Wednesday, October 10, 2012

20. Plot

I have taken to living by my wits.
"The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual"

Holmes’s third ever case as a consulting detective by his own count serves as an opportunity for Conan Doyle, as with the “Gloria Scott,” to stray further from the formula of the Adventures and early novels. Unique to “Musgrave” is the establishment of a “frame” narrative: Watson begins narrating the introduction, in which he recounts some of Holmes’s idiosyncrasies, including the detective’s unusual storage for tobacco (a slipper), use of a large jackknife to keep track of opened correspondence, and penchant for incorporating indoor gunplay with his Royalist tendencies, blasting ‘VR’ (for Victoria Regina) into the consulting room wall. As with “Gloria Scott,” the subject quickly turns to Holmes’s early cases, and Holmes takes over the narration, outlining his meeting with a university acquaintance, Reginald Musgrave, who recounts mysterious disappearances at Hurlstone, his ancestral estate.

The frame narrative moving from Watson to Holmes to Musgrave and back to Holmes allows for some of the most elaborate plotting to be found in the canon. Holmes literally “plots” his every move, attempting to follow in the footsteps of a disappeared butler who Holmes believes to possess knowledge about a centuries-old Hurlstone mystery. Indeed, plot is the central stylistic conceit of the “Musgrave Ritual,” and its repetitive, duplicative narrative design spirals inward toward a riveting climax. As Peter Brooks states in his reading of the story, in an early chapter of his 1984 book Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative:

In repeating the steps of the criminal-predecessor, Holmes is literalizing an act that all narrative claims to perform, since narrative ever, and inevitably…presents itself as a repetition…of what has already happened. This need not mean that it did in fact happen—we are not concerned with verification […] What is important…is the constructive, semiotic role of repetition: the function of plot as the active repetition and reworking of story in and by discourse. Within the conventions of the detective story—and of many other narratives as well—repetition results in both detection and apprehension of the original plot maker, the criminal.

As Holmes catches his criminal by replaying his actions to a mathematically calculable degree, so, thus, does Musgrave replicate his family history to unlock the mysteries that lie within it, and, thus further Watson learns more about Holmes through a retelling of one of his earliest adventures. For the reader, these three multifarious narratives, though separated by time, tone, and telling, combine—much like the mysteries of the “Musgrave Ritual”—into a singular, compelling plot line.

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