Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Adventure Of Shoscombe Old Place--The Series Finale!

Is this the way Holmes ends--not with a bang but a whimper?

Perhaps that is overstating things. And perhaps we modern readers have been conditioned by modern fiction series to expect not merely a final story, but AN ENDING. And when we don't get that, that sense of closure, we feel cheated.

Which brings us to The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place.

It's not as if the "series finale" is a new concept. The Fugitive, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and M*A*S*H are just a few examples of how the concept has been around for awhile.

But these days, it is ubiquitous. It's no longer satisfactory, it seems, to simply leave it to the viewers' imaginations what might have happened to their favorite characters--the producers are obligated to spell it out for them, and tie off every plot line, and answer every question. Genre press and blogs will update their annual "What are the best and worst series' finales ever" lists.

So to modern sensibilities, it's a little bit jarring to see Sherlock Holmes just...end. No big wrap-up. No final statement. Just another story, with nothing too special about it.

Of course, it's not as if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hadn't already tried to do a "series finale" for his own creation--twice. He killed the detective off in The Final Problem...but it didn't take. And he gave us the "story set in the (series') future that show our heroes' last adventure" in His Last Bow. That, too, turned out not to be particularly final.

So perhaps there's no surprise to be had that Doyle didn't go to that well for a third time--what was left to do in that mode, show Sherlock's funeral? (Or better yet, a diminished Holmes solving his last mystery at Watson's funeral? Say...Someone get me a pen, I gotta start writing this down...).

It's pretty clear that Sir Arthur knew that this was the last story in Case-Book. It was the 12th story since Last Bow, and the collections tended to gather in dozens. Case-Book was published within a few weeks of the publication of Shoscombe.

But did he know that this was to be the last Holmes story of all? There's certainly not any indication of that. It is, not to damn it with faint praise, just another mystery. Watson doesn't even give us the usual "this tale was so fascinating I had to relay it" shtick as an introduction. There's no real villain, certainly not Holmes' ultimate foe or dastardly enemy agents. There's no real crime, which while not necessarily a story defect, doesn't seem to be the note you'd want to retire the world's greatest detective on. The deductions are not particularly brilliant.

Perhaps we'll never know what was in Sir Arthur's mind. Was this just another story, and he planned to pick up Sherlock again later? Or was this his last word, and Doyle just decided not to make a big deal of it, the better to have Holmes fade quietly away?

Whichever, the end of the series hasn't the closure modern genre consumers have come to expect. And really, that's just fine. Now we can just use our imaginations for ourselves. And just like we had to imagine Dick Van Dyke still toiling away on writing for that show, or Napoleon and Ilya still away without us, we can close our eyes and see Sherlock and Watson still in the Victorian fog, solving the thousands of mysteries which Watson has alluded to. Perhaps for these heroes, it's better not to have a definitive ending.

Thanks for reading this humble effort at a blog!


**Shoscombe may be a mid-level Holmes affair, but literarily it works quite nicely. We have a nice theme of impostors and doubles running throughout--Sir Robert uses an identical horse to fake out touts, and uses a fake sister to forestall his creditors, while Holmes and Watson pose as city-slickers out for some bucolic fishing. And the bones in the furnace are meant to fake us out into thinking that they are Lady Beatrice's.

The whole tale, while ultimately rather slight, is well put together, teasing us with red herrings and surprising plot twists.

**Doyle bringing Holmes into the CSI-future: "Sherlock Holmes had been bending for a long time over a low-power microscope..."'they have begun to realize the importance of the microscope.'"

Little did Doyle know that 80 years later, the airwaves would be filled with nothing but "regular" police using such scientific methods to solve crimes.

**The last two apocryphal cases mentioned:
In the St. Pancras case you may remember that a cap was found beside the dead policeman. The accused man denies that it is his. But he is a picture-frame maker who habitually handles glue.
Since I ran down that coiner by the zinc and copper filings in the seam of his cuff they have begun to realize the importance of the microscope.
Interesting that these both come from Holmes, and not Watson.

**Perhaps the most-remembered part of this story: Watson's gambling "problem":
By the way, Watson, you know something of racing?"

"I ought to. I pay for it with about half my wound pension."
I think this was pretty clearly sarcastic exaggeration, not meant to be taken literally. Still, perhaps we now know why, upon his return, Holmes kept Watson's checkbook for him...

**Sir Robert Norberton was clearly a violent, dangerous man:
"Norberton nearly came within your province once.
"How was that?"
"It was when he horsewhipped Sam Brewer, the well-known Curzon Street money-lender, on Newmarket Heath. He nearly killed the man."

And we're told that "[h]e's a terrible man with his fists if he gets started, and no respecter of persons."

And still another person who knows him warns, "But mind what I have told you about Sir Robert. He's the sort that strikes first and speaks afterwards"

So it's hard to understand why, exactly, Sir Robert hasn't done jail time, or at least been sued out of his holdings even before the creditors got to him. He "nearly killed" a man by whipping him--could even a noble get away with that? Maybe Norberten paid to hush it up. Or perhaps Watson (or the press) exaggerated the incident.

Still, despite the fact that he was so violent, Watson cannot believe that a noble would actually commit premeditated murder:
And yet...Let us suppose, Watson -- it is merely a scandalous supposition, a hypothesis put forward for argument's sake -- that Sir Robert has done away with his sister."
"My dear Holmes, it is out of the question."
"Very possibly, Watson. Sir Robert is a man of an honourable stock. But you do occasionally find a carrion crow among the eagles.
A presumption of innocence because of class. Oh, Victorian/Edwardian era, I shall miss you...

**Watson's description of Sir Robert as better suited to a different era is classic:
Well, he has the name of being a dangerous man. He is about the most daredevil rider in England -- second in the Grand National a few years back. He is one of those men who have overshot their true generation. He should have been a buck in the days of the Regency -- a boxer, an athlete, a plunger on the turf, a lover of fair ladies, and, by all account, so far down Queer Street that he may never find his way back again.
**Yes, I know it's picking at low-hanging fruit to mock older slang that has picked up altogether different, risque meanings over the decades. And yes, I know that the phrase merely means that Sir Robert was deeply in debit.

Still, I can't help but emphasize this utterly perfect phrase: "so far down Queer Street that he may never find his way back again." Priceless.

It's also not the only time the queer-word is used for Sir Robert: "Well, sir, when a man does one queer thing, or two queer things, there may be a meaning to it, but when everything he does is queer, then you begin to wonder."

I know, I know. Still, all of that perhaps puts another meaning on "Sir Robert has never married. Just as well, I think, considering his prospects." Maybe it wasn't the prospects that kept him from marrying...

**Sir Robert's living arrangements are considered odd:
He lives with his widowed sister, Lady Beatrice Falder."
"You mean that she lives with him?"
"No, no. The place belonged to her late husband, Sir James. Norberton has no claim on it at all. It is only a life interest and reverts to her husband's brother.
It's another, final look at some of the sexism of the era. If unmarried sibling are living together, even Sherlock assumes that the sister "lives with" the brother--that is, that he is the property holder and source of income, and she the "freeloader." To suggest otherwise? Holmes takes that as an obvious mistake!!

Here, as well, we have yet another case of a woman being used for her inheritance. Perhaps even more egregiously, she's not allowed to keep the estate to pass on--when she passes on, it reverts to the Falder clan.!!

Of course, that's a good way for declining aristocracy to make sure that's what's left of their wealth stays in their family, and isn't redistributed by weddings.

I can only imagine (hope) the will would have been different had Beatrice and her husband had children to pass the estate to. Also, surely her husband recognized Sir Robert's spendthrift nature (and Beatrice's willingness to let it happen), and this was just a means to protect the family wealth from being squandered by a jerk...

**John Mason, head trainer of Sir Robert's horses, is probably the worst client/witness ever!

You'd think that, if you're trying to interest Sherlock Holmes in taking your case, you'd start with the worst evidence first--bones in the furnace!

But no, Mason tries the soft sell: "First of all, Mr. Holmes, I think that my employer, Sir Robert, has gone mad."

Well, Holmes notes that this really isn't his department. But rather than go on to potentially great evils, Mason just embellishes on the madness theory: "Well, first of all, you have only to look at him. I don't believe he sleeps at night. He is down at the stables at all hours. His eyes are wild. It has all been too much for his nerves."

Then Mason moves on...but not to any evidence of foul play! He just segues to the fact that Beatrice is behaving oddly:
Then there is his conduct to Lady Beatrice! They have always been the best of friends. They had the same tastes, the two of them, and she loved the horses as much as he did. Every day at the same hour she would drive down to see them -- and, above all, she loved the Prince. He would prick up his ears when he heard the wheels on the gravel, and he would trot out each morning to the carriage to get his lump of sugar. But that's all over now." "Why?" "Well, she seems to have lost all interest in the horses. For a week now she has driven past the stables with never so much as 'Good-morning'!
So far Mason has only laid out that he thinks Mason mad, and that Beatrice is behaving oddly. Not much call to involve a private detective is there?

