Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Musgrave Ritual--The Real Treasure is In The Framing Sequence!

Now this is more like it!!

After my kvetching last week that The Gloria Scott was a wee bit of a disappointment as a first "case" for Sherlock Holmes, along comes The Musgrave Ritual to answer all of my complaints.

A grand, Gothic mystery! One of Britain's oldest family's in one of the oldest houses (whose walls are adorned with weapons!)! A mysterious ritual!! A treasure map!! A Don Juan of a butler! A shattered romance turned deadly!! A grotesque corpse! The recovery of one of the realm's missing treasures!!! The butler did it!!!!

But, even more impressive than the flashback to Holmes' early case--which is indeed superior to Gloria Scott on almost every level--is the attention to the detail in Sherlock's present-day life.

The "framing sequence" in Gloria Scott was barely there--Holmes just went up to Watson and said. "You wanna hear about my first case?"

But in the Musgrave Ritual, not only do we get a ripping good older case, we also get a ton of information about Holmes in the present day. Obviously, it's been far too long since my trips through the Canon, because I had forgotten just how much of what we know about Holmes at Baker Street comes from the "framing sequence":

...when I find a man who keeps his cigars in the coal-scuttle, his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper, and his unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jack-knife into the very centre of his wooden mantelpiece, then I begin to give myself virtuous airs. I have always held, too, that pistol practice should be distinctly an open-air pastime; and when Holmes, in one of his queer humours, would sit in an arm-chair with his hair-trigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges, and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V. R. done in bullet-pocks, I felt strongly that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of our room was improved by it. 

Our chambers were always full of chemicals and of criminal relics which had a way of wandering into unlikely positions, and of turning up in the butter-dish or in even less desirable places. But his papers were my great crux. He had a horror of destroying documents, especially those which were connected with his past cases, and yet it was only once in every year or two that he would muster energy to docket and arrange them; for, as I have mentioned somewhere in these incoherent memoirs, the outbursts of passionate energy when he performed the remarkable feats with which his name is associated were followed by reactions of lethargy during which he would lie about with his violin and his books, hardly moving save from the sofa to the table. Thus month after month his papers accumulated, until every corner of the room was stacked with bundles of manuscript which were on no account to be burned, and which could not be put away save by their owner.

How many depictions of the interior of 221B have been based almost entirely on these two paragraphs? How many recreations, museums, adaptations, modern pastiches, even 24th century holodeck versions, are based nearly exclusively on these two paragraphs?

Of course, our framing sequence is also good for a glance at Dr. Watson's personality, as well. References to his own "Bohemian disputation" and "lax" standards of neatness put Sherlock's hoarding behaviors into perspective. Watson's dry, puckish wit almost borders on passive-aggressiveness towards Holmes' antics. And of course, the way in which, despite his declarations, Watson is so easily distracted from his annoyance by the offering of a glimpse at Holmes' earliest cases.

But the focus is on Sherlock, and we learn a lot in a little space, aside from his lack of tidiness. His aversion to destroying any document suggests a tendency to hoarding--someone call a reality show!! His "mischievous" and coy tempting of Watson with tales of the past, and the "Your tidiness won't bear much strain after all, Watson" show that Sherlock can give as well as he gets in the pointed needling department.

But Holmes' ego is also on display here. While Holmes may insincerely dismiss his "trifling achievements," it's clear that he wants Watson to write up and publish this case. And why not? It shows Sherlock helping the realm's elite, and surely serves as a wonderful advertisement for his services!! 

And as for his opinion of his own reputation? Holmes declares that when he met Watson, he "had already established a considerable, though not a very lucrative, connection." And by the present day? "[His] name has become known far and wide, and when I am generally recognised both by the public and by the official force as being a final court of appeal in doubtful cases." No lack of self-regard, there. "I am sure that if you mentioned my name they would be happy to show it to you"? Sherlock is coming perilously close to putting on airs here. And while I don't support this reading, one could argue that Sherlock is sending a message to Watson: "I hobnob with political and royal power--get off my back about a few unfiled papers!!"

We also get a few more tantalizing glimpses into Holmes' college days, his early cases (what were the two before Musgrave came to him?), his early lodgings at Montague Street (with its proximity to the British Museum, and all the time studying there)...but really, there is not a ton there. And we shouldn't let ourselves be distracted from the wealth of information we learned about "present day" Holmes.

I don't want to give short shrift to the wonderful mystery. But it can speak for itself. It is the "present day" interplay of Holmes and Watson here, though, that most fascinates me. Sometimes, a framing sequence is much more than a just a mere framing sequence!


**Holmes may not have been as famous in the field as he wasted yet, but surely this case got him a lot of attention. Helping one of England's oldest aristocratic families, and a member of Parliament, while recovering a long-lost national treasure?!? Certainly this did not go unnoticed in the halls of power, and just as certainly this resulted in an awful lot of cases eventually being steered his way.

We don't know much about that date of the "present-day" framing sequence...but one can speculate that Holmes business was at a slow point, and that enticing Watson to publish this tale would remind a great many people of means that Sherlock Holmes was available...

**I'm probably the least neat person in the world, so Watson's descriptions of Holmes' eccentricities doesn't bother me very much...I can top that mess, and raise Holmes some squalor!!

And while I've never had criminal experiments turn up in the butter dish, well, I've had some things in my refrigerator that looked worse...

**Watson has been very remiss of late in giving us hints of untold cases. So Sherlock himself dumps a boatload on us: The Tarleton Murders, The Case Of Vamberry The Wine Merchant, The Adventure of The Old Russian Woman, The Singular Affair Of The Aluminium Crutch, and Ricotti of The Club-Foot and His Abominable Wife. Get writing, pastichers!

