Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Afterword: "The Great Game?"


The game of applying the methods of the ‘Higher Criticism to the Sherlock Holmes canon was begun, many years ago, by Monsignor Ronald Knox, with the aim of showing that, by those methods, one could disintegrate a modern classic as speciously as a certain school of critics have endeavored to disintegrate the Bible.
Dorothy Sayers, Unpopular Opinions

When we started this blog, we had no idea of the cultural renaissance the tales of the great detective would soon undergo. Our discussions of Holmes have their origins much earlier, starting in the online publication of a short philosophical parable, “How To Do Things With Sherlock Holmes” dating to the summer of 2005 and continuing on during a trip to London in 2006. It would be four years before the Guy Ritchie film adaptation would appear in 2009, followed a year later by the Gatiss & Moffat televised series Sherlock for the BBC in 2010 and, most recently, the American series ElementaryBack then, although occasionally seen on American public television, usually at odd hours, the fantastic Granada series featuring Jeremy Brett was relegated to fond memories of decades prior or, if you were lucky, treasured VHS copies from the early 1990s, the series not being released on DVD until 2007. What did exist, as much then as now, and indeed tracing its own origins to Arthur Conan Doyle’s last years, was the “Great Game” of Sherlockian scholarship. Indeed, no greater evidence of this is more salient than the 2005 publication of the first volume of Leslie Klinger’s New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, an updating and expanding of William Baring-Gould’s seminal piece of…well, piece of what, exactly?

To the uninitiated and “players” of the “Great Game” alike, there would seem to be cause for reflection here. What is it about the Holmes canon that causes its most devout readers to seek to take possession of the narrative, and, if the multitude of Holmesian“pastiches” are any indication, to seek to elide or transcend its authorship, putting themselves, as it were, in Conan Doyle’s place, all the while claiming that it is them (and, one might infer, not Conan Doyle) who truly “believe” in Sherlock Holmes? While there have been many literary efforts that have sought to weave the threads of past popular literature together to produce speculative or derivative works, from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, or indeed, as Sayers noted, the lives of various Biblical characters, nothing has risen above the level of mere literary curiosity and brief glimpses on bestseller lists like those of Holmes and his fellow travelers. Can we imagine the same level of passionate intervention re-configuring the lives of Cathy and Heathcliff in Charlotte Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Stoker’s Mina and Jonathan Harker, or some other fascinating characters of world literature?  Is it perhaps some undercurrent among the Holmes faithful that would seek to reprimand Conan Doyle for some real or imagined abdication of his character? One need only look to Conan Doyle’s own autobiography, Memories and Adventures, for evidence that Conan Doyle gave a kind of permission for this sort of thing, responding to William Gillette’s telegraph to Conan Doyle: “May I marry Holmes?” with the response: “You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him.” But could Conan Doyle ever have imagined what we have today? Moreover, could he have imagined the stakes involved?

For amid all the talk of “fandom” and Sherlockian or Holmesian claims of literary provenance and devotion are very real stakes, indeed. There are the alleged factional disputes that, under some scrutiny, seem to reflect little upon either the merit of the work of Conan Doyle as an author, or even the enduring legacy of his characters while seemingly remaining all-too cryptic to a causal fan or reader. Far more intense are the litigious intellectual property debates between Sherlockian writers and Conan Doyle’s own heirs. Where do these leave the legacy of Conan Doyle as an artist, writer, and to what end do these actions contribute to the cultural and literary legacy of Holmes today? We ask the question honestly. One glance into this blog should, we hope, evince our respect and admiration for the writers of Holmes-related material, and to every aspect of the community of artists, writers, historians, critics, and fans who share our love for Sherlock Holmes. We ask the question because we believe in their veracity, deeply respect their talent, and do not doubt for one moment their sincerity and courage of their convictions. If anything, we ask the question because these are the very people who have contributed to the legacy itself, who have perpetuated, grown, and cultivated it with such care. We ask this because we truly hope that Conan Doyle’s own unique literary fingerprint persists and does not, inadvertently,diminish or, in Sayers’s words, “disintegrates” as a result.

In contrast, there are so many positive aspects to being a fan and to having access to a community that supports, inspires, and continues the legacy. After all, it is that legacy that continues to draw generation after generation to the exploits of Sherlock Holmes. It is precisely this sense of belonging to something much bigger and far reaching than our lives and ourselves that first drew many of us to the stories, and kept us reading and re-reading. As we have endeavored to glimpse in our weekly posts, the most positive attribute of the Holmes canon is Conan Doyle’s ability to make it both real and personal—to allow us to see our human reflections in the fictional guise of Holmes and Watson, to delight in their triumphs, and to really appreciate the depth of the character and intellect at work both within the page and poised at the pen. For it was from the mind and imagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that sprung one of literature’s most enduring personas—true man of mystery who inspires so many to travel with him on his adventures. Passing the canon along to friends and strangers alike is, in so many ways, keeping the “game” afoot.

