Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Man With The Twisted Lip--The Adventure Of Beggars Can't be Choosers!

The Man With The Twisted Lip is one of the more popular of the Holmes stories, for some very good reasons.

Yes, part of it is the seemingly fantastical set-up that turns out to actually happen in the real world now and then:

Another reason is TMWTTL is a true "fair play" mystery, with all of the clues laid out for us and for Holmes, and not dependent on some esoteric bit of knowledge that Holmes possesses but the readers do not. He solves it by "by sitting upon five pillows and consuming an ounce of shag" and thinking, rather than, say, recognizing that a particular bit of dirt (that was never describe to the readers) can only come from Surrey-on-Puddlethwaite, so therefore etc. As a result, Holmes' revelation of Neville St. Clair at the end seems less like a magic trick (as in A Study In Scarlet) and more like something we could have figured out, too.

But perhaps the biggest reason TMWTTL works as well as it does is that its central issue resonates so well, even with a modern audience: shame. I'm sure that many of  us know someone who has had to turn to means that they're not particularly proud of in order to make ends meet, something that they're very anxious that friends and family not find out about. This embarrassment is more universal than merely violating some Victorian class system. Hard times or bad luck or youthful foolishness have forced many of us to take jobs we felt beneath us, or to make a living in ways that skirt moral or legal or social boundaries. Everyone has secrets they don't wish to share, secrets so embarrassing to them that  they would "rather die" than have them become public knowledge. So many of us have a natural sympathy for St. Clair and his plight.

Of course, Doyle gives us a very complex characterization of St. Clair. He's not just some luckless chap who was forced into this life; he chose it because he could make more money this way. Despite being the son of a school master, Neville has a lot of natural arrogance that makes him a bit prickly.

St. Clair took up begging rather than the "arduous work" of being a newspaper reporter. Not to diss on reporters, because everyone works hard at their jobs--but come on, Neville, it's not as if you were digging ditches or mining coal. And even though he thought being outed as a beggar was so shameful that he "would have endured imprisonment, ay, even execution," rather than have his secret revealed, he displays a feisty arrogance about what a good beggar he was. "I do not mean that any beggar in the streets of London could earn 700 pounds a year--which is less than my average takings--but I had exceptional advantages in my power of making up, and also in a facility of repartee..." He's ashamed by the begging, but he's simultaneously pompous about how good he is at it! What a splendidly human reaction.

One problem I do have with this story is that, like several of Doyle's tales, the story ends fairly abruptly, without some of the resolution and follow-up that we crave. We're left desiring to know how things ended up with the St. Clair family. How did Mrs. St. Clair react upon Neville's return? Did he confess the secrets of his lifestyle to her? (The Granada adaptation makes clear that he did, as they burn his begging clothes and accessories together). Did he keep his solemn oaths, and never take up begging again? Then how did he maintain his £700+ per year lifestyle? He could have gone back to being a reporter, but certainly he couldn't have maintained the Cedars and a family on £2 per week. Would they have to sell their estate? Could he take up a career on the stage? If not for his great shame and fear of "blotting his family's name," I suppose he could write a best-selling memoir (and how-to manual?). It seems certain that the St. Clair family was about to experience some significant changes, and the audience is left wanting for even the smallest scrap of what was in store for them. (I like to think that Mrs. St. Clair understood and forgave Neville, and not wanting to give up their lifestyle or uproot their family, approved and aided him in setting up a new beggar identity in a new location. And perhaps even took up begging herself, as well as their children. But that's just me...)

Still, the fact that we do want to know more demonstrates how well Doyle has sketched the characters and the situation. And it demonstrates how universal the terror of having a secret shame exposed can be, even if it is a fairly harmless one.


**This story always prompts discussion of how realistic the idea of making a substantial living from begging is. The 2013 example above aside, the problem is that most of the cases people talk about are anecdotal or hearsay, without a lot firm evidence to back them up. Which isn't surprising, as we're dealing with what is largely a transient population that isn't filling out tax forms.

In The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, editor Leslie Klinger mentions (with no citation) a census which showed that in 1838, London had 8,000 professional beggars, who raked in over £365,000 that year--an average of £45 each. There's obviously a ton of wiggle room in such numbers, but certainly there was a at least some basis for Doyle believing that St. Clair's earnings were possible, if well above the average.

**In the Granada adaptation, Mr. St. Clair only saw Neville because she stopped to give some children begging. Nice added dramatic irony.

**Once again, we get a look at what a thoroughly solid and splendid chap Watson is. In the middle of the night, he will go to rescue a friend from a two day bender in an opium den, and even pay the guy's (no doubt sizable) tab!! 

