Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Naval Treaty--The Perils Of Nepotism

The Naval Treaty is a cracking good Holmes story, one of the best. A clever twist, lots of clues, lots of red herrings, Holmes at his puckish best, state-level intrigue, stories from Watson's's a pretty full bag, and almost all of it is good.

But if there's one lesson to take from The Naval Treaty. it's this: don't hire relatives. They're nothing but trouble.

The tales centers around poor Percy Phelps, who's in rather a quandary due to, well, let's just say it--gross incompetence. Ironically, the only thing that he does right is go into a fugue state for 9 weeks, which unintentionally prevents his blundering from having the serious consequences that it should have.

While in school, although Percy was a "brilliant" student, he was bullied by the other students, even those in lower forms. He was a "nervous, sensitive boy," and that obviously continued into adulthood, as his first set-back--admittedly, a major one--unnerved him so that he was literally useless for two and a half months!! Just imagine how he would have reacted had he woken up to find out that the treaty had made its way to the French!!

Lord Holdhurst, the much admired foreign minister who seemed destined to become Prime Minister, used his "influences" to appoint Phelps to a position at the Foreign Office. And while Percy had successfully completed "several missions of trust" for his uncle, the current instance was one which required the utmost secrecy, as the existence of the secret treaty with the Italians could not become public knowledge. So crucial was the secrecy, Percy was told to wait until all of the other employees had left for the day, for fear of someone looking over his shoulder while he worked!!

We certainly can't fault Percy for wanting some coffee--twenty-six articles in French to copy by hand would test the wakefulness of any of us. But when he rings the bell, an unfamiliar face comes to answer his request.

So what does he do when his coffee doesn't come, and he knows there is an unfamiliar face lurking about? Instead of ringing the bell again--which we later see was enough to wake the commissionaire--Phelps goes downstairs himself to check on the coffee. While leaving his office door open. While leaving the top-secret treaty and the copy sitting atop his desk in plain view, instead of locking it in his desk.


I think "brilliant" goes out the window, as well as missions of trust.

Upon learning of the theft, Percy promptly informs the police and passersby of the secret document, and insists on following a red herring (although, in fairness, it was the only real lead anyone had at that moment).

And when that false lead doesn't pan out? He was immediately overwhelmed by self-pity, threw "a fit," became a "hysterical maniac," and spent the next 9 weeks with brain fever.

So as we can see, Percy is neither terribly good at preserving secrets, and doesn't deal at all well with pressure or a crisis. Exactly what we want from a man serving in the Foreign Office!!

And when Percy wakes up, the potential damage to his nation's welfare is secondary--it's all about him! He becomes convinced that he is "the unconscious centre of some monstrous conspiracy, and that my life is aimed at as well as my honour." Yes, Mr. Phelps, the whole point of stealing the treaty was merely to impugn your honor.

All in all, it seems to be a pretty good thing that Percy had a powerful uncle, because on the face of it, he is spectacularly unqualified for any position in diplomacy. England is exposed to "very grave consequences" because the Foreign Minister gave an important job to an unqualified nephew. And we have to wonder if, after Holmes recovered the treaty, Lord Holdhurst retained Phelps in his current position, or found him a slightly less challenging sinecure, with no chance of destroying national security because Percy has to make a coffee run.

Of course, while not nepotism, Annie's brother Joseph also gives relations a bad name. He became a bit of a moocher--Holmes says Joseph decided to stay down because "he felt pretty snug," implying he preferred the cushier lifestyle at the Phelps household. After blowing his money "dabbling" at stocks, the "absolutely selfish" Joseph took the first opportunity to screw over his future brother-in-law (and therefore his sister) for a quick buck--not to mention intending to commit treason, and just perhaps, commit murder. A winner on all accounts.

So the message we can take away from The Naval Treaty? Don't hire relatives, and don't let them live with you. It only leads to disaster!


**Some commentators have suggested that Joseph, and perhaps his sister Annie as well, weren't actually who they said they were--they were actually spies for a foreign power, using Percy to get access to sensitive foreign office intelligence.

Poppycock. That makes no sense in the context of the story.

If Joseph were a spy, than when he found Percy's office empty, he most certainly would not have rung the bell--he would have taken the opportunity to search the office before alerting anyone that he was there!! Furthermore, when he took the treaty, he almost certainly would have taken it straight to the embassy of whichever foreign power he was working for, rather than take it home and hide it in his bedroom. No, if Joseph was a spy, he was a terribly incompetent and unprofessional one.

As to the possibility of Annie being a spy? Preposterous!

Percy was in the grip of his "brain fever" for over 9 weeks! Whether you accept the description that he was "unconscious" or "raving" or "out of his head" for that time, he only came to his senses 3 days ago! He was being given "sleeping draughts" to help keep him quiet!

If Annie was working in concert with Joseph, wouldn't he have told her where in the room he hid the document? And in the 108 (or so) days that Percy was incapacitated, how can we possibly believe that she couldn't have found an opportunity to retrieve it, while her fiancee was asleep or unconscious or delirious?!? If we believe his condition, he certainly would have had no idea what was going on! She could have taken it with impunity! At worst, she could have distracted Percy while Joseph came in to remove the document.

And when Holmes left with Percy for the day, there is no conceivable reason that she wouldn't have used the opportunity to recover the treaty, if she were involved.

No, to suggest that these two were actual spies works only if we accept that they were particular inept spies, unable to retrieve a hidden piece of paper from a room because an insensate man was sleeping there.

**This is the longest of the short stories in the Canon, so long that the Strand broke it into two parts for publication.

And the story is all the better for it. Without the clipped, rushed ending he often gave us, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gives us a story that has room to breathe, and allows us to go deep into the details. That is one of the reasons the mystery works so well--we get time to properly establish the red herrings, to investigate several suspects, to pursue alternate theories, and to properly enjoy the ending.

**Watson is oddly shocked that the letter from Percy could have been dictated to a devoted woman--"'A man, surely,' I cried." Given Percy's own description of himself as "a nervous, sensitive boy," perhaps Watson assumed that there couldn't have been a female in Phelps' life...and perhaps that is the real reason Watson and his schoolmates bullied the lad. If true, shame on you, Doctor!!

 **Secret treaties, and public treaties with secret codicils, were a very real thing in the seething hotbed of European power struggles of the era. Many times they expressly contradicted other, public teaties, so keeping them secret was indeed paramount.

While England and Italy did agree on a treaty in 1887 regarding what to do about French actions in the Mediterranean, it wasn't a secret--Germany's von Bismark mediated the negotiations, and later Austria and Spain joined it. (Or maybe there was another agreement that was sooooo secret that we still don't know about it) Still, many Canon chronologists place this story in 1887 or 1888--perhaps Sir Arthur was thinking of this agreement when he wrote the story?

**Wait just a minute--the clerks and servants entrance to the British Foreign Office is left unguarded and unlocked at night?!? Anyone can walk in there off the street, bypassing even the commissionaire, and saunter throughout the building undetected?!? Yes, Percy Phelps was a bit of an idiot for not locking his office door, but good heavens, it's not like there was any type of security whatsoever at one of the most important buildings in the Empire!!

**So Phelps hadn't contacted Watson for decades...and then he reaches out, but only because he wants to borrow Sherlock Holmes. What a user...Then again, if Watson really was a terrible bully in school, I suppose Percy had an excuse for avoiding his old school chum.

**Given the potential grave consequences, and Scotland Yard's total lack of success for two months, I have to wonder why the government didn't reach out to Holmes themselves, rather than waiting for Percy to wake up and letting him do it.

By this point Holmes already had "acted on the behalf of three of the reigning houses of Europe," so certainly he would have had a reputation for this sort of work. Then again, perhaps that was the problem--given their concern for ultra-secrecy, perhaps they were concerned that Holmes' continental connections proved too much of a risk of a security breach.

Or perhaps they just feared Watson's discretion?

