Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Adventure Of The Golden Pince-Nez--How NOT To Adapt A Holmes Story!!

I have nothing but sympathy for those trying to adapt stories from one medium to another. There are a near-infinite number of choices that must be made-what to include, what to discard, what to expand upon, what to elide past, how to stretch or squeeze to fit the available time slot. It's a thankless, difficult task, and adapters rarely get enough credit.

Adaptation can be especially tricky when it comes to Sherlock Holmes stories. 80% of the tales, it seems, begin with Holmes or Watson sitting around Baker Street, when a client or policeman comes in to make a huge exposition dump. Not necessarily the most engaging thing to put on film, so adapters have to be clever to avoid the first third of their show merely being talking heads. There's also the problem of Watson being a humble narrator--many of the written adventures have him being nearly silent, with all of the best lines going to Holmes. Making Watson an actual character in an adaptation requires a bit of work. Add in the fact that some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories do not seem to have enough content to fill 50+ minutes, and you'll see that adapting the Canon is usually much more involved than "just filming the story."

That being said, there are a number of missteps that can clear be labeled missteps, clear mistakes that detract from the adaptation and make it far weaker than the original story. Which brings us to The Adventure Of The Golden Pince-Nez.

The Granada adaptations, by and large, do an excellent job of translating the Canon to the small screen. But--as is almost inevitable in doing so many stories--sometimes they make choices that are baffling, that seem (to me) to actually hurt the story they're trying to portray. And in Golden Pince-Nez, they seem to make every bad choice possible, turning what is a nice little Holmes mystery into a sloppy show that diminishes the detective and takes away the most intriguing part of the mysteries.

Granada starts with an odd cold open. Now, it is not unusual for them to have taken the murder or burglary from a story, and show that as the opening scene. That's usually defensible--it makes a gripping, interesting way to bring the viewer into the story, and breaks up the potential monotony of talking heads merely dumping exposition about the crime at Baker Street.

But in this case, Granada makes an awful decision. They choose to start with a scene of tsarist police bloodily breaking up a protest in Russia, and show Anna being arrested, and show a close-up of her glasses.

Why they do this is inexplicable, at least to me. The fact that this story is (once again) the result of foreign intrigues come London is kept hidden from the reader until the very end of the story. When Anna declares, "He is not an Englishman. He is a Russian," the reader is surprised. The viewer is not, because they have already been told that the story involves Russians, and no one else in the story can credibly be Russian. Why spoil the big reveal with the opening Russia scene?

Furthermore, by focusing on Anna and her glasses in that opening, Granada has sort of spoiled the mystery. No matter how many red herring suspects with pince-nez glasses they trot out, they've already told the viewer that the mystery must revolve around this woman, and a Russian connection!

The next problem is not entirely Granada's fault. Edward Hardwicke was unavailable to play Watson for this episode. Well, of course Sherlock needs someone to talk to, so they chose to have Charles Gray reprise his role as Mycroft for the story.

In and of itself, that is a practical and wise decision. And they do add a nice bit where Sherlock and Mycroft play "dueling deductions" over the pince-nez. However, for reasons that I once again do not understand, they decide to have Mycroft steal Sherlock's thunder in the episode, and have him solve the mystery!

In the original story, Holmes has already deduced that the killer must be concealed behind one of the bookcases. So he smokes "cigarette after cigarette"--a "great number," in his own description--and sprinkled the ash all over the floor. Why? So that when Anna came out during his absence, Holmes could tell from the disturbed ashes exactly where her hiding place was.

But in the Granada version, Sherlock does not know where Anna is hiding. He smokes one cigarette, as a courteous guest. Mycroft makes the deduction, and he surreptitiously spreads his snuff all over the floor. Later, he hands Sherlock his empty snuff case, telling his brother that he might find it useful--and it is only later that Sherlock realizes what Mycroft has done, and what it means! While Mycroft is the smarter brother, surely we're not tuning in to watch him solve crimes instead of his brother!