Oh, yeah, there's the dog:
"You think there has been a quarrel?"
"And a bitter, savage, spiteful quarrel at that. Why else would he give away her pet spaniel that she loved as if he were her child?"
Still not a lot of interest here, is there? Oh, well then, she's drinking more than she used to!
She is brooding and sulky and drinking, Mr. Holmes -- drinking like a fish."
"Did she drink before this estrangement?"
"Well, she took her glass, but now it is often a whole bottle of an evening. So Stephens, the butler, told me.
Again, Mason has wasted Holmes time (and pages!) without anything particularly dastardly. At best, it looks like a sibling fight. What does he expect Holmes to do about that?

Only then does Mason begin to bring in the Gothic and sinister: "But then, again, what is master doing down at the old church crypt at night? And who is the man that meets him there?"

OK, you now have Holmes' interest. Still, Mason waits to casually drop in the fact that there's grave robbery (or worse) going on: "No, sir, and there is something more that I can't fit in. Why should Sir Robert want to dig up a dead body?" Heavens, talk about burying your lede!

And only after all of that, with Holmes still expressing skepticism about getting involved, does Mason finally reveal the burned skeleton: He took a paper from his pocket, and, unwrapping it carefully, he exposed a charred fragment of bone.

 It just seems to me that if you want to convince Sherlock Holmes to get involved, you start with the potential evidence of a potential crime, and then add in the soap opera aspects. But maybe that's just me.

 **Sir Robert's plan to keep the odds high in the race:
You can get forties now, but it was nearer the hundred when he began to back him."
"But how is that if the horse is so good?"
"The public don't know how good he is. Sir Robert has been too clever for the touts. He has the Prince's half-brother out for spins. You can't tell 'em apart. But there are two lengths in a furlong between them when it comes to a gallop.
Admit it--when you read that, you were sure that the story was going to be some kind of Silver Blaze reprise, with a horse-switching happening somewhere along the line. That's what I thought...

 **I must confess to confusion about the maid, Carrie Evans, and her alleged affair with Sir Robert.

Mason, despite his claims to discretion, quite clearly implies that the affair is well-known and long-lived:
"There is her maid, Carrie Evans. She has been with her this five years."
"And is, no doubt, devoted?"
Mr. Mason shuffled uncomfortably. "She's devoted enough," he answered at last. "But I won't say to whom." "Ah!" said Holmes. "I can't tell tales out of school.

"Well, the scandal has been pretty clear for a long time."
It would have been hard for Mason to confirm the affair more firmly, uncomfortable shuffling or not.

And yet...Norberton hires Carrie's husband to carry out the impersonation of Beatrice!!

Carrie, for whatever reason, has been living under her maiden name!! So maybe Mason didn't even realize she was married!!

So was there an affair? If there was, perhaps Mr. Norlett didn't know about it? But Mason sure seems to imply that it was common knowledge.

Or perhaps there was an affair, and Norlett did know, and cooperated anyway. Maybe Sir Robert promised him a handsome payday for his cooperation, and all he had to do was turn his head. The rich really are different, you see.

So was Mason completely wrong about the affair? Or was there, and Mr. Norlett behaved in a fairly unbelievable way? And why even introduce this into the story? Just to give Sir Robert a (far-fetched at best) motive for murder?

**The Granada adaptation changes things around a bit, so stable boy played by a very young Jude Law impersonates Lady Beatrice:

Oh, Jude....

**Another reason Mason should have started with crypt robbing and mysterious bones, as Holmes says, "It is only the colourless, uneventful case which is hopeless."

**Sherlock declares that "Dogs don't make mistakes."

Well, I've known some pretty damn dumb dogs in my day. And even the smartest ones aren't that hard to fool...

**Our first actual view of Sir Robert: He was a terrible figure, huge in stature and fierce in manner. A large stable-lantern which he held in front of him shone upward upon a strong, heavily moustached face and angry eyes...

**Apparently, death did not flatter lady Beatrice:
He turned and tore open the coffin-lid behind him. In the glare of the lantern I saw a body swathed in a sheet from head to foot with dreadful, witch-like features, all nose and chin, projecting at one end, the dim, glazed eyes staring from a discoloured and crumbling face.
**Holmes: "In any case, my business is that of every other good citizen -- to uphold the law."

Hahahaha!! How many thieves and murderers have you let walk away, Sherlock?!? And that's just in the stories we know about!!

**OK, I have to admit that I'm confused by some of the finances here.

We're told that Sir Robert has hocked everything in a desperate attempt to win the race and save his financial situation from ruin. And we're told that when Beatrice dies, the estate reverts back to her husband's family.

But Sir Robert says, "I have always known that if my sister were to die my creditors would be on to my estate like a flock of vultures. Everything would be seized -- my stables, my horses -- everything."

Wait...wouldn't that property revert to the Falders? It's not "his" estate, right? If the stables and the horses were part of the estate, wouldn't they go to the Falders, as well?

I'll confess freely that I'm no financial expert, and have no idea whether the creditors would be able to step in before probate or have to wait until after. But since none of the estate belonged to Sir Robert, it seems to my untrained mind that the estate would revert to the Falders, and the creditors would have to go after them to seize the horses, etc.

Again, we have incomplete information, but if Sir Robert had invested "everything" on the horse race, his only asset the creditors could go after would be his actual bets.

Holmes disagrees. "Your bets on the race, and therefore your hopes for the future, would hold good even if your creditors seized your estate."

Well, wait. If I borrowed thousand of dollars, and put it all into lottery tickets, and then when bankrupt before the drawing...wouldn't the creditors be entitled to those tickets, as an asset with potential value? It seems wrong to say that I could default on my debts, but walk away with the tickets and become a millionaire, and the creditors couldn't touch me.

**So, no real crime was committed here (putting aside whatever minor laws about notifying authorities or properly treating dead bodies might have existed). So, no harm, no foul, right, Sherlock?

Hardly. Holmes gets mighty judgy here:
"There was no indignity or irreverence, Mr. Holmes. I do not feel that I have wronged the dead."
"Your conduct seems to me inexcusable, Sir Robert."
Wow. Worse than the murderers and adulterers and thieves you've let off the hook?
"Well, Sir Robert," said Holmes, rising, "this matter must, of course, be referred to the police. 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."
I think you have expressed you opinion adequately, Holmes...

**Watson tells us that thee was a happy ending:
It is generally known now that this singular episode ended upon a happier note than Sir Robert's actions deserved. Shoscombe Prince did win the Derby, the sporting owner did net eighty thousand pounds in bets, and the creditors did hold their hand until the race was over, when they were paid in full, and enough was left to reestablish Sir Robert in a fair position in life.
Watson neglects to tell us whether or not he bet any of his wound pension on the race...

**Apparently, the authorities were not nearly so morally outraged as Holmes:
Both police and coroner took a lenient view of the transaction, and beyond a mild censure for the delay in registering the lady's decease, the lucky owner got away scatheless from this strange incident in a career which has now outlived its shadows and promises to end in an honoured old age.
It seems that, over time, Sir Robert mended his violent ways, and his spendthrift ways, and...Money really does change everything!


Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Adventure of The Veiled Lodger--Sherlock's Quantum Of Solace?

The James Bond short story Quantum Of Solace involves Bond listening as the governor of the Bahamas relates a tale about the tragic romantic history of a couple he once knew. That's it--Bond just listens to someone else's story. No spycraft or adventure for 007 whatsoever. It's not a bad story--indeed, it's pretty good--but it's really not a James Bond story, if you know what I mean.

Which brings us to The Adventure Of The Veiled Lodger.

The crux of Veiled Lodger is just Holmes sitting and listening to the tragic story of our mysterious woman. There is no mystery at all, no deductions to be had. Sherlock just hears her tale of woe, and offers her a bit of advice. He might as well have been a priest. It's a good enough story, but it's not really a Sherlock Holmes story, if you know what I mean.

Which leaves me frighteningly little to right about here.

Fortunately, the good doctor has rescued us. For, while this may not be much of a mystery, and not your standard Sherlock Holmes story, Watson provides us plenty of meat in this amazingly dense first paragraph:
When one considers that Mr. Sherlock Holmes was in active practice for twenty-three years, and that during seventeen of these I was allowed to cooperate with him and to keep notes of his doings, it will be clear that I have a mass of material at my command. The problem has always been not to find but to choose. There is the long row of year-books which fill a shelf and there are the dispatch-cases filled with documents, a perfect quarry for the student not only of crime but of the social and official scandals of the late Victorian era. Concerning these latter, I deprecate, however, in the strongest way the attempts which have been made lately to get at and to destroy these papers. The source of these outrages is known, and if they are repeated I have Mr. Holmes's authority for saying that the whole story concerning the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant will be given to the public. There is at least one reader who will understand. 
Well, there are a number of juicy morsels there. What can we unpack?

Let's start with Watson's comment of the length of their partnership:
When one considers that Mr. Sherlock Holmes was in active practice for twenty-three years, and that during seventeen of these I was allowed to cooperate with him and to keep notes of his doings...
Lots of good fodder there for chronologists and players of The Great Game.