Of particular interest might be the aluminium crutch. In those days, they hadn't yet developed a cheap and efficient process of extracting aluminium from ore, and as a result, the metal was prohibitively expensive--more so than even gold or platinum, at times. So to make something like a crutch from aluminium would be unusual and extravagant beyond belief. So why do it? Perhaps to make a lightweight crutch that could conceal something within...perhaps a weapon...?

[British readers--please make sure to give me credit for writing "aluminium" each time, instead of the correct "aluminum." Why can't the English teach the English how to speak? Or spell elements...?]

**Holmes defends Reginald Musgrave--"what was set down as pride was really an attempt to cover extreme natural diffidence"--but he really does come across as something of an upper-class twit. Perhaps it's just my natural dislike of aristocracy, but a lot of the ways Holmes describes him--"something of a dandy," "something of his place of birth seems to cling to the man," the description of the large staff he "has" to keep up ("Altogether there are eight maids, the cook, the butler, two footmen, and a boy. The garden and the stables of course have a separate staff")--does indeed come across as pride and a feeling of superiority. Probably just me...

**Some have questioned whether Holmes was paid for this case--there's never any discussion of remuneration. Still, when Holmes says "I have taken to living by my wits," and Musgrave says "your advice would be exceedingly valuable to me," I think we can here a subtle negotiation going on, disguised by the upper class feeling that it is gauche to discuss money matters.

**Brain fever!!!!

**Much has been made of how the "ritual" could still work after so long. After all, the trees would have grown some in the two hundred years since the "treasure map" was written. Plus, the ritual gives no mention of time of year, which of course would make a huge difference of when (and if) the sun "comes over the oak" and the direction of any shadows.

The Granada adaption allays some of that--the "oak" in question is not the actual tree, but the representation of an oak tree that is on the huge weather vane above Hurlstone. Clever.

They also interpret the map part a bit differently, so "North by ten and by ten" is "north ten by ten," or one hundred paces (and so on)! That makes for a much more energetic treasure hunt.

Of course, that still leaves the difficulty of whether or not the elm had grown in two centuries, or the proper time of year for the shadows to line up. Shhhh...


**Remember, if you're an out of work teacher, a lucrative career as a butler is available to you!!

**I have to wonder, when the story was first published, did a lot of aristocratic families go and take a hard look at any silly rituals they had, trying to see if they could lead to treasure?!?

**Although the print Holmes avers that the "probability is that [Rachel] got away out of England and carried herself and the memory of her crime to some land beyond the seas," the Granada version very clearly shows that she threw herself into the mere with the bundle, and shows her body being recovered later. Brain fever, indeed.

**Of course, that's one of the delicious aspects of the mystery--was the entombing of Brunton accidental? Or did spurned Rachel, in a fit of pique, do it purposefully?

Print Holmes, talking of her "memory of her crime," seems to believe it was purposeful. Granada Holmes, where the woman is clearly not in her right mind, doesn't show us, but implies that it was an accident. But she didn't go for help, and so left him to die. Hence her immediately drowning herself, in grief and derangement and guilt.

It's one of those problems the reader will have to decide for herself.

**I love the fact that they had already recovered the treasure, but didn't recognize it in its filthy, tarnished state. (BTW, great job hiding and preserving the priceless treasure, unnamed ancient Musgrave--damp and worms and dust and fungi!!)

**Given the state of the treasure, one has to wonder how Brunton planned to dispose of it.

You could polish up the stones and clean up the coins, I suppose. But given it's condition, it seems unlikely that any fence would recognize it as a valuable relic, as opposed to a dirty hunk of gold. Brunton would be lucky to get pennies on the dollar.

And Brunton could hardly try to sell it to a collector or a museum (or to the royal family) without revealing its provenance, which of course would reveal that he had stolen the booty. At best, that would likely mean he wouldn't get any money; at worst it would mean jail time.

Perhaps he planned to hide it, and then reveal to Musgrave what the ritual meant, and sell it back to him...I'm starting to think that maybe Brunton wasn't so smart, after all (Of course, if he were smart, he wouldn't have been caught going through family documents in the library like that...)


Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Gloria Scott--Sherlock Holmes And The Phantom Menace?

Prequels...there's always got to be prequels...

It's inevitable, of course. Create characters compelling enough, and the audience will want to know about them, and especially their earlier history. How did they get to be the way they were? What events shaped them, who influenced them? "Tell us more, tell us more!"

Of course, the catch is, we've already begun to fill in this information ourselves, in our imaginations (if not our fanfics). So, all too often, when we finally do get "official" prequels, they seem all too dissatisfying to us. Which is, in part, our own damn fault for demanding them, I guess.

There are, in my opinion, three main reasons that prequels disappoint:

A) Lack of suspense. Obviously, we know our hero survives, so on a gut level we know that any danger is just manufactured rigamarole. Of course, that's true for our heroes set in the present day--we know that James Bond isn't going to die this movie--but surprises can still happen (M can die!! Shh, spoiler alert!) So an air of inevitability, of treading water, can set in.

B) To much demythologizing. As long as we can speculate about our hero's origin's we can be vague and grandiose. When it's actually put on paper or film, it becomes, "meh," because it can never live up to what we imagined. Of course Darth Vader was a whiny kid when he was a whiny kid. What did we really expect? And we already knew that the Jedi and the Republic fell to the Sith--so how can we be upset that our erstwhile heroes come off like a bunch of senile idiots who are manipulated for decades? How else could have a two-man operation pull off such a coup? But by showing our villains used to be less villainous and our heroes less able, prequels can end up disappointing us.