Another problem the Granada production has is to tar the character of Willoughby Smith for the purpose of providing a string of red herrings.

We're told from the first that the vexing part of the case for Inspector Hopkins is that there was "no reason on Earth why anyone should wish him harm." His investigation of Smith's background show that the young man "had nothing against him" with "no weak spot in him at all."

This isn't some minor point. Given the limited availability of physical forensics available in the day, "motiveless" crimes could be very difficult for the police to solve. In terms of the fiction, this is why they needed Holmes to come help them. And it's the basis of the beginning of Holmes' deductive chain--the lack of motive, along with the choice of weapon, told him that the murder was not planned, and that Smith was an innocent bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Granada, however, decided that they had to throw lots of red herrings out there, to make us believe that there was motive to murder Willoughby Smith. First, they tell us that he was pitching woo and pledging eternal love to the young maid, Susan. Not only that, but he was cheating on her. He was making time with, and actual proposed to, local suffragette leader Abagail Crosby (who was created out of whole cloth for the adaptation). Susan witnessed this, supposedly giving her motive to murder Smith. And we also see Smith being disdainful of the suffrage cause, and striking Abagail when she refused to stop her activities. So now she had a motive to murder him. And Crosby had a pair of pince-nez!!

We get to waste a great deal of time in the Granada version with Hopkins having to interview these two ladies, trying to get them to admit they committed the murder. This is foolish on two levels. First of all, because they opened the story in Russia, the audience knows that the killing and the glasses had to have something to do with foreign intrigue. So we know that these people had nothing to do with the killing--you've already told us that!!

Secondly, this makes Inspector Hopkins' earlier investigations look shockingly incompetent. After declaring that there was not any possible motive, and not a single possible spot against Smith, who "knew nobody in the neighbourhood" and "existed only for the work,", the production tells us Smith was actually a two-timing woman-beater (who hates suffrage, to boot!). How could Hopkins have possibly missed all of that? By changing Smith's character so radically, this adaptation undermines any faith we might have had in Hopkins as a student of Holmes' methods!

Granada also changes Professor Coram's motivations, once again bafflingly, and not for the better. In Russia, he and Anna were "reformers--revoluntionists--Nihilists!" When a police officer was killed, he turned on his comrades, confessing to save himself and get a great reward.

But there was another reason--Anna had a boyfriend in the Order. Anna describes Alexis as "the friend of my heart. He was noble, unselfish, loving--all that my husband was not." I think we can take that as Victorian code for having an affair of the heart, at the very least. And the implication seems clear that jealously of the older husband for the relationship between his much younger wife and her work buddy that caused him to hide exculpatory evidence and "tr[y] hard to swear away the young man's life." That makes sense--he wanted Alexis imprisoned or killed as retaliation for whatever was going on between the non-violent revolutionary and his wife.

So it is truly odd that Granada changes Alexis from "the friend of Anna's heart" her brother! Well, that removes the jealousy motive (unless we're implying that something pretty icky was going on, at least in Sergius' mind). So, why, exactly, would he lie and conceal evidence to keep Alexis unjustly in jail? Did Coram bear a grudge against Alexis for some reason? We get absolutely zero explanation--Anna's exposition is essentially the same in the adaptation as in the novel--except that Alexis is now her brother, and Sergius stole the diary and letters for no particular reason.

Finally, and not of such great consequence: in the adaptation, a member of the Brotherhood comes in through the skylight and slays Coram in the very last scene! In the story, he survives, as far as we know. Anna had promised not to betray his secret, and there is no indication that Holmes or Hopkins did so. Yet in the Granada version, an extremely scruffy Nihilist is seen spying on the professor throughout the story. Did Anna tell them, despite her promise? Had they been following her during her search for her husband? Certainly, it's not too significant a change, but it does serve to weaken Anna's character. Now, we must conclude that either she was a liar, or so foolish that she didn't realize she she was indeed sentencing Sergius to death. She is stripped of some of her agency, and her nobility that made her so appealing next to the craven professor.