I'll leave it to others to argue about when "active practice" started, or what stories count as part of that, or what this tells us about Watson's absences and marriage(s). Do the adventures during the Interregnum count as the active practice? What about the two years he spent building up to His Last Bow? Ohm the headaches...

What is interesting to me is that, while Holmes was in "active practice" for 23 years, Watson/Doyle published stories of that practice for 41 years, or nearly twice the length of Sherlock's career!

From another angle: doesn't 23 years seem rather short for Holmes' career? At least by modern standards, one finishes college and perhaps grad school at, let's say an average of age 25. Then you work until you retire. Which for most people would mean an active practice of 35-40 years (albeit often not at the same job). Which makes Holmes' 23 years seem surprisingly small.

Still, we shouldn't necessarily judge by modern standards. Life spans were shorter then, and retirement may have come early. Doyle never gives us a clear idea of Holmes' age when we first meet him. Stamford certainly seems to think that Holmes is a student; but that doesn't necessarily tell us much, as Sherlock may have been a "professional student," staying in college for years gathering his eclectic knowledge without approaching the normal degree path. And we're certainly not clear on his age when he retired. Perhaps he didn't retire because of old age, but because of ill health, or boredom, or sufficient wealth not to have to work, or the desire to get out of the city he spoke about in Lion's Mane. A late start to his "active practice," an early retirement, knock out 3 years for the could just about argue 23 years. Still feels short, though...

As to the matter of how much material Watson has... will be clear that I have a mass of material at my command. The problem has always been not to find but to choose. There is the long row of year-books which fill a shelf and there are the dispatch-cases filled with documents, a perfect quarry for the student not only of crime but of the social and official scandals of the late Victorian era.
Given that Watson has spoken of hundreds, if not thousands, of untold cases, well, that has to be an awful lot of material there.

Of course, it's practically required for any pastiche to begin with an "editor's" introduction explaining how some of those papers came into their possession--inheritance, estate sale, hidden compartments in old homes they just purchased--thus justifying the story as "real."

The real problem with that idea is that Watson never tells us that he has completed stories just laying around--just year books and documents. In fact, several times John has told us that he has to go back and refer to his notes when Sherlock has given him permission to write up an old case. These untold cases haven't been written up yet--which puts paid to any claims to anyone claiming to have found completed manuscripts written by Watson in those newly discovered dispatch cases! At best they would have found newspaper clipping and notes. Don't be fooled!!

Still, these year-books and dispatch cases full of documents are irresistible, aren't they? As he says, they form a record of late Victorian life, of crime and scandal and society. We've already been given such a glimpse of that era through the 60 stories we have...just think how much more we could learn with access to all of Watson's files!

Alas, it was not to be:
...I may say that the writers of agonized letters, who beg that the honour of their families or the reputation of famous forebears may not be touched, have nothing to fear. The discretion and high sense of professional honour which have always distinguished my friend are still at work in the choice of these memoirs, and no confidence will be abused.
Damn you and your discretion, Watson!!

Of course, we can question how legitimate those requests for privacy are. By Victorian standards, a relative suffering from a rare disease was seen as bringing great shame upon a family. Women who had written indiscreet letter before they even met their husbands were driven to insane lengths to "protect their honour" and cover up their past, as if they were expected to have been emotional as well as physical virgins before they wed.

So by our standards, a lot of the "honour" and "reputation" used to justify covering up these tales would surely be trivial. Not only that, but now you're protecting the reputation of forebears? Come on now, John and Sherlock--surely the records of your cases are far more important that the world learning that some upper-class twit was a twit!!

But some people go beyond begging:
Concerning these latter, I deprecate, however, in the strongest way the attempts which have been made lately to get at and to destroy these papers. The source of these outrages is known, and if they are repeated I have Mr. Holmes's authority for saying that the whole story concerning the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant will be given to the public. There is at least one reader who will understand.
Whoa!! Watson is laying down some serious smack there!! Veiled threats directed at a reader! Mysterious attempts to steal Watson's papers! Allusion to an insane sounding apocryphal case!! Holy crap!! There's a whole story there, just in someone's attempts to suppress a story that Watson had no intention of telling!! Egads!!

Well, that's an awful lot to digest from one paragraph. Unfortunately, that's about it, as we now transition to Sherlock not solving a mystery or making any deductions, but just listening to a woman's confession. "But the most terrible human tragedies were often involved in those cases which brought him the fewest personal opportunities, and it is one of these which I now desire to record," Watson tells us. Quantum of solace, indeed...


**Watson on this story: "In telling it, I have made a slight change of name and place, but otherwise the facts are as stated."

How many other lion attacks were there in England?? How many circus owners killed by their show beasts.

Unless you changed the species of the animal involved, it doesn't seem like it would have been too hard for Watson's interested readers to track down the "real" story, discretion be damned.

**Holmes is in high humor:
When I arrived I found [Holmes] seated in a smoke-laden atmosphere...

"Mrs. Merrilow does not object to tobacco, Watson, if you wish to indulge your filthy habits.
**Holmes: "You will understand, Mrs. Merrilow, that if I come to Mrs. Ronder I should prefer to have a witness."


**Let's build the Gothic terror:
"You say that Mrs. Ronder has been your lodger for seven years and that you have only once seen her face." 

"And I wish to God I had not!" said Mrs. Merrilow. "It was, I understand, terribly mutilated." 

"Well, Mr. Holmes, you would hardly say it was a face at all. That's how it looked."
**Mrs. Ronder had some money:
"Did she give references when she came?" 

"No, sir, but she gave hard cash, and plenty of it. A quarter's rent right down on the table in advance and no arguing about terms. In these times a poor woman like me can't afford to turn down a chance like that."
Let's remember that a little further on, shall we...?

**More terror building:
She seems to be wasting away. And there's something terrible on her mind. 'Murder!' she cries. 'Murder!' And once I heard her: 'You cruel beast! You monster!' she cried.
**Mrs. Merrilow counseling her boarder to find some help: 'Mrs. Ronder,' I says, 'if you have anything that is troubling your soul, there's the clergy,' I says, 'and there's the police. Between them you should get some help.'

Perhaps there's something in the middle of those two options?

**When  Mrs. Merrilow suggests Sherlock Holmes: 'That's the man,' says she. 'I wonder I never thought of it before.'

Perhaps because no one would think of a famous detective as a confessor where no detection was involved?

**The terrible crime scene:
Ronder lay, with the back of his head crushed in and deep claw-marks across his scalp, some ten yards from the cage, which was open. Close to the door of the cage lay Mrs. Ronder upon her back, with the creature squatting and snarling above her. It had torn her face in such a fashion that it was never thought that she could live.
**Holmes actually admiring a policeman: "...young Edmunds, of the Berkshire Constabulary. A smart lad that!"

**Mrs. Merrilow perhaps isn't the good Samaritan the beginning of the tale would have us think:
It was very clear that her chief preoccupation was lest she should lose a valuable lodger, and she implored us, before showing us up, to say and do nothing which could lead to so undesirable an end.
**Watson waxing lyrical: "From keeping beasts in a cage, the woman seemed, by some retribution of fate, to have become herself a beast in a cage."

**"She sat now in a broken armchair in the shadowy corner of the room."

What, the well-paid landlady can repair or replace a chair for her only boarder?

**Why had Ronder lied to the police? "Because the fate of someone else depended upon it. I know that he was a very worthless being, and yet I would not have his destruction upon my conscience. We had been so close -- so close!"

Not to be too indelicate, but perhaps the reason she lied is because she were a participant in a plot that successfully murdered your husband? That seems slightly less altruistic than she's trying to present it, right?

**More from Eugenia: "I could not stand the scandal and publicity which would come from a police examination. I have not long to live, but I wish to die undisturbed." MURDERED another human being. One would think that avoiding scandal and publicity would be the least of your opposed to avoiding the gallows!

**Ronder: "And yet I wanted to find one man of judgment to whom I could tell my terrible story, so that when I am gone all might be understood."

Holmes is an odd choice for that role, isn't he? He's known for solving crimes, yet she's seeking absolution.

"That when I am gone" might suggest that Watson waited until her death to publish this account--which perhaps means she lived another 30 years.

**Watson still hung up on physical corruption representing spiritual corruption, and vice versa: "Ronder was a huge porcine person and that his wife was a very magnificent woman." And:
It was a dreadful face -- a human pig, or rather a human wild boar, for it was formidable in its bestiality. One could imagine that vile mouth champing and foaming in its rage, and one could conceive those small, vicious eyes darting pure malignancy as they looked forth upon the world. Ruffian, bully, beast -- it was all written on that heavy-jowled face.
It's interesting, then, that Watson didn't make the same leap to suggest that Eugenia's facial injuries were a reflection of her role as a murderess...

**"When I became a woman this man loved me, if such lust as his can be called love, and in an evil moment I became his wife."

Not sure by what she means "an evil moment," unless she means that her own "lust" caused her to say yes to his proposal...

**Eugenia on her co-conspirator: "Compared to my husband he seemed like the angel Gabriel. He pitied me and helped me, till at last our intimacy turned to love -- deep, deep, passionate love, such love as I had dreamed of but never hoped to feel."