C) The same old same old. Sometime a prequel doesn't really do anything except change the geography and the cast of characters. Superboy was billed as "the adventures of Superman as a boy," and it turned out the there really wasn't a hack of a lot of difference between that and his adventures as a man. Sure, he was in Smallville, and in high school, but he still had the love interest constantly trying to expose his secret identity, he still battled Luthor and aliens and crooks, he still had a secret hideout and robots to cover for him and...Nothing against Superboy, but perhaps the proper approach for the concept would have been "the adventures of Superman before he was competent." Hey, he was a teenager with the power to juggle planets--surely he could disastrously screw up (as we all did at that age). And in fairness, some--albeit relatively few--did that. Bit all too often, it was just the adventures of the same guy we knew when he wore a smaller sized super suit.

Which brings us to The Gloria Scott.

Because I think that most readers would agree with me that, well, it's a little bit disappointing.

It's Sherlock Holmes' "first case!" OMG!! That has to be fascinating, important, exciting, right?


The Gloria Scott avoids the first problem of prequels, the lack of suspense. We've been given very little of Holmes' pre-Watson life, so there's not much continuity to have us know what's going to happen already (There's also not much continuity to callously violate--yet somehow Young Sherlock Holmes happened!).

But on the other hand, we do hit upon the other problems. We imagined something bolder for the instigating event that pushed Sherlock towards being a detective. Instead, he does the standard "well, I can't really tell much about you" followed by a lengthy chain of deductions that we've seen Holmes do dozens of times, followed by, "Hey, you really ought to be a detective!"

Now, it's difficult to imagine that no one had told this to Sherlock before, or that he hadn't realized this himself.

But more importantly, we wanted something more myth-making, more life-changing: Sherlock lays out some deductions that save someone from dying! Sherlock experiences for the first time the authorities being unwilling/unable to help someone, and realizes that there's a role for his skills in this world! It's what modern storytelling has trained us for: an instigating event that changes everything, and sets him on his course, forever changed!! Something makes him the way he is!! Some destiny-making epiphany! We want drama, dammit!!!

Yes, that's mainly our own damn fault, for setting expectations so high. But really, we did want something with the teensiest more heft than "Hey, you could be a detective." "Oh, I guess."

And of course, there's the problem of the same old same old. The mystery we have here is really just a remix of The Boscombe Valley Mystery: criminal acts lead to a man getting rich in Australia, coming to England to establish a new life for himself, someone from his past shows up to blackmail him. (Seriously, Australia is nothing but trouble, according to Sherlock Holmes)

And really, Sherlock doesn't do a damn thing to "solve" the "mystery." Victor's left him the full account of his past, and told the doctor to tell Victor where to find it. Beddoes and Hudson were never found--we don't know if one or both are alive, or where they've gone to, or anything. Really, all Sherlock does is decrypt the cypher...which the elder Trevor had done already, scrawled at the bottom of his confession. Everything would have turned out exactly the same had Sherlock never come into Victor's life!!

So maybe that's why he chose to become a consulting detective--his "first case" made the gig look pretty easy!

We shouldn't blame Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for not having our century-plus of hindsight about what we want as an origin story. He's not responsible for our out of whack expectations. But still, The Gloria Scott is a bit disappointing.


**People tend to forget about the obviously brief  "present day" sections of the story. But we shouldn't forget the fairly remarkable fact that Sherlock, without prompting, volunteers this tale to Watson, and essentially encourages him to publish the tale!!

It does seem a bit unlike the Holmes we know. I usually don't play the "dating" game, but I could  speculate that perhaps this took place right before The Final Problem, and Holmes was trying to give all of his stories to Watson before he faced what he thought might be his death.

Or perhaps Holmes hadn't given up on finding Beddoes and Hudson, and thought that if the tale was published, it might flush them out?

**Of course, this is one of the tales where we get a (very) brief glimpse of Holmes' college days. And everyone tries to use the (very) little information we have to vigorously debate whether Holmes attended Oxford or Cambridge (or both, or neither, or...).

As an American with essentially zero knowledge of these institutions, I really have nothing of value to add to this debate. It's fun to watch people argue themselves silly, however.

**Your bull terrier biting onto Holmes ankle is a pretty good meet-cute for two friends (although Holmes was laid up for ten days, so OUCH).

But, could Holmes have made other friends? Sure, he was "never a very sociable fellow." But just the meager interaction of going to visit the injured Holmes made them "close friends," even though he was "the very opposite to [Sherlock] in most respects." And obviously, the same happened with Watson--aloof at first, but living together lead to the being fast companions.

So Sherlock certainly was capable of forming friendships, once he got past the initial barrier of letting them into his life. Perhaps he should have had more "happy accidents" like this, so he could expand his social circle just a bit. So long as they didn't involve dogs maiming him...

**Holmes was on his way to chapel when Trevor's dog attacked him. Services were likely required of students then, and perhaps he had other business there. This may, however, be the one instance in the Canon of Holmes attending a house of worship outside of an investigation...

**Holmes initially describes how the mysterious note "knocked clean down" a "fine, robust old man." Really? Because very soon we see him passing out from fright at one of Holmes' innocent deductions, and learn that he has a bad heart, and "it does not take much to knock me over." After always accusing Watson of playing up the melodrama, Holmes himself sure is putting the hard sell on the power of the letter...

**Obviously Hudson kept up with life as a sailor. But why did it take him thirty years to come seek "payment" for his knowledge? If it was because he didn't know Trevor & Beddoes' new identities, how did he find them out?

**Hudson sinisterly says that he knows where "all his old friends are." Are there more survivors than just Trevor & Beddoes out there?

**For what it's worth, Hudson's "blackmail" is pretty weak sauce. He wants a job?  As a butler? If insulted, he'll just go to the next victim?

Of course, he was one of the sailors who took money to mutiny and murder, so he's facing just as dire a consequence if the truth comes out as are Trevor & Bleddoes, right? So he probably knew that if he pushed too hard, he'd be rebuffed, or face the gallows himself.

