a similar statement.  Speaking to Watson:

“Should I ever marry, Watson, I should hope to inspire my wife with some feeling which would prevent her from being walked off by a housekeeper when my corpse was lying within a few yards of her.” [emphasis added]

I think we can as easily rule-out Holmes as a misogynist too.  In  The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, Holmes is contemplating burgling Milverton’s home in order to retrieve some letters that compromise his female client.  Watson is quarrying him on the risks and Holmes counters with:

“Since it is morally justifiable, I have only to consider the question of personal risk. Surely a gentleman should not lay much stress upon this, when a lady is in most desperate need of his help?”

So there is no evidence that Holmes was a homosexual. There exists no real evidence that he was a  misogynist either. I think it more likely that Holmes was simply asexual.

Holmes did indeed enjoy the company of men over than women. Most of his professional contacts were men which was the norm for that era but even off-the-clock he preferred the company of men.  Watson was only able to cajole Holmes to visit Colonel Hayter – one of Watson’s patients from his service in Afghanistan – when he (Watson) assured Holmes there would be no women present.

“A little diplomacy was needed, but when Holmes understood that the establishment was a bachelor one, and that he would be allowed the fullest freedom, he fell in with my plans and a week after our return from Lyons we were under the Colonel’s roof.”

In The Sign of the Four, Holmes describes the lovely Mary Morstan – the woman Watson subsequently married – as a “unit”.

“What a very attractive woman!” I exclaimed, turning to my companion. He had lit his pipe again and was leaning back with drooping eyelids. “Is she?” he said languidly; “I did not observe.”

“You really are an automaton — a calculating machine,” I cried. “There is something positively inhuman in you at times.”

He smiled gently. “It is of the first importance,” he cried, “not to allow your judgment to be biased by personal qualities. A client is to me a mere unit, a factor in a problem. The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.

In fairness, Holmes reffered to all clients as “units”.

Mary Morstan was a unit and Violet Hunter was quickly forgotten after a successful conclusion to the Adventure of the Cooper Beaches and this was after Holmes took an initial interest in her:

I could see that Holmes was favourably impressed by the manner and speech of his new client.

Though after Holmes closed the case, he completely dismisses her:

As to Miss Violet Hunter, my friend Holmes, rather to my disappointment, manifested no further interest in her when once she had ceased to be the centre of one of his problems.

One has to wonder, was Watson hopeful that Holmes and Miss Hunter would have something in common?

There’s really no mystery concerning Holmes’ attitude toward women and Watson succinctly sums in up in the very first short story; A Scandal in Bohemia:

It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer — excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his.

And this from The Greek Interpreter:

His aversion to women, and his disinclination to form new friendships, were both typical of his unemotional character…

Sherlock Holmes is exactly what you think he is: Sherlock Holmes.

March 16, 2009

“It is, of course, a trifle, but there is nothing so important as trifles.”

The Man with the Twisted Lip is a neat little Sherlock Holmes story with more than one twist. The opium-den introduction instantly captures the reader and promises a wild ride. It also gives Dr. Watson an another opportunity to pontificate on the negative effect of drug use as he did in the opening pages of The Sign of the Four when speaking to Holmes about his (Holmes) cocaine use.

The story is straightforward enough and Holmes solves it but not before some consternation only resolved by pulling an all-nighter  “… sitting upon five pillows and consuming an ounce of shag.”

And to his credit, he acknowledges his blunder:

“I think, Watson, that you are now standing in the presence of one of the most absolute fools in Europe. I deserve to be kicked from here to Charing Cross. But I think I have the key of the affair now.”

And later:

“I confess that I have been as blind as a mole, but it is better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all.”

Just one question?

When Holmes scrubbed the make-up off of Neville St. Clair’s face, we find a “… a pale, sad-faced, refined-looking man, black-haired and smooth-skinned”.

Smooth-skinned? Here is a man who hasn’t shaved in three days and Doyle describes him as smooth-skinned?  If we give Doyle the benefit of the doubt, maybe by smooth-skinned, he meant smooth as opposed to the rough-skin created by the make-up for the disguise.

It is, of course, a trifle, but there is nothing so important as trifles.

As an aside, I seriously considered trying this ploy when I was once at “low-water”. I wasn’t necessarily going to use make-up but I was going to wear dark-glasses and carry a cane for the visually-impaired. I went as far as to buy a cane (off of eBay) but never went through with it.

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 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.

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