 Apparently a one-sided love, as Leonardo ran--and even after Eugenia lied for him and he was in the clear, he abandoned her...

**The moment that happens in every noir film: "Soon my lover and I understood that it could not be avoided. My husband was not fit to live. We planned that he should die."

I'm in no way defending Ronder's treatment of his wife. And the draconian divorce laws of the era limited her options.

But couldn't Eugenia and Ronder just have taken off? As two people who left a traveling circus troupe, it's hard to see that the police would have spent much time hunting for her, even if the "porcine" husband filed a complaint. And there are plenty of places--even other countries--they could have gone to to live in bliss and safety.

So why not leave, instead of stooping to cold-blooded murder?

**A cunning plan:
We made a club -- Leonardo made it -- and in the leaden head he fastened five long steel nails, the points outward, with just such a spread as the lion's paw. This was to give my husband his death-blow, and yet to leave the evidence that it was the lion which we would loose who had done the deed.
It worked well enough to fool local coroners and constabulary...

**The flaw in the cunning plan:
You may have heard how quick these creatures are to scent human blood, and how it excites them. Some strange instinct had told the creature in one instant that a human being had been slain. As I slipped the bars it bounded out and was on me in an instant.

The sad part is, that even if the lion hadn't turned on them, the poor guy likely would have been destroyed anyway, framed as a "man-killer." At least this way, he got a little of his own back.

**The "deep, deep passionate love" of her life:
Leonardo could have saved me. If he had rushed forward and struck the beast with his club he might have cowed it. But the man lost his nerve. I heard him shout in his terror, and then I saw him turn and fly.
**So what does a mauled circus widow do?
I had but one desire, Mr. Holmes, and I had enough money to gratify it. It was that I should cover myself so that my poor face should be seen by none, and that I should dwell where none whom I had ever known should find me.
**Go back to that line: "I had enough money to gratify it."

According to Eugenia herself, she started as a "poor circus girl." Now, she has "money enough" to gratify her wishes, and "plenty of hard cash" to throw at her landlady.

That's one detail that Mrs. Ronder omits from this tale--because the death of her husband was declared an accident, she inherited his money and property (and perhaps insurance money?). The murder left her well-off enough to fulfill her desires--although admittedly they might have been better desires had she not been mauled.

So there's the motive that hasn't been shared with us, and the probable reason Eugenia and Leonardo went straight to murder instead of flight as their first option: the money.

**Holmes, though, seems fooled: "Poor girl!" he said. "Poor girl! The ways of fate are indeed hard to understand. If there is not some compensation hereafter, then the world is a cruel jest."

**Again, why she didn't turn in Leonardo: "He had left me under the beast's claws, he had deserted me in my need, and yet I could not bring myself to give him to the gallows."

Damned conveniently, lying to the police also spared herself the gallows...but surely that never entered her thinking, did it?

**Of course, perhaps Holmes did figure all this out. After all, I'm not making any of this up--all is this is straight from Watson's narrative, even if he doesn't give it the interpretation I do. Surely Holmes saw the same things?

It's not the first time he has let a wife go unmolested for the death of an abusive husband. But unlike Abbey Grange, there's no plausible way that this incident can be written off as merely an "accident." Eugenia by her own words admitted to enthusiastically and successfully participating in a plan to murder her husband.

Perhaps Holmes felt the disfigurement was punishment enough. Or that enough time had passed, and no good could come of making it a police matter. Or maybe...

**Holmes, sensing that Eugenia is planning suicide:
"Your life is not your own," he said. "Keep your hands off it."
"What use is it to anyone?"
"How can you tell? The example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons to an impatient world."
A very Catholic attitude.

But then again, we know she was no mere "patient sufferer," but ultimately the author of her own pain.

There's nothing to support this reading, and it's likely not in character, but part of me likes to think that while Holmes didn't think she any longer deserved civil punishment, he felt she should remain alive, to suffer with her guilt and bad dreams. But that's just me projecting, in all likelihood.

**Watson on her terrible injuries:
It was horrible. No words can describe the framework of a face when the face itself is gone. Two living and beautiful brown eyes looking sadly out from that grisly ruin did but make the view more awful.
**Eugenia relinquishes her poison:
"'I send you my temptation. I will follow your advice.' That was the message. I think, Watson, we can guess the name of the brave woman who sent it."
Brave woman? Please....

That also makes two stories in a row with people carrying around cyanide. How easy was that stuff to get in those days??

**I suppose you can tell that I'm not terribly sympathetic to Eugenia.

Not to minimize her torment before the killing (assuming it was real, as we only have her word for it), but my more modern sensibilities can't help but read this like a classic noir, be it Double Indemnity or Body Heat. A woman takes a lover, dupes him into killing her husband for the money, and the dumps the guy. In this case, of course, she's the one who suffers for her crime, not the dupe...but the injuries from the lion were essentially self-inflicted, a punishment for her crimes. Murder will out, even if the bastard had it coming.

Or perhaps I'm just a lot more hard-hearted than Holmes and Watson (and Doyle).


Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Adventure Of The Retired Colourman--Paint-By-Numbers Mystery With One Colour Missing?

The Adventure Of The Retired Colourman is not a bad set-up for a story. 

But in too many ways, it doesn't go beyond the set-up, the basic sketch. The story has a few good things going for it, but it feels like there a lot of details missing, a lot of necessary connective tissue to make us care about the mystery.

Take, for example, our victims. Let's start with the wife, uh...umm...well....she's never even named in the story!!

That's not all that unusual for Doyle--he has a bad habit of not naming wives, sometimes, as if they're just adjuncts of their husbands. The era, and sexism, and all.

But in this case, it's also indicative that after Sir Arthur came up with the killer and how he did it, the rest of the backstory was too much to be bothered with. 

What of Mrs. Amberley, then? We're told that Josiah retired at 61, and one year later married "a woman twenty years younger than himself." So she's presumably in her forties. Why does a woman like woman marry a man like Josiah? Did she have no idea what an abusive miser he was? Did he somehow manage to fool her? He certainly, as Holmes said, "has few outward graces, whatever his inner virtues may be." Or was this a marriage of convenience? Perhaps she was recently widowed, with no means of support, and any port in a storm? Maybe he promised to take care of her family's debts if she married him?

Without understanding why she married him, and what the basis of their relationship was, it's hard to judge the state of their marriage, and whether she was likely to have had an affair. Remember, everything we know about Mrs. Amberley comes to us third hand. Perhaps most importantly, it comes to us through a mind so unbalanced that Holmes believes he may belong in an asylum and not the gallows.

Despite this, Holmes seems to accept all of Josiah's accusations at face value. "Ernest was frequently in the house, and an intimacy between him and Mrs. Amberley was a natural sequence"? "So also is it that young Dr. Ernest, an unmarried man, played chess with Amberley, and probably played the fool with his wife."? Given what we know of Josiah after the case is over, isn't it just as likely that either he is lying, or it is all in his paranoid imagination?

Not that it necessarily matters--even if she was having an affair, that hardly justifies her murder, particularly in such a gruesome fashion. But without victim-shaming, it is important to know what drove the killer. Was she fooling around with Dr. Ernest, or was Josiah just foolishly jealous over nothing? A cold-blooded murderer, or truly insane?

The same applies to Dr. Ernest. What do we know about him? He plays chess. End of story.

We're told that Josiah "made his wife so wretched by his niggardly ways that she was a ready prey for any adventurer." An adventurer? A doctor who goes to play Josiah at chess--at Josiah's invitation--qualifies as "an adventurer?"

How about Ernest's looks? Age? Type of doctor? Disposition? Any history of wooing wedded women (and fleeing with her husband's fortune)? As Holmes asked, "Was he the gay Lothario one would expect?" Again, there is no actual evidence shown to confirm Amberley's accusations. Holmes claims that "the opinion of the neighbours" is enough to "confirm" Josiah's story, but come now--that's also getting your story third or fourth-hand. The detective is willing to put local gossip above actual evidence? Pshaw. Even after Amberley has been caught, and Holmes declaims on the level of his madness, he is still willing to declare "so also is it that young Dr. Ernest, an unmarried man, played chess with Amberley, and probably played the fool with his wife." That is truly unsupported by anything except the claims of a murdering madman and local gossips. We expect Holmes to make such declarations based on actual evidence.

Oh, and Dr. Ernest's family was willing to hire a detective to investigate his disappearance, which is at least one indication that those close to Ernest didn't believe Josiah's calumny. (There's no indication that Mrs. Amberly's family did the same, but then again, we don't know anything whatsoever about her, including whether she had family).

And it should be emphasized--even if we believed that Ernest and Mrs. Amberly were having an affair, there is even less evidence that they planned to abscond with any money or securities. Holmes often proclaims that he seeks justice--well, in this case, he should have spent some time securing justify for the slandered victims of an insane murderer.

Some of these details could have been--should have been--explored. It would have been easy to make the story a bit longer (it is very short), or if necessary, to spend less time on Watson and Amberley's amusing but overly-long trip to the hinterlands.