**Why send the message to Trevor in a cypher, anyway? Did he fear his mail was being read? If it really was so urgent, why go to the trouble of encoding it? Who's going to know? Why waste the time, instead of just writing "flee for your life," stuffing it in an envelope, and going?

I suppose if you were caught, you wouldn't want to leave a open confession like that for the police to find, and seal your fate.

And maybe they sent lots of messages back and forth: "Hey, remember how we murdered all those soldiers and sailors and made ourselves rich? Great times!"

Obviously, the "real" reason cypher is there to give the case it's macabre twist, and to give Holmes something to actually do.

**This story makes the same mistake as Study In Scarlet--a looooooong lump of exposition at the end. It's an interesting tale, no doubt, but it's still a flashback inside of another flashback, and sucks the energy out of the narrative.

**Hey, look--financiers guilty of financial shenanigans arrested, convicted, and harshly punished!! How novel!

Of course, all these sultans of high finance turned out to be murderous thugs, so...

**Trevor's tale is quite graphic and bloody: "Bloody he lay with his brains smeared over the chart of the Atlantic which was pinned upon the table, while the chaplain stood with a smoking pistol in his hand at his elbow." "Wilson and eight others were wriggling on the top of each other on the floor, and the blood and the brown sherry on that table turn me sick now when I think of it." Rough stuff, Sir Arthur.

**The "well, we only murdered a few, we didn't slaughter everybody" defense is hardly ennobling. And as in Boscombe Valley, the "woe is me because I murdered people, struck it rich, and now have to live this terrible upper class lifestyle, and oh, I fear being found out" whining of our "victims" is not at all sympathetic. If Trevor (or Turner) had expressed even the slightest remorse for their victims, maybe we could feel for their anguish. But they have no problems justifying their multiple murders to themselves, and trying to shift the listeners'/readers' ire to their blackmailers. Sorry, guys, but I can despise both groups.

**Starting a new life on an Indian tea plantation is as good an exile as any, I guess. Did Victor ever finish school? Is he still in contact with Holmes? Perhaps Holmes went to visit him during his post-"death" wanderings...

**I know I complained about it above, but I just wanted to emphasize the story's annoying lack of resolution. We know that Hudson didn't actually "tell all," because no complaint had ever been lodged with the police (and Hudson himself faced the gallows if he did!). But Beddoes and Hudson we never seen again.

So why did Beddoes think that Hudson had squealed? And what happened? Did Hudson kill Beddoes? Why? If so, where is he? Or did Beddoes kill Hudson, as Holmes thought? Why? Where's the body? Where did he go?

All in all, not really an auspicious debut for Holmes' detective career.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Stock-Broker's Clerk--The Sincerest Form Of Self-Flattery!

Most people regard The Stock-Broker's Clerk as fairly minor Holmes. It hasn't been adapted to the screen in modern times (there was a 1922 silent film version), it's rarely talked about, and when it is, it's usually dismissed as a pale imitation of The Red-Headed League.

And I can't say that appraisal is wrong.

The basic premise--man conned away from his place of business by false set-up so that crooks can take advantage of his absence--is one Sir Arthur Conan Doyle already used, in one of the more famous Holmes stories. And in almost every point of comparison, the earlier-published version is more interesting and exciting and adaptation worthy.

Let's do a point-by-point comparison.

THE VICTIMS--Jabez Wilson vs. Hall Pycroft. The middle-aged, somewhat comical pawnbroker with his fiery red hair, to me, is somewhat more interesting than the "smart young City man" in his dapper suit. Certainly Wilson is a better role for an actor, and a better written character. Jabez, if nothing else, makes a more sympathetic victim, as a pathetic figure whose fading business leaves him vulnerable to the scheme. Pycroft, on the other hand, just isn't written with all that much personality, aside from his quickly-vanishing Cockney slang.

THE VILLAIN--John Clay vs. Beddington (we never learn the full true name of "Arthur Pinner"...let's just agree to call him Arthur from here on). Clay is the "fourth smartest man in London," a "murderer, thief, smasher, and forger." He's willing to play a very long con, taking a job as a pawnbroker's assistant for months in order to achieve his goal. Pinner and his brother are forgers and "cracksmen."

Certainly Clay comes across as somewhat smarter. Arthur's decision to play both himself and his "brother" led to the mark seeing through the con job, something that John Clay never allowed to happen (although, in part, that might be due to Pycroft being a bit more intelligent than Jabez Wilson...). And the way Arthur falls apart upon news of his real brother's capture makes me suspect he wasn't the bold villain of the family.

Then again, we spend much more time with Arthur than we do with John Clay, and the fact that he was able to pull off the double act for as long as he did suggests he's a pretty good actor.

It's probably a draw, or maybe a slight edge to Arthur Pinner...he may not be as good a villain as Clay, but he just might be a more interesting character.

THE SCAM--The odd will of a nutty American millionaire vs. a fake business to export crockery to France??

It's an unfair comparison, obviously. For sheer audaciousness, the idea of a bequest that will pay red haired gentleman £4 per week as long as they copy out the Encyclopedia Britannica by hand just can't be beat. It's so crazy an idea that it just could be true. And Clay goes big to assure the verisimilitude of the con: the newspaper ad, the audition with hundreds of redheads attending...if only Nigerian prince email scams could be so convincing!

Sadly, Arthur Pinner's plan is much more prosaic, and therefore much less interesting. And on it's face, it is therefore a touch less credible. An eccentric rich man with an odd will is one thing; a successful businessman with a company no one has heard of, with dingy offices, with a very unprofessional manner of poaching employees (and wagering on them with competitors), who hires people with no apparent qualifications for the job? By making the cover story less outlandish, you actually make it's real world flaws more visible. Not to mention, you also make it less interesting dramatically.