**They were primitive, but methods of copying documents did exist in that era. You would think that an outfit of the size and prestige of the British government would have invested in these, rather than relying on clerks to copy documents by hand...

**Watson gives us some more unpublished cases...but this is at least the third version of "The Adventure Of The Second Stain."

In The Yellow Face, Watson mentions the "affair of the second stain" (not capitalized) as an example of a case where Holmes failed.

This time, Watson mentions The Adventure Of The Second Stain, and rather than Holmes failing, Watson tells us that "no case, however, in which Holmes was engaged has ever illustrated the value of his analytical methods so clearly or has impressed those who were associated with him so deeply." Hardly an example of a failure, then.

Watson also tells us how Holmes "demonstrated the true facts of the case to Monsieur Dubugue of the Paris police, and Fritz von Waldbaum, the well-known specialist of Dantzig, both of whom had wasted their energies upon what proved to be side-issues." Yet when we get to the actual published Second Stain a decade later, these characters are not mentioned at all, and the case doesn't sound at all like Watson's description. And certainly Holmes does not fail in the published case, as Yellow Face tells us.

So we have three mutually inconsistent cases with the same name!

Perhaps, by the time he published it, Watson substantially changed the details of the case, as it was of "such importance and implicates so many of the first families in the kingdom" that there was no way to print it in a 100% accurate version.

Or perhaps the title phrase was just burbling around Doyle's head for a long time, and kept peaking out.

Or perhaps there were an awful lot of stains in Victorian England...

**The other apocryphal case Watson teases us with is The Adventure Of The Tired Captain. Tell me this didn't make you think about James T. Kirk on shore leave...

**"Holmes was seated at his side-table clad in his dressing-gown, and working hard over a chemical investigation. A large curved retort was boiling furiously in the bluish flame of a Bunsen burner, and the distilled drops were condensing into a two-litre measure.

Holmes just invented the 2 liter bottle of Mountain Dew, didn't he?

**Lord Holdhurst asks Phelps, "You have a desk in your office?"

Really? You don't know if your nephew even has a desk? Does the Foreign Office have lots of clerks without desks?

(Yes, I know, he was probably just asking if had a desk with lockable drawers, as opposed to just a writing table or such. Don't spoil the joke.)

**Watson's description of the timing of events leaves me confused about some of Holmes inquiries.

Watson gets the letter, goes to fetch Holmes, they "start at once" and "catch an early train," and take a "few minutes walk" to Briarbrae. They meet Joseph, go in to interview Percy, and then leave for the city. Joseph drives them to the station, they get on the train. While on the train, Holmes tells Watson something of the history of Annie and Joseph, down to the when Percy and Annie were engaged, and that Joseph accompanied her as a chaperone.

But since Holmes had never even heard the names of Annie or Joseph before they reached Briarbrae, let alone knew of their existence, how did he come by this information? Holmes says he's "been making a few independent inquiries." When? How? Unless Watson left some chunk of the narrative out, when would Holmes had a chance to make inquiries, let alone receive results?

Perhaps before they caught the train to Wocking, Sherlock sent a note to Mycroft, asking for any information he might have been able to get on Percy, and the elder Holmes had it wired to the Wocking station?

**While people like to criticize Holmes' reverie on the rose--of course color and smell have a purpose in nature--they miss the fact the Sherlock is using this as a stalling tactic while he cases the room for possible hiding places for the treaty.

Right after Annie interrupts his little flower appreciation moment, Holmes says that "suspects himself" of "coming to conclusions too rapidly." Of course--he's already solved the case, at least in his head, and has deduced that the treaty must be in room!! So he needs to keep everyone quiet while he looks around to figure out where the document might be!!

Of course, it could be anywhere, and he can't give the room his usual intense examination, so eventually he allows Joseph to reveal that himself, saving himself "an infinity of trouble."

At least, that's how I would stage it if I were directing an adaptation...

 **They suspect Gorot just because he had a French name? If his loyalty was at all suspect, why in heaven let him have a position in the Foreign Office?

**Not to put too fine a point on it, but why send Percy on a train home when he begins to lose it? Shouldn't he be a suspect, as well? After all, there is only his word that the treaty is missing, and the whole "OMG, the paper is stolen, let's run around on false leads, and oh now I'm having a nervous breakdown" could merely have been a very clever cover for his own theft!!

Of course, we know that's not true, but at the time, Scotland Yard certainly should have counted him as a prime suspect, and not let him go home without police supervision, as he would then have opportunity to hide the treaty anywhere.

Lord Holdhurst is certainly suspicious of Percy. He immediately leaps to "brain fever" when Holmes speculated that illness might have prevented the culprit from selling the treaty, and his parting comment "every success to your investigation, be the criminal who it may" certainly implies that he fears his nephew is a traitor, and won't object if Holmes nails him.

**This is what, the 6th or 7th time that "brain fever" has been an element of a Holmes story? Many have speculated what "real" disease it might have been, if indeed it was real. But the fact that, in literature, it is usually triggered by severe emotional upset, makes it seem more like a psychiatric condition such as a "nervous breakdown."

Of course, in fiction it really is just a convenient device to render witnesses or suspect unavailable at important times. I do wish that Sir Arthur, being a doctor himself, would move on from this plot device (although it is used to fine effect here).

**Finally--Holmes places a newspaper advertisement that doesn't produce results!!The decline of print has begun!!

**Inspector Forbes is a bit of a piece of work, instantly getting his hackles up and attacking Sherlock, until Holmes slaps him down.

After that, he calms down, and proves to be a competent, and even somewhat creative inspector. He even has someone undercover go drinking with Mrs. Tangey, in case she'll spill something while she was "well on."

And at the end, Holmes does indeed give him the name of the perpetrator, and kept none of the glory for himself, as promised.

Still, for a man who argues that he's not interested in self-glorification, Sherlock sure is very familiar with his own statistics, isn't he? He's kept track of his last 53 cases, and knows his (and the police's) statistics? Oh, Sherlock...

**I think we know whom Watson is voting for, because he sure has a man-crush on Lord Holdhurst. "[H]e seemed to represent that not to common type, a nobleman who is in truth noble" is merely one of the many ways that Watson lovingly slurps the Foreign Minister.

**Holmes' ploy with how he reveals the recovered treaty to Percy--funny or cruel--or both? You'll have to decide for yourselves, but I love it. Again, this puckishness pretty much disproves the "Holmes is a Vulcan" idea...

**In case I hadn't mentioned it, I really love this story, and could go on for quite awhile if it weren't getting so late. Clearly one of Doyle's best, in Sherlock's penultimate story.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Greek Interpreter--The Elephant In The Room?

Throughout the Memoirs, Watson frequently started of the stories with an explanation of how he came to pick that week's particular case to publish.

But not this time. Any consideration of the mystery is forgotten, as Watson's introduction is essentially, "Hey!! Sherlock Holmes just told me something about his family!!!"

Which is essentially the problem I'm having in deciding what to write about The Greek Interpreter.

I didn't want to make the lead essay here about Mycroft. I mean, it's been done, right? Everybody talks about Mycroft. So, I told myself, I'll just find some angle on the mystery itself to talk about.

Yet I find myself in the same position as Watson. As hard as I try to make the case my focus, I am drawn inexorably back to Mycroft.

Why does the character have such a gravity? He appeared only twice in the Canon, and was mentioned on only two other occasions. Yet it's difficult to find a pastiche, a modernization or an adaptation series that doesn't use him far more frequently than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever did. Like the Baker Street Irregulars, a few small appearances have been, over the years, transformed into a major part of the Canon that people feel obliged to work into every appearance. For a character whom Sherlock never even mentioned to Watson for the first several years of their association, Mycroft Holmes has grown to mythological proportions.

Of course, much of that is due to Mycroft's second appearance, where Doyle gives in to temptation and retcons Mycroft a bit, greatly expanding on what we were told in Greek Interpreter. But we'll get to that in a few weeks. For our purposes today, let's look at what it is about this first appearance that so captured the public's imagination.