Having reached the end of the canon, we hope this modest online venture will continue to the next phase of its existence. We’ll continue to read the canon closely, and wade ever deeper into the vast ocean of secondary literature. We promise to post our findings here, or in some other venue. If you have read with us, we truly thank you for spending the time, and hope you will continue to put Sherlock Holmes, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, under the glass, as it were, for a closer look.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

62. A Happy Ending


“It was my duty to bring the facts to light, and there I must leave it. As to the morality or decency of your conduct, it is not for me to express an opinion.”
“The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place”

We bid farewell to Holmes and Watson on familiar ground. “Shoscombe Old Place” revisits and reimagines elements of one of the most popular canonical tales, “Silver Blaze,” making much of dogs and horses. Scholars have also seen similarities between “Shoscombe” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” and, as Sherlockian Sonia Fetherston noted in a 2006 issue of the Baker Street Journal, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass. In addition to these influential forebears, however, there is something even more to “Shoscombe” marking the end of our literary travels with Holmes. It is the fact that, even amid the mystery, suspicion of foul play, and the same eerie trappings that characterize many of the canon’s most Gothic “country house” tales, the story manages to have a happy ending.

“Shoscombe,” or “The Adventure of the Black Spaniel,” as it was originally titled, unfolds, as many of the stories in the Case-Book, without a specific crime having taken place. The client, a horse trainer named John Mason, comes to Holmes, as many others have, like James Dodd in “Blanched Soldier” or Sir James Damery, on orders from “The Illustrious Client,” because his own observations of recent unusual events seem to point to something criminal afoot. While the resolution of the tale is not without its mordant and horrific elements, like “Veiled Lodger,” Holmes reads the acts as ultimately dishonorable and ill-planned, and makes mention of bringing the matter to the authorities while admonishing the guilty party, but makes a hasty retreat, leaving the recording of the happy ending to a Watsonian coda.

But it is on a happy note, nonetheless, that we, as readers, take our leave, as well. And, perhaps it is in reading “Shoscombe” that the Holmes aficionado appreciates Conan Doyle’s deviations from standard chronology, for we are, at very least, assured that there would be much more in store for the doctor and the detective for many, many years to come. And that perhaps, makes it the happiest “ending” of all. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

61. Suicide


“The example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons to an impatient world.”
“The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger”

“The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” is, like “Cardboard Box” and “His Last Bow,” one of the most reflective and meditative of the stories in the canon. On the surface, it is not a tale of detection, but of confession, with Mrs. Ronder, a mysteriously veiled tenant of a South Brixton rooming house run by a Mrs. Merrilow, seeking to finally, after much time has passed, bear her soul to the one person who may have exposed her at the time—Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is, per usual, familiar with the case and its particulars, and agrees to hear the woman’s story.

It seems fitting that, in this penultimate story, it is Holmes himself who bemoans that he was never asked to investigate and, thus,  Mrs. Ronder was never caught in her crime (though she was punished, and severely) and has instead lived with the painful burden alone for so long. In confessing her crime to Holmes, Mrs. Ronder finally seeks to unburden herself, to lift both the literal and figurative veil that has clouded her existence in the years since, and, she is motivated to do so by a firm intention to finally end her troubled life. In Holmes’s far more complex moral calculus, he reverses what Mrs. Ronder may have thought she was achieving by confessing to him—her confession, after so long, is not about justice, but rather peace. And, after hearing of her crimes, Holmes concludes that, while the act itself was heinous, her motives were not unwarranted, her reason not unsound, and her victim not blameless, that the fact that she has borne the physical and emotional scars for so long is proof positive of her ability to find the peace she so craves, not in the afterlife, but in this one.

“The example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons to an impatient world,” Holmes declares and demonstrates perhaps an overlooked aspect of his criminal investigations—their impact on the criminals themselves. The detective’s aid to the police and justice system, or what impact they might have on the safety and well-being of an unsuspecting public, are, we might imagine Holmes saying, ‘trifles’ when compared to the closure felt by the guilty parties themselves. By doing so, Mrs. Ronder is, in Holmes’s estimation, “brave,” and, as recipient of evidence that she has let go of the instrument of her suicidal intentions, Holmes sees an opportunity for life to begin anew. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

60. Jealousy


“He was a jealous man, and his jealousy became a frantic mania.”
“The Adventure of the Retired Colourman”

As stated earlier, Conan Doyle often crafted plots with very real elements and, well into his later life, was immensely well read, particularly on those subjects which most easily aligned with his writing. Issues around crime, science, medicine, and the occult were among his most keen interests, and references frequently found themselves into his stories, novels, and non-fiction works. One of the most unusual cases of this was first explored by Sherlockian scholar Charles A. Meyer, in a 1988 issue of Baker Street Miscellanea. In “Retired Colourman,” Meyer contends that Conan Doyle used a highly publicized murder case, from several decades before in America, to inform the plot and the characterization of the Josiah Amberley.