And while it's a virtually identical time-killer, copying the encyclopedia is a much more attention-getting detail than copying names out of a Paris directory. It's almost a paradox, but the unbelievability of the former actually makes it more believable than the latter.

Still I will say the Pinner plan was better in one respect. As I pointed out in my post on Red-Headed League, Clay completely blew the game by ending the con early. If they had merely continued the scam, and paid Wilson for one more week, Jabez wouldn't have gone to Holmes for help, and the thieves would have gotten away with the gold. That impatience lead to Clay's capture. Pinner, however, showed the proper stick-to-it-iveness, arranging to meet Pycroft even after his brother was supposed to have robbed the brokerage.

THE SCHEME--Perhaps it is not more realistic, but tunneling into a bank vault is a lot more interesting dramatically (and visually, if you're thinking of adaptations) than working at a bank for a week and then cracking a safe.

Granted, the Beddingtons' plan does result of the murder of a guard, and the body "doubled up and thrust into" the safe. Better suited for American television, then?

But seriously, the tunneling appeals more to our romantic imaginings of Victorian crime than the more prosaic "hanging around until almost everyone is gone and opening a safe."

THE BOOTY--You'd think Stock-Broker's Clerk might win on this count. The Beddingtons are after "securities which amount in the aggregate to a sum of considerably over a million sterling," and actually (almost) get away with "[n]early a hundred thousand pounds' worth of American railway bonds, with a large amount of scrip in mines and other companies." On it's face, that surely trumps Clay's scheme to get away with some portion of of a mere £30,000.

Ah, but it's 30,000 "gold napoleons!" It's treasure (and the tunneling plan plays up this aspect)! It's gold!! Even if it is a far, far smaller amount than the Beddington haul, it's also far more romantic! Boxes full of bullion engage the imagination in a way that a satchel full of paperwork just doesn't, and make the booty far more memorable to us. "Look, I have a bunch of stock certificates!" just doesn't fire imagination the way crates full gold do.

Add to that the fact that we never see the loot in Stock-Broker's Clerk, whereas in Red-Headed our heroes are actually sitting on the gold (and in some adaptations of the story, you actually see the napoleons)!

So while it makes no sense financially, Red-Headed wins for the more interesting goal.

THE RESOLUTION--Obviously, no contest here.

In Red-Headed League, Holmes' deductions lead directly to the capture of the criminals. He (and we) are there for the apprehension. They never get the gold, and are captured and no one is hurt, thanks to Sherlock's work.

In Stock-Broker's Clerk, Holmes does nothing to thwart the robbery. He correctly deduces the plot, but doesn't bother to tell anyone until after the robbery has taken place. Beddington is captured by a police sergeant and constable who became suspicious--not even a Scotland Yard inspector, just beat cops! No deductions necessary! Of course, Beddington has already killed someone. And Holmes isn't even in the same city when he's captured--he's halfway across the country, and reads about the capture in the newspaper!! And yes, they do capture the brother/accomplice--but he would have committed suicide, so its not as if he would have gotten away.

So we can see why Stock-Broker's Clerk was ignored for adaptations. Since almost everyone adapted Red-Headed, going on to adapt Clerk would have seemed redundant. And in virtually every way, Red-Headed is just a better story--more interesting characters, more fascinating plot, and much better detective work from our hero.

So why the pale imitation? Well, most (but not all) chronologists of the Canon would say that this story--which Watson explicitly places very soon after The Sign Of Four--occurs before Red-Headed League. So maybe, if we are to be charitable to Doyle, we can say that he did this intentionally, to show how a younger and less experienced Holmes dealt with a similar case. Indeed, some argue that it was Holmes' experience in Stock-Broker's that enabled him to deal so successfully with the scheme in Red-Headed League.

That's balderdash, of course, as everything we know says that Doyle paid little attention to the accuracy/consistency of his dates. And such bootstrapping doesn't make any dramatic sense, at least without Watson somehow telling us how this case showed how Holmes would grow later, or some such puffery.

No, I think we simply have to accept that in this case, Doyle recycled an earlier plot device, disguising it with a different looking exterior. Yet it wasn't terribly well disguised. And while Stock-Broker's Clerk certainly isn't a bad story, in almost every respect it pales compared to Red-Headed League.

They can't all be winners, I guess.


**The question must be asked--is Holmes responsible for the death of the watchman?

Pycroft meets with Pinner Friday evening. He catches the night train to London to tell his story to  Holmes Saturday morning. Holmes gathers Watson, and they all take the train back to Birmingham. In the meantime, after noon on Saturday, Beddington kills the guard, loots the safes, and is captured about 1:20pm.

Well, if Holmes had already heard Pycroft's story, and already figured out the general outline of the scheme, why didn't he notify the police, or at least Mawson & Williams? Granted, they weren't his clients, but if Holmes had already deduced what was going on, didn't he have some moral duty to at least alert the authorities that a robbery was going to happen? And if he had done so Saturday morning, mightn't the robbery--and thus the murder--have been prevented?

Well, as a tepid defense, we should note that Holmes had no way of knowing that Saturday was going to be the day of the crime. He might have thought there was time.

Secondly, and more persuasively, he may not had it deduced yet. He has Pycroft repeat his story during the train ride, but is it just for Watson's (and our) benefit? Holmes asks Pycroft to retell his tale "with more detail if possible," and he notes that "[i]t will be of use to me to hear the succession of events again." It seems, from the way he asks, that Holmes hadn't put everything together yet upon first hearing, and hadn't yet deduced that there was an imposter at the firm. Perhaps he doesn't have his epiphanies until after the retelling of this tale...and thus he couldn't have prevented the crime.