But without this information, how can we understand the murderer? What about Josiah? Was he truly justified in his fears of an affair? Again, not that that would excuse homicide--but it would broaden our portrait of the character. Had he been married previously, and cuckolded before? If his jealousy could reach the point of a "frantic mania," why invite Ernest into his home? Was he, in his madness, trying to "test" her loyalty?

There are also some inconsistencies in Sir Arthur's portrayal of Josiah. He is such a good actor that he completely fools Watson and Holmes on his first visit. But later, he does nothing but complain about following any investigative path, when an innocent victim would have been eager to follow up any such "clues." He has the "swank" (we Americans would say "balls") to beard the lion in his den, and go to Sherlock Holmes to "solve" his wife's "disappearance." But the first time that someone mentions that he's a suspect, he tries to commit suicide? Someone so arrogant as to think he could best Holmes wouldn't be carrying around cyanide pills, because he wouldn't be able to conceive of being caught--at least that's how my armchair psychology reads it.

So we have a chilling murder, and an interesting (if confusing) murderer. But by completely ignoring the victims, and not properly examining the truth of the killer's claim, Doyle weakened leaves some of the colours out of this mystery's palette. It's an incomplete picture, which does disservice to the victims (and the readers), and ultimately makes the murderer himself less interesting.


**Welcome back, John Watson. You've been missed!!

**Geez, Sherlock, cheer up a bit! "Exactly, Watson. Pathetic and futile. But is not all life pathetic and futile? Is not his story a microcosm of the whole? We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow -- misery."

Sounds like someone needs some drugs...

**Scotland Yard has a habit of foisting of low priority cases upon Holmes?
He has been sent on by the Yard. Just as medical men occasionally send their incurables to a quack. They argue that they can do nothing more, and that whatever happens the patient can be no worse than he is.
So how, then, can they complain about Holmes "stealing the glory" and taking credit for cases?

**Amberley must have been a pretty good actor, as Holmes seems to be taking his claims at face value: "The old story, Watson. A treacherous friend and a fickle wife."

**The real crime? "What is more, the faithless spouse carried off the old man's deed-box as her personal luggage with a good part of his life's savings within." Mess with his heart, but not his money!

Contrast with Three Gables, where Holmes says more and more poeple are using banks now, and not hiding their money on the premises.

I guess that didn't apply to paranoid misers...

**It's good to be needed:
"What will you do about it?" 

"Well, the immediate question, my dear Watson, happens to be, What will you do? -- if you will be good enough to understudy me.
**Apocryphal  case: "You know that I am preoccupied with this case of the two Coptic Patriarchs, which should come to a head to-day. I really have not time to go out to Lewisham,"

**Swank: "The old fellow was quite insistent that I should go." Just think about that. Amberley was so confident that he actually wanted Sherlock Holmes to examine the scene of the crime.

**Watson: "I set forth to Lewisham, little dreaming that within a week the affair in which I was engaging would be the eager debate of all England."

What's to debate? I suppose whether Amberley gets a straight jacket or the noose...

**See, this is why we missed Watson:
Holmes lay with his gaunt figure stretched in his deep chair, his pipe curling forth slow wreaths of acrid tobacco, while his eyelids drooped over his eyes so lazily that he might almost have been asleep were it not that at any halt or questionable passage of my narrative they half lifted, and two gray eyes, as bright and keen as rapiers, transfixed me with their searching glance.
There's no way we would have gotten that same kind of self-description from Holmes as narrator...

**"The Haven is the name of Mr. Josiah Amberley's house."

I really think I missed out, growing up in an era where houses have numbers, not names. Or was that only a British thing? Do they still do that?

Maybe I'll just rechristen my apartment. From henceforth, I shall call my domicile "The Glade." Now I just have to explain it to the mailman...

**Holmes is not of fan of having to listen to Watson's detailed descriptions of architecture:
"I think it would interest you, Holmes. It is like some penurious patrician who has sunk into the company of his inferiors. You know that particular quarter, the monotonous brick streets, the weary suburban highways. Right in the middle of them, a little island of ancient culture and comfort, lies this old home, surrounded by a high sun-baked wall mottled with lichens and topped with moss, the sort of wall --" 

"Cut out the poetry, Watson," said Holmes severely. "I note that it was a high brick wall."
**Our mysterious stalker is first seen:
He was a tall, dark, heavily moustached, rather military-looking man. He nodded in answer to my inquiry and gave me a curiously questioning glance, which came back to my memory a little later...It was undoubtedly the tall, dark man whom I had addressed in the street. I saw him once more at London Bridge, and then I lost him in the crowd. But I am convinced that he was following me." 

"No doubt! No doubt!" said Holmes. "A tall, dark, heavily moustached man, you say, with gray-tinted sun-glasses?" 

"Holmes, you are a wizard. I did not say so, but he had gray-tinted sun-glasses." 

"And a Masonic tie-pin?" 

Some have complained that it would a violation of rules for a Mason to wear his pin where it could be seen by the public. But if that were true, how would anyone outside of the group ever know what the pin looked like in the first place?

More seriously, that's part of the disguise, the superfluous detail that, while perhaps not strictly accurate, distracts the witness...

**There seems to be a lot of confusion among commentators about Barker, and that Holmes' statements seem to contradict themselves.

Nonsense. Although we not presented the information on Baarker in a proper chronological order, so the reader has to do a little bit of lifting for himself, it's all their, and not contradictory.. Allow me to help.

Holmes: "You had not met Barker, Watson. He is my hated rival upon the Surrey shore." The "hated rival" is a bit facetious, as Sherlock later describes Mr. Barker as "my friend and rival." He's been successful, and Scotland Yard is well acquainted with him: "He has several good cases to his credit, has he not, Inspector?"

Ernest's family hired Barker to look into the doctor's disappearance, so he and Holmes were on the same case, just from different ends: "He has been interesting himself also in your business, Mr. Josiah Amberley, though we have been working independently."

Once they stumbled upon each other, "Of course, I told him how matters stood and we continued the case together."

So when Holmes says, "as to Barker, he has done nothing save what I told him," he's referring to the conduct of this particular case, not his entire career.

Barker is a friendly rival detective, they both ended up working the same case, and this one time they decided to pool their efforts. No confusion at all, really.

There, was that so hard?

**Wait, so Barker operated "upon the Surrey shore?" Is he still there when Holmes retires? Does he consult Holmes on cases?

Or, with the vacuum from Holmes' retirement, has Barker moved his operation to London?

**Watson (and Doyle) continue to adhere to the "moral deformity must be echoed by physical deformity" school of literature:
"He seemed to me like a man who was literally bowed down by care. His back was curved as though he carried a heavy burden. Yet he was not the weakling that I had at first imagined, for his shoulders and chest have the framework of a giant, though his figure tapers away into a pair of spindled legs." 

"Left shoe wrinkled, right one smooth." 

"I did not observe that." 

"No, you wouldn't. I spotted his artificial limb. But proceed."
Seriously, how could he not be a bad guy?

 **Watson's thought on the role of Victorian women:
I have never seen a worse-kept place. The garden was all running to seed, giving me an impression of wild neglect in which the plants had been allowed to find the way of Nature rather than of art. How any decent woman could have tolerated such a state of things, I don't know.
Of course, how a "decent woman" is expected to an estate in good repair when her husband is a miser might be the question you should be asking, John.

Of course, deeper commentary about how decent women not allowing plants "to find the way of Nature" and the metaphor of "nature" being a bad thing is invited here, but I'll leave that to others.

**The husband doth protest too much, methinks:
And human nature, Dr. Watson -- the black ingratitude of it all! When did I ever refuse one of her requests? Was ever a woman so pampered? And that young man -- he might have been my own son. He had the run of my house. And yet see how they have treated me! Oh, Dr. Watson, it is a dreadful, dreadful world!
Well, at least he didn't go on about it forever..."That was the burden of his song for an hour or more..." Oh.

**Holmes tempers his usual criticism of Watson:
It is true that though in your mission you have missed everything of importance, yet even those things which have obtruded themselves upon your notice give rise to serious thought." 

"What have I missed?" 

"Don't be hurt, my dear fellow. You know that I am quite impersonal. No one else would have done better. Some possibly not so well."
High praise from Sherlock.

**Holmes has adjusted quite well to the existence of telephones: "Thanks to the telephone and the help of the Yard, I can usually get my essentials without leaving this room."

Wait until he sees the internet...

**Amberley begins to break character:
"It's perfectly absurd, Mr. Holmes," he said. "What can this man possibly know of what has occurred? It is waste of time and money." 

"It would make the worst possible impression both on the police and upon myself, Mr. Amberley, if when so obvious a clue arose you should refuse to follow it up. We should feel that you were not really in earnest in this investigation." 

Our client seemed horrified at the suggestion. "Why, of course I shall go if you look at it in that way," said he.
Obviously, the man who really wanted to find his wife (and his money) wouldn't turn up his nose at a clue like this.

