Wednesday, February 13, 2013

37. Hoax

“Let us hear the suspicions. I will look after the proofs.”
“The Adventure of the Three Students”

Perhaps no other person more than Conan Doyle himself has contributed more to the Holmes corpus than William Baring-Gould. Baring-Gould was a prolific contributor to Holmesian journals and, notably, author of, in 1955, The Chronological Holmes, followed by the definitive biography, Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street in 1962, and, what may be his most lasting contribution to the literature on the great detective, 1967’s The Annotated Sherlock Holmes. Bearing glittering jewels of speculation, hypothesis, extrapolation, and outright fanciful fabrication, Baring-Gould’s assembled array of annotations from throughout the Holmesian/Sherlockian world constituted a formidable collection of marginalia for each and every canonical adventure. One interesting cache of literary conjecture concerns “The Adventure of the Three Students,” an admittedly minor work within the canon and one that suffers from lack of serious consideration from fans and scholars, due to its relative absence from major adaptations for film or television.[1]

Concerning “The Three Students,” Baring Gould noted a particularly interesting theory, presented by Andrew Lang, a writer for Longman’s Magazine:

Lang’s contention was that Holmes and Watson were, in this case, made victims of an elaborate hoax prepared, and brilliantly acted, by Mr. Hilton Soames the tutor, with the aid and connivance of Gilcrest, if not Bannister…playing on Holmes’ complete ignorance of Greek literature…Vernon Rendall…as Mr. T.S. Blakeney wrote…boldly claims that Watson deliberately hoodwinked Holmes…with the aid of Soames, Gilcrest and Bannister. Holmes, it is suggested, was worried over his charters, and to prevent his finding solace in drugs, Watson arranged a spoof job for him to investigate.

The idea that a case, particularly one that centers around, basically, cheating on a college exam, would be an elaborate ruse for the detective, seems so implausible and fantastical, until one pauses enough to consider that, from the previous story, “The Six Napoleons” to “The Three Students,” Conan Doyle has jumped backwards in time from 1900 to 1895, more specifically, as another Baring-Gould annotation provides us, the Lent term (Hilary term) holiday in March. In other words, less than a year from Holmes’s return in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” If one takes on the supposition, considered by Baring-Gould and others, and brilliantly portrayed in Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel The Seven Per-Cent Solution, that part of Holmes’s absence during the “Great Hiatus” period dealt with his addictions to cocaine and possibly opium, and possibly the nervous malady that plagued him during the latter 1880s, it would seem in keeping with Watson’s temperament and dealings with the post-Hiatus Holmes that, if the occasion were to arise that constituted a threat to Holmes’s health, that some suitable hoax might been required. But, this theory, while, as Baring-Gould considered “plausible,” begs the ultimate question: could Watson pull it off?

In conclusion, we see that Baring-Gould’s own summation is worthy, in its perceptiveness, of Holmes himself:

Upon the general theory of a spoof job, we may observe that Watson and his confederates would need to have been consummate actors to humbug Holmes. We have no special reason to think that Watson was a good deceiver: on the contrary, Holmes told him that his features were very expressive, and his strongly individual characteristics more than once betrayed him.

In either case, the formula of the “just hoax:” a noble lie told to satisfy the cravings of a great intellect, is one, which, in the case of “The Three Students” raises the overall level of intrigue associated with the story, and provides a rich canvas upon which the great archivists of the Holmes method, from Watson to Baring-Gould to the many fans and scholars today, paint their masterpieces of observation.

[1] “The Three Students” did feature in the Stoll Films silent adaptations of the series, produced in 1923, as well as the BBC Radio 4 adaptations originally aired between 1989 and 1998.    

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