**Another niggling detail--was there another culprit, an inside man at Mawson & Williams?

Arthur Pinner approached Pycroft "the very evening" that Pycroft had received his employment offer from M &W.

How did the Beddigntons know that Pycroft had been hired? How did they know that he knew no one else at the firm (or else the scam would be a non-starter)?

That they were able to find out about Pycroft and put their plans into motion within a few hours suggests that they had to have some inside source of information at the firm, right? Maybe someone who didn't know they were planning a robbery, but someone who was slipping them information in exchange for a few pound notes?

Or perhaps this hypothetical but necessary accomplice was more involved--maybe someone who went through the firms applications, looking for a suitable candidate to spoof, and who was able to put that application on top of the pile for the managers? And perhaps this insider was in on the scheme, and was expecting a cut of the proceeds...and was never caught...

**This is a pretty naive question, but exactly how negotiable is a bag full American railway bonds and the like?

It's not like I can take those down to the local Target in exchange for goods and services, right?

And I know that we're talking about the 1880s, but isn't there a master list somewhere of the true owners of such bonds and scrip? It's not like I could just show up at the next board of the Reading Railroad board of directors and say, "Look, I have all this stock, I own your company now!" Again, my knowledge of the financial world is truly lacking, but it seems as if there would have to be some form of verification in order to use or cash in these papers, right?

And once word got out, wouldn't the authorities be on the lookout for anyone trying to trade/sell these things? Yes, the Beddingtons had counted on not being detected until Monday; but by the same token, the markets where they could sell such things would also not be open until Monday. And it's not like gold or jewels, where you can disguise the origins of the loot and which have huge secondary markets.

So where could they get rid of them? Find some millionaire on the weekend looking to buy a bunch of bonds without paying stockbroker commissions? Some black market for securities?

Or...perhaps this was a deliberate plan aimed at certain particular companies--to destabilize them, to manipulate markets? Maybe there was a secret mastermind behind this scheme...Moriarty, perhaps?

Still, if I were a crook, I'd stick with the gold napoleons...

**Good lord, why not an hire an extra confederate? As Holmes says, "But for the happy chance of the gold stuffing, your suspicions would probably never have been aroused." When you're stealing millions, surely you could hire one person, perhaps to take Arthur's role for the relatively brief initial meeting with Hall Pycroft? Surely they must have had some criminal acquaintance who could fill that easy role for a few quid?

For the want of a nail...

**Since the crux of this story involves impersonations, you have to wonder--how hard was it to impersonate someone back in the late nineteenth century?

It's not as if most people would have photo IDs, right? Especially civilians. And fingerprints weren't widely known of.

So really, what was to stop me from showing up one day and saying, "Oi! I'm Hall Pycroft, and I'm here for a bloody job!"? (Sorry about that). Of course, that's a good reason for not hiring folks without meeting them first. But that begs the question, because if I showed up for a job interview claiming to be Pycroft, we're right back where we started--how do I prove who I say I am?

So the handwriting sample, which seems odd by modern standards, might have been one of the few means of identification for firms like Mawson & Williams, beyond bringing so type of (easily forged, no doubt) documents such as birth certificates.

Of course, if the thieves had sent in an application in Pycroft's name to begin with they wouldn't have had to worry about matching hand-writing...

**What about Hall Pylon's future?

Sure, he'll be proven to be innocent. But it certainly isn't going to look good on his resume, is it? He was completely duped by a con man, he was willing to rudely blow off  a great opportunity from the richest firm in London, and his name is going to receive a lot of (bad) notoriety.  Not to mention, there will no doubt be lingering suspicions among many in the industry that maybe he was indeed involved in the scheme, no matter what Holmes says.

It just seems difficult to imagine a reputable financial firm giving him a job with this stain on his perceived character. I suspect there's a career change in the offing for Hall.

I hear he can make a fair living begging...

**It doesn't say much for the reforming capabilities of the English penal system that, within months of serving a 5-year stretch, the Beddingtons are immediately planning huge crimes...

**We get a lot of interesting information aboutWatson's practice, and his neighbors. But Holmes deductions that Watson's had originally been the busier is curious. If the steps on Watson side are "worn three inches deeper," what the heck are the steps made of? How much traffic would it take to wear down steps that much?

And perhaps his neighbor's had been worn so much more deeply that he had had to install new ones...

**Holmes: "I am afraid that I rather give myself away when I explain," said he. "Results without causes are much more impressive." But less satisfying, so fortunately for the readers, Holmes' ego would never let him stop giving explanations.

**Many are impressed by Watson's (and Doyle's) "ear for Cockney," given the many instances of slang Pycroft uses in telling his story.

But if look carefully, after an initial barrage of "crib" and "Soft johnny" and "screw" and "diggings," etc., the cockneyisms largely disappear from his speech after he reaches the point in his tale where Arthur Pinner shows up.

Did Doyle/Watson forget? Did he decide that, after establishing the dialectic bona fides, there was no need to keep it up? Had he exhausted his repertoire of slang?

Or, for an in-story explanation: Was Pycroft overly excited as he began narrating his tale to Watson,  and slipped into his native patois; but as he continued his tale, he relaxed enough to talk more formally, as he must have had to at work?

**I think an ability to quote the day's stock prices might be a poor test of qualifications for the business manager of a huge hardware company.

And for that matter, having a business manager whom you're paying £500 per year spend his first weeks copying names and addresses by hand out of a directory should have seemed a criminal waste of resources. Yet Pycroft doesn't question it.

It certainly calls into question the lad's business acumen, and throws further question on his future job prospects.

**There are so many hardware sellers in Paris that it took almost a full week to copy them down?

**Beddington was captured sometime after 1:20 PM Saturday. It certainly took some time to sort some things out, get the firm's managers in to assess the losses, find the body, determine Beddington's true identity...but by 7 PM the same day, Birmingham has a copy of the early edition of a London evening paper, and they have the full story!!

