Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Adventure Of The Solitary Cyclist--Who The Heck IS Bob Carruthers?

There is one big mystery that is left unresolved at the end of The Adventure of The Solitary Cyclist--who the heck is this Bob Carruthers?

We know who he is, of course: Violet Smith's employer and would-be bodyguard, who at first participates in a plot too woo her for her inheritance, but then repudiates the plan and tries to protect her.

But we're left with an awful lot of questions about the man, some curious personality traits and other circumstances that make him seem unlikely to play the role he does in this story.

This is relatively unusual for a Sherlock Holmes story. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle usually made sure we had at least some background on the villain, some version of their life story and how they came to be involved in the crime. Hell, early in the Canon, he would devote entire chapters (or even 1/3 of the book!) to giving us the histories of the bad guys. Even later in the short stories, it was rare for us not to get a fairly good look at the crooks and their motives (even if sometimes it was only through Holmes' speculation).

But Solitary Cyclist is different. We know virtually nothing about our villains, Woodley and Carruthers. There is no history for them--what were they doing in South Africa, how did they come to know Ralph Smith, how and why they hatched their plot--we barely even get their first names!! This is unusual--in most other Holmes stories, we would have gotten a least a few cursory paragraphs detailing their biography and their motives.

This doesn't matter too much with Woodley--he's nothing but a two-dimensional character. Literally all we know about him is that he was "the greatest brute and bully in South Africa--a man whose name is a holy terror from Kimberley to Johannesburg" and "had the reputation of being a most dangerous ruffian." No real history or rap sheet or explanation. Perhaps none is needed--he's only in this story to play the archetypical blackguard, twirling his red moustache and menacing Miss Smith. In other stories, Doyle would have given us some of his back story, but we didn't need that information to understand the character.

But Bob Carruthers is something else. He's an enigma, a man who has tantalizing hints of much more going on behind the facade. On the surface, he surely doesn't seem like the type who would be in league with a notorious bounder and a defrocked priest to put on a marriage under false pretenses so they could swindle the bride out of her inheritance. Holmes notes the curiosity of "the connection between Carruthers and Woodley, since they appear to be men of such a different type."

Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean much. Many a con man and cad can put an a respectable exterior--that's a great way to be successful in that "business." But somehow Carruthers' role doesn't feel like a "character" he is playing.

He is a widower (or, at least that is what he tells Violet), and has a child. If true, how and when did his wife die? Was it in South Africa, and her passing left him in such straits that he was enticed into this ridiculous scheme? Did she die in England, and her death was the impetus for him going to South Africa in the first place?

Of course, there's no reason a widower with a child in tow couldn't be a con man--see Paper Moon. But I don't get that feeling about Carruthers, do you?

Carruthers also wasn't merely a broke con man--he had some money, even if he weren't rich. Holmes harped on the fact that he couldn't be "rich," as he had neither carriage nor horses. Still, he was, as Miss Smith said, "at least fairly well-to-do." He was able to afford passage for himself and his daughter from South Africa. He was able to afford (renting?) a decent enough estate, and paying a housekeeper. Not to mention, of course, over-paying for a music teacher. Yes, there was an ulterior motive, and if their plan worked they wouldn't have had to pay the full £100 yearly wage. But Carruthers clearly had funds for rent and two servants and the upkeep of his family--he must have had some money.

According to Violet, "he goes into the city two or three times a week. He is deeply interested in South African gold shares." A lie to cover his other movements, or did he actually have some money of his own? If he does have some money, how, then, does he get tempted into this scheme?

And then Carruthers broke the cardinal rule for con men: he fell for his mark! It was, as Watson pointed out, a selfish love. Nonetheless, it did cause him to almost immediately repudiate the part of their plan allowing Woodley to woo her. And after Carruthers himself proposed and was turned down, he let the matter lie--no pressure or kidnapping or other means to press his suit. He did his best to keep Woodley away from her, and took up his (ineffective) "mystery cyclist" routine to protect her. He even went so far as to attempt to murder his erstwhile partner when he believed Woodley had forced a marriage upon Violet!

These are the unexplored depths to Bob Carruthers. Is he just the world's worst con man, a grifter "reformed" by his unrequited love for a good woman? Or was he a decent family man who somehow became swept up in an evil scheme, forced by circumstance or desperate need to throw his lot in with the vile reprobate Woodley? If the latter, how in the world did he get involved with the "holy terror" of South Africa? How does a good man end up playing cards for the right to woo an heiress under false pretenses? On the other hand, how does a criminal end up throwing it all away for a "love" he knows will never be returned?

Not that anything said above absolves Carruthers. He did voluntarily enter this scheme, no matter what his reasons. And if he truly and honestly repudiated the scheme, we would have told Violet the whole story, or gone to police, and lived with the consequences. Had he done that, he might have earned full leniency from the courts. Instead, the half-measure of "following her in disguise on a bicycle" did nothing to protect her, and merely caused her much unease. And the rash attempt to murder Woodley was not terribly ennobling--was he really trying to protect her, or just acting out of jealous rage?

Still, I can't help but be strongly curious about who Bob Carruthers is, and how he came to this point. That's good--it shows that Doyle did a good job of making the character more interesting than a mere cardboard cut out. But it also shows that Sir Arthur failed to do what he usually did, and fill out the villains' backgrounds more fully. So we have no choice but endless speculation, with no real answers...


**Speaking of underdeveloped villains, what about our defrocked priest, Williamson? Surely there's a story worth relating there. But the only background we get is when Sherlock tells us that his questions at a "clerical agency," which told him that Willamson's "career has been a singularly dark one."

Oh, come on, man--you can't leave us hanging like that?!? What did Williamson do that lead to his ouster? What "dark" deeds led to him renting himself out as a forger of marriage licences and solemnizer of forced weddings? Sure, he's a profane, vile monster (who packs a pistol!!), which is great! But would it have killed Doyle to at least give us one paragraph of real background? Ahh, not knowing is driving me nuts!!
**Watson writes, "I confess that I had not up to now taken a very serious view of the case, which had seemed to me rather grotesque and bizarre than dangerous."