First, of course, is the acknowledgement that up to this point, Doyle has told us frightfully little about Sherlock's past or family. And just like Watson, the audience craves more. We want to know every tidbit of the upbringing that produced such a wunderkind as Sherlock, who his family is--are there more at home like him??

And of course the revelation that he not only has a brother, but one who is smarter than he is--well, that inflames the imagination, doesn't it? Even as he tries to temper our expectations--he has "no ambition and no energy," he lacks the ability to put his deductions to "practical" use, he's chosen another field entirely--still, Mycroft is the Man Who Is Smarter Than Sherlock, and that has an attraction that's irresistible to us.

Yet there is a tendency by many to ignore the qualifications on his skills that we are given in this story, and transform Mycroft into a Machiavellian schemer and grand mastermind behind the scenes. Part of that is his government role (as described by Sherlock) in The Bruce-Partington Plans. And part of that is our desire for a "big bad," the person who is revealed to be the master villain in time for the season-ending showdown. Also present is our desire for "The Twist," where we learn that a character we thought we knew is revealed to be something else entirely. And so we ruin everything, imposing modern storytelling expectations on a 120 year old story.

I kid about the "ruin" part. Yet there are plenty of commentators, past and present, who insist that Mycroft had some secret plan going on in the Greek Interpreter. He was either involved, or covering something up; he was working either for the Government, or for Moriarty; dammit, he was up to something!!

Let's all calm down a bit. First and foremost, if Mycroft was involved, or covering something up, why involve Sherlock, and his biographer? That certainly seems contra-indicated, if you're trying to keep some business secret. Secondly, Mycroft had no way of knowing that Sherlock would be coming to visit that day--he didn't summon his brother, our duo just decided to visit when Mycroft came up in random conversation. (Of course, you can speculate that Watson lied about how the conversation played out, because he was in on it; or that Sherlock deliberately dropped the "brother bomb" at that point as an excuse to drag Watson over there. In either case, we're pretty far down the rabbit hole, where nothing can be taken at face value, so let's not go there). Furthermore, if it were a cover-up, why would Mycroft go to Baker Street after he received the note from "Davidson"?

And it is especially important to note that, once again, Sherlock does virtually nothing towards solving the case. Mycroft has already placed the newspaper ads, even before he told Sherlock of the case; he receives the reply, giving them the address; and everything Sherlock does once they get to the house could have been accomplished by anyone. So the motive for a supposedly involved Mycroft to bring Sherlock into this affair is what?

Perhaps more important is the description that we get from Sherlock himself, of Mycroft as a "dilettante," a clumsy hobbyist in the deduction business. Mycroft was indeed smarter, but didn't have the real-world training or common sense of Sherlock to do a good job in these cases. lacking "street smarts," as it were. Even if we discount a bit of what Sherlock tells us as possible sibling jealously, Mycroft does come across as a bit of an incompetent bungler in this story. Publishing the newspaper ads as he did was obviously a mistake. He can't even be bothered to have telegraphed Athens for information on the mysterious Greeks. And when Mycroft gets a letter revealing where the kidnapped man is being kept, his first instinct is to go interview the writer, rather than go and rescue the near-death captive, much to Sherlock's exasperation.The whole story proves Sherlock's point that Mycroft "was absolutely incapable of working out the practical points."

So even if we accept Mycroft as head of Her Majesty's Secret Service, or whichever grandiose role the next pastiche wants to project him into, that doesn't mean he's as good a detective as his brother. It's experience and instinct, not just brains, that make the man. And that's why we value Mycroft--not just for the similarities, but for the differences between him and his brother.

Besides, who really wants an evil Mycroft?


**Not to be too delicate, but why is Mycroft so often portrayed as, well, not fat?

Don't get me wrong--I'm fairly hefty myself, so I feel I'm not coming at this from some anti-obesity prejudice.

And I'm also not one to get too uptight about on-screen portrayals having to look exactly like their prose descriptions. Really, who cares if a character is dark-haired but the actor blonde? It's the essence of the character and the portrayal that are important, not superficial trivia.

Yet Watson was so specific--and emphatic--in his description of Mycroft Holmes. He wasn't just "stout" (Watson's usually code-word for big)--no, Mycroft was "absolutely corpulent." He was "massive." His "broad, fat hand" was "like the flipper of a seal." He had trouble on the stairs, "following as quickly as his great bulk allowed." Leaping ahead to another story, the good doctor will write that Mycroft was "massive" with "uncouth physical inertia," having an "unwieldy frame" and a "gross body." I think we're getting a pretty clear picture that Mycroft was, well, overweight.

Yet so often, especially in "modernizations," we get rail-thin actors to play Mycroft. Rhys Ifan plays him in CBS' Elementary, and he's a far from corpulent as you can get. Mark Gatis is Mycroft in BBC's Sherlock, and he is fairly lean. Christopher Lee portrayed Mycroft in Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and I doubt that he ever had a corpulent moment in his life.

There are counter-examples, of course--Charles Grey and Stephen Fry are examples of more recent, stouter Mycrofts--and Sidney Paget's drawings of Mycroft hardly make him look like Mr. Creosote.

Still, it could me argued that Mycroft's size is part of his character--his laziness and lack of energy reflected physically--and helps to make a good contrast with Sherlock.

Perhaps there just aren't enough corpulent actors out there...

**Curious place, the Diogenes Club:
There are many men in London, you know, who, some from shyness, some from misanthropy, have no wish for the company of their fellows. Yet they are not averse to comfortable chairs and the latest periodicals. It is for the convenience of these that the Diogenes Club was started, and it now contains the most unsociable and unclubable men in town.
Given that this club was likely restricted to the well-to-do, it's hard to imagine that the members couldn't afford their own comfortable chairs and periodicals, and be misanthropes and loners when they were actually alone, at home. Methinks perhaps they protest too much about their unsociability--rather, they want to be seen being "unclubbable" by others. This is especially true as Mycroft seems to do plenty of business there...perhaps sending a message: "See how important you are? I break the Club's air of unsociability to meet you!"

A further irony is that Diogenes, after whom Mycroft named the club, was hardly one to be silent...

**Sherlock described the club thusly: "The Diogenes Club is the queerest club in London, and Mycroft one of the queerest men."

Of course, that would cause too many titters and guffaws these days, so Granada replace "queerest" with "oddest." Sigh...

**Once you get past all the Mycroft, it turns out that The Greek Interpreter isn't really much of a mystery. It's essentially the same story as Engineer's Thumb--expert tricked into helping crooks at location he can't re-find later, and they try to kill him as the flee the jurisdiction--and even Watson is able to guess the whole story immediately after Melas has finished his tale.

But despite not being a good mystery, it is a good crime story, if I may make the distinction. Desperate crooks, a prisoner being starved, death-traps, lovely ladies held in thrall, a gory end many miles stuff, even if we don't get all of the answers.

**Some friends Sophy had. While visiting them,
[S]he had met a young man named Harold Latimer, who had acquired an ascendancy over her and had eventually persuaded her to fly with him. Her friends, shocked at the event, had contented themselves with informing her brother at Athens, and had then washed their hands of the matter.
Granted, these friends likely had no way to know that Latimer was ultimately a thief and a murderer. But they were "shocked at the event," so they must have felt something was amiss. How then, after informing Sophy's brother, could they have "contented themselves" and "washed their hands of the matter"??

I guess interventions hadn't been invented yet...

**Not to suggest that  Latimer and Kemp were stupid villains--but heavens, why let Melas go free after the first session? Despite having "no physical courage," he was hardly intimidated from speaking to "one human soul" about the incident--he immediately went to the police, and then to Mycroft Holmes. Even if he couldn't find their lair, all that took was one newspaper ad (and it probably would have been even quicker, had the police done their damn job).