So of course, the 1964 BBC version completely eliminates the entire subplot--no Watson rescuing Isa Whitney, no Watson accidentally encountering Holmes in the opium den, leading to him accidentally joining the St. Clair investigation. Probably because making Watson look like anything but a helpless and perpetually befuddled buffoon was not on their agenda (and probably beyond Nigel Stick's abilities).

Many have commented that Mrs. Watson must have been furious with Watson going off on an adventure with Sherlock with no notice, perhaps even leading to divorce.

Poppycock! It wasn't so long ago, in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, that she was not only giving her blessing, but encouraging him to go on multi-day mystery-solving road trips with Holmes. Mary knew the role Holmes played in Watson's life, and in their getting together, and there's little reason to think her attitude had changed.

 **As in The Sign of The Four, Doyle has Watson present a strong anti-drug message, no doubt reflecting the author's own beliefs. Reading his description of a besotted Whitney ("yellow, pasty face, drooping lids, and pin-point pupils, all huddled in a chair, the wreck and ruin of a noble man"), and the way he makes the opium den seem like the most wretched hive of scum and villainy, surely scared many a reader away from the evils of poppy derivatives. Opium was legal in England at the time these were written, so Doyle was being a bit of a crusader here.

**For the second time, we have a woman who has no clear idea what her husband does for a living, or even where he works (see also A Case of Identity). Even for a male-dominated chauvinistic period such Victorian England, that is simply amazing to me. Especially as, in both cases, the lack of information was because the husband was hiding something. Ladies, for heaven's sake, at least get a work address for your spouse!!

**This picture is for my friend Dawn:

She hates Sherlock Holmes, but loves dogs. Woof!

**Many commentators have taken the following passage...
As we approached, the door flew open, and a little blonde woman stood in the opening, clad in some sort of light mousseline de soie, with a touch of fluffy pink chiffon at her neck and wrists. She stood with her figure outlined against the flood of light, one hand upon the door, one half-raised in her eagerness, her body slightly bent, her head and face protruded, with eager eyes and parted lips, a standing question.
"Well?" she cried, "well?" And then, seeing that there were two of us, she gave a cry of hope which sank into a groan as she saw that my companion shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. an indication that Mrs. St. Clair had romantic designs on Sherlock.

Needless to say, this is a fairly serious misreading. Very clearly, she gave a cry of hope at seeing two, which meant she was eager to see her husband again. And she's quite happy to bruise Holmes' ego when she shows him the letter she received from Neville.

 If anything, the scene perhaps shows Watson's interest in her, given that he wrote about her in (what some find) such alluring terms.

**Watson tells us quite clearly that a) the story takes place in "June of '89" and b) that his part in the tale starts on "Friday, June 19th."

Of course, June 19th was a Wednesday in 1889.

This is the kind of thing that drives players of The Great Game nuts.

**Good heavens, after Mrs. St. Clair spots Neville, and after she heads off to find some police, why go to all the trouble of getting back into make-up and costume while trying to throw all your clothes into the river? Why not just leave the premises quickly, so you won't be found there in either guise? Or, why not just pick up an opium pipe and pretend to be a customer? Surely that's less shameful to him then being exposed as a beggar, right? Instead, Neville chooses the action that takes the longest, and guarantees that he'll be caught. Silly man...

**Mrs. St. Clair declares, "I am not hysterical, nor given to fainting." Of course, at least as related by Holmes, she DID faint earlier, at the sight of blood in the Golden Bar. Holmes wasn't there at the time, so was he misinformed? Or was this just Mrs. St. Clair's somewhat elliptical way of promising not to faint this time?

**For those who wish to paint Sherlock as a misogynist, this quote from Holmes cuts both ways: "I have seen too much not to know that the impression of a woman may be more valuable than the conclusion of an analytical reasoner."

You can read this in a couple of ways. On the one hand Sherlock could be seen as saying that women are not analytical reasoners. On the other hand, he's acknowledging women's impression may be more valuable than reasoning, and in fact, in this case she is very much right. As always, Holmes' character and opinions are more complex than many want to admit...


Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Five Orange Pips--The Case Of The K.K.K. Took My Baby Away!!

The Five Orange Pips is a story that has never really been adapted to the screen.

A 1945 movie was partly based upon some aspects of the tale, kinda sorta; one of the episodes of BBC's Sherlock made a pun about the title, without including any of the actual story. And that's about it.