Oh, Doctor, "grotesque" is right--and nothing compared to how the entire case is about to go completely Grand Guignol. What started as a quiet, calm case about a possible stalker suddenly turns into violent melodrama!

When the trap turns up empty, Holmes over-the-top cry of "Watson--abduction! Murder! Heaven knows what!" sets of a course of thrilling, rapid-fire events: The mystery cyclist shows up; a chase through the trees; the injured groom; "a woman's shrill scream--a scream which vibrated with a frenzy of horror--burst from the thick, green clump of bushes in front of us. It ended suddenly on its highest note with a choke and a gurgle."; the bound and gagged woman, in a forced marriage conducted by a defrocked priest...oh, how Gothic and demented! And then one of the great exchanges in literary history:
"You're too late. She's my wife." 
"No, she's your widow."
The revolver cracks! The varlet falls! The false priest pulls a gun!!

And then Holmes has to spoil it all by being the only adult present: "Enough of this. We'll have no more violence."

**Watson writes that, from 1894 to 1901, Sherlock Holmes had "hundreds of cases"--hundreds!!--and he had "preserved full notes on all these cases."

Hundreds of cases with full notes!! Doctor, you owe us a good many more stories! Get writing!!

**Watson once again explains how he picks cases...
I shall preserve my former rule, and give the preference to those cases which derive their interest not so much from the brutality of the crime as from the ingenuity and dramatic quality of the solution.
Yet, as he has so often done before, after giving that rule, Watson goes on to choose a case that doesn't fit that rule:
It is true that the circumstance did not admit of any striking illustration of those powers for which my friend was famous, but there were some points about the case which made it stand out in those long records of crime from which I gather the material for these little narratives.
So why have the rule to begin with, John?

**Ways to drive Holmes chronologists crazy: Watson very clearly and firmly give the date as Saturday, April 23, 1895. No coy vagueness, no wiggle room.

4/23/1895 was a Tuesday.

It's enough to make you think that Doyle was doing it on purpose to play with the heads of the playing The Grand Game...

**We get mention of two more apocryphal cases: "the peculiar persecution of John Vincent Harden," and "Archie Stamford the forger."

**Again, Watson follows Holmes' deductions without needing explanation: "I observed the slight roughening of the side of the sole caused by the friction of the edge of the pedal." You've come a long way, John Watson!

**So, Holmes deduces that Violet Smith must be either a typist or a musician from the "spatulation" of her finger-tips. And Holmes goes on to decide that "There is a spirituality about the face, however, which the typewriter does not generate. This lady is a musician."

So, typists can't be "spiritual"? What if they're writing enlightened, religious texts? What if the musician plays nothing but crude, vulgar dance hall music?

 Of course, given that Doyle himself is a writer, perhaps he is engaging in some self-mockery, here...

**Miss Violet Smith:
[O]ne day we were told that there was an advertisement in the TIMES, inquiring for our whereabouts. You can imagine how excited we were, for we thought that someone had left us a fortune.
Did this kind of thing happen often? Seriously? Were there really that many long-lost relatives leaving surprise bequests, that merely seeing someone looking for you in the classifieds meant that it was a decent assumption that someone was leaving you a fortune?

Then again, in the pre-personal-mass-communications era, it could be much harder to track someone down, so putting advertisements in the classifieds may have been the best way to find someone. There was no Facebook, or Google, or even phone books.

We've seen that Holmes has often proceeded under the assumption that most people were checking the advertisements on a daily basis. This might help explain why--you never knew when a rich uncle might have passed, leaving you a tidy inheritance!!

**The story is quite clear that our mysterious cyclist supposedly stayed 200 yards behind Violet. We're told this several times.

The Granada adaptation either didn't think that was dramatic enough, or couldn't measure:

**Hey, wait a minute--how did Carruthers beat Violet Smith home? Did he?

Look at the timeline: She leaves the station for home on bicycle. Once she gets near Charlington Hall, Carruthers comes out from hiding on his own bike, and follows at a distance of 200 yards. Once she was sufficiently passed Charlington Hall, he would end his shadowing, he would come BACK to the Hall gates, take "several minutes" to "adjust his necktie"(?), and then go into the Charlington estate.

So after being 200 yards behind, he would backtrack, spend several minutes on his clothes, go into another property altogether...and still beat her home to Chiltern Grange? Was there some wonderful shortcut that allowed him to make up that much time?

The same, of course, would apply to her trips from Chiltern Grange to the train station--he would have to leave before she did, in order to get to his hiding place and be ready to follow when she cycled by.

So, in other words, he was always absent from home when she left or returned? He was never around when she had seen the solitary cyclist? Did Miss Smith not think this suspicious at all? Ignoring that is akin to not noticing that Superman and Clark Kent are never seen together...

**This was the second case in a row (in publication order) that Holmes was "too busy" to help out immediately. And like the first time (The Dancing Men), this delay almost resulted in tragedy. Indeed, in this case, it was mere happenstance that no one died.

Perhaps it's time for Sherlock to take on an intern or a partner to farm out some of these cases to. It can't be good for business if your clients keep dying because you're too busy to leap right into their cases.

**Poor Watson. Holmes is rather a dick to him--"you really have done remarkably badly."

Geez, Holmes, he followed your directions to the letter: he concealed himself to observe the mystery cyclist, and inquired about the occupants of Charlington House. If you'd wanted him to watch from a particular point of concealment, and inquire from specific places about the guys at Charlington, perhaps you should have given him more specific instructions.

**Holmes boasts of making "discreet inquiries." Which consisted of talking to a "garrulous" bartender while the man you're investigating is within earshot. Not so discreet, methinks.

And yes, Sherlock did best Woodley in boxing. But when he woke up later, Woodley and crew now knew for a certainty that a stranger was investigating the goings-on at Charlington House. Maybe not the smoothest move, detective.

I suggest that you immediately apologize to Watson, Holmes.

**Holmes berates himself greatly for being late, and for not anticipating the Violet would take an earlier train.

But it should be pointed out that Carruthers, who lived her, loved her, and provided the dog-cart for her, didn't see that coming, either.