From the criminal's point of view, even if they never caught on to Melas' scheme to get additional information from Paul, he would be able to identify Paul and Sophy, as well as them, and have some idea of their scheme. Letting him loose was foolish--especially since they were willing to kill later. And they would obviously have to kill Paul if they did induce him to sign, because otherwise he could contest the document as being signed under duress. So letting Melas loose was the height of folly. If you're a criminal.

**And again, like the Engineer's Thumb, instead of just killing their victims, they leave them in an escapable death trap. What is this, a comic book? Or a Bond movie?

I suppose one could argue that the criminals do this to leave themselves some plausible deniability about their intentions: "Your honor, we didn't know the room would fill with fumes!! We didn't intend to murder them! It was an accident." Conceivably, it could help them avoid the gallows, with a good barrister and a credulous jury.

Or, they're just crappy criminals.

**Paul Kratides told Melas that he was held prisoner for 3 weeks. If Sophy was there with them the entire time, how did they manage to keep from her the fact that they had a prisoner they were torturing and badgering every night? Was she so under Latimer's sway that she didn't care? Did she readily agree to stay up there every time they brought him up? She heard and saw nothing? Or did she just not care until she saw that it was here brother?!?

**Prior to hiring Melas, Latimer and Kemp had a "friend who speaks Greek and who began these negotiations [who was] forced to return to the East." Who was this? Where is he? Why was he "forced" to leave the country? Was he another patsy, killed by the villains? A confederate who somehow got himself arrested and/or deported? If he was indeed Greek, maybe he knew of the Kratides family, and alerted the scoundrels of a potential target?

**Big question: Who sent Holmes the newspaper clipping from Budapest? Who knew of his interest in these two gentleman? Sophy never met Holmes, and likely never even knew of his involvement. I suppose if you want to make the "Mycroft is really in the secret service" argument, this could be taken as evidence: his men, or Hungarian intelligence contacts, tracked them down, and passed along the news.

There is another possibility, though: Melas. He had reason for revenge, and as one who could speak "nearly all" languages, would have some facility at tracking the killers through Europe. And he would know that Holmes would want to be informed...

Sure, it's just as far-fetched as any Mycroft theories (and we can combine them--Melas was working for Mycroft and HMSS the whole time!!). But if Sophy killed them herself, who would have sent a clipping from a Hungarian newspaper to Sherlock??

**Once again, we have a woman in jeopardy because of some money she is inheriting--or something of the like, as we don't ever get a clear explanation of what the cads were after, or what they were trying to force Paul to sign.

1880s families--JUST GIVE YOUR DAUGHTER THE DAMN MONEY!! Tying it up in trusts and allowances just leads to scams and kidnappings and murders!!

Sure, she still would have been swindled out of it by the handsome Latimer, but at least her brother would still be alive...

**At one point Paul says that he will sign if Sophy and Latimer are wed in his presence, by a Greek priest.

Really? You'd be OK if she married this bounder? You believe the bonds of wedlock would suddenly make him less of a torturer and likely murderer? You'd have no problem with your sister being tied to this man for the rest of her life?

Well, he was probably a bit loopy after the starvation...

**Paul ultimately refuses to sign the paper, so they kill him--we're not certain what effect that will have on their scheme. With Paul dead, does Sophy ultimately inherit for herself? Someone else become trustee?

In the Granada adaptation, Paul does sign. They kill him anyway, but they don't get to enjoy their spoils--Latimer dies jumping from a train to avoid capture, and Kemp is arrested.

**Watson's description of Holmes here has influenced many:
This reticence upon his part [to discuss his family or early years] had increased the somewhat inhuman effect which he produced upon me, until sometimes I found myself regarding him as an isolated phenomenon, a brain without a heart, as deficient in human sympathy as he was pre-eminent in intelligence.
However, please note how Watson qualifies this: he says he "sometimes found himself regarding" Sherlock this way, not that he actually was that way.

We have seen plenty of times when Sherlock has showed sympathy and heart, and obviously Watson knows this. He's just saying that occasionally Holmes made him feel this way. Unfortunately, some folks have misinterpreted this, and feel that this is an accurate description of how Holmes must be portrayed, as an emotionless android.

**The "deduction contest" with Mycroft is fun. Still, at some point, of course, Sherlock should beat Mycroft, right? Mycroft's "dilettante" skills should, at least in some cases, take a backseat to Sherlock's real world experience, and hard study. Surely Mycroft doesn't have Sherlock's skill at identifying tobacco, for example. And Sherlock's work on actual cases must certainly, in some instances, clearly put him ahead of Mycroft in his ability to see and deduce...

**To diss Melas as having "no physical courage" is a bit harsh, isn't it? He's not used to dealing in these circles.

Sure, after the fact, we can obviously argue that he should have tried to make a break for it, or try to overpower Latimer.

But his ruse to learn more from Kratides during their interview was quite clever. And despite the threats made to him, he doesn't hesitate to go to the police or Mycroft for help. All of that displays some amount of courage...

**Boy, the police and Inspector Gregson come off particularly badly here.

The police don't seem to take Melas' story seriously--there is no indication whatsoever that they've done a single thing in the two days they've known of the story.

When Holmes go to Scotland Yard, they had to wait "more than an hour" for Gregson and (apparently) a warrant, despite evidence that a man's life was in danger. (This should answer some of those who exalt Mycroft's position--if he really was as powerful as some claimed, surely he could have cut through the red tape and gotten a swifter response)

When they get out the to crime scene, Gregson certainly doesn't have the demeanor of a senior officer investigating a serious crime. He laughs at one of Holmes' deductions, literally shrugs his shoulders at the implications, seems unwilling to enter the house unless invited in, and treats Holmes' finding a way in as occasion for a joke.

Sherlock doesn't go into any of his anti-Scotland Yard rhetoric this story, but he certainly would have been justified in doing so.

**Giggling, twitchy Kemp sets the template for the default Peter Lorre character, years before Lorre was born...


Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Resident Patient--Howdunnit?

Watson warns us right up front. has frequently happened that [Holmes] has been concerned in some research where the facts have been of the most remarkable and dramatic character, but where the share which he has himself taken in determining their causes has been less pronounced than I, as his biographer, could wish.
So there's going to be some lack of closure in The Resident Patient.

And there is, mainly because the killers get away.

But we're left with a really interesting set of facts, many of which offer themselves to various interpretations. And despite a fairly wonderful set of deductions from Holmes, we're left with an unusual question--how the bad guys did it?

The first question is, how did the Worthingdon Bank Gang find Blessington/Sutton? He was under an assumed identity, presumably in a life unlike the one he had lead before. London is a pretty big city to find one hiding person in, and that's even assuming that you somehow know for a fact that he's actually in London.

Yet even though they just got out "the other day," they seem to find him right away, with a fairly canny plan to get to him. [Trevelyan said that Blessington had become upset about some burglary "some weeks ago," but that just could have been a newspaper account that they had been granted an early release, to take effect later.] How?

Sutton "turned informer" on the rest of the gang, so presumably he either received immunity or a much shorter sentence. But I doubt that Scotland Yard had anything resembling a "witness protection program" in those days. Therefore, Sutton's new identity was likely his own creation, and therefore the police weren't the source of the information.

So the temptation is there for us to write it off us unlikely dramatic coincidence. How else could a gang of bank-robbers stumble upon him in a city of millions, living in an area exclusively settled by high-paid doctors?

Well, we have one slim clue that might it less unlikely: we're told that Blessington "generally chose this hour of the day for his exercise." Now, I'm reaching here, but why the same hour each day? Simple habit? Or was he, perhaps, making contact with someone from his former life--relative? Lover? Crony?

Remember, he gave up his constitutionals when he read that the gang was getting out. Why? It would still be bloodly unlikely for them to find him on a daily walk in a nice part of town, unless he was going to one of his old haunts. So, after a few weeks, when the threat materialized, he relaxed enough to resume his old hobby of visiting his sister (or whatever)...and that's when his cover was blown.