There are two reasons, I think, for the lack of adaptations. The first is (and this is purely my uninformed opinion) that many potential adapters have been scared away by the potential controversy over doing a story featuring the Ku Klux Klan as the villain, especially one that focuses on their making rich white Englishman their victims, while largely ignoring their crime against African-Americans. Who needs the agita, when there are 59 other stories that won't get your production embroiled in a potential The Birth Of A Nation-style uproar?

The second, and more important, reason is that, sad to say, The Five Orange Pips is just not a very good story.

Despite the fact that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle picked it as one of his top ten favorite Holmes stories, this is easily the most disappointing story so far in the Canon:

--The mystery isn't much of one. Granted, perhaps it just seems that way to me, because a 21st century American reader is much more familiar with the Ku Klux Klan, and the obvious meaning of K.K.K, than a nineteenth century British reader might have been.

But we can't forget what we know, and the Klan involvement is painfully obvious early on. And once again, it's a case that Holmes has mostly solved before the client even finishes his story, which doesn't make for the best mystery.

--There is little to no "action" in the piece. We don't go to any of the scenes of the crime; Holmes doesn't wear any disguises or interact with any suspects; he spends the "whole day" at the library (OK, Lloyd's, but you know what I mean). Everything significant happens "off screen," as it were.

--We never even meet the killer(s). Holmes deduces who they must be, but he has been wrong before. To have him rail so much against the killers, and then never so much as see them, is frustrating. Add to the fact that their final fate is in no way due to Holmes' actions. They die (?) off screen, in an apparent storm. Because of this, they are by far the weakest villains in the Canon, all shadows and no substance whatsoever.

--Watson writes that "there are points in connection with [the case] which never have been, and probably never will be, entirely cleared up." He may be right, but on a meta-level, that's the author's duty to fill in the missing information. We don't know for sure that Captain James Calhoun and company are the killers; we don't know how they accomplished their murders in ways to fool the authorities; we don't know why the were so eager for the Openshaw's papers, and why they resorted to cryptic threats instead of merely burglarizing the home; we don't know for sure that they are perished. In fact, there is nothing that we actually know for sure beyond the facts that young John Openshaw lays out for us.

We certainly can't know why Doyle chose such a thinly-plotted and lazily sketched in story as one of his favorites; perhaps he thought the gimmick of the mysterious messages and orange seeds were sufficiently unique and cool to make blind us to the lack of the most basic tenets of a mystery's requirements.

It is particularly ironic, in that in this tale, Doyle has Watson confess that "it is no easy matter to know which" of Holmes many cases to publish. Watson then gives a list of criteria which would make for a poor story (in his view):
Some, however, have already gained publicity through the papers, and others have not offered a field for those peculiar qualities which my friend possessed in so high a degree, and which it is the object of these papers to illustrate. Some, too, have baffled his analytical skill, and would be, as narratives, beginnings without an ending, while others have been but partially cleared up, and have their explanations founded rather upon conjecture and surmise than on that absolute logical proof which was so dear to him.
He then proceeds to give us a tale which he admits fails those criteria, because it was "so remarkable in its details and so startling in its results." Eh, sorry, not really, Doctor.


**Some commentators describe this case as a failure for Holmes, as his client dies before Holmes takes any action. Perhaps this is a bit of a harsh assessment, as the critics never seem to state what Holmes should have done differently. Young Openshaw had already gone to the police, and been dismissed. It is unclear that Holmes would have been able to convince them differently, given that Scotland Yard's usual initial reaction is to dismiss his "theories" (not to mention it would require them to admit they may have been wrong about the earlier deaths).

So no protective custody. What then? Accompany him back to Horsham? But the information Holmes needed to crack the case was in London. Have him stay at Baker Street? Perhaps. But the ninja-like ability of the Klansmen might mean they would not be afraid to strike there, and perhaps harm Watson and Mrs. Hudson.

Openshaw was alert to the danger, armed, and supposedly traveling among crowds the whole way. The killers had only struck in lonely, rural areas. Hindsight, of course, says sending him back alone was a mistake. But I think it's a mistake to blame Sherlock for Openshaw's death.

**Openshaw's father declares, '"Pooh! We are in a civilised land here, and we can't have tomfoolery of this kind."

But of course, he's wrong. In Doyle's universe, England is the seething crucible in which foreign disputes are settled. Of the 7 published stories published to this point, 5 involved quarrels/disputes that began in far away lands...and all 4 of the murder cases Watson has chronicled came as the vengeful resolution of feuds started in Australia, America, India...

England may have been a "civilised" land, but it is also the place where people from uncivilized lands come to settle their scores.