The BBC 1965 adaptation sweetens the pot here , by telling us that Mrs. Amberley had a sister in the area of Little Purlington, thus making a communication from the area vicar not completely random and unlikely...

**Obviously, at this point Holmes is fairly convinced Amberley is guilty: "Whatever you do, see that he really does go," said he. "Should he break away or return, get to the nearest telephone exchange and send the single word 'Bolted.' I will arrange here that it shall reach me wherever I am."

Of course, it's difficult to believe that this direction doesn't tell Watson what the game is. Let's just write that up to authorial discretion, and trying to preserve the mystery until the end of the story.

**Watson's road trip from hell:
My remembrance of the journey is not a pleasant one, for the weather was hot, the train slow, and my companion sullen and silent, hardly talking at all save to make an occasional sardonic remark as to the futility of our proceedings. When we at last reached the little station it was a two-mile drive before we came to the Vicarage.
Holmes was surely laughing at how perfectly remote his choice of ruse was.

**Elman the Vicar is rather a douche:
A big, solemn, rather pompous clergyman received us in his study. Our telegram lay before him.

"Well, gentlemen," he asked, "what can I do for you?" 

"We came," I explained, "in answer to your wire." 

"My wire! I sent no wire." 

"I mean the wire which you sent to Mr. Josiah Amberley about his wife and his money." 

"If this is a joke, sir, it is a very questionable one," said the vicar angrily. "I have never heard of the gentleman you name, and I have not sent a wire to anyone." 

Our client and I looked at each other in amazement. "Perhaps there is some mistake," said I; "are there perhaps two vicarages? Here is the wire itself, signed Elman and dated from the Vicarage." 

"There is only one vicarage, sir, and only one vicar, and this wire is a scandalous forgery, the origin of which shall certainly be investigated by the police. Meanwhile, I can see no possible object in prolonging this interview."
What a self-important prig. Sure it's an inconvenience, this mistaken meeting, but what would it cost you to be polite to people come to seek your aid? Some man of God...

**By the way...would a forged telegram really be a police matter, as long as there was no attempt at defrauding someone of money or property?

**Miser: "It was soon apparent to me that my companion's reputation as a miser was not undeserved. He had grumbled at the expense of the journey, had insisted upon travelling third-class, and was now clamorous in his objections to the hotel bill."

**The big reveal:
But we both have the same question to ask you!" 

Mr. Amberley sat down heavily. He sensed impending danger. I read it in his straining eyes and his twitching features. "What is the question, Mr. Holmes?" 

"Only this: What did you do with the bodies?
**Great moments in over-acting:
The man sprang to his feet with a hoarse scream. He clawed into the air with his bony hands. His mouth was open, and for the instant he looked like some horrible bird of prey. In a flash we got a glimpse of the real Josiah Amberley, a misshapen demon with a soul as distorted as his body.
Seriously, he was a good enough actor to convince Holmes (initially) of the truth of his story. But at the first word of doubt he completely loses it?

**I mentioned this above, but it bears repeating:
As he fell back into his chair he clapped his hand to his lips as if to stifle a cough. Holmes sprang at his throat like a tiger and twisted his face towards the ground. A white pellet fell from between his gasping lips. "No short cuts, Josiah Amberley. Things must be done decently and in order."
Someone as arrogant and calculating as Amberley just doesn't strike me as the type who would throw in the towel at the first doubting word. That kind never believes they could lose, so they never prepare for defeat. Holmes described him as "He felt so clever and so sure of himself that he imagined no one could touch him." That doesn't seem like someone who would end his own life at the first setback.

I could see suicide later, in his cell. But to carry around a pill means planning to be caught, and that's not how I read Josiah. Then again, crazy is crazy, so...?

Not to mention, Holmes has not yet presented a single piece of evidence against him. He just says, essentially, "I think you did it." And Josiah immediately gives up?

**Holmes being a bit cavalier about civil rights and the like:
The irregulars are useful sometimes, you know. You, for example, with your compulsory warning about whatever he said being used against him, could never have bluffed this rascal into what is virtually a confession.
Which is why the courts often take a dim view of "irregulars" doing work for the police, often at their behest.

**So, is an alleged suicide attempt "virtually a confession"? Again, remember no one official witnessed this, just the "irregulars." And if Amberley is mentally ill, then any attempt at self-harm could have multiple meanings besides an admission of guilt.

Fortunately, the bodies were found, and the ersatz gas chamber, so it's rather a moot point. Still, "bluffing" rascals into attempting suicide doesn't have a ton of evidentiary value, if you ask me.

**Inspector MacKinnon: "You will excuse us for feeling sore when you jump in with methods which we cannot use, and so rob us of the credit."

But you sent him to Holmes!!

In fairness, it quite likely wasn't MacKinnon himself who sent Amberley to Holmes. Still, you're surely not allowed to complain when you pass of loser cases to civilians and they go and solve them for you. You clearly made yourself look bad in that case.

**Rather a broad defamation: "Amberley excelled at chess -- one mark, Watson, of a scheming mind."


Of course, Ernest played chess, too--was he a schemer? Should police haunt chess clubs, looking for potential master criminals and murderers?

**Paint, obviously, was way stinkier back in the day.

**Josiah's alibi was pretty terrible, as it was so easily checked: "I had examined the box-office chart at the Haymarket Theatre -- another of Dr. Watson's bull's-eyes -- and ascertained that neither B thirty nor thirty-two of the upper circle had been occupied that night."

**Holmes again boasting of his criminal prowess: "Burglary has always been an alternative profession had I cared to adopt it, and I have little doubt that I should have come to the front."

**The death chamber:
You see the gas-pipe along the skirting here. Very good. It rises in the angle of the wall, and there is a tap here in the corner. The pipe runs out into the strong-room, as you can see, and ends in that plaster rose in the centre of the ceiling, where it is concealed by the ornamentation. That end is wide open.
Many have asked how long it took to fashion this gas chamber; how it was done without the wife or servant noticing; and what that tells us about how long Josiah had been planning this double homicide.

The BBC 1965 clarifies (or perhaps retcons) this, having Holmes explain that the gas line was pre-existing, running to lighting in the room. Amberley had removed the light fixture, and removed the shut off knob on the gas line. So no expensive and time-consuming alterations needed...

**The dying words:
'We we --' That's all. "What do you make of that?" "Well, it's only a foot above the ground. The poor devil was on the floor dying when he wrote it. He lost his senses before he could finish." "He was writing, 'We were murdered.' "
Talk about confirmation bias! Couldn't it just as well have been a confession--"We were having an affair"? "We were guilty, so we decided to kill ourselves"??

**Sherlock's diagnosis of Josiah:
But, first, I would give you an insight into this man's mentality. It is a very unusual one -- so much so that I think his destination is more likely to be Broadmoor than the scaffold. He has, to a high degree, the sort of mind which one associates with the mediaeval Italian nature rather than with the modern Briton... Like all misers, he was a jealous man, and his jealousy became a frantic mania. 
 Or, just a murdering bastard.


Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Adventure Of The Lion's Mane--The Jellyfish Did It?

If you recall from my last post (too long ago--sorry!), I was not a big fan of the Sherlock Holmes-penned tale, The Adventure Of The Blanched Soldier. While I applauded Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's attempt to do something new, I thought the approach a failure. The tale was poorly told, essentially a series of LONG expositional narrations. Holmes was nowhere near a good a writer as Watson, and we sorely missed the doctor's descriptive detail. Holmes kept too much from the reader, so his solution seemed to be plucked out of thin air.

Well, The Adventure Of The Lion's Mane corrected much of that, and even though it, too, was "written" by Holmes, it is superior to Blanched Soldier in almost every way. Holmes' writing style is much more relaxed, and far more engaging. The characters are much more interesting. Holmes shares his thinking with the readers along the way, so we are viewing the mystery with him, and not watching a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat. There are a plethora of clues and suspects, making Lion's Mane really a pretty good read.

And then we find out the jellyfish did it.

It is interesting that, for both of the stories Doyle chose to feature Sherlock as narrator, no crime had been committed, and there was no villain. That, I might suspect, is part of the reason Lion's Mane gets lumped in with Blanched Soldier and dismissed as a failed experiment.

It's not as if every Sherlock Holmes mystery requires a crime...many haven't. And you don't always need an actual villain--but someone needs to have some agency in the tale, there must be some human reason for the events we have followed.

In Twisted Lip, for example, there was no crime committed (putting aside any vagrancy or begging laws). And there was no villain--Neville St. Claire was just engaged in a fairly embarrassing occupation, and wished to hide it from his family. But there was still human activity to uncover, an examination of motives and behaviors, and someone trying to frustrate Holmes' investigations

But in Blanched Soldier, the "mystery" was that Godfrey Emsworth had contracted a socially ostracizing disease. Shocking, perhaps. But Godfrey had not done anything to deserve getting sick, and was not behind any kind of master plot aside from staying hidden. There was no human agency to uncover, except for a slight social lie. Heavens, who among us hasn't said "Tell them I'm not home!"? That's hardly a mystery requiring Sherlock Holmes!