How, then, did Woodley know she'd be leaving earlier than usual? He had to have been waiting for her, and Williamson waiting to perform the ceremony--that couldn't have all been put together on the spot. Was he just watching the road all morning long,,,or did someone at Chiltern Grange tip him off? Mrs. Dixon, the housekeeper? The ostler, who got a crack in the skull? Nice alibi, but probably not the reward he was waiting for, if it were him...

**Holmes is (partly) wrong about legality of the marriage.

Defrocked or not, there was no reason to believe that Williamson couldn't perform the sacrament. As I understand it (and many others have actually researched), Church Of England canon agreed with Williamson that "once a clergyman, always a clergyman." His status wouldn't invalidate the ceremony, as COE says that the bride and groom "are actually the ministers of the ceremony, not the priest. The priest is merely a sort of witness..." (That's quoting the Reverand Otis Rice, as quoted in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited by Lesley Klinger.)

Of course, the forging of a marriage licence and the kidnapping of the bride would make short work of any such wedding from a legal standpoint.

**Once again, for the umpteenth time in the Canon, a woman is exploited for access to her inheritance. I'll let others debate whether this represents a misogynistic view (woman shouldn't have money because they can't protect themselves from predatory men) or a more feminist viewpoint (society needs to enact greater protections for women, because this system isn't working).

**Carruthers: "That was when he picked up with this outcast padre here."

It amuses me that "padre" was a slang word for priest, in England, in 1903.

I suppose, if you believe Hollywood westerns, the term was in use for decades before hand, at least in the U.S. It's just that, upon reading it coming from the mouth of a proper Victorian gentleman, I was a bit taken aback.

Perhaps Carruthers picked up the term in rough and tumble South Africa...

**Watson acknowledges that he has had problems ending stories, problems that I have complained of earlier:
[I]t has often been difficult for me, as the reader has probably observed, to round off my narratives, and to give those final details which the curious might expect.
Admitting that you have a problem is the first step, Doctor (and Sir Arthur).

 **Not to be a pessimist, but when Williamson and Woodley get out of prison in 7 and 10 years, respectively, mightn't they be looking to cause trouble, both for Carruthers and the now-married Violet Morton and her family? We've already seen one story (The Resident Patient) based around crooks who, once released, immediately seek revenge. We can only hop that Carruthers has changed his identity and moved far, far away. As for the Morton family, well, surely a note from Holmes to Scotland Yard would result in some protective observation, if not a nice friendly sit-down with Woodley to let him know not to try anything. Still, if Sherlock was actually retired by then (1902-1905), well, who would remember to protect Violet?

**Carruthers probably received only "a few months" of jail time (Watson couldn't be bothered to look it up!). Who cared for his daughter?

The Granada version had Violet Smith take her in for the duration of Carruthers' sentence...

**And Violet married "Cyril Morton, the senior partner of Morton & Kennedy, the famous Westminster electricians."

Famous electricians? Really? Did Westminster also have famous plumbers and famous carpenters? Well, I guess before the Yellow Pages and Angie's List, fame would be helpful in gaining customers.

But how, exactly, did Morton & Kennedy become "famous"??


Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Adventure Of The Dancing Men--Who Is To Blame?

The Adventure of The Dancing Men is a case where Sherlock Holmes fails.

Yes, the villain is soon caught. But the client who hires him is killed, and his wife attempts suicide. Justice is obtained, but the tragedy likely could have--should have--been prevented.

But many commentators focus solely on Holmes' failures. That is understandable, because Sherlock is the hero, and heroes aren't supposed to screw up like that (or, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle isn't supposed to write the story in a way that Holmes fails unnecessarily).

Yet leaving the spotlight exclusively on Sherlock is perhaps, in this case, giving him to much of the responsibility for the outcome. In Dancing Men, there is enough blame to go around.

So let's examine how all of the characters in this story had opportunities to keep the "brighter ending" that Watson had hoped to give his readers.

SHERLOCK HOLMES: His client dies. That's enough to say that he has failed.

The real question is: what could he have down to prevent that dark outcome? Plenty, I think.

In fairness to the great detective, none of the coded messages that they had intercepted had been threatening, especially if we acknowledge that the knowledge of stalkers and their psychology in Victorian times was lacking, if non-existent. We do have to grade Holmes a bit on the curve for his era.

Still, the fact that the victim of the stalking was "terrified" and "being killed by inches" should have had him on a higher alert, even if the messages were, on their face, not overtly threatening. Holmes, of course, had to have deduced by this point that Elsie knew far more of these symbols, and the person leaving them, than anyone else--and her mortal fear should have carried a greater weight with him, and convinced him that he needed to go to Riding Thorpe to get to the bottom of the matter before it escalated. We never learn the reason that Holmes couldn't go "for a day or two"--probably another case--but this obviously should have been a higher priority for him. What turned out to be a two-day delay proved fatal to Hilton Cubitt.

As to that two-day delay, there really was no reason to wait so long for the reply from Hargreave. Holmes had already deduced the suspect's name and location from the code, and  by his own admission "had every cause to think that there was some criminal secret in the matter." That should have been ample justification to proceed to Norfolk to take up matters there. The cable could certainly have been forwarded to him there once it arrived, and there was little information that it included that could have justified delaying action.

The most egregious error Holmes made was waiting until the next morning to go to Norfolk after he had deciphered the "Prepare to meet thy God" message. After reading the message, he asks Watson when the next train is, Watson says the last one has left...and Holmes just shrugs his shoulders and says "We'll go tomorrow."


Obviously, Holmes could not have known that the tragedy would occur that very night. But this isn't a simple matter of hindsight. Sherlock, again by his own admission, realized that "the rascal was proceeding from persuasion to threats,"  and that "he might very rapidly put his words into action." Certainly that justified swift action, as did Holmes declaration that Cubitt was trapped in a "singular and dangerous web." When Holmes says that it is "even more essential that we should not lose an hour in letting Hilton Cubitt know how matters stand," there simply no excuse for waiting until the next morning.