 **This story is an all-you-can-eat buffet of references to unpublished cases.

Just from the year 1887, for example, we have:

The Adventure Of The Paradol Chamber
The Amateur Mendicant Society (who held a luxurious club in the lower vault of a furniture warehouse)
The loss of the British ship Sophy Anderson
The singular adventures of the Grice Patersons in the island of Uffa
The Camberwell Poisoning Case, in which Sherlock Holmes was able, by winding up the dead man's watch, to prove that it had been wound up two hours before, and that therefore the deceased had gone to bed within that time

And from an unknown year we have the Tankerville Club scandal, in which Major Prendegast was wrongfully accused of cheating at cards (shades of Moonraker!).

Busy, busy detective. Watson said that he "may" sketch these out at some future date, but of course he didn't (unless someone has one of those trunks of Watson's lost writings in their attic).

**Watson was staying at Baker Street while his wife was "on a visit to her mother's." But of course, Mary Morstan's mother was long dead; and The Sign Of The Four is mentioned in this story, and she and Watson became engaged at the end of that story!

This is the type of things that drives players of The Great Game mad. Good luck sorting out those dates and wives...

**If I were a large and powerful terror organization, I'd like to think that I could find better agents to enact my schemes than a few sailors who only dock in England every other year. The killings occurred in 1883, 1885 and 1887, the years The Lone Star was docked in England, yet there was no Klan activity directed at the Openshaws during the intervening years.

If it was so urgent that the papers be recovered, you'd think that someone could be sent on a more timely basis. Unless, of course, this was purely a personal mission for Captain James Calhoun and cohorts.

Some people have suggested (as they always do) that Moriarty was ultimately responsible for these crimes. Again with the Moriarty! And this is pretty transparently false, in my opinion. If Moriarty had been hired to kill Colonel Openshaw (and get his papers), do we really believe that the Napoleon Of Crime would have to rely on assassins who only show up on a bi-annual basis, and are unable to burglarize a house themselves?  (Unless you want to posit that Moriarty was framing the Klan, and his crimes were for some other nefarious purpose, which strains credulity. And makes Holmes look ever more foolish)

**The Baker Street NSA at work: Holmes spends rainy nights "cross-indexing his records of crime."

**Sherlock: "Except for [Watson], I have [no friends]." Awwwww....

**This is the second story in a row in which we have seen coroners and inquest juries reach incorrect results. As I discussed last week, in a pre-forensics time period, we can't be too surprised.

Still, to insist that two brothers, who each received the same obscure threatening letter, and each died not long afterwards, is just coincidence...? That is, as Holmes declared, "incredible imbecility!" And, as others have noted, for a jury to conclude suicide when a man clearly in fear for his life is found drowned in a two-foot deep pond is insane.

**That being said, this was a lost opportunity for Watson to display his medical knowledge to good use again, as he did in the Boscombe Valley Mystery. How about going over the coroners' reports, to see if he can ascertain any signs of violence or poison on these victims? Then, perhaps, we could know how the assassins killed these men and made it look like suicide and accidents.

But as I said above, Doyle seemed satisfied with the orange seeds gimmick, and didn't bother to develop the story any more after that.

**Holmes opines that "even in these days of free education and encyclopaedias," possession of all knowledge is "somewhat rare." Somewhat?

One can only wonder what Holmes would make of our era, when the internet gives us access to almost infinite knowledge, yet we still seem as dumb as ever, as a species...

**And finally, in honor of the (alleged) villains of our piece:


Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Boscombe Valley Mystery--The Adventure Of C.S.I. England!

Ah, the nineteenth century British Empire--where a chap can go to Australia, become a highway robber, hijack a gold shipment, murder most of the guards, come back to England, and buy an entire valley! Who said there was no class mobility in those times? Aww, but he might be bedeviled by A pesky blackmailers!! Well, frankly, the blackguard deserves to die for threatening a fine gentleman--so  kill 'im!! Don't you feel sorry for this guy?

Such is The Boscombe Valley Mystery.

But while that opening paragraph tells you my opinion of this story's resolution, I'd rather focus the first part of this essay on the most significant aspect of the story: Doyle's clearest laying out of the difference between Holmes' methods and the police's. And how, although fictional and perhaps at times a bit fanciful, Sherlock Holmes forecast the growing impact of forensics science on criminal investigations.