Of course, such a story can work--Blanched Soldier is very similar to Yellow Face, if you think about it--but Soldier was not well-written enough to grip us with a situation, so the lack of crime and villain is more noticeable and frustrating.

Despite many suspects and motives, Lion's Mane pulls the rug out from the reader, too, by revealing the killer was an animal--just a dumb act of nature, as it were. And by way of comparison, we should note that the other times the Canon provided us with animal killers, they were either trained beasts used by vile villains, or they were lashing out at villains trying to harm them. In Lion's Mane, the jellyfish may have well as been a bolt of lightning, or a falling boulder. It wasn't part of any criminal or shameful actions--it was just a random, fatal accident. Holmes may as well have been an insurance claims adjuster.

That ending--it was just an accident--only serves to highlight some of the story's strained coincidences, which a better ending might have kept hidden from us. If it wasn't the day after a big storm; if some students hadn't just happened to be kept from swimming that morning; if Fitzroy didn't happen to have a weak heart...remove any link in the unlikely chain, and either McPherson doesn't die, or someone else gets stung but survives, or there are witnesses to tell us what happened. So, without such strained manipulation of events by Doyle, no mystery.

Sure, arcane coincidences are often involved in explaining how accidents happened--but this is mystery fiction, and we expect a stronger resolution to a mystery than a shrug and, "well, nature is dangerous, I guess." It suddenly removers us from a moral universe, why people are responsible for theirs (an others') fates, and justice can come into play--even if Holmes did sometimes play a bit fast and loose with the concept. In detective fiction there usually is, whether we agree with it or not, a moral, a viewpoint. Lion's Mane robs us of that, a little bit, with a moral of "well, sometimes shit just happens, even if innocent people are almost arrested for it. Societal rules mean nothing if a giant jellyfish gets blown into your cove."

Which may not be a problem for you. But I suspect it is, because, as I said earlier, this is a pretty good story. But a lot of people dismiss it. In part it's because it appears in the little-respect Case-Book. In part, it's because it's a Holmes-narrated story, and we've been told they're no good.

But also, I think it's because it's the second tale in a row where the was no human mystery, and no villain to punish. Few have objected to "the snake did it" or "the horse did it," as resolutions to other mysteries. But with "Cyanea capillata did it," it's a revelation that bothers us, because it ultimately says, "Sometimes people just die in stupid ways, and there's nothing you can do about it, and no one to catch punish." How McPherson died was a mystery, but it wasn't a mystery story, despite all the trappings.


**I do think this story was much better written than its predecessor, Blanched Soldier.

I like to think that Doyle soon saw that Soldier was too cramped, too non-engaging to work, so he loosened up "Holmes'" writing-style considerably.

Of course, there are perfectly good in-story reasons to explain this. In Soldier, we're not sure exactly when in his life Holmes has put pen to paper. In Lion's Mane, though, we're quite clear that he's been in retirement for some time. Perhaps this has freed his mind a bit, literarily. It's also possible that Watson, having read Soldier, passed on some tips to Holmes on how to make a story more interesting for the reader.

But whatever meta explanation you'd like to give, Mane is not only a clearly better read than Soldier, but there are definitely bits which do show us things from Holmes' perspective rather than Watson's, and that makes for some very interesting tidbits which I'll try to mention as we skip through the story.

**So the two mysteries that Holmes narrates, with no Watson present, just happen to be medical mysteries? What the heck, Sir Arthur?

While the good doctor may not have been an expert on tropical diseases, it's certainly possible that he had encountered leprosy-sufferers during his travels, and perhaps he might have had some valuable input into this case (although Holmes had it solved 12 seconds in...)

And in this case, Watson might not have had any knowledge of jellyfish attacks. But since a part of this mystery was "how did Fitzroy die," Watson's opinion could hardly have been less valuable than the anonymous idiot doctor who testified at the inquest.

**This is also the second of two stories were people were killed by poisonous animals and left confusing dying words...
They were slurred and indistinct, but to my ear the last of them, which burst in a shriek from his lips, were "the Lion's Mane." It was utterly irrelevant and unintelligible, and yet I could twist the sound into no other sense.
 I guess I shouldn't criticize people who are dying in intense agony, especially McPherson, who clearly had no idea what it was that killed him.

Still, if a victim could merely have blurted out "It was a snake!!' instead of  "Oh my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!", that might have made solving the murder a tiny bit easier. Ditto with Fitzroy's "the Lion's Mane"...maybe something like "In the lagoon!"?

All I'm saying is, practice your dying words, people. You can save detectives a whole lot of time rounding up your killers if you choose more carefully!

**Holmes: "I had given myself up entirely to that soothing life of Nature for which I had so often yearned during the long years spent amid the gloom of London."

A lot of people see that as, if not a contradiction of something Holmes said earlier, than at least a seemingly out of character attitude.

But we should remember--this is Sherlock himself writing. So any inconsistency comes from Watson's portrayal. It's possible that Holmes never expressed this desire to John, or that John never reported it to us.

And perhaps the years spent without Watson's partnership had taken a toll on the detective, and changed his attitude about London.

Regardless, this is certainly no reason to go about claiming the story "must" be non-canonical just because we learned something new about our hero from his own mouth.

**Holmes: "My house is lonely. I, my old housekeeper, and my bees have the estate all to ourselves." 

It should be noted that, pre- or post-retirement, Holmes never took another flatmate besides Watson...

**Again, a new perspective on Holmes from the detective himself:
It was impossible to work upon so delightful a day, and I strolled out before breakfast to enjoy the exquisite air...Summer and winter he went for his swim, and, as I am a swimmer myself, I have often joined [McPherson].
Sherlock is more social and more outdoorsy than Watson portrayed him, it seems.

**A point where Watson's presence might have helped:
He was obviously dying. Those glazed sunken eyes and dreadful livid cheeks could mean nothing else...His back was covered with dark red lines as though he had been terribly flogged by a thin wire scourge. The instrument with which this punishment had been inflicted was clearly flexible, for the long, angry weals curved round his shoulders and ribs. There was blood dripping down his chin, for he had bitten through his lower lip in the paroxysm of his agony. His drawn and distorted face told how terrible that agony had been.
Now, I'm no doctor, obviously, but I have had a jellyfish sting plenty of times as a youth. Nothing as big as this Cyanea capillata. But still, ouch enough. Yet even given "dark lines as though he had been flogged," the flesh likely wouldn't have been actually torn, as almost any type of actual flogging would accomplished.

Perhaps having had a medical companion on hand, someone who might have recognized the symptoms of a poisoning by venom, might have made short work of this mystery. At the very least, he could have put paid to the notion of some type of "scourging" that didn't even rip the flesh.

**Our first suspect:
Murdoch was the mathematical coach at the establishment, a tall, dark, thin man, so taciturn and aloof that none can be said to have been his friend. He seemed to live in some high abstract region of surds and conic sections, with little to connect him with ordinary life.
 Interesting, isn't it, that Sherlock describes the dour teacher in terms that Watson often used to describe him?

Given that Murdoch was a math teacher and a murder suspect, I'm surprised that no one has floated a theory that he was really Moriarty in disguise, and had trained a jellyfish to commit a diabolical murder...

**Dog abuse:
On one occasion, being plagued by a little dog belonging to McPherson, he had caught the creature up and hurled it through the plate-glass window, an action for which Stackhurst would certainly have given him his dismissal had he not been a very valuable teacher.
 You know, he could have been the most valuable teacher in the world, and 99.99% of all institutions still would have sacked Murdoch instantly for that.

Even if the dog were "plaguing" him, that hardly justifies tossing the pooch through a window. And it's pretty hard for me to see most pet owners getting over that enough to actually become friends with the canine tosser:
But for a year or more Murdoch has been as near to McPherson as he ever could be to anyone. He is not of a very sympathetic disposition by nature." 
"So I understand. I seem to remember your telling me once about a quarrel over the ill-usage of a dog." 
"That blew over all right." 
"But left some vindictive feeling, perhaps." 
"No, no, I am sure they were real friends." 
"Real friends" after trying to kill my dog? Inconceivable!

**Wait just one minute! McPherson wades into the pool, and is stung all over by the hidden jellyfish. He is dying, in unendurable agony.

But he takes the time to put his on his coat, trousers and shoes before climbing the path?!?!

That may be taking the modesty of the era too far. If he hadn't taken to time to half-dress, he might have reached Holmes with time enough to actually explain, instead of blurting out a cryptic phrase...

**One of the bigger hiccups in the mystery is: why did Holmes assume Fitzroy hadn't bathed? Simply because he was (partly) dressed and his towel was dry? "Had the body been found in the water I could hardly have missed it. It was the towel which misled me."

As many have observed, given that he had never used his towel, McPherson would almost certainly have been at least still damp, and it's difficult to conceive of the great detective missing this, dry towel or no.

Still, we're told that Fitzroy "had not been on the beach more than a quarter of an hour at the most." Allowing a little flexibility in that time, it's possible that he had mostly dried in the sun and morning air as he struggled up the cliff. And giving the hideousness of his death, and trace remaining water could have been dismissed as sweat produced in the "infernal agony."