 What options did the detective have? Some have suggested that he and Watson take one of the mail trains, which ran later. Perhaps he could have hired a "special,"  a direct express, as Moriarty did in The Final Problem. I'm not familiar enough with British railway policy of the time to know how feasible either of these plans could be.

But in the name of all that is holy, WHY DIDN'T HOLMES SEND A TELEGRAM?!?!? [Sorry, but that really needed emphasis.] Throughout the Canon, Sherlock would send a wire at the drop of a hat. But here, in a situation where "they should not lose an hour in letting Cubitt know," Holmes doesn't appear to even consider the possibility of sending the squire a telegram of warning. Holmes could also have telegraphed the Norfolk police--surely a cable from Sherlock Holmes would have roused attention, and gotten at least a cursory police presence at the house to deter Slaney. Or a message to Lestrade or other Scotland Yard official that a dangerous American villain was lurking in the area would likely have produced some response.

For that matter, what about telephones? Holmes never seemed fond of the device, but they certainly existed in 1898. And even if the Cubitt's didn't have a phone on their property, someone in Norfolk must have--the police, the city council, someone.

Even Cubitt's naive plan "to put half a dozen of my farm lads in the shrubbery, and when this fellow comes again to give him such a hiding" would have been better than doing nothing until Holmes arrived, and might have prevented the tragedy. But Holmes negligence in finding ways to contact Cubitt that evening prevented even those measures from being taken.

I'm usually the last one to harangue the Great Detective about his failures. But when he shows up the next morning saying "I came in hope of preventing [the crime]," he really does deserve a bit of a slap. No telegram, no prior contact with the authorities--inexcusable. "We'll go first thing tomorrow morning" is a steep and devastating mistake from Holmes, the greatest of his career.

HILTON CUBITT: Holmes' failure, sadly, wasn't the only one here. Cubitt's vain pride and "honour" also earn a share of the blame.

Elsie extracts a promise from him--the day before their wedding!--to never ask her about her past. He agrees to that, and up to a point, it is to his credit that he keeps his promise.

But when the woman you love is clearly "frightened to death," with "terror always lurking in her eyes," that the situation is "killing her by inches"--it is time to break the promise. When you value your own honor in not breaking a promise more highly than your wife's safety, your priorities are seriously askew.

Cubitt boasts of his family honour constantly: "there is no better known family in the County of Norfolk," "there is not a man in England who ranks his family honour more highly than I do," "our pride in our unsullied honour." That's dangerously prideful, and it merely increases the jeopardy they are in. (In fairness, others in the region share this opinion--the station master is distressed at the apparent murder/suicide,: "Dear, dear, one of the oldest families in the county of Norfolk, and one of the most honoured.")

The obsession with family honour prevents him from taking any other stopgap action. He won't report the "dancing men" to the police, "for they would have laughed at me." When Elsie suggested that they travel, he disdainfully answers, "What, be driven out of our own house by a practical joker? Why, we should have the whole county laughing at us." Despite his worries, he is far more concerned with how others will perceive him, than with ensuring the safety of his wife.
His certainty that they would be laughed at outweighs his fears that his wife might be in danger.

He's willing to try to dodge the promise--"I am justified in taking my own line" of investigation--but that's simply being too clever by half. And if he is willing to violate the spirit of his promise to Elsie, than he should be willing to take the next step and freaking ASK HER. "A promise is a promise" is a tautology, not a matter of honour.

It might be a difficult conversation, but if you seriously believe that your wife in some jeopardy, you have to be willing to sit down and say, "Elsie, I know I made you a promise, but clearly something has you in mortal terror, and you have to let me help you. Your well-being is more important to me than any pledge." Or something to that effect. The approach might fail, but you're really no worse off. And if it works, if she tells you, then you can take steps to protect her, and stop Abe Slaney. But that can't happen until you swallow your pride and take a tiny hit on your honour by breaking an unfair promise.

And to hell with whether or not the police or the whole county laughs at you. Letting such concerns come ahead of the safety of your family is simply wrong. The true honour comes from ignoring personal discomfort and the opinions of others, and doing everything to protect your wife despite those concerns.

Cubitt's "honour" may have stayed intact, but a fat lot of good that does a dead man.

ELSIE CUBITT: We never "met" Elsie, so it may unfair to discuss her in this manner. And I also wish to tread carefully, because I don't want to "blame the victim."

Being the victim of a stalker is a terrifying thing, even if they didn't have that term yet. I had to deal with a vaguely similar situation (albeit much less serious), and I have the barest understanding of the psychological toll that can take on a person. Elsie was truly in terror, both for herself and her husband.

But Elsie, you should have told someone. Keeping everything to yourself, and hoping it would all go away, was obviously the worst thing you could have done.

Of course, shame has been a large motivator in the Canon. People would rather face indefinite time in prison than admit that they made money by begging. People would rather throw away their families than admit they'd once been married to a black man. The fear of shame, the fear of others finding out the truth, can lead people to do amazingly foolish and dangerous things. And for a woman marrying a man obsessed with his family's reputation, it might have seemed important to Elsie to hide the fact that her father was a gangster.

Yet as The Yellow Face showed us, such fears are often unwarranted--the people we care about can be forgiving and tolerant, and our secrets being revealed need not be the end of us. So while it may be facile to suggest that Elsie should have gotten over her fear, and shared her past with her husband, it's also likely true.

Once Abe Slaney showed up in Norfolk, however, it became imperative that Elsie should have shared her life story with her husband. The knowledge that a violent criminal was after her is not something that should have been hidden from him--and withholding that information ultimately lead to his death.

And when the shame and fear of being found out caused her to invite Slaney to meet her at their home, and attempt to bribe him to leave...well, there was no probability that that plan was going to work, and she should have known that. knowing Slaney as she did.

I don't want to be too hard on Elsie, particularly as her suicide showed that she clearly felt immense guilt about what happened. And as I've said, being in a situation like that can impair your ability to make rational decisions.

But the truth remains, more than anyone else in the story, Elsie had it within her power to prevent the tragedy from happening.