So what do we have? Several small amendments to the story, which in a mere listing may not seem much. But upon closer examination, and taken cumulatively, they seriously weaken the tale. The surprise reveal of the mystery is ruined. Sherlock is made to look an inferior detective. The mystery of a motiveless crime is eliminated by trying desperately to create red herrings, and in the process turning Willoughby Smith into a monstrous cad. Coram loses his motive to keep Alexis imprisoned. And Anna is made to look weaker by her inability to keep her pledge not to betray Coram.

As I said above, adaptation is hard, and I don't expect one to adhere slavishly to the original. But in almost every unnecessary decision they made this time, director Peter Hammond and screenwriter Gary Hopkins decided poorly, and as a result, they did little justice to The Adventure of The Golden Pince-Nez.


**Kvetching about the Granada version aside, this is a pretty good tale.

Sure, with over a century of mystery hindsight, the "victim wasn't really the target" may seem a little trite today. But at the time it was a pretty good gimmick.

Holmes is in top form, not allowing himself to be distracted by false theories and irrelevancies, and seeing what should have been obvious to Hopkins very quickly.

And of course, there's all the smoking...

**Admit it--when you first saw the title of this story, you had absolutely no idea of what a pince-nez was, let alone a golden one. I admit my ignorance...

**Watson tell us of "three massive manuscript volumes which contain our work for 1894." Three massive volumes!! And you've given us only a dribble, Doctor! Get writing!!

**This story is the mother lode for those fascinated by references to apocryphal stories:
I see my notes upon the repulsive story of the red leech and the terrible death of Crosby, the banker. Here also I find an account of the Addleton tragedy, and the singular contents of the ancient British barrow. The famous Smith-Mortimer succession case comes also within this period, and so does the tracking and arrest of Huret, the Boulevard assassin--an exploit which won for Holmes an autograph letter of thanks from the French President and the Order of the Legion of Honour.
We've seen several other references of cases that Holmes has done for the French government in this period...did they have him on retainer?

**Watson (& Doyle!) waxing poetic about the weather:
It was strange there, in the very depths of the town, with ten miles of man's handiwork on every side of us, to feel the iron grip of Nature, and to be conscious that to the huge elemental forces all London was no more than the molehills that dot the fields.
Sir Arthur never gets enough credit for Watson's descriptive narration, and the wonderful turns of phrase used so often.

**A slam on journalism, as Hopkins disdains the paper's coverage: "Well, it was only a paragraph, and all wrong at that, so you have not missed anything."

Given what we know of the case, how much could they have gotten wrong? Did they name the wrong victim? The wrong address? Did they spell Hopkins' name wrong, so he's in a snit?

**Hopkins describing who lives at Yoxley Old Place: "was taken by an elderly man, who gave the name of Professor Coram."

Well, that's an odd turn of phrase. You usually wouldn't say "this person gave his name as X" unless you were already suspicious that that wasn't his real name, would you? If someone asked you who lived at 221B Baker Street, you probably wouldn't say, "Well, he gave the name of Sherlock Holmes."

Did Hopkins already suspect that Coram was an assumed identity? Nothing else in the story would suggest that. Was that phraseology more common back in 1894? Or did Doyle accidentally tip off the story's twist?

**"At first the maid thought that young Smith was already dead, but on pouring some water from the carafe over his forehead..."

Was that standard first aid procedure in the day? To pour water on the face? Not checking for a heartbeat, staunching the bleeding, elevating the wound? Nope--throw water on their forehead!

And if she thought Smith was dead, why was she pouring water on his face, anyway? An emergency baptism?!?

**Honest confession--when I first read the story, I was certain that Professor Coram was faking being an invalid. And he sometimes went out dressed as a woman. That would explain Smith's dying words: "The professor,' he murmured--'it was she.'" It would also explain how the killer "got away"--it was the professor, and he just went back into his room.

Yeah, I was wrong. But you have to admit, it was a fairly cool theory...