It can be easy, from our vantage point of 1,000 reruns per week of CSI and Law & Order, to forget how little of what we consider the basics of crime-solving were available at the time these stories were being published. Of course, there was no DNA. But there was also no blood-typing; in fact, there wasn't even a test that could conclusively prove that a given blood sample came from a human, as opposed to some other mammal. Fingerprints had been theorized about, but there was no systematic use of them in most places until the 1900s (Scotland Yard had turned down a doctor's offer to help them develop a fingerprint system in 1886...he should have gone straight to Holmes). Ballistic fingerprinting, matching a bullet to a specific gun, wasn't used in any court until 1902.

Just imagine Lenny Briscoe trying to solve a case without any of that information! So perhaps we should be more charitable to the poor British police of the era than Holmes was.

In the real world of the time, most murders weren't too complicated--the causes were generally drunken quarrels, revenge, greed or love/lust. And the inspectors of the day were fairly adept at finding out who had such motives, arresting them, and getting either a confession--or finding enough evidence (and hopefully an eyewitness or two) to succeed at trial. Who needed science?

Ah, but when there wasn't conclusive evidence? Well, the police still had a job to do. But without an eyewitness or confession, they had to try and fit the crime before them into one of their preset scenarios, and would go on to "round up the usual suspects." It is noteworthy that, in the three murder cases we have dealt with so far, Scotland Yard inspectors immediately latched onto "incorrect" theories of the case, and pursued the wrong suspects, no matter what Holmes told them. As Lestrade himself noted, '"I find it hard enough to tackle facts, Holmes, without flying away after theories and fancies."

[Lest you think this was only a flaw of fictional policeman, I suggest you look into contemporary accounts of the investigation into the Jack The Ripper murders. Without forensic techniques or any real evidence, the prevailing theories amongst police involved trying to fit the killings into their limited psychological understandings of other crimes: "he must be a foreigner, because no Englishman could commit such heinous butchery" and "the killer must be homosexual, because the crimes evince a hatred of women." Little wonder he was never caught...]

But despite all of the polices' criticism of Holmes' "theorizing," our amateur detective was the one gathering actual evidence. You may think it cruel when Holmes says he employs methods that Lestrade "is quite incapable of employing, or even of understanding." But it is true. Whereas Lestrasde is willing to rely on the narrative presented by the local constabulary, Holmes actually looks at evidence. He identifies tobacco ash, and has written monographs on it. He analyzes footprints at the crime scene. Indeed, he did both of these things in A Study In Scarlet, which led to the successful apprehension of the murderer; yet Lestrade continues to ignore and mock these techniques in this case. Sherlock gets on his hands and knees and finds the actual murder weapon, something the police hadn't managed. Heck, in this story Watson gets in on the fun, analyzing the coroner's evidence to prove the blow was struck from behind, not in a face-to-face quarrel. Lestrade and Scotland Yard "do find it very hard to tackle the facts," as Holmes said. A paradigm shift was necessary for the development of modern police work, and Holmes was trying to provide the template.

No, in the Canon, and in this story in particular, Doyle has Holmes inventing forensics science right in front of our eyes. Unlike the authorities, he won't rely merely on circumstantial evidence, which "may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different." No, Holmes got out of his armchair and found actual physical evidence which could be used to solve the crime. All of the actual "speculation" and "theorizing" was done by the police, trying to tell a story that seemed to make sense, without taking advantage of all the facts around them.

 Despite his reputation as a "theorizer" or an armchair detective, Sherlock Holmes was more than just the "science of deduction." He helped popularize the "science of analyzing crime scene evidence," by teaching us that it was important to get off our metaphorical ass and get beyond the circumstantial evidence. Given the immense popularity of Holmes, it's not to think that his approach began to influence the way modern police forces would conduct investigations. It may be a reach to suggest that Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes invented CSI, but it's not a long reach.

The other important issue in this story is, just as in A Case Of Identity, an ethical one: Holmes does not turn over the murderer, even after confession. For the second straight time, Holmes has interposed himself between the villain and the law, acting as a de facto judge and jury. One could argue that this is an even more egregious instance than in ACOI, as Holmes is covering for someone who has actually committed a crime, a murderer.

On some levels it is somewhat more defensible a cover-up, though. It seems unlikely that John Turner would go on to commit mores crimes, making this instance less troubling than allowing Windibank in ACOI to go unrevealed. Turner is dying (although Holmes seems to take his word on that far too easily). Turner has promised to come forward, and a signed confession to use, should the case against James McCarthy go badly. And one might be sympathetic to the concerns that releasing the truth might would harm the future happiness of the children.