Of course, Abe Slaney bears ultimate responsibility for the death of Hilton Cubitt.

So, yes, this case was Sherlock Holmes' greatest failure--but thee is plenty of blame to go around. 


**Don't think that I wasn't tempted to write this entire entry in the dancing men code. But life is too short...

**More great moments in roommates: Holmes is "brewing a particularly malodourous product."

Do the neighbors in 221A ever complain?

**In The Norwood Builder, I joked about Watson being a "kept man," because--at Holmes' insistence, and with Sherlock's behind the scenes machinations--Watson had to quit his job and movie in with Sherlock.

I was just joking.

But in this story we find out Holmes keeps Watson checkbook locked in his locked drawer, and Watson can't get it without asking Holmes for the key!!!!

Seriously, this is starting to sound very sinister. Do we need to have an intervention, John? Are you safe? Can you talk freely?

**Watson seems to have an enormous man-crush on Hilton Cubitt. Amongst his descriptions of the man: "He was a fine creature, this man of the old English soil--simple, straight, and gentle, with his great, earnest blue eyes and broad, comely face."

Then again, after being virtually held prisoner by Holmes, I can imagine that any guest would look wonderful to Watson...

**For a lot of people, myself included, The Dancing Men is the first introduction to cryptography.

That doesn't, however, mean it gets everything right.

Some of that is due to apparent printing errors--the same symbols are used for different letters in early editions--and some of that is because Holmes makes some wild-ass assumptions that really aren't warranted (even if they turn out to be right).

When referring to the message Elsie left for Slaney, for example
Now, in the single word I have already got the two E's coming second and fourth in a word of five letters. It might be 'sever,' or 'lever,' or 'never.' There can be no question that the latter as a reply to an appeal is far the most probable, and the circumstances pointed to its being a reply written by the lady. Accepting it as correct, we are now able to say that the symbols stand respectively for N, V, and R.
Many others have noted that _E_E_ has a whole ton of possible solutions in English. Holmes seems to quickly, and without justification, assume that the third letter must be V and the fifth R, and uses this to deduce the first. You would only make those assumptions if you already knew the answer...or if you had had some other information that you hadn't shared with Watson.

**Another lesson of the Canon--never get involved with an American woman. Irene Adler, Hatty Doran, Elsie Patrick: they're nothing but trouble.

**Cubitt tells us that Elsie made him give her his promise that he would never enquire about her past the day before their wedding!!

Aside from bordering on emotional blackmail, this begs the question--had Cubitt never asked her about her past before? Nothing? "So, where in America are you from" never came up? He never once said, "Tell me about your family"?? Heavens, why are you marrying her without even the least curiosity about her?

Then again, perhaps Hilton had asked, and was politely rebuffed or distracted by Elsie each time. Although you'd think that such behavior would have made him suspicious.

Or perhaps that's just how they rolled in Victorian England--respected squires just married foreigners who completely hid their backgrounds every day...

**That was a fair task Holmes set for his friend Hargreave at the NYPD.  All Holmes knew is that Slaney was from when he cabled Hargreave for information on Slaney, did Hargreave have to turn around and cable people in the police departments of every major American city? This was pre-internet & email! No wonder it took Hargreaves two days to send his response.

**Holmes obviously hates it when he thinks that someone is playing his own game against him.

When he and Watson arrive in Norfolk...

...the station-master hurried towards us. "I suppose that you are the detectives from London?" said he.

A look of annoyance passed over Holmes's face. 

"What makes you think such a thing?"
I read that as Holmes thinking that someone has played his own deduction/identification trick on him for once. Why else would Holmes be "annoyed" here?

**Inspector Martin a fine enough chap. You'd expect a local inspector to be jealous or resentful of Holmes' intrusion into his case, fearful that the detective might interfere, or poach credit, or even blow the case.

Not Martin, though. He is instantly in awe of Holmes, and graciously steps aside to let the detective run the investigation.

Still, I find sad Martin's closing remark to Sherlock: "I only hope that if ever again I have an important case,"

If ever again I have an important case?? Is Norfolk really that slow?  I feel bad that Martin almost seems to expect a career of little interest, minor affairs unworthy of discussion.

**In the rush to criticize his failure to act sooner, many ignore Holmes' expert recreation of the crime from the evidence. His skills are at a peak here.

**An open question, though, is why Elsie would close the window before attempting to kill herself. It seems, at best, a clumsy attempt by Doyle to make it a "locked room" mystery. An attempt which was hardly worth the effort, as Holmes deduced that there must have been someone outside the window in about 3 seconds. So why go to the effort, when it ultimately means one of your characters had to act in a very odd manner to make it work?

Then again, given the shock and grief she must have been experiencing, perhaps an odd and unexplainable act makes as much sense from her as anything else.

**Holmes' has some curious thoughts about powder marks, at least by modern standards:
"The absence of [gunpowder marks on her hands] means nothing, though its presence may mean everything," said Holmes. "Unless the powder from a badly fitting cartridge happens to spurt backward, one may fire many shots without leaving a sign.
Of course, most modern mystery stories will tell us the exact opposite--that firing a gun inevitably leaves traces of gunpowder on the shooter's hand, no "badly fitting cartridge" required.

Such traces often may not have been detectable by Victorian science, so we'll have to give Sherlock a pass. Or have Law & Order and CSI been lying to us for years...?

**"If there is an afternoon train to town, Watson, I think we should do well to take it, as I have a chemical analysis of some interest to finish, and this investigation draws rapidly to a close."

One would think that, after his monstrous failure to prevent the crime, that Sherlock would be a little less cocky about the certainty of catching Slaney.

**It is, however, a remarkably efficient arrest: "Then the door opened and the man stepped in. In an instant Holmes clapped a pistol to his head, and Martin slipped the handcuffs over his wrists. It was all done so swiftly and deftly that the fellow was helpless before he knew that he was attacked."

**Slaney fits the profile of the obsessive stalker, mistaking possessiveness and desire for love. "I had the first right to her"?