**Holmes continues to poke at Hopkins' competence fairly mercilessly: "What did you do, Hopkins, after you had made certain that you had made certain of nothing?"

Perhaps that is actually a sign of Holmes regard for Hopkins potential--he holds the young man to a higher standard...

**Then again, perhaps Hopkins IS a terrible detective:
There were some papers of importance in the cupboard, but there were no signs that this had been tampered with
But there had obviously been some tampering--the scratch on the metal was fresh, and the flecks of varnish were still present, which means the scratch had to have happened after the last time the maid dusted--just a quarter hour before the murder! How could Hopkins have missed this?!?

Really, if Hopkins truly considered himself a student of Holmes' methods, then based on this outing, he's not going to get a very good grade.

**Holmes description of Anna, based merely on her glasses:
Wanted, a woman of good address, attired like a lady. She has a remarkably thick nose, with eyes which are set close upon either side of it. She has a puckered forehead, a peering expression, and probably rounded shoulders. There are indications that she has had recourse to an optician at least twice during the last few months. As her glasses are of remarkable strength, and as opticians are not very numerous, there should be no difficulty in tracing her.
As many have pointed out, just because the glasses are relatively expensive, it does not automatically translate that the owner is currently well-to-do. Especially given the evidence that the owner had gone to the trouble to repair them (twice) rather than replace them. Compare, for example, the case of Henry Baker and his precious hat in Blue Carbuncle...

**Holmes again instantly seeing what others should have seen long before he became involved: "The idea of murder was not in her mind, or she would have provided herself with some sort of weapon, instead of having to pick this knife off the writing-table."

**Watson's description of Coram:
I have seldom seen a more remarkable-looking person. It was a gaunt, aquiline face which was turned towards us, with piercing dark eyes, which lurked in deep hollows under overhung and tufted brows. His hair and beard were white, save that the latter was curiously stained with yellow around his mouth. A cigarette glowed amid the tangle of white hair, and the air of the room was fetid with stale tobacco smoke.
Watson almost makes him out to be Gandalf: "He was, indeed, a weird figure as he turned his white mane and his glowing eyes towards us."

**Watson says that Coram had "a curious little mincing accent."Obviously he was trying to hide his native Russian accent.

It should be noted that "mincing accent" was a fairly common usage at the time, usually referring to the perceived "sing-song" accents of East Indians and other Asians attempting to speak the Queen's English. Some speech books of the day also referred to Cockneys has having a "mincing accent."

**So, Professor Coram smokes. A lot. An awful lot:
He sends me a thousand at a time, and I grieve to say that I have to arrange for a fresh supply every fortnight.
If we take that as literally true, that equates to more than 70 cigarettes per day!! If he sleeps 8 hours a day, that's more than 4 cigarettes per hour, all day long!

Even if we allow for casual conversational rounding, and perhaps self-deprecating exaggeration, that's still one hell of a lot of cigarettes. And they're all unfiltered!!

**The smoking, of course, allowed Holmes' ploy with the ashes:
I observed that he was smoking with extraordinary rapidity. "I am a connoisseur," said he, taking another cigarette from the box--his fourth--and lighting it from the stub of that which he had finished consuming cigarette after cigarette.
Here's the thing, though--were there no ashtrays in those days? I mean, even if he's your guest, wouldn't you notice/mention that a guy is just dumping the ash from a dozen cigarettes all over your carpet?

Or was that the accepted practice in the household? The maids must have a lot of fun cleaning the place...

**Corams description of his maid: "Susan is a country girl," said he, "and you know the incredible stupidity of that class."

Of course, Coram is trying to get the detectives to ignore the girl's evidence, so he has ample motive to try and get them to discount what she heard.

Still, it's amazingly rude. I guess reformed Nihilists can still be obnoxious class snobs...

**Wonderful observation/deduction by Holmes: "Ah! But it kills the appetite." And yet he ate all of his meals...

**Tipping the cigarette case is an old ploy that Holmes has used as a distraction many time before. Tipping over the vase in the Reigate Squires is another example...

