Good-night Mister Sherlock Holmes

May 10, 2009

“You have doubtless heard of the Beryl Coronet?”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mark Loper @ 4:25 pm
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The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet is a clever little yarn and one of 12 included in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It is not particularly good, or particularly bad, but it has a couple of errors that can only be laid at Doyle’s feet; Holmes had nothing to do with it.

Mr. Alexander Holder, one of the principles at Holder & Stevenson (the second largest private banking concern in the City of London), has agreed to accept the Beryl Coronet — which he describes as “one of the most precious public possessions of the empire” — as collateral on a four-day, ₤50,000 loan. Holder doesn’t feel comfortable leaving the coronet in the bank’s vault so he takes it home and locks it in a bureau in his dressing-room.

The owner/curator of the coronet (who is not identified) admonishes Holder:

“I rely upon you not only to be discreet and to refrain from all gossip upon the matter but, above all, to preserve this coronet with every possible precaution because I need not say that a great public scandal would be caused if any harm were to befall it. Any injury to it would be almost as serious as its complete loss… ” [emphasis added]

Through some family shenanigans, the coronet is stolen. During the theft, Holder’s son attempts to regain the coronet from the perpetrator.  A struggle ensues and unbeknownst to the son, a corner of the coronet, with three attached stones (beryls), is broken off and retained by the the the thief.

Holmes is called in, quickly sorts out the mystery, and eventually returns the broken piece to the senior Holder and exonerating the son.

Here are my concerns:

If any injury would be “almost as serious as its complete loss”, why, after Holmes recovers the broken corner (with the beryls attached), does Mr. Holder exclaim:

“You have it!” he gasped. I am saved! I am saved!”

Saved? The coronet is severely damaged and Holder was specifically cautioned that any injury was tantamount to a complete loss.

I also wonder that Mr. Holder, after having been admonished to “refrain from all gossip upon the matter” proceeded to tell his son (who had known gambling issues) and niece the whole story and exactly where he is going to secure the coronet?

And why does not the younger Holder realize the coronet was broken during the struggle with the thief?  Holmes noted a break would make a noise “like a pistol shot”.  Why did not the son hear it and realize the coronet had been damaged ?

Maybe these are small discrepancies and I suppose they could have happened but they pale in comparison with the biggest question: why did Holder take the coronet home in the first place rather than leave it in the vault of the “second largest private banking concern in the City of London”?

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?

March 14, 2009

“… the calculation is a simple one.”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mark Loper @ 8:33 am
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In Silver Blaze, Holmes and Watson are on a train going to Exeter. Holmes has been reading all the papers have to say about the disappearance of the horse, Silver Blaze. Apparently satisfied, he thrusts the papers under the seat and comments to Watson:

“We are going well,” said he, looking out of the window, and glancing at his watch. “Our rate at present is fifty-three and a half miles an hour.”

“I have not observed the quarter-mile posts,” said I.

“Nor have I. But the telegraph posts upon this line are sixty yards apart, and the calculation is a simple one.

So how did Holmes calculate the speed of the train? According to Watson, Holmes was looking out of the window then glanced at his watch so we will assume he counted a set number of poles, then noted elapsed time.

Let’s assume Holmes decided to count, say, 26 posts (or 25 sixty-yard intervals), how many seconds would have elapsed when he again looked at his watch? We know that the rate of the train divided into the distance equals elapsed time (Rate x Time = Distance → Time = Distance ÷ Rate). In this case we know the rate is 53.5 mph and the distance of the 25 posts is 1500 yards (the posts are 60 yards apart).  After Holmes counted, the 26th post, he would have consulted his watch and noted 57.35 seconds elapsed time.  The calculation would have been: 1500 yards/57.35 seconds = 53.5 mph. Maybe not a simple calculation but for Holmes, apparently it was.

But wait, we’re talking Sherlock Holmes here, surely thee is a better way.

Suppose Holmes noted the time interval between any two posts (60 yards)?  The elapsed time would have to be 2.33374 seconds which would be difficult to note on a simple pocket-watch but the distance between any four posts (180 yards) would be 7.001 seconds, a much easier determination and 180 yards in 7.001 seconds is a relatively simple calculation and yields: 53.509 miles per hour.

Elementary.

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.

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