Holmes has a stern remonstrance for the villain:
"She broke away from your influence when she found the man that you are," said Holmes, sternly. "She fled from America to avoid you, and she married an honourable gentleman in England. You dogged her and followed her and made her life a misery to her, in order to induce her to abandon the husband whom she loved and respected in order to fly with you, whom she feared and hated. You have ended by bringing about the death of a noble man and driving his wife to suicide. That is your record in this business, Mr. Abe Slaney, and you will answer for it to the law."
**"There were seven of us in a gang in Chicago??" The Chicago Seven?!?!?

**We're left wondering about Elsie's father, the crime lord. Slaney refers to him more than once in the past tense. Is he dead? How did he die? What did he think of Elsie's leaving? Or did she not flee until he was dead? Did he truly pledge her to Slaney? Perhaps Slaney killed him in a quarrel over his daughter?

**Watson tells us that Slaney was condemned to death, but "mitigating circumstances" led to his sentence being commuted to penal servitude--presumably for life?

Watson says that one of those mitigations was "the certainty that Hilton Cubitt had fired the first shot."

Really? Certainty?

Holmes determined that the two shots were fired "almost at the same instant." But we only have Slaney's word for it that Cubitt fired first.

Slaney first admits only that "If I shot the man he had his shot at me, and there's no murder in that." It's only after Holmes calls on him to confess fully to save Elsie that Slaney expands his story to "he fired and missed me. I pulled off almost at the same instant, and down he dropped." But perhaps the self-serving word of a notorious gangster shouldn't be enough to earn mercy from the court?

Given the facts that we know aside from Slaney's claim, it seems just as likely that Slaney fired first, and a wounded Cubitt fired as he was hit, the injury causing him to miss badly and hit the window sill. After all, by his own admission, Slaney drew first, holding up his gun to scare Cubitt off. Are we to believe that, having already drawn, the Chicago criminal was outshot by the simple Norfolk squire?

Of course, it's also possible that Elsie had recovered by the time of his trial, and her testimony confirmed Slaney's.

**Elsie "still remains a widow, devoting her whole life to the care of the poor and to the administration of her husband's estate." A sad end to a tragic tale.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Adventure Of The Blogger Who Got Bogged Down--Sorry!

Well, a whole passel of problems popped up at work this week, putting me WAAAAY behind. So, I'm not going to get my write-up for The Adventure Of The Dancing Men done this week.

Fullest apologies to all.

As recompense, allow me to present some other Dancing Men:

We'll be back next week with actual Sherlock Holmes content. Promise.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Adventure Of The Norwood Builder--Friendly Rivals

At the end of The Adventure Of The Norwood Builder, Sherlock tells us, "But he had not that supreme gift of the artist, the knowledge of when to stop."

Sure, he's talking about the villainous Jonas Oldacre.

But he could just as well be describing writers and the Holmes/Lestrade relationship. (No, I'm not actually comparing any writers to a loathsome scumbag...but the quote was too appropriate not to use, no matter its origin. Apologies to any who are offended)

Yes, there should be some tension and competition between them. Yes, Holmes' superiority complex ensures that an occasional mean-spirited barb will be directed the inspector's way. Yes, Lestrade is not as smart as Holmes, and often seems reluctant to accept his "theories."

But many writers, whether adapting stories for another medium or producing pastiches of their own, don't have Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's gift as an artist, that knowledge of where to stop in portraying this relationship.

Lestrade only appears in 13 of the 60 stories of the Canon. But that is more than any other Scotland Yard official. And for whatever reason, that has been enough to make him a fixture. In many adaptations, they'll bring Lestrade into stories where he wasn't involved, or at least name drop him. If a pastiche has a police inspector in it, it's damn well going to be Lestrade.

And many, many (many) of those adaptations and pastiches tend to push the Holmes/Lestrade relationship well past the friendly rivalry stage. They'll make Lestrade an officious snob, a petty bureaucrat, a bumbling comic foil, an actual barrier to Holmes succeeding in his investigation.

It's hard to blame folks for doing this. Lessening Lestrade is one cheap and easy way to make Holmes look even brighter by comparison. And modern detective fiction, from the noir era onwards, has made it almost a plot requirement to have official police be hostile to the private detective, an impediment to the truth coming out. So why not use Lestrade in that way, seems to be the modern attitude to the inspector.

And in my opinion, that's pushing things too far, and well past what Sir Arthur intended (and, mea culpa, I myself have been guilty of my fair share of Lestrade bashing).

Given that we're in a stretch of three consecutive stories involving Lestrade, this feels like a good time to examine his relationship with Sherlock, and where it stands at this point in the Canon.

We've come a long way since A Study In Scarlet. In Hound, Holmes declares that Lestrade is "the best of the professionals," and Watson notes "from the reverential way in which Lestrade gazed at my companion that he had learned a good deal since the days when they had first worked together." Clearly they've grown in each other's estimation over the years.

In this week's case, all of the evidence supports Lestrade's theory, and even Sherlock Holmes is unable to show otherwise until Oldacre makes a misstep at the very end. And yes, this story does contain some chaffing and snarky remarks to each other (as well as an occasional uncharitable remark from Watson in narration). But I think that the context calls for a more generous reading of these scenes, as old comrades who are competitive and who like to rattle each others cages, but have an underlying respect for each other.

Lestrade, after all, does allow Holmes his requested half hour to interview McFarlane, saying that "we owe you a good turn at Scotland Yard." He knows when Holmes is hinting to him about other directions in the case:
Lestrade had learned by more experiences than he would care to acknowledge that that brain could cut through that which was impenetrable to him.
They proceed to have a respectful and spirited back and forth of their theories of the case, and to be honest, Lestrade does come off as perfectly reasonable here, as Holmes is unable to come up with a single fact that disproves McFarlane's guilt. Sherlock is forced to concede "the evidence is in some ways very strongly in favour of your theory." Indeed, Lestrade scores a point over Holmes: "[Y]ou know as well as I do that a criminal is often flurried, and does such things, which a cool man would avoid." And Holmes confides to Watson, "I kept a bold face before Lestrade, but, upon my soul, I believe that for once the fellow is on the right track and we are on the wrong."