Except I am slightly more skeptical. I am not at all receptive to the suggestion that Turner will "soon have to answer for his deed at a higher court." Whether you're a believer or not, justice on Earth should not abandoned. As for shielding the children, well, Holmes' promise that the story "shall never be seen by mortal eye" is obviously false, as the fact that we're reading it means that Watson published the story!!  "There is every prospect that the son and daughter may come to live happily together in ignorance of the black cloud which rests upon their past?" How, Doctor, when you wrote up the black cloud and published it? Especially since Alice will now now of James' marriage to the Bristol barmaid! (I suppose we could surmise that Watson so altered the story as to make it unrecognizable; or perhaps the young lovers went back to Australia, leaving Boscombe Valley behind.)

But what I find most unsettling is Holmes' apparent sympathy to the senior Turner. In the future, we will learn that Holmes finds blackmailers more repulsive than murderers. Surely, though, this case takes it to an extreme. We get continuous references to Charles McCarthy being a blackguard, "the devil incarnate," "wicked," "cursed stock," etc. Well, that conveniently forgets that the whole sordid affair started when McCarthy was a victim of Turner's crimes! Turner is responsible for at least 5 murders, four of which were in the course of a robbery of a gold shipment. A set of murders that set Turner up in a life of luxury, no matter how much he claims to have led "a life of martyrdom." McCarthy is hardly a saint; but Turner shows no remorse over taking 5 lives, and in fact does everything possible to prevent that the truth coming out and facing punishment. He was willing to let his daughter's love rot in jail (only until the last minute, he avers).

 To hell with being judged in the afterlife--Turner was a right bastard deserved arrest and trial immediately.


**Yet another quarrel born in a foreign land ends up being settled in England. That's five of the seven stories thus far. I guess that's the consequence of having a global empire--trouble washes up on your shores.

**Watson doesn't name-drop any untold cases this time...In the Granada adaptation Watson mentions The Case Of The Counterfeit Spanish Dollar.

**Alice declares that James was "too tender-hearted to hurt a fly." Of course, our tale starts when he grabs his gun to go hunting rabbits. I suppose that rabbits aren't as important as flies in Alice's philosophy? Or just the exaggeration of young love?

**Look, I know I've been griping about the Granada subtitling.

But this goes beyond egregious:

Since the whole point of subtitles is to render the dialogue intelligible, this must surely be the biggest fail in subtitling history.

Get a copy of the script, fools.

**The 1968 BBC version had John Turner played by John Tate:

Unfortunately, Tate played Turner as so infirm and ill, there's no way we can believe he could have made it all the way to the lake and back, let alone committed the murder unseen by his running son. He also uses a cane in every scene, including the flashback to the murder; so when Holmes fails to find cane marks amongst the footprints, it only serves to make the detective look clueless for not solving the mystery immediately.

**Both the BBC and Granada versions changed the character of Lestrade to a different Inspector. Why? Presumably the perils of long-running series that didn't secure the actors playing him under contract. When a Lestrade episode rolled around, if the actor wasn't available, they faced the choice of recasting the role or changing the inspector's name for a new actor.

**Speaking of Lestrade, does Holmes ever tell him the truth? I suppose I can see the argument for keeping the facts from James and Alice; but after Lestrade's case gets dismissed in court thanks to Holmes, doesn't Sherlock at least owe him the full story? Or did Lestrade have to read about it when Watson published?

In the Granada version, Inspector Sommerby is demoted at the end, most likely due to his failure to capture the killer. Holmes' evasions and cover-ups do have real world consequences.

**This is our first road trip out of London. It is an imaginary locale, despite the efforts of many to pin it to a specific location. There will be more...

**Both BBC and Granada continue to ignore the fact of Watson's marriage. Even though this tale specifically starts with Watson and his wife at breakfast, BBC starts with Holmes and Watson already aboard the train; Granada has Watson on a fishing vacation (alone) in the area, and Holmes swings by to grab him.

**In an obvious attempt to annoy me/make me look stupid, Granada has both The Boscombe Valley Mystery and Shascombe Old Place on the same disc, making me click on the wrong one innumerable times. Well played, Granada.

**The "getting drunk and marrying a barmaid" tale hardly ennobles James in our eye, even if it later turned out that the marriage was null and void. Heck, he had just spent the three days before the murder in Bristol with her! Oh, poor faithful Alice, do you know what you're getting yourself into?

**If I start a band, it's name will be Patience Moran.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Case Of Identity--The Mystery Of The First Case Of Catfishing!

On it's face, A Case Of Identity is a trifle, a curio, a minor piece of the Canon.