That's my theory, at least. Better than an unlikely chance sighting.

The second question is, was the page involved?

He is arrested, but is later released for lack of evidence. This has lead a number of commentators to suggest that Holmes erred is suspecting the "young imp" of collaborating with the killers.

I have to side with Holmes on this one. There are just too many little coincidences regarding the page (the Granada adaptation names him Billy, so let's go with that, shall we?), that taken together start my spider-sense tingling.

Billy has only recently come into Trevelyan's service (tingle one--people newly hired at the site of a crime should always be looked at). Even though his job was to show patients in and out, taking their coats and hat, somehow Billy never noticed the "Russian aristocrat" and his "son" leaving after their first visit--a shocking dereliction of duty, at the least. And the morning of the murder, the page vanishes--pretty damning stuff.

But perhaps most telling, we are told twice that the door was found barred in the morning--not just locked, but barred (recall Blessington's paranoid need to improve the locks on the doors and windows). Picking a bedroom lock is one thing--but opening a barred door, and then making sure that it is re-barred behind them? That screams of a confederate. And a new employ who had been derelict in his duties regarding these men and who was missing immediately after the killing? I have to concur with Holmes: "[H]e has played a not unimportant part in this drama." Perhaps Billy didn't know the plan was a murder plot, but on the face of it he is as guilty as sin.

Finally, we come to an area where I disagree with Holmes. He suggests that the two visits by the Russian and his son were failed attempts to kill Blessington. I cannot concur.

For the actual murder, all three surviving members of the gang came, and gave Sutton an ersatz trial and execution, going so for as to bring supplies for a makeshift gallows.

But none of that could have happened at the first two visits! The third man didn't come with them either time. And each if those first times, it would have been the "son" alone with Sutton had he been home--the "father" was occupying Trevelyan, and the third man wasn't there. Could the son, alone, have executed Sutton, without being discovered? There's no sign he had brought equipment with him for the "gallows," no sign he was prepared to conduct a lengthy trial (especially without his confederates)--and risk of being caught, with everyone in the house awake, would have been ridiculously high.

Ah, but this is where one of the story's alleged weaknesses turns into one of its strengths! Many have complained that Billy the page couldn't have been working with the killers, or else they would have known Blessington's schedule, so they wouldn't have failed on the first two tries to kill him. Well, the explanation is that they did know his schedule--they wanted to him to be away those first two times, so the "son" could snoop around while Blessington was out and the doctor was occupied. He wasn't there for the execution at that point--he didn't have all the people or the tools there. No, those first two forays were merely scouting missions, to get the lay of the house, figure out where Blessington slept, to make their deal with the page. Other explanations simply don't make sense, given what we've been told.

So even thought Holmes doesn't nab the culprits here, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gives us a nicely constructed mystery. We just had to work for it a little bit to be clear on some of the details--but it's all there.


**If you read my post on The Cardboard Box, you know that the first portion of the story here in many American editions--where Watson goes into a brown study, and Sherlock shocks him by pulling a Dupin and guessing his train of thought--doesn't belong in this story. That's all cut and pasted from Cardboard Box, which was not deemed appropriate for collection. But someone didn't want to discard that opening bit, so they stuffed it into the beginning of Resident Patient, and cut out a couple of paragraphs to stuff it into. With careless editing, the result is "a close, rainy day in October" in which the temperature reached 90.

So, please mentally remove that whole "preposterous way to settle a dispute" section, and insert this as the 3rd and 4th paragraphs:
I cannot be sure of the exact date, for some of my memoranda upon the matter have been mislaid, but it must have been towards the end of the first year during which Holmes and I shared chambers in Baker Street  It was boisterous October weather, and we had both remained indoors all day, I because I feared with my shaken health to face the keen autumn wind, while he was deep in some of those abstruse chemical investigations which absorbed him utterly as long as he was engaged upon them. Towards evening, however, the breaking of a test-tube brought his research to a premature ending, and he sprang up from his chair with an exclamation of impatience and a clouded brow.
'A day's work ruined, Watson,' said he, striding across to the window. 'Ha! the stars are out and the wind has fallen.What do you say to a ramble through London?'
Resume with "I was weary," and you're all set.

**Those are those, like Watson, fell that Sherlock didn't have much to do this story. Leslie Klinger, editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, says in his introduction to this story, "Holmes does little 'deducing' in the case."

Au contraire!! Please look at the story again!! With just a few wet footprints and some cigar butts from the fireplace, Sherlock is able to completely reconstruct the events from the night before, down to the exact order that the perpetrators climbed the staircase!! It's as if we were in the room, watching the drumhead trial of Sutton!!

Of course, with the killers never caught, we'll never know for sure how correct Holmes scenario actually was. But this is no Engineer's Thumb, where Holmes does nothing to solve the case.

**Percy Trevelyan?!? Oh, dear let's hope that he's not related to the vile and traitorous Alec Trevelyan, the evil 006 from Goldeneye!!

**More seriously, Watson's description of Trevelyan on the first meeting is...odd: "His age may not have been more than three or four and thirty, but his haggard expression and unhealthy hue told of a life which has sapped his strength and robbed him of his youth."

There's really nothing in Trevelyan's story or life to support the haggardness and unhealthy hue, let alone being sapped of strength and robbed of youth. And really, the stress of the "mystery" had only been going on for less than a day, so it could hardly be that.

Was Trevelyan ill, and Watson's trained eye unconsciously picking up on something wrong with his "brother medico"?

**See, Sir Arthur, this is how you get Watson in on the act!! After having Watson be a totally useless observer in Crooked Man, here the good doctor more than holds his own. He makes some of his own deductions, and he's able to follow along with Holmes on some of his flights of logic. His status as a doctor is put to good use--he gives us an approximate time of death!! He is even able to make an imaginative, "grotesquely improbable" stab at a counter-intuitive theory of the case. And even though Holmes said he had already considered and dismissed that idea, when you take that along with Watson's description of Trevelyan, you have to wonder if, on some instinctual level, Watson was responding to something in the doctor that we should be aware of...

**Inspector Lanner tells Holmes that, "It's about five in the morning, you know, that suicides are most common."

Really? I'm not doubting that. But is there a reason why? If it was true then, is it still true now?

Of course, adherence to "common knowledge" like this can make the police not look as closely as they should at a death. Maybe the killers planned on that little piece lore, counting on the killing being ruled a suicide, giving them more time to get away...

**So where did Sutton/Blessington get the money to invest in Trevelyan's practice? He bought the house on Brook Street (perhaps he just leased it?), furnished it, paid the servants, ran the household, and even gave the doctor pocket money.

Even though the investment paid well, that is an awful lot of money to put out up front, when you're apparently unemployed. In informing on his mates, did he claim some reward? We don't know if the loot from the bank job was ever recovered--if not, did Sutton somehow go and get it without the authorities being wise to him? (That would surely increase the gang's desire to murder him...) Was there money from other job that had pulled but never been arrested for?

Or was he involved in other nefarious dealing, and this just a particularly clever way to "launder" the money?!

**Part of Sutton's plan was to be a "resident patient," a pretty wise move--living in an apparent place of business is probably a good way to stay out of sight.

But the pretext he gave--a weak heart?

Trevelyan's comments on it are hardly convincing for one's attending physician: "His heart was weak, it appears..." It appears?!? You gave him "constant medical supervision"!! You're not certain that he actually had a bad heart?!?

Given that Trevelyan was so easily duped by someone faking catalepsy, it's not beyond the pale that Sutton/Blessington was faking, as well. Perhaps we should begin to wonder just how good a doctor Trevelyan actually was...

**Blessington was fat, according to Watson, and had been fatter. He may have had a bad heart. He was so "morbidly afraid" of fire that he kept an escape rope under his bed. He was a terrible nervous wreck, exploding at the thought of strangers, and threatening to shoot guests.

Yet, according to Holmes, Sutton/Blessington was "the worst of the gang."