Following from Meyer’s contention, perhaps in selecting the influential story, Conan Doyle was most struck by the alias used by Herman Webster Mudgett in his diabolical schemes, that of a “Dr. Holmes”. Considered to be one of the first modern serial killers, Mudgett is probably best known to modern readers as one of the central characters of Erik Larson’s 2003 book, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, which details Mudgett’s activities during and immediately following the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Although the exact number of Mudgett’s victims is still unknown today, Larson meticulously details various methods that Mudgett used to torture and kill his victims, some which resonate directly to the investigation of the disappearances recounted in “Retired Colourman.”  Moreover, Holmes and Watson soon realize that another private investigator, Barker, from Surrey, is also looking into the case, and much like the actual investigation of Mudgett, it is the rivalry between the different investigators that almost allows the guilty party to evade detection.

In addition to the remarkable similarity noted by Meyer, there is something else in Larson’s rich description of the Chicago murders that continues to resonate with “Retired Colourman”—that is the central theme of jealousy. Mudgett’s own criminal intentions were colored, as it were, by both a disturbed mind and a mad desire to eliminate evidence of earlier crimes, but, as Larson points out, the earliest of Mudgett’s victims were romantic partners, and Mudgett seems to be gripped, in committing these horrible acts, first and foremost by uncontrollable jealousy. Much like the antagonist of “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” Mudgett’s jealousy was let loose, after all, to his own peril.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

59. Luck


“I am an omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles.”
“The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”

The familiarity of the situations of “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” and its follow-up tale, “Lion’s Mane,” is so close as to be formulaic. If the Watson-less, Holmes-narrated “Blanched Soldier” stands out as something of a strange curiosity in the later canon, the narrative structure of “Lion’s Mane” greatly affirms this oddity, as well as adding, much like “The Illustrious Client,” the absence of even a crime to solve. Indeed, as Leslie Klinger noted in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, the “principal question for the student of “The Lion’s Mane” must be why Holmes wrote it” at all.  

Considering this, “Lion’s Mane” may exist solely as a sort of character study, a vision of Holmes in retirement that stands in sharp contrast to Watson’s stated (and oft-repeated) view of Holmes from A Study in Scarlet. Here we see a Holmes who, unlike Watson’s earlier assessment that he “would acquire no knowledge which did not bear upon his object,” is less mechanistic in temperament, is an avid reader, and, through sheer happenstance, is able to apply his still keen faculties to solving a mysterious death. The knowledge that Holmes applies here emerges from zoology, a field missing from Watson’s tally in Scarlet, though it would likely hold that Holmes’s knowledge of fauna would not exceed that of flora which Watson notes as “variable” and impractical, unless deployed with murderous intent.

And, in fact, the story bears as much out, with Holmes as baffled as anyone throughout much of the action, even as more victims of mysterious attacks emerge, including a dog belonging to the first victim, Fitzroy McPherson, and finally, the only potential suspect, mathematics teacher Ian Murdoch, who, while not succumbing completely, shows wounds matching the two previous victims. Holmes is able to uncover a working plot for the attacks, regarding the courtship of a local woman, Maud Bellamy, leading to bad blood between McPherson and Murdoch. But this scenario, and Murdoch’s presumed guilt, neither jibes with the facts nor completely satisfies Holmes.

The ultimate answer, much like that of “Blanched Soldier,” is one which emerges not from close inspection, but, rather, Holmes’s development and testing of a theory proven right by some measure of luck and an erudition that a reader might more associate with Watson than Holmes, at least the Holmes of A Study in Scarlet. This older, wiser Holmes seems to indicate that, even absent from the scene; it is Watson that has exerted an influence upon Holmes that comes to his aid when facing the potentially fatal mysteries of the natural world. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

58. Ghosts


“I do begin to realize that the matter must be presented in such a way as may interest the reader. The following case can hardly fail to do so, as it is among the strangest happenings in my collection.”
“The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier”

Nothing captures the imagination like a well-told ghost story. Though the supernatural is, for the most part, mercifully absent from the Holmes canon, its occasional emergence in the later canon after The Hound of the Baskervilles is nonetheless titillating. In “Blanched Soldier,” we encounter a solitary Holmes again taking up the narration of a tale that he hopes will do some mean amount of justice to the adventures usually regaled by (a presumably honeymooning for his second marriage) Watson. The master detective does not disappoint. Structured, for all intents and purposes, like a Gothic tale of ghostly visitation and strange happenings at Tuxbury Old Park, near Bedford, the Emsworth family home.