 It has has been adapted far less frequently than most Holmes stories, especially compared to other stories from Adventures, which would seem to indicate a fairly low level of interest. It is quite short. There is no crime involved. Holmes never leaves the confines of Baker Street--no disguises, no derring-do. There are no great revelations about Holmes' or Watson's pasts. It's not too much of a mystery--Holmes has solved it well before Miss Mary Sutherland even finishes her story. And let's be honest--the title is a bit of a giveaway, isn't it?

But we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss A Case Of Identity, for there are, as Holmes would put it, some areas of interest.

I think a tendency many readers have, upon reading ACOI the first time, is scoff at how unlikely it all seems. She allows herself to be wooed by her own step-father, and doesn't recognize him? She was familiar enough with his handwriting that he had to conceal it, but tinted glasses and bushy whiskers and a "hoarse voice" were enough to disguise him? Even if she is short-sighted? How blind is she?

We have to remember that convincing disguises have a long history as a literary device. Holmes declares it "an old idea." All the way back to the ancient Greek theater, the Bible, Shakespeare...literature is replete with examples of disguises that just shouldn't work: kings disguising themselves as commoners, women dressing as men, "bed tricks." Even Sherlock Holmes is consistently able to fool Watson, who certainly should be expecting to have his friend turn up in astonishing disguises. Compared with the goings-on of, say, Twelfth Night, or Ahab, or Chaucer, Mary not recognizing her step-father isn't terribly out of line--at least for a literary work.

The other issue about the disguise, and how Mary is taken in by it, is that the concept could fit very well into 21st century life. When I first read this story in the 1970s, I scoffed at the likelihood of it. 40 years later, though? I'd wager that all of us know someone who is in a relationship with someone they met online, a situation fraught with the chances of falling for someone who isn't really what they seem. "Catfish" has become the well-known term for the situation where someone uses a false online identity to start a relationship with another person. We've had a movie and a television series based on the concept.

We've even had a major college athlete tell us the devastating story of the death of his girlfriend, only to have it turn out that she never really existed--he was being hoaxed in an online relationship (although some feel he may have been in on it). Folks, that's a case of identity if ever there was one. Aspects of many of the Holmes stories have, of course, become dated over 120+ years; but in many ways, A Case Of Identity is more relevant to our culture now than it was in its own time, and perhaps well overdue for someone to adapt it into a modern context.

The other major area of interest is the huge ethical decision Sherlock Holmes made. Acknowledging that, legally, there is nothing he can do, Holmes allows Windibank to go...and he decides NOT to tell Mary Sutherland the truth!!

 I have to say, I strongly disagree with this decision, on several grounds.

First, Miss Sutherland is Sherlocks's client. Granted, as Holmes is the first private consulting detective, the ethical guidelines of his profession surely aren't set. Still it seems fairly clear to me--she hired him, and unless she turns out to be an evil murderess manipulating Holmes to recover the Maltese Falcon while she double-crosses him, Holmes' duty should be to her.

Secondly, if you argue that Holmes' first duty is to justice, it seems unclear how allowing Windibank's scheme to go on could serve that goal. The deception is "as cruel and selfish and heartless a trick in a petty way as ever came before me," and "there never was a man who deserved punishment more." Yet since legal sanctions weren't available, why not at least unveil his scheme to Miss Sutherland? Why allow the cruel and selfish and heartless scheme to go on?

Holmes is certain that Windibank "will rise from crime to crime until he does something very bad, and ends on a gallows;" letting him off scot free seems more likely to allow him to reach that dangerous point.

Consider--at the very least, by keeping Mary in the dark, Windibank will continue to "have the use of" her annual £100 for a decade. And one can imagine that, as the 10 years draws near (or Mary becomes restive), a mysterious postcard or telegram would arrive, from an unknown origin, that would be enough to rekindle her devotion to Hosmer Angel. At the very least, letting Mary know the truth would deprive him the use of her income, and cause her to leave that awful, awful home.

Finally, Holmes' casual dismissal that "she will not believe me" is unpersuasive, especially as Holmes has substantial evidence and, a witness to Windibanks' confession in Watson. To follow that with an Persian proverb that it might be too dangerous to let her know simply means that Holmes is being far too patronizing and paternalistic.

Nothing drives me more nearly insane than the "we can't tell X the truth" meme that crops up in fiction. The patronizing "he can't handle the truth," the condescending "we know better than she does what's best for her life," are infantilizing attitudes that do no justice to the people supposedly being "protected." More information is always better than less, and it is disappointing (although perhaps not surprising given the culture he arises from) that Sherlock Holmes believes that it is better a victim continues to be victimized, than to "traumatize" her by telling her the truth. Trust in her, and give her the choice--that's the correct action.