**Watson on Anna 's first appearance:
 Her face, too, was streaked with grime, and at the best she could never have been handsome, for she had the exact physical characteristics which Holmes had divined, with, in addition, a long and obstinate chin. And yet, in spite of all these disadvantages, there was a certain nobility in the woman's bearing--a gallantry in the defiant chin and in the upraised head, which compelled something of respect and admiration.
Yet Watson doesn't do very well as a doctor here. Despite obvious signs that she's under some fairly serious distress, it is Sherlock, not John, who notices something is amiss: "I fear that you are far from well." 

Even when she "had turned a dreadful colour, the more ghastly under the dark dust-streaks upon her face," Watson doesn't seem able to perceive that something is seriously wrong, let alone attempt to diagnose her malady.

**Once again, foreign intrigues have come to London to settle matters in a deadly fashion. Seriously, why the hell did Britain ever allow immigrants in, given all the trouble they cause in the Canon?

**OK, here's the big problem with our mystery.

The sequence of events: Anna sneaks into the house and steals the letters & diary. Willoughby Smith stumbles in while she's doing it, and she accidentally kills him trying to escape. She accidentally flees down the wrong corridor, and end's up in the professor's room. She threatens him--"hide me or I'll tell the Brotherhood where you are." He complies, going to great length to hide her.

But couldn't Anna have cut out all those middle steps? Rather than the break in and the struggle and the hurried misguided flight, couldn't she have just openly gone to the professor to begin with, and said "give me the letters or I'll tell the Brotherhood where you are"? We've already seen that he was terrified of that outcome, and gave in to that threat even when it meant concealing a murderer. Wouldn't he have given in just as quickly if she had called on him during business hours, and made the same threat? No burglary or murder needed!!

Sure, she thought, "Yet I was sure that, with his revengeful nature, he would never give it to me of his own free-will." But he did give in to you, because of a simple extortion. Why wouldn't he have done the same initially?!?

**The second failed secretary being a private detective hired by Anna is rather a delicious detail, don't you think? It's too bad Doyle passed up on the opportunity to have Holmes comment on the quality/foibles of the contemporary "private detectives."

Still, we must ask, as he was already in the household, and had already made an impression of the key, why did the gumshoe decide that "he would not go further"?? Fear of breaking the law? He had already obtained for her an impression of the key and a floor plan and a diary of the household's movements, in full knowledge of what Anna intended to do with them. This private detective is surely guilty of being an accessory to the burglary. So why cop out before the actual theft?

Anna should have gone to Holmes instead of a private firm. He likely would have been sympathetic to her cause, and we've seen that he has fewer qualms about bending the law when he perceives that justice is at stake...

**Anna has, I think, a remarkably naive view of how the Russian government would react to these papers:
He wrote forever dissuading us from such a course. These letters would have saved him. So would my diary, in which, from day to day, I had entered both my feelings towards him and the view which each of us had taken.
Does anyone believe they would have commuted Alexis' sentence with this information? "Oh, he was a Nihilist who wanted to overthrow the Tsar, but he opposed violence--he wanted to bring down the royal family with peaceful means! We have no problem with that kind of free political expression! Let him go!"

I'm just saying, oppressive regimes usually aren't so reasonable when it comes to releasing dissidents.

Also, isn't it possible that those papers could end up implicating others who were involved in the Brotherhood but hadn't been caught? Just giving them to the Russians, without some serious study and perhaps editing, might not be wise.

Watson doesn't tell us the outcome of giving the letters and diary to the Russian embassy. But I'll wager that it wasn't a good outcome.

**Why did Anna bring poison?

I understand why she killed herself when she did--she didn't want to face the gallows or another long prison term.

But did she plan on getting caught?

There have been a couple of radio adaptations of the story, and in those she either shot herself or threw herself in front of a train. Obviously, just as not bringing a weapon showed she didn't intend to be an assassin, in those versions not bringing the poison showed she hadn't planned on dying.