Spurred on by an excitable client, James Dodd, Holmes is drawn in by the tale (inspired by Conan Doyle’s own exploits and interest in the Second Boer War) of a missing person, one Godfrey Emsworth. Dodd’s own attempts at uncovering the whereabouts of his friend were treated as suspect by the man’s father, the dyspeptic Colonel Emsworth, and further exacerbated by the family butler. It is their unusual behavior that has piqued his curiosity, but, staying the night in Tuxbury Old Park, it is a seemingly ghostly apparition of his friend that finally has driven Dodd to Baker Street for assistance.

Holmes carefully questions his client before undertaking a trip to Bedford and, per usual, Holmes quickly brushes off the ghostly apparition and instead focuses on minute details of Dodd’s visit: the placement of buildings on the property, the number of servant’s present, and a glimpse of some reading material, and where food might be delivered. Holmes interrupts the narrative here, mentioning other cases which he deemed more important (including, in an aside, the “Adventure of the Priory School”)—the trip does not commence until almost a week later. The case, it would seem, had resolved itself sufficiently within the detective’s own mind.

The conclusion of “Blanched Soldier” rests on specialized knowledge that, ironically for a story told by Holmes alone, would be more in character for Dr. Watson. Its satisfactory conclusion, for all parties involved, therefore finds more pride of place in the Holmes canon than around a camp-fire or amid the gloomy shadows of a Gothic estate. Even the spirits, it would seem, or seeming spirits, as it were, are no match for Sherlock Holmes. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

57. Extortion


“You can’t play with edged tools forever without cutting those dainty hands.”
“The Adventure of the Three Gables”

Another of the later tales that serve to forever ruffle the feathers of the Sherlockian faithful, “The Adventure of the Three Gables” presents itself as a web of blackmail and extortion, for either money, information, silence, or acquiescence. As such, it is perhaps not altogether unsurprising to note that one of the extortionists in question is none other than Sherlock Holmes himself. When considering Conan Doyle’s motivations for portraying Holmes here at his most arrogant and vitriolic, one must consider an even more intricate web through which Holmes and Watson must navigate: that of the British social classes.

It would be remiss not to remark, at least cursorily, on the issue of race in the story, as many of Holmes’s comments to, as well as Conan Doyle’s roughhewn attempt at the African-American dialect or “pidgin” English spoken by, Steve Dixie, are considered by many scholars to be patently racist. This attitude would seem to fly in the face of what we know to be Conan Doyle’s own persuasion as well as that of his character’s expressed anti-racist views proclaimed, for example, in “The Yellow Face”. While many scholars have attempted to account for this discrepancy, going so far as to disavow the story’s canonicity, a class-based view of the story would seem to illuminate (but by no means excuse) the motives that may lie behind it. Unveiling the various attempts at extortion (particularly one perpetrated by Holmes himself) that occur in the story; we uncover a plot that has just as much to do with how social minorities of all kinds could be manipulated or abused by those with status and privilege.

The first instance of extortion is the treatment of Dixie himself, in a dramatic reversal that sees Dixie dominated and subjugated by Holmes to give away more information than, as it transpires, he was hired to dissuade Holmes from obtaining, albeit in a most despicable way. As D. Martin Dakin noted, “Holmes was a gentleman. And one thing no gentleman does is to taunt another man for his racial characteristics.” However blunt the force, Holmes’s gambit rings true in the deduction that behind the thug’s brutishness is a far more delicate and dangerous power at work. This leads to the second instance of a more subtle brand of extortion, that of the offer to purchase Mary Maberly’s home and all of her possessions, which, of course, only serves to conceal another blackmail plot beneath it.

Holmes’s discovery of this tangled web of intrigue sets the stage for the final act of extortion, this one deployed by Holmes himself, once the true culprit has been revealed. It is worthy to note that Conan Doyle’s own life history and impoverished upbringing would likely fuel the desire to see the wealthy and unprincipled miscreant—emblematic, no doubt, of the hubris of the privileged class—receive their due comeuppance, and Holmes does not fail to deliver on this front, at least. But, as “The Adventure of the Three Gables” comes to a close we are left to ponder whether, as to the question of the £5,000, Holmes allows himself to have his silence bought, or, given his casual waiver of fee, remains silent to best serve his client? It remains an unsettling and open question.