Really? He's not the one who shot care-taker (or perhaps he was, and lied?!?). His nervous agitation hardly makes him seem like the hardest man in a group of hard men, does it? And if he was the worst, why would the Crown make a deal with him, and not one of the other crooks?

Perhaps 15 years of guilt over betraying his mates (and getting one hung) changed him. But from what we're shown, Sutton hardly seemed to have the nerve or strength to be the "worst" of a gang of Wall Street brokers, let alone a group of hardened bank robbers.

**Of course, the most questionable piece of the whole story is: would Blessinger really have refused to reveal his secret, even when he was certain that his life was in danger?

Certainly, one of the themes that Doyle has strung through his stories it that shame is a powerful motivator, and sufficient motive to hide the truth, no matter what the consequences.

In both The Man With The Twisted Lip and The Yellow Face, we've seen people go to ridiculous lengths to deny and hide an embarrassing truth. Even though there were no crimes involved, these people would rather die than reveal something that might cause social stigma.

How much stronger the stigma, then, for an ex-criminal? I'm not sufficiently educated to say how English society at the time would have treated a confessed bank robber (who may have served time), who was associated with a murder. But if the thought of admitting that you were a beggar, or had a biracial child, was sufficient to provoke panic and paralysis, think of the terror at admitting you were a criminal and murderer. Add in the fear that revealing the truth would lead his pursuers to him more quickly, and Blessington's obstinacy is at least somewhat understandable, albeit stupid, and ultimately fatal.

**Hey, criminals--wipe your damn feet off before killing someone. Geez...

**Of course, that begs the question, should Holmes have done something anyway?

It's difficult to say what. At this point in the story, he had literally nothing to go on. Certainly with the evidence on hand, it's doubtful that they could have gotten the police to provide protection--especially if Blessington refused to divulge why someone would want to kill him.

Maybe they could have relocated him for awhile. Or perhaps Holmes and Watson could have stood guard with their pistols. But without knowledge of who or what they were guarding against, it's questionable how effective this might have been. And given Blessington's increasing paranoia and uncooperativeness, it seem unlikely that he would have agreed to such measures.

How much should they be willing to do to help a man who refused to take even the most basic step to protect himself? If you hire Sherlock Holmes and refuse to give him any information, well, you're a fool, and the responsibility falls upon you.

**So, assuming Blessington obtained the house legitimately...who gets it now? Did he have relatives? Did he leave a will?

If not, has Trevelyan saved up enough to buy it for himself, and keep his practice? Or did he have to relocate? Was his practice harmed when it became known that he was fooled like an amateur in a field that he is supposedly a specialist in?

**Obviously, the indeterminate ending--criminals exacting vengeance, and getting away, only to die on a boat sinking in international waters, so we have no real confirmation of their guilt--is completely lifted from The Five Orange Pips. To better effect this time, though.

But how dangerous was sea travel then? What were the odds of getting on a steamer having all hands lost? Because given how often it happens to escaped killers in the Canon, maybe crooks should wait until the Chunnel is constructed to make their getaways...

**Wonderful metaphoric declaration from Sherlock:
However, wretch as he was, he was still living under the shield of British law, and I have no doubt, Inspector, that you will see that, though that shield may fail to guard, the sword of justice is still there to avenge.
Everyone should be protected by the law, and every murder avenged. Too bad that proved to be an unachievable goal in this case...


Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Crooked Man--What Is John Watson, Chopped Liver?

We all know why we come to this rodeo--it's to watch Sherlock in action, not John Watson.

That's the lot of the second banana.

But still, there are times when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle seemingly went far out of his way exclude Watson from stories that should have featured him a little bit more prominently, cases where the doctor's own experience and expertise could prove almost as important as Holmes'.

Which brings us to The Crooked Man.

In this story, Watson gets perhaps the ultimate backhand: Holmes has completely solved the mystery before he even contacts Watson!

To recap: Sherlock shows up at Watson's house at midnight, insults Watson's writing, invites himself in for a smoke and a sleepover, keeps the good doctor up all night, and entices him to play hooky the next day. Worst friend ever?

But the worst part of it is, the case is virtually over already--Sherlock has done all the detective work, he knows who the culprit(/)/instigator(?)/witness(?) is, and has him under observation. The only reason he has come to Watson is that Holmes wants a "witness" when he interviews Henry Wood!! I suppose, in a way, that's a compliment--he trusts John above anyone as an observer to the confession/story. (If you want to look at it less charitably, he wanted to be sure that his biographer was along to chronicle this macabre case, to help bolster his reputation).

But on a storytelling level, having Watson be the narrator but not having him along for the bulk of the investigation means that 95% of our story is flashback, as told to him by another person. We don't actually see Holmes during any of his investigation, we just have hearsay passed along by Holmes. And when we get to our meeting with Woods, we once again get a lengthy flashback.

We're used to Watson as a passive observer...but in this case, he's not even an observer--he is just passing along things that others have told him. As a result, we miss a lot of his keen observations about Holmes and the others involved in the investigation. By putting Watson one further step back than usual, he's reduced to a stenographer, as opposed to a reporter of events that he has personally experienced.

Perhaps an even worse crime of the way this story is structured, though, is that this is a case where Watson could have--should have--been of much more use in resolving the mysteries.

Obviously, this is a case deeply involving military officers, at a military base. This is clearly is a situation that John Watson has some experience with! Certainly, he could have been of great help in helping Sherlock navigate the waters of Army life, protocol and culture. Indeed, the Granada adaptation has Major Murphy reaching out to Watson the retired military man first, and then John invites Holmes to help him! Yet for some reason, Doyle (and Holmes) choose to sideline Watson, keeping him less involved than usual, even though this case clearly seems to be much more the good doctor's milieu. What a wasted opportunity!

Doyle also seems to forget that Doctor Watson is...a doctor!! A huge part of this case is the cause of death of Colonel Barclay--was he murdered, was it an accident, was it natural causes? You would think that having your best friend--a medical doctor--examining the death scene might have been of tremendous use in pushing along the investigation. Surely Watson could have examined the wound as well as any off-screen military doctor. Surely Watson could have seen the signs of apoplexy, and perhaps would have been able to look at some of the other evidence--tales of Barclay's sudden mood swings and the like--to give us a diagnosis without having to wait for the inquest.

But none of that happens. Instead, Sherlock casually tosses off the "equally possible" actual solution early on, and we settle in for pages and pages of people sitting around talking until his hypothesis is confirmed.

But hey, at least Watson identified the mongoose before Holmes did--that's something, right?

I'm almost certainly making too much of this. The world has long survived with John Watson getting short shrift, and doubtless will continue to do so in the future.

Still, because of the structural problems of the way Doyle presents this story, and because of the areas of expertise that the good doctor could have shed some light upon, The Crooked Man would have been a much better and more interesting story had Sir Arthur gotten Watson involved from the first. Even second bananas need a little spotlight once in awhile.


**Everything said above being true, there are still some really good pieces of a story here. The "murder" mystery is pretty good--although I can't agree with those who describe it as a locked room mystery, as open French windows are a loophole that shouldn't be ignored. Unfortunately, all of the investigation and solving of that mystery takes place before the story even starts.

Meanwhile, the tale of love and murder in India is also fairly engaging, and echoes the themes of the derangement  of love from Cardboard Box. And at least Sir Arthur is quite up front about the the story's biblical inspiration, inoculating the tale from charges of being derivative.

Of course, one might wonder how likely it is Nancy would be able to quickly come up with the "David" reference, and throw it in her husband's face as an accusation. But the story establishes that she is a Roman Catholic and involved in charitable works. It's a fair assumption to suggest that she knew her Bible. And she didn't immediately come up with the analogy off the top of her head--a fair amount of time passed between her encountering Wood and her return home, time during which her troubled mind (soon to be racked with brain fever!) could certainly see the similarities.