We have to wonder--did she plan to poison Sergius? Poisoning his precious cigarettes, for example?


Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Adventure of The Three Students--The Adventure Nobody Cares About

There is something to be said for virtually every Sherlock Holmes story. Some interesting tidbit, some wonderful character, some clever bit of deduction, some keen observation on the cultural and societal forces of Victorian/Edwardian England, some unique bit of information and characterization for Holmes or Watson, some delicious dialogue. Almost every story in the Canon, even if not 100% successful, gives the reader (and blogger!) something to attach to.

And then there's The Adventure of The Three Students.

I don't mean to be harsh, as Three Students certainly isn't a bad story. And, since each and every Holmes story seems to be somebody's favorite, I'm sure the tale has ardent defenders who will tell you that it is their favorite. And more power to them--IDIC and all that.

Yet I find Three Students incredibly hard to connect with. And I think most people agree with me. Three Students is one of the few Holmes tales which has never seen a screen adaptation (at least none that I can find reference to). Approximately 90% of the discussion by commentators centers around trying to discover whether the university it takes place at is Cambridge or Oxford. The rest is devoted to discussing whether the mystery is really an elaborate hoax that Soames (and Watson?) are playing on Sherlock, or how preposterous and unlikely the events of the story are. Very few, it seem, like Three Students as a story.

Why is this story so, well, meh? First and foremost, to me at least, are the titular 3 academics. In a story titled the Adventure Of The Three Students, we never meet two of them, and the third doesn't get so much as a line of dialogue until the last two pages of the tale. To be clear: Miles McLaren is never seen--his "rude" voice is only hears through a door--and he never interacts with Holmes and Watson. After he is first mentioned by Soames, he's never even referred to by name again in the story!

The Indian student, Daulat Ras, also has no dialogue the entire story, and no interaction with our heroes, save Watson's mention after the fact that Ras "looked at them queerly."

And finally, there is Gilchrist--who is never even given a first name! Again, while we're told of him, we don't meet him until near the end, and even then we get nothing but accusing looks and a "storm of passionate sobbing." It isn't until after Holmes recounts his version of events that young Gilchrist utters a single word.

So when your story is titled The Adventure of The Three Students, and the three of them are but the flimsiest rough drafts of sketches of actual characters, your story is probably going to lack a little bit of oomph. When the reader doesn't meet any of the three students, it's very hard to work up some level of caring about which one might be guilty.

Now, that's not necessarily a crippling defect. In our last story, The Six Napoleons, we don't meet Beppo, he has no last name, and doesn't utter a single line of dialogue. But Six Napoleons has something that Three Students lacks--Sir Arthur Conan Doyle doesn't make this much of a mystery, really. So little does he seem to care about the other students, that he doesn't really bother to try and make them serious red herrings. Every bit of evidence points to Gilchrist, and Holmes seemingly has the case solved about 5 minutes in. Anything that doesn't point to Gilchrist, Holmes dismisses instantly. Absent some surprise twist--which this story doesn't have--there really is no other way it could end than for Gilchrist to have been the culprit.

And the story lacks either the stunning twist--the murder victim is actually alive, framing someone!--or the outre and intriguing set-up of the mystery itself--why is someone smashing busts?--that can make even milder mysteries much more entertaining. The entire plot follows a very straight and narrow outline: somebody peeked at the exam questions. It has to be one of these three people. Look it's the one whom all the evidence pointed to! It's such a straightforward mystery--no surprises or reversals along the way--that the denouement is lacking the energy of a typical Holmesian resolution.