That's some pretty fast reporting, and very fast delivery of a paper 120 miles away...

**Reflecting on Pinner's attempted suicide, Holmes observes,"Human nature is a strange mixture, Watson. You see that even a villain and murderer can inspire such affection that his brother turns to suicide when he learns that his neck is forfeited."

Well, let's be honest--Pinner's grief may be just as much for himself. I'm no expert on Victorian law, but at the very least Pinner himself faces another lengthy prison stretch. And, in many jurisdictions (including England until 1957), he would be guilty of felony murder, which could have him in the gallows along with his brother. His brother's recklessness and violence had doomed him, as well. And perhaps he just wanted to take that last step himself, rather than waiting on at trial and death row.

So Holmes and Watson may have saved him, just so the crown can kill him...


Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Yellow Face--A Better Story Than You Have Given It Credit For!

There are a lot of reasons to dismiss The Yellow Face as minor, forgettable Holmes.

The story shares properties with many of what I consider to be lesser Holmes stories. Like Orange Pips, it is a story where Holmes fails. Like Copper Beeches, it is a story where the outcome would have been exactly the same had Sherlock never been involved, robbing our hero of any agency in the story. He makes no noteworthy deductions in the case, aside from the characteristics of the pipe's owner. It's a very short story, and really, not much happens.

And then there is the very delicate subject of the story's position on race relations.

Small wonder, then, that Yellow Face has been adapted to the screen only once--in a 1921 silent film.

And yet...and yet...while Yellow Face certainly isn't a particularly good Sherlock Holmes, story, it is a very good story nonetheless. And it is a story I very much like.

Yellow Face is a surprisingly sensitive look at the need for honesty and communication in a marriage, and a surprisingly touching call for racial tolerance. And ultimately, it is about forgiveness and redemption.

The crux of the story--the reason we have any "mystery" at all--is Effie's absolute terror at the possibility of anyone discovering that she had a child with a black man. If she could simply tell her husband about her past, the story would be over before it began.

But she can't bring herself to trust her husband's reaction. "Nothing but misery can come of it if you enter that cottage." "Our whole lives are at stake in this...If you force your way into that cottage, all is over between us." "For God's sake, don't Jack!" Her absolute certainty of rejection rises to the level of sheer terror.

Of course, it's hard to blame her. Few of us will ever know the hardships and ostracization she experienced by marrying a black man in post-Civil War Georgia, and having a child with him. "Cut[ing] myself off from my own race" is surely typical English stiff-upper-lip understatement of what she endured.

She was so traumatized that she chose to return to Britain rather than remain with her sick child!! And when Lucy was brought over--"only for a few weeks"--Effie insisted on Lucy's wearing a ridiculous mask and gloves, lest even the slightest glance of her skin set the neighbors to gossiping.

These are hardly ennobling acts--and Effie certainly won't win any Mother Of The Year awards--but are understandable in the context of her life. The awful prejudice she experienced in America, followed by a return to 3 years of "normalcy," and the sudden fear that she could have to live through all that again--even if she did expose herself to that threat by bringing Lucy to England--makes her somewhat irrational, unable to trust even the man she loves. The poor woman was suffering from racism PTSD, and was unable to perceive anything but fear.

But despite Effie's fears, Grant Munro proves the power of love and tolerance (eventually). Throughout much of the story, he comes off as a bit of a jackass. "A man can tell easily enough when a woman loves him"?!?! Sure, you and every other dude, Grant. Breaking into others' houses, leaving his wife and home at the drop of a hat? Munro certainly does not come across as a man capable of rational thought and calm decision-making in the face of a crisis. And certainly his reaction to Effie's having some secret isn't a model of trust and forbearance.

Yet when the truth is revealed, and push comes to shove, Grant Munro stands tall, in a scene that makes me tear up every time I read it:
It was a long two minutes before Grant Munro broke the silence, and when his answer came it was one of which I love to think. He lifted the little child, kissed her, and then, still carrying her, he held his other hand out to his wife and turned towards the door. 

"We can talk it over more comfortably at home," said he. "I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think that I am a better one than you have given me credit for being."
And there it is. Gently upbraiding her for not trusting him, while at the same time forgiving her and implicitly pledging to make this family whole, Munro proves himself to be one hell of a husband, and a pretty good man indeed.

There are many commentators who want to pick holes in this story: "Watson's description of Lucy's skin color means Effie's story cannot be true!" "They can't have been legally married in Georgia!" Her whole story must be a lie!

Well, more power to those who think that way, I suppose; but I would suggest that they're missing the forest for the trees. This is a piece of fiction, not a documentary, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a writer who often made mistakes. This is a wonderful tale with a point to make, and to focus on whether some fairly trivial aspects match up with real life is akin to criticizing To Kill A Mockingbird for not being 100% accurate in its portrayal of contemporary courtroom procedure. Even if you're right, it sort of misses the point, and doesn't invalidate the moral of the story.

So kudos to Doyle for writing this, and embracing what was very likely not a very popular position in his day. And special kudos for using a story starring his wildly popular character to make that statement, ensuring that it would be widely read.

This isn't necessarily a very good Sherlock Holmes story; but I think that it is a better story than many have given it credit for being.


**Once again, there are some fairly remarkable differences between the original British editions of this story and the American versions.

Most are trivial. When Holmes is discussing the amber stem of the pipe, and whether the presence of an insect proves that it is real amber, he says, "Why, it is quite a branch of trade, the putting of sham flies into the sham amber." That line is omitted from most American editions, for reasons unknown.