**If there is one unassailable moral of the Canon, it is: STAY AWAY FROM INDIA, and if you do go there, for heaven's sake DON'T COME BACK TO ENGLAND!! Nothing but revenge, terror, and deadly exotic creatures await you as a result of entanglement in that colony's affairs...

**Doyle gets a bit meta, by having Holmes critique Watson's writing, which is of course Doyle's own:
The same may be said, my dear fellow, for the effect of some of these little sketches of yours, which is entirely meretricious, depending as it does upon your retaining in your own hands some factors in the problem which are never imparted to the reader.
"My stories' success depends upon my withholding information from the reader" is quite the heavy literary accusation to lay against oneself. Given the number of times that Doyle has Sherlock attack his own writing, you have to wonder how much of it is actually Doyle's own opinion of the Holmes stories, given his increasing disenchantment with the "franchise."

**In the Grenada version, Watson speculates that perhaps Mrs. Barclay had an affair, and the colonel found out. He follows that with this amazing quote: "You know, mild adultery has always been commonplace among officers and their wives serving in hot climates."

Holy moly, Watson!?! "Mild" adultery--as opposed to what? "Commonplace?!?" Really? No wonder the good doctor has "an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents"--the British Army sounds like quite the swinging place!

Holmes dashes that particular theory with a sigh and a sarcastic "Thank you, Watson, for educating me in military morality.

**"Sorry to see that you've had the British workman in the house. He's a token of evil." So Holmes is a Tory, then?

Of course, Holmes just meant to say that if you've had workmen in, something must be broken. Still, I'm surprised no one has ever used this as a campaign quote...

**Another American difference. Colonel Barclay commanded the Royal Mallows. For unbeknownst reasons, in American printings it was changed to the Royal Munsters.

Which is insane, because nowadays, to modern American ears, it sounds as though the colonel was leading a regiment from 1313 Mockingbird Lane. The idea of a Sherlock Holmes/Herman Munster team-up is now stuck in my head...

 **The Granada version does a fine job of making Major Murphy himself a viable suspect--he expresses jealousy over Barclay's quick rise to command (over Murphy's head), and shows himself to be overly familiar with Mrs. Barclay, indiscreetly referring to her as Nancy more than once.

Of course, Watson's absence in the print story means that we never observed an actual conversation with the major, until the very end, and thus there was no opportunity to use him as a red herring. Another reason for Watson to have gotten involved earlier in the story...

**BRAIN FEVER!!! Seriously, this is going beyond cliche to hoary cliche. Please find another device to make Holmes unable to communicate with a female witness, Sir Arthur.

**Speaking of hoary cliches: ah, the face contorted horribly before death. His servants described the Colonel's face in death: "It had set, according to their account, into the most dreadful expression of fear and horror which a human countenance is capable of assuming. More than one person fainted at the mere sight of him, so terrible was the effect."

I've had the good fortune never to encounter a corpse (except at funerals), but I do have to doubt whether any have ever been found with their face in such an indescribable rictus of fear that it made others pass out at the sight. And surely any such facial contortions are more the result of stroke and other death seizures than the result of terror or guilty conscience.

If only we had a medical man as a character in our story, to examine that body. Oh, wait...

**A number of commentators complain that Barclay's "send his love's boyfriend to his death" plan was terrible, because in this case, it left he and Nancy (and everyone else) at the mercy of the mutineers.

Well, surely Barclay was smarter than that. Remember, he sent a "native servant" to warn the sapoys that Wood was coming. It seems pretty clear that the servant then went on, via an alternate route, to reach General Neill's column and bring them back, whilst the mutineers were distracted with their new prisoner. Or perhaps he sent a second servant to find Neill. Barclay surely had his bases covered. It makes little sense to assume that he was suicidal or an idiot,

 **So, after Nancy wakes up from "brain fever"--would she and Wood have met again? Perhaps even gotten together?

A BBC radio adaptation (with Brian Blessed playing Wood!) had Watson advise Wood to go to her, as his "crooked" status would not matter as much as their prior love. The adaptation never revealed what Wood chose to do...

**This story feature the third, and final, appearance of the Baker Street Irregulars. Still, despite appearing so little in the Canon, the "street Arabs" are a fixture in many of the adaptations and pastiches. Curious that a device used so little had so strong an impact on the public's perception.

**Holmes: "It's every man's business to see justice done." With Holmes himself defining "justice," of course.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Reigate Squires--You Have To Stick The Dismount!!

If you'll allow me the briefest of sports digressions...

In gymnastics, there is something called "sticking the dismount." In layman's terms, it simply means not blowing the end of your routine by making a careless. messy landing. After your tumble, or vault, or parallel bars routine, or whatever, you have to make a firm, controlled landing, without (substantially) moving your feet. If you can't stick the dismount, not only do you lose points, but frankly, it makes the judges reexamine your entire routine, calling attention to other flaws you may have had.

Which bring us to The Reigate Squires. Because, man, does this story ever not stick its dismount!

I'll confess, I had very little memory of this story as I began re-reading it. And as we go along, I found myself sucked in: The physical and emotional aftermath of Holmes' greatest untold case! The forced convalescence! The first mysterious burglary! The second tragic burglary!! Watson's doomed attempts to keep Sherlock from getting involved!! The obvious culprits--but was it both of them, or just the younger, unlikeable one? Some great physical shenanigans from Sherlock to divert attention--twice!! Holmes sheepishly makes 'a mistake"!! The killers try to murder Holmes!! A desperate last attempt with a pistol!!!

Oh, what grand stuff!! A fine showcase for Holmes many skills!! A fine mystery!! This may be one of the greatest Holmes mysteries!! All that's left are the explanations...what could possibly go wrong?

And then we finally get the complete contents of the note itself:
If you will only come around at quarter twelve to the east gate you will learn about will very much surprise you and maybe be of the greatest service to you and also Annie Morrison. But say nothing to anyone upon the matter.
Wait a minute...who the hell is Annie Morrison?

This person hasn't been mention before, her existence never even hinted at. Who the hell is she? What does she have to do with the case? Surely Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wouldn't leave us hanging on this point, right?
Of course, we do not yet know what the relations may have been between Alec Cunningham, William Kirwan, and Annie Morrison.
What the HELL, Doyle?!?!?! (Cue the sound of screeching tires and cars crashing in the background).

You wrote the bloody story, Sir Arthur...why introduce a name--the motive for the coachman to attend the secret rendezvous--and then tell us that you have no idea who she is?!? The rest of the story had been put together with fair have the resolution of the story depend upon such a discordant, seemingly tacked on at the last second MacGuffin that ties in to nothing else--that's the definition of not sticking the dismount! ARRRRGGGHHHH!!

The most frustrating part is that this was an entirely avoidable aggravation. A couple of sentences, and maybe one earlier in the tale, and we can get a perfectly acceptable explanation for who Annie Morrison might be, and why information concerning her might be enough to draw Kirwan out late at night for a clandestine meeting. Is she another servant he's been dating? A relative, perhaps a sister, who's in some trouble? Is it the name old Kirwan's "old and feeble" mother? A ward of the Cunninghams that he is trying to woo--and thus, perhaps, the goal of the blackmail scheme (she marries me or I turn you in)? Was Kirwan a cross-dresser, and Annie his female identity? Any explanation, no matter how lame, would have been better than the shoulder shrug Doyle gives us here. Why invent this name as a motivation, and then completely refuse to explain it?

This is especially annoying because Holmes tells us that the older Cunningham "made a clean breast of everything." Everything except Annie Morrison, apparently, as less than 1 page later, Holmes is saying that he has no idea of who this woman is.

A further problem is that, as our frustration makes us try to come up with our own explanations for Annie Morrison, our attempts expose some of the loose joints in the story--things we might have happily ignored, had our curiosity about Annie Morrison been satiated.

For example, if you speculate that the reason we get no explanation is that Doyle ran out of room, you start to look for places where a snip or two might have made to fit Annie in. Do we really, for example, need five long paragraphs--five!--of handwriting analysis?