Yet Lestrade does not resent Holmes' theorizing, or try to block him from investigating. He invites his participation, and eagerly welcomes his input. It's just that Holmes has nothing to offer.

And surely, Lestrade does get a bit boastful, with his "little cock-a-doodle of victory." But it's hardly mean-spirited--it's just that he finally has a chance to be in the right. And when Holmes gives him a little jibe, he takes it in good stride--he's not offended, and his response can be read as somewhat magnanimous--Holmes' failure was just bad luck, not a personal defeat:
[S]o you must acknowledge that we have been a little in front of you this time, Mr. Holmes." 
 "You certainly have the air of something unusual having occurred," said Holmes. 
 Lestrade laughed loudly. "You don't like being beaten any more than the rest of us do," said he. "A man can't expect always to have it his own way, can he, Dr. Watson?
When, at the last minute, Holmes chimes in with new information, "Lestrade knew my friend too well to disregard his words." And Holmes admits aloud that his show at the end is just to get back at Lestrade a bit--something he probably wouldn't publicly confess to if Doyle meant this to be read as an adversarial relationship.

And once Oldacre is revealed, Lestrade immediately understands what has happened, and arrests the bitter old man at once. No sputtering, no "I don't understand"--the inspector realized right away that Oldacre had faked his own death to frame McFarlane, even if he hadn't grasped yet how Holmes had figured it out. He is not as bright as Sherlock (who is?), but Lestrade is no dolt.

He also immediately praises Holmes, saying that "this is the brightest thing that you have done yet." And when Holmes "clapped Lestrade upon the shoulder," and freely allowed him to take credit,
that was hardly the act of enemies, or men who didn't have a deep respect for each other.

Over the course of the Canon, Doyle had the relationship between Holmes and Lestrade evolve, and grow, as each gained a greater appreciation for the other's strengths. And at no point in their relationship did Lestrade ever try to impede Holmes' investigations, or fail to act upon Holmes' requests, or refuse to admit the truth when the detective revealed it.

Far too many, though, have their relationship frozen in amber, bound by Watson's descriptions in Study In Scarlet and the early stories. And it's easier for them to make Lestrade a plot complication, rather than an actual character who is a true (if not always understanding) ally of Holmes.

But that's not a fair portrayal. Lestrade and Holmes are friendly rivals, not enemies. Don't push the friction too far, and know when to stop.


**Jonas Oldacre--what a vile blackguard. Once of the best Holmes villains. "He was more like a malignant and cunning ape than a human being." A brute who lets cats loose in an aviary (on the other hand, lucky cats!). A spiteful bastard who sends mutilated pictures to former fiancees on the wedding day. A wealthy man who lost most of his wealth in speculation, and decided that the best way out was to fake his own death and pop up again in a new identity. The cherry on top: framing the son of the woman who spurned him for his "murder." Considering that he had never met John Hector McFarlane, and Oldacre was dumped at least 28 years ago (Watson estimated McFarlane was 27) , that's one hell of a grudge he's been nursing.

And then, when caught, goes on to pledge vengeance against Holmes. Given how long he's been willing to wait until he gets vengeance, Holmes had best watch himself when Oldacre gets out of jail.

**In the truth is just as strange as fiction department: In 1921, my friend's great-grandfather actually did attempt to fake his own death in order to escape debts. He killed a local hermit, and used the headless body to pass as his own corpse in a staged car accident. Eventually he was caught (in Canada!), and after being convicted and sentenced to death, he hung himself in his cell. True story. (Given Holmes' theories about "hereditary strains of evil," maybe I should be worried about my friend...)

I'd always been tempted, as no doubt many of you have, to dismiss the "faked his own death" ploy as a silly literary device, akin to "brain fever." It is merely, so I thought, a cheap way to surprise the reader or viewer. It's just a stupid cliche, not a real-life phenomenon. A sweeps week stunt, a season-ending cliffhanger from creators out of better ideas.

But a Google or Wikipedia search depressingly reveals that faking one's own death is pretty popular, and still happening even in modern times, when you think it would become increasingly difficult to get away with. Really, a ton of people have somehow thought it a good idea to fake their own deaths.

Still, it looks as if most of these "faked deaths" involved faked suicides or faked accidents, and very few involve fake "murders," and fewer still revolve around framing the child of the woman who spurned you decades earlier. So points to Sir Arthur for originality...

**Sherlock implies that Oldacre used animal remains in the fire to serve as a substitute for his own "corpse."

But, as many have pointed out, such a fire would almost certainly leave intact bones behind, and even in pre-DNA, pre-CSI days, Scotland Yard could a rabbit or dog skeleton from a human run.

The Granada adaptation solves this by having Mrs. Lexington lure in a tramp to the house, so Oldacre can kill him and use the body.

It's certainly a more effective frame. On the downside, though, there are now actual murder charges against him, in addition to conspiracy and fraud and attempted murder. Certainly a much longer prison sentence now awaits, if not the gallows. Perhaps Holmes needn't be looking over his shoulder after all.

**Ah, the mysterious Mrs. Lexington. The housekeeper that's willing to lie to the police to aid her employers scheme to defraud creditors, and willing to abet a scheme that results in young McFarlane being convicted and probably executed. And in the Granada version, she's a knowing accomplice to cold-blooded murder. "There was a sort of sulky defiance in her eyes, which only goes with guilty knowledge."

Was she just loyal to a ridiculous fault? Were she and Oldcastle involved? Or was it just an unrequited love that led her to the dark side?

**Poor Holmes misses Moriarty and the exquisite crime he caused. He declares that London has become uninteresting since the professor's fall.

So his boredom leads to one of the funniest lines that Sir Arthur ever wrote. When McFarlane bursts in, declaring that he's wanted for murder, and that the police are on their way to arrest him, Sherlock lets his glee at a new case slip a little bit: "Arrest you!" said Holmes. "This is really most grati--most interesting." Yes, Sherlock, I'm sure that young McFarlane found that gratifying...