**But even if you assume McPherson hadn't swam, Holmes still should have searched the "lagoon," right? If you're committed to the theory that some "flexible scourge" had been used to flail Fitzroy, isn't it possible that the killer might have hidden it in the water? Just because you think that Fitzroy hadn't gone in the water, doesn't mean the alleged killer hadn't.

**Holmes has become much better at describing characters: "Anderson, the village constable, a big, ginger-moustached man of the slow, solid Sussex breed -- a breed which covers much good sense under a heavy, silent exterior."

**When your teacher is a dick: "Ian Murdoch held them back," said he. "He would insist upon some algebraic demonstration before breakfast."

Algebra before breakfast? Human rights violation!!

**Perhaps Sherlock wasn't as familiar with the community as he thought, as he is completely unaware of the existence of Maud Bellamy, despite her apparent local fame: "Everyone knows her. She is the beauty of the neighbourhood --a real beauty, Holmes, who would draw attention everywhere."

Yet it seems that she was more observant, and recognized Holmes even though he had never seen her before: "It seems that she already knew me by sight, for she turned to me at the end..."

**Tempers are really on edge at The Gables:
"What were you doing there?" he asked. 

Murdoch's face flushed with anger. "I am your subordinate, sir, under your roof. I am not aware that I owe you any account of my private actions." 

Stackhurst's nerves were near the surface after all he had endured. Otherwise, perhaps, he would have waited. Now he lost his temper completely. "In the circumstances your answer is pure impertinence, Mr. Murdoch." 

"Your own question might perhaps come under the same heading." 

"This is not the first time that I have had to overlook your insubordinate ways. It will certainly be the last. You will kindly make fresh arrangements for your future as speedily as you can."
Well, that got out of hand quickly, didn't it?

Still, a colleague has just been (apparently) murdered, so perhaps it's not surprising that raw emotions quickly broke through into what should have been a civilized conversation...

**So much for Holmes' not forming theories before all the facts are in:
The one thing that impressed itself forcibly upon my mind was that Mr. Ian Murdoch was taking the first chance to open a path of escape from the scene of the crime. Suspicion, vague and nebulous, was now beginning to take outline in my mind. AND Again the shadow round this strange man seemed to me to be taking more definite shape. His record must be examined. His rooms must be privately searched.
Still, such theorizing is preferable to Holmes keeping the reader in the dark until the bitter end.

Still, searching a man's rooms on "vague and nebulous" suspicions? I guess that, as the rooms belonged to The Gables institution, and it wasn't the police doing the searching, no violation of Murdoch's rights occurred...

**More Victorian/Edwardian morality on the role of young women in society from Tom Bellamy:
My son of one mind with me that Mr. McPherson's attentions to Maud were insulting. Yes, sir, the word 'marriage' was never mentioned, and yet there were letters and meetings, and a great deal more of which neither of us could approve. 
Heavens--letters AND meetings?!?! How scandalous! Women must be protected from any attention from men unless marriage is discussed? I would have loved to see him try to raise a daughter in the era of email and Twitter and being with boys in school and...

And later, Bellamy declares, "I object to my girl picking up with men outside her own station." So sexist and classist. King jerk, is all I'm saying.

**And it wasn't just Tom Bellamy who was a bit retrograde in his feelings towards unapproved couplings, as Maud tells us. "We were engaged to be married, and we only kept it secret because Fitzroy's uncle, who is very old and said to be dying, might have disinherited him if he had married against his wish."

 This isn't the first time we have seen people hide relationships to avoid rich relatives finding out and disinheriting them. For me, it would have to be one hell of a potential bequest to get me to hide my love life like then. Then again, you do see people hide their relationships for all sorts of reasons, even today, including a fear of upsetting relatives.

One interesting question: why would the uncle have objected to this match? Bellamy clearly feels that Maud was above Fitzroy's station--so wouldn't he have been marrying up? Why would the uncle have resisted that?

Then again, we're told that Bellamy "was a fisherman to start with." Perhaps Uncle Bob objected because he felt that money didn't grant social status, and nouveau riche or not, he didn't want his heir to marry the child of a mere fisherman.

Damn, class and social strata are funny things...

**Holmes describing Maud:
Who could have imagined that so rare a flower would grow from such a root and in such an atmosphere? Women have seldom been an attraction to me, for my brain has always governed my heart, but I could not look upon her perfect clear-cut face, with all the soft freshness of the downlands in her delicate colouring, without realizing that no young man would cross her path unscathed....Maud Bellamy will always remain in my memory as a most complete and remarkable woman.
 Again, many have thought this completely uncharacteristic of Sherlock. But this is the first time that we have Holmes himself describing a beautiful woman to us.

This is another case of Watson not filtering things through his perspective for us. Good on Doyle for not making everything a carbon copy of how Watson would have described Holmes' reaction.

**Holmes: I turned over the paper. "This never came by post. How did you get it?" 

How did he know that? It's never explained, and I not sure how he knows. Had the paper never been folded, and was too big to have fit into any envelope? But the note was "crumpled" when she pulled it out...?

You have known what it was to be in a nightmare in which you feel that there is some all-important thing for which you search and which you know is there, though it remains forever just beyond your reach.
As someone who is finding my memory deteriorating (seemingly by the day), I sympathize with this, and admire Holmes' self-honesty.

**How badly is Holmes losing his sharpness?
You will know, or Watson has written in vain, that I hold a vast store of out-of-the-way knowledge without scientific system, but very available for the needs of my work. My mind is like a crowded box-room with packets of all sorts stowed away therein -- so many that I may well have but a vague perception of what was there. I had known that there was something which might bear upon this matter. It was still vague, but at least I knew how I could make it clear.
This does seem to contradict Holmes' earlier descriptions of how he preserved his mental sharpness.

But then again, that was Holmes when he first met Watson, and now Holmes is much older, in retirement, and the discipline he alluded to in Study In Scarlet may be fading, either through relaxation--or deteriorating faculties.

And once again, this is Holmes himself telling us, and not something being filtered through his Boswell. Perhaps Watson misunderstood/misreported earlier...

**The joys of policing a small town, as put forth by Inspector Bardle: "Yes, sir. There is really no one else when you come to think of it. That's the advantage of this solitude. We narrow it down to a very small compass. If he did not do it, then who did?"

Compare, of course, to Holmes' famous admonition about remote country living in Copper Beeches:
"Do you know, Watson," said he, "that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there."

"Good heavens!" I cried. "Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?"

"They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."

"You horrify me!"

"But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard's blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser. Had this lady who appeals to us for help gone to live in Winchester, I should never have had a fear for her. It is the five miles of country which makes the danger.
Not to mention, of course, the the inspector completely overlooks the possibility of someone from outside the community coming to commit a crime...

**Unacceptable inquest:
"Have you examined the marks?" I asked. "I have seen them. So has the doctor." "But I have examined them very carefully with a lens. They have peculiarities."
Good gosh, I don't expect a 1907 Surrey doctor to necessarily have the capability to run a "tox screen" and discover jellyfish venom.

But to not have "examined the marks very carefully with a lens"??? What did this quack do, just shrug his shoulders and say, "Well, he's dead, I guess!"????

**Alcohol was apparently the most potent cure against jellyfish toxin:
"Brandy! Brandy!" he gasped, and fell groaning upon the sofa..."Yes, yes, brandy!" he cried. "The man is at his last gasp. It was all I could do to bring him here. He fainted twice upon the way." Half a tumbler of the raw spirit brought about a wondrous change...More and more brandy was poured down his throat, each fresh dose bringing him back to life.
Also, the account from Holmes' book said a victim "gulped down brandy, a whole bottleful, and it seems to have saved his life."

Of course, it was common in the day to see liquor as a restorative, and especially brandy. And it's not the first time we've seen it used in these stories.

 **The reveal:
"Cyanea!" I cried. "Cyanea! Behold the Lion's Mane!" 

The strange object at which I pointed did indeed look like a tangled mass torn from the mane of a lion. It lay upon a rocky shelf some three feet under the water, a curious waving, vibrating, hairy creature with streaks of silver among its yellow tresses. It pulsated with a slow, heavy dilation and contraction.
The jellyfish did it...

**That was actually a real book, a real author, and an actual passage that Holmes read to us:
It is Out of Doors, by the famous observer, J. G. Wood. Wood himself very nearly perished from contact with this vile creature, so he wrote with a very full knowledge. Cyanea capillata is the miscreant's full name, and he can be as dangerous to life as, and far more painful than, the bite of the cobra.
Wood also wrote about jellyfish attacks in other books, so they obvioously made a huge impression on him.

**Holmes: "I am an omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles."

A retentive memory that failed to remember for over a week...

**Holmes: "That phrase 'the Lion's Mane' haunted my mind. I knew that I had seen it somewhere in an unexpected context."

So, then, it's remarkably convenient for solving this mystery that those were Fitzroy's last words...

**Stackhurst and Murdoch make up:
Stackhurst held out his hand. "Our nerves have all been at concert-pitch," said he. "Forgive what is past, Murdoch. We shall understand each other better in the future."