When Watson is discussing cases where Holmes has failed, the original mentions "the affair of the second stain"--not capitalized. Was it referring to the story The Adventure Of The Second Stain, not to be written for a decade yet? Again, for reasons unknown, American editions change that to "the adventure of the Musgrave Ritual." Well, that is a story included in Memoirs, but it's also not an example where Holmes failed! Curious.

However, some of the changes go far beyond trivial, to actually altering the meaning of the story. Grant Munro describes his first glimpse of the face in the window as "a livid dead yellow." American publications changed that to "chalky white." I have no idea why (some have suggested that it was to avoid offending a growing Asian population?)--but it does seem silly as the story entitled The Yellow Face now has no yellow face in it.

Most egregiously, American versions changed "It was a long two minutes before Grant Munro broke the silence" to "It was a long ten minutes before Grant Munro broke the silence." Why? Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Illustrated Collection from Mobile Reference tells us, "It is hypothesized by some readers that interracial marriage was even more taboo in the U.S. than in England and so it was felt that Mr. Munro would take longer to overcome his mixed feelings about the child." Seriously.

Man, that really makes me want to smack someone. Hey, 19th century American editors--just print the damn story as is!!

**Watson provides a good literary/dramatic reason for not generally providing us with cases that Sherlock failed to solve: "[B]ecause where he failed it happened too often that no one else succeeded, and that the tale was left forever without a conclusion."

Fair enough. To bad you didn't figure that out before presenting us with The Five Orange Pips, though.

**The Sherlock Holmes diet and fitness plan, according to Watson:
Sherlock Holmes was a man who seldom took exercise for exercise's sake. Few men were capable of greater muscular effort, and he was undoubtedly one of the finest boxers of his weight that I have ever seen; but he looked upon aimless bodily exertion as a waste of energy, and he seldom bestirred himself save when there was some professional object to be served. Then he was absolutely untiring and indefatigable. That he should have kept himself in training under such circumstances is remarkable, but his diet was usually of the sparest, and his habits were simple to the verge of austerity.
So: don't eat a lot, and exercise only when you have to. Perhaps Dr. Oz can push The Sherlock Holmes Diet next week...

**Even though the client's name is Grant Munro--it's even written on his hat--every time Effie speaks she calls him "Jack." Every single time. She never once calls him Grant.

Is Jack his middle name, and he only uses Grant for official business? Or vice versa--he is a Jack, but uses his middle name for business because it sounds more formal? Is it some personal pet name she has for him, perhaps a private joke between them?

Some have suggested that this makes the time John Watson's wife called him "James" more understandable. Apparently, Victorian women called their husbands whatever damn thing they wanted to!

**Munro tells us that Effie sign over all her income and property to him when they married.

If so, what did the faithful Scotch servant and a recovering Lucy live on for 3 years, if they didn't have access to Effie's money?!?

Perhaps John Hebron had left a separate trust for Lucy? Or maybe they stayed with some of Hebron's relatives? Or perhaps Effie just lied to Munro about how much her income was.

Still, she did have to "borrow" £100 from her husband to rent the cottage and bring Effie and the servant over, so it's unlikely she was hiding some large sum of money from him.

**Munro thinks that "trees are always a neighbourly kind of thing." Uh, OK.

**As I've said, this isn't a great tale for Sherlock. His deductions about the pipe aside, he is fairly much worthless during the entire case. He advises Munro to do what he would have done anyway. He makes no statement whatsoever regarding the issues of race and family, leaving all that to Watson. He is essentially a bystander to the entire drama.

And as for his "provisional" theory of the case, which he would be surprised if does not turn out to be correct? Well, given the prominence of the practice in recent cases, perhaps it's not too shocking that Holmes first guess went straight to bigamy (and blackmail). Still, the theory requires quite a number of wild assumptions for which there is no factual basis, something Holmes would chide any Scotland Yard inspector for. He asserts that Effie's first husband "contracted some loathsome disease, and became a leper or an imbecile" without a shred of factual basis. He explains that Effie knew "in some way" that the new residents of the cottage are her blackmailers. Really, Sherlock? "In some way"?!? Telepathy? Woman's intuition? He assumes the blackmailers demanded a photo of her--why?!? And he says he can think of no other possible explanation for Effie's "frenzied anxiety" that Munro should not enter the cottage.

It's a theory filled with loopholes and shoddy reasoning. Even Watson sounds shocked: "It is all surmise."

Small wonder that Sherlock wanted Watson to remind him of this case whenever he became too arrogant. It is surely his worst performance as a detective.

**When Sherlock opines, "Any truth is better than indefinite doubt," he is making a pretty fair rebuke of the way Effie has handled her secret. And it's a good prescription for any relationship--it's often the doubt, as opposed to the actual facts, that does the damage.

**Holmes knows that by breaking onto the cottage, they are "hopelessly in the wrong," legally, but "it is worth it." A safe bet to make, given Effie's terror at anyone discovering the secret there.

But it is also a fair statement of Sherlock's ethos, and his understanding of justice. Sometimes you have to risk violating the letter of the law to protect people. Remember, Sherlock assumed that the residents of the cottage were blackmailing the Munros, and doing their marriage harm. So in Holmes' mind, stopping that was more important than trespass laws. This is part of his "advantage of being unofficial."

On the other hand, Sherlock was 100% wrong in his interpretation of events. And even though everything worked out well in the end, perhaps there is something to be said for being a little less cavalier with legal niceties and not allowing "unofficial agents" to run amok in their personal quests for their version of justice. Had the situation been different, Holmes and company could have been in jail, or even legally shot as intruders. And honestly, would you want a private detective operating under a false set of assumptions breaking down your door in the middle of the night?

Those "legal niceties" are there for a reason, and perhaps in our privacy-challenged era, we might want to more careful about whole-heartedly endorsing private parties violating them without any constraints or consequences.