**Despite Holmes' claims of boredom, Watson tells us that they've been plenty busy: "the case of the papers of ex-President Murillo, and also the shocking affair of the Dutch steamship FRIESLAND, which so nearly cost us both our lives."

We will actually get to read the case of ex-President Murillo soon enough (although there really weren't any "papers" involved). The affair of the Dutch steamship FRIESLAND remains untold...although there really was a ship named Friesland. Speculate away.

**Holmes reminds Watson of a pre-Hiatus case:
 You remember that terrible murderer, Bert Stevens, who wanted us to get him off in '87? Was there ever a more mild-mannered, Sunday-school young man?"
Of course, that's a fascinating point--we never get to see the cases that Holmes turns down, obviously. It is interesting to see that it is not merely the innocent who come to Baker Street seeking help. And of course, if you could secure Holmes to your side, that might go a long way towards convincing a jury.

Obviously, you'd have to be pretty damn clever to be guilty yet convince Sherlock Holmes that you were innocent. I'd be interested to see that little interview: the ploy he used to try and secure Holmes' help, and the reasoning of Holmes' rebuff. Hey, Watson, get writing!

**Is Watson a kept man?

When Holmes returned from the hiatus, Watson had a practice (and in the Granada series, a second job as an on-call "police surgeon"). Yet after Sherlock's return, "at his request [I] had sold my practice and returned to share the old quarters in Baker Street."

Well, that's a tiny bit creepy, isn't it? If Watson were a woman, and the man in her life said, "I'm back now, dear--drop your job and come back to living with me full time," well, that would be viewed as smothering and unempowering.

It gets even creepier, as it turns out that "A young doctor, named Verner, had purchased my small Kensington practice, and given with astonishingly little demur the highest price that I ventured to ask--an incident which only explained itself some years later, when I found that Verner was a distant relation of Holmes, and that it was my friend who had really found the money." So Sherlock Holmes really is Watson's sugar daddy!!

And then, when Holmes sallies forth on his initial investigation, he doesn't want Watson to come along. "No, my dear fellow, I don't think you can help me. There is no prospect of danger, or I should not dream of stirring out without you."

So, Watson can't have a job, has to live with Holmes and depend on him for income, and can't go along on investigations unless he's needed to protect Holmes from danger?


**Watson describing Holmes: "His cold and proud nature was always averse, however, from anything in the shape of public applause..."

Please. This is Sherlock Holmes you're describing, a man who has never hesitated to put on quite a show for the surprise reveal of a mystery's solution. In this very story, he takes great pride and pleasure in using the fake fire to smoke out Oldacre.

Holmes may not want public applause, but he surely seems to crave it from Watson and the police...

**More evidence for those (like myself) who feel that Watson is more competent than many an adaptation or pastiche would have us think: "Familiar as I was with my friend's methods, it was not difficult for me to follow his deductions..." After which Watson proceeds to explain all of Holmes' deductions about McFarlane, without any prompting from the detective.

**Much has been made of McFarlane saying that the signing of Oldacre's will was "witnessed by my clerk." British law required two witnesses, and as a beneficiary of the will himself, McFarlane couldn't have been the second witness in a valid will.

I think perhaps it goes to far to accuse McFarlane of incompetence. Let's give the young lawyer the benefit of the doubt, as he was in quite the panicked state while relating his tale, and may easily have made a slip of the tongue (or, of course, Watson simply dropped an "s" in what was supposed to be "clerks").

McFarlane was a partner in a law firm, which should speak in favor of his being somewhat competent. And as a partner, there should have been plenty of employees avaialble at his office during the working day to be witnesses. This wasn't Saul Goodman with a mall office--viewing the Granada version, we see that McFarlane's own office had at least four other lawyers/clerks working under him in the room, and at least two pages, with heaven knows how many other employees are available in the building.

No, it makes far more sense to think that Doyle just made a mistake here, and meant to write "clerks."

**There's one thing that has always struck me as off about Oldacre's plan. If the police are meant to believe that McFarlane killed Oldacre for the bequest, why would he burn the body? The point of murdering Oldacre would be for him to be identified as dead, so McFarlane could get the inheritance. Burning the body could only delay identification of the body, if not completely stymie it, which would delay any probate of the will.

Then again, the police in those days seem pretty quick to charge murder without a firm corpse identification, or even a corpse. Recall from Hounds, when Watson mentioned Holmes "defending the unfortunate Mme. Montpensier from the charge of murder which hung over her in connection with the death of her step-daughter, Mlle. Carere, the young lady who, as it will be remembered, was found six months later alive and married in New York." That had to be kind of embarrassing for the police...

Lestrade also has a fair theory--that McFarlane might have burned the body to remove any evidence that might have tied him to the murder.

**Holmes: "I much fear that British juries have not yet attained that pitch of intelligence when they will give the preference to my theories over Lestrade's facts." Welcome to the 21st century, Sherlock, were juries don't seem to care so much about facts anymore...

**Holmes: "I fear that the Norwood Disappearance Case will not figure in that chronicle of our successes." Ah, but you obviously suspect the truth already, Sherlock, even if only subconsciously. You're calling it the "Norwood Disappearance case," not the "Norwood Murder case." Deep down, you know it wasn't murder...

**Lestrade: "You are aware that no two thumb-marks are alike?" Holmes: "I have heard something of the kind."

Ah, yes, the fingerprints. This is fairly interesting, as the story was set in 1894, before Scotland yard had adopted fingerprints. So, far from being a dolt, Lestrade seems well ahead of the curve here.

Many have failed to notice that Holmes is being a bit sarcastic and defensive here--of course he's up to date on the latest crime detection theories.

More important is the complaint that, had Oldacre used the wax thumbprint of McFarlane to plant the fake, it would have been backwards, and therefore not matched the suspect's "identically."

But those who make the complaint haven't read the story very carefully.

"It was the simplest thing in the world for him to take a wax impression from the seal," says Holmes. In other words Oldacre didn't use the seal itself--he made an impression of the impression using wax...and thus he would have reversed the reversal! (I'll leave it to others to decide whether an amateur "second-generation" copy of a fingerprint would have been intact for such an exact match to be made)