In fairness, I can see alternate sides of the argument, too. Maybe Mary Sutherland would be so traumatized by the truth, she goes on a killing spree, slaughtering her mother and her father-in-law. Or, perhaps by thwarting Windibank's plan, the truth would merely set him on a faster pace towards a gallows-worthy crime. As he already goes to the bank to withdraw the quarterly interest payment for Mary, he presumably could continue doing so if she were suddenly imprisoned--or worse--by the cad. So revealing the truth might drive him to desperate, more harmful measures. I don't think it would happen, especially if Holmes let it be known he would be watching very carefully. But I concede the possibility, even though I still say "Tell her, dammit!"

This isn't the last time that Holmes will take justice into his own hands, raising serious ethical concerns. But none will feature decisions so egregiously wrong, in my opinion.

So, for such a minor story, attracting so little interest from adapters, A Case Of Identity sure raises a number of cultural and ethical issues for contemplation. Which is why it's really not a minor story.


**Let us not forget, Mary Sutherland's unnamed mother was part and parcel of this icky plan. "Mother" was all in favor of the betrothal, and the swearing of eternal loyalty, and encouraged the hasty wedding. She "was even fonder of [Hosmer] than" Mary. EEEEWWWWWW! Mother was all in favor of breaking her daughter's heart and keeping her from having healthy relationships, just so she could get access to Mary's money. And if it involved her younger husband's pitching woo to Mary, go for it. EEEEEEWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!!

All the more reason, I would think, for Holmes to reveal the truth and get Mary out of that vile little house.

**How much money did the Windibanks need?

As our handy chart reminds us, even if her father's plumbing business was undervalued when sold, the Windibanks received £4700...or roughly 47 years worth of Mary's bequest from Uncle Ned.

Granted, running the household certainly might require more than £100 pounds per year. But Windibank also had his position as a traveling wine merchant. So unless there were substantial debts, bad investments, or terribly expensive habits, it's hard to see why Mr. & Mrs. Windibank so desperately need to keep control of Mary's income.

There's not much point in "a man marrying a very much older woman than himself for her money," if immediately afterwards he needs to rob the daughter's piggy bank. Was there less money than he thought, or did he have outrageous expenses?

**The Most Misleading Book Cover Ever?

**Watson's practice sure seems to have it's ups and downs. In The Red-Headed League--which takes place after this story--John declares, "I have nothing to do to-day. My practice is never very absorbing." Yet during this case, he tells us ,"A professional case of great gravity was engaging my own attention at the time, and the whole of next day I was busy at the bedside of the sufferer."

Sounds as if the practice had been absorbing, at least for one patient. Quite a swing in a short time. Perhaps in the "case of great gravity," the patient died, and so people decided not to patronize his practice anymore, resulting in free time for the Doctor in the later story...

**This story contains one of Doyle's greatest bits as prose, as Holmes declares:
"[L]ife is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outré results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable."
OK, it's just a wordy way of saying "truth is stranger than fiction." But I like it.

No sniggering over the image of Holmes and Watson flying out the window "hand in hand," please.

**You are challenged to use this phrase in conversation this week: "Oscillation upon the pavement always means an affaire de coeur."

**I'll admit, this makes me look dopey, but every time I read "Hosmer Angel," my brain transposes it to "Homer Angel," and I picture this as a Simpsons episode.

And then I picture Homer disguising himself to woo Lisa and get her allowance, and EEEEWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!

**Mostly vague allusions rather than concrete references to apocryphal cases this time, but we do have:

--The matter of "some delicacy" for the reigning family of Holland, which Holmes cannot discuss with Watson, for which Holmes was rewarded with a dazzling ring.
--An "intricate matter from Marseilles." Some have speculated that since Windibank traveled to France for his wine business, perhaps Holmes was already investigating his misdeeds.
--The Dundass Separation Case--in which the husband took out his false teeth after every meal and threw them at the wife!
--Finding the missing husband of Mrs. Etherege, when the police had given him up for dead.

**Holmes declaration that "I believe that a single lady can get on very nicely upon an income of about 60 pounds" tells us a lot the economics of Victorian London. There are a number of ways to calculate the inflation between 1888 and 2014. A straight inflation adjustment would translate £60 in 1888 to £5,800 in 2014, an amount almost certainly not enough for a single to to get by "nicely" on in London today. But looked at in terms of relative economic status (eg, how that income compared to others at the time), the £600 translate to a 2014 "economic status" of £41,000. So, that would be probably be "very nicely."