We also start to notice where the device of Holmes' hearing Cunningham's confession "off-screen"--and therefore Watson being unable to pass the details on to the audience--leaves us with some unanswered questions. William the coachman--who supposedly was in bed by 10 each night--just happened to "secretly follow" the Cunninghams the night they broke into Acton's house? What, exactly, was he blackmailing them for--just money, or something else (involving Annie?)? If he was blackmailing them, why did he agree to a secret rendezvous so late--did he know whom he was going to meet? If so, than the whole rigamarole of disguising/alternating the handwritings made no sense! Was he really so foolish as to meet his victims alone at midnight? If he didn't know it was the Cunninghams, whom did he think he was meeting?

All of these are questions our brains might well have glossed over, had not Doyle so cavalierly brought up--and dismissed--Annie Morrison. A good story with a solid ending can get away with a few untied threads or unanswered questions, on goodwill alone. But a good story that deliberately introduces an unexplained element--in the penultimate paragraph--as a vital part of the solution, loses that goodwill, and makes the audience look more harshly at elements it might have otherwise not even noticed. Reigate Squires is really good Holmes story, but that slapdash Annie Morrison element at the end lets the side down.

I'm sounding overly negative...I love the heck out of this story, until the last two paragraphs. That doesn't make it a bad story, just not the enduring classic it should have been. And that's why you have to stick the dismount.


**More name problems, more American edition problems. When first published in The Strand, the title was The Reigate Squire; when collected in Memoirs, the title was changed to the more accurate The Reigate Squires. But when first published in America, the title was changed to The Reigate Puzzle...apparently, Americans would be befuddled or resentful over the concept of squires. To this day, many American collections have the story as The Reigate Puzzle...

**As for my part, every single time I come upon the title, by brain reads it as The Reigate Squares...which immediately makes me think very odd thoughts of a British Sherlock Holmes-based game show.

Yes, I'm weird.

**Doyle obviously didn't have any problems with the Annie Morrison conundrum, as he picked this story as his twelfth favorite.

**Of course, this story contains an extended reference to perhaps the greatest untold Holmes case: "The Netherland-Sumatra Company and the colossal schemes of Baron Maupertuis." A two-month investigation, sometimes going without sleep for five days at a time! "Europe was ringing with his name"!! He "succeeded where the police of three countries had failed, and he had outmanoeuvered at every point the most accomplished swindler in Europe!" His hotel room "ankle-deep with congratulatory telegrams!"

So, yeah, pretty big case.

Watson explains that he didn't write that case up because it was "too recent in the minds of the public, and...too intimately concerned with politics and finance to be fitting subjects for this series of sketches."

My good Doctor, that's silly--it sounds like the best episode of Leverage ever!! Sadly, we will never know...

**Of course, given how well Holmes was able to fake a "nervous fit" later it the story, I have to ponder the possibility that Holmes' "nervous prostration" in a French hotel room was just a way of avoiding the public spotlight after so significant a case...

**There are an awful lot of very good "physical" routines for Sherlock in this story: he fakes a "nervous collapse" in order to change the subject of conversation, he knocks over the water and oranges (and blames Watson!) in order to slip away unnoticed. There's a number of good bits for an actor, which makes it odd that there's never been a modern screen adaptation of the tale. It was made into an episode of a 1951 BBC series, but no tapes exist of that series. It seemed like a natural for Granada and Jeremy Brett, but they never did it...

**Holmes only agrees to vacation at Colonel Hayter's after being assured that "the establishment was a bachelor one."

Aside from various jibes about what this means regarding Holmes' attitude towards women, or about his and Watson's lifestyle, I must speculate whether a woman--or women--played a substantial part in the Netherlan-Sumatra case that had so depleted him, as he's never had a problem staying in a female-run household before (see The Man With The Twisted Lip, for example). Maybe one woman in particular--Irene Adler--was involved?!?

Speculate away...

**Whenever I read the list of items burgled from the Acton estate--"an odd volume of Pope's 'Homer,' two plated candlesticks, an ivory letter-weight, a small oak barometer, and a ball of twine"--I must confess I'm picturing some McGyver mystery, where all these items are necessary to locate/open some vast treasure that even the owner didn't know about--a mini-Musgrave Ritual, perhaps, or somehow assembled to make a device that opens a hidden door, or...Sadly, they were just random trifles taken to cover the robbery.

Also, what happened to the stuff? Given that the Cunninghams weren't to clever about disposing of evidence (they kept the freaking "come and get killed" note!), you'd expect to find these trinkets somewhere on their estate...Maybe they did dump them somewhere, but William found them, reinforcing his blackmail...

**Acton's estate was burgled on a Monday night, and it certainly seems as if the Cunninghams were none to quiet or subtle about it: "The whole place was turned upside down, drawers burst open, and presses ransacked..." Were there no servants awakened? Perhaps the library is in a remote area of the manor...?

The images of two country squires futilely trying to burgle a manor can be quite a comic one, especially when one is old and the other a young arrogant idiot. Another reason to wish we had an adaptation of this story...

**The sight of Watson trying to play mother hen to an exhausted Holmes, keeping anything resembling a mystery away from him, is one of the great comic bits in the Canon, if played right. Watson "holding up a warning finger," Holmes "shrugging his shoulders with comic resignation." This is good stuff, not just because it shows us the depth of Watson's concern for his friend.

**Of course, Holmes is perfectly willing to use his "illness" as a cover to direct the investigation in whatever direction it needs to go, and isn't worried in the least about being personally mocked and humiliated. Dedication!

**A misprint in one of my editions has Holmes saying, "I make a pint of never having any prejudices..." That's as good a reason to drink as any, I reckon. Cheers!

**Holmes must not be himself...he tells Inspector Forrester "it is a pleasure to work with [him]." Quick, call a doctor! Oh, wait...

**One of the problems with the short story format for mysteries is that there's not room for a lot of suspects. That's doubly true in Reigate Squares, because unless the villain is someone brand new introduced at them end (ahem), there is literally no one who can be guilty except the elder Cunningham and/or his son Alec. Plus, the title is a bit of a giveaway. So the story loses a point or two for lack of suspense...we know who the killer has to be--the only question is one or both.

And once we meet Alec, well, we know it has to be him. What a smug, obnoxious bastard, eh? "I thought you Londoners were never at fault. You don't seem to be so very quick, after all." Oh, you murdering jackass, shut up. Your a shit burglar, and a shit killer, and I want to smack you in your face.


**The elder Cunningham is never given a first name. C'mon, Sir Arthur, if you're going to make him a murderer, at least give him a first name!

**The whole bit with the killers writing alternate words on the note enticing William to the meeting was, well, kind of stupid. It ended up doing more to confirm (to Holmes, at least) that there were two killers, and did nothing to conceal anyone's identity. And, as Holmes' information about family resemblances in handwriting tells us, it serves as a nail in their coffin.

Why go to the elaborate and unnecessary ruse, unless you were sure Kirwan would recognize the solo handwriting of either gentleman? And if the stunt was meant, as Holmes surmised, to enforce the point "that, whatever was done, each should have an equal hand in it"? Well, that certainly failed, as the elder Cunningham confessed easily enough--the "joint guilt" of the note didn't stop him from serving up his son.

And in heaven's name, why not burn the note immediately?!? Leaving it in your dressing gown pocket until the day?!? That's simply a death wish from someone who wants to go to the gallows. Or maybe Alec was so twisted that he wanted a souvenir of his "cleverness" to admire in future days, a trophy of his perfect murder.

**Forrester is reluctant to arrest the Cunninghams--until he sees the looks on their faces?!? 

He doesn't want to arrest them, but..."Tut, man, look at their faces!" cried Holmes, curtly. And Watson declares, "Never certainly have I seen a plainer confession of guilt upon human countenances." That is hardly admissible in court, but it was enough to convince the Inspector to summon the constables...