Another thing the story lack are serious stakes of any kind. Now, we don't need to have murder--or even an actual crime of any kind--to make for a good mystery. But even in Sherlock Holmes stories without real crimes, there is some semblance of high stakes, of consequences to someone we've met. Who is the missing fiancee? Can a marriage survive some unknown deceit? But there is nothing of that kind of import here. A student cheated. If the truth comes out publicly, there will be a huge scandal. But since we never meet the students, it's hard to care how a controversy might effect them. Might Soames or Bannister be fired for incompetence? The issue is never brought up, and again, it seems hard to work up much sympathy. Why should we care if this "hideous scandal throws a cloud" on the university? (Part of that, it must be said, is due to Watson's discretion. By so diligently covering up the identity of the school, he blunts our ability to care about the results)

We might have more empathy for the low-stakes scandal, but Doyle fails to give us entertaining characters who might be hurt. Again, the contrast with Six Napoleons is pretty stark. That story was filled with interesting characters--the journalist more concerned with getting a story than the murder on his doorstep, the shop keeper who saw anarchists everywhere, the doctor who was a Bonapatre-o-phile...not to mention Lestrade. Three students, however? We've already discussed how the titular characters have no characterization. The only other players on our stage are Soames, the tutor, and Bannister, the butler. Neither one does or says anything that makes them interesting, or even different on some level from the same archetypes in any other mystery story: the nervous school official and the loyal butler.

As for Sherlock himself, he seems grumpy and mean. He goes out of his way to insult Watson on more than one occasion, as well as Soames. He's short and dismissive with any suggestion that doesn't lead to Gilchrist--and why not? He solved the mystery five minutes in! And given that Holmes himself dismissed the possibility of someone just walking into the room when the proofs were there as "an unthinkable coincidence," it seems a poor show indeed that his solution relies just as much on an even more unlikely set of coincidences--that someone tall enough would happen to wander by and look in the window while the proofs were there at exactly the same time the key had been left in the door. Not so unthinkable a coincidence when it's your solution, eh, Sherlock? And let's not forget the even still more unlikely coincidence that Bannister had been Gilchrist's father's butler, and ended up being a butler in the exact same building that Gilchrist stayed in while at university! Heavens!

And Holmes displays no great feats of deduction in Three Students. He is given straight clues with only one interpretation. There is no drama or surprise in his surmises, except perhaps for the pencil--but that proves to be a complete dead end, of no relevance in solving the case.

And once again, speaking of solving the case, Sherlock is utterly irrelevant to the tale's outcome. Had he not been summoned by Soames, Gilchrist had still been counseled by Bannister, had still written his letter confessing, and had already taken the job with the Rhodesian police. Had Holmes never become involved in the mystery, than the outcome would have been exactly the same! That, as I've remarked in the past, is never the sign of a good Holmes mystery.

I shouldn't be too harsh. Three Students is by no means a bad story. But it is so by the numbers, so lacking in the depths of characterization and period and details that make other Doyle stories so appealing, that it seems tepid and lifeless compared to other stories in the Canon. Which is why it is the story so few seem to care about.


**As I mentioned above, tons and tons (and tons) of commentary and argumentation has been dedicated to the question as to which university this story took place at, and whether that gives us any clues as to which of the schools Holmes attended.

I'm absolutely agnostic on the matter--I neither know nor care. It's not just that I'm not at all familiar with Cambridge or Oxford. If there story were set in America, I don't know that it would make a whit of difference if it were set at Harvard or Yale. I just don't think that, for the most part, knowing where someone went to college necessarily tells you that much about their character. (I am perfectly willing to admit that they may have been prevailing attitudes in Victorian England about what unique attributes a person who matriculated at each school might have. Then again, that was surely a stereotype at best, and a useless cliche at worst.)

Well, few agree with me, obviously, as many folks have spent forests worth of pages debating which school the three students attend. The funny part is, they do this despite the fact that Watson quite explicitly says that he's going to disguise all of the details so that the reader cannot possibly tell:
 It will be obvious that any details which would help the reader exactly to identify the college or the criminal would be injudicious and offensive. So painful a scandal may well be allowed to die out. With due discretion the incident itself may, however, be described, since it serves to illustrate some of those qualities for which my friend was remarkable. I will endeavour, in my statement, to avoid such terms as would serve to limit the events to any particular place, or give a clue as to the people concerned.
Yet every commentator decides that either Watson is a liar, or incompetent, because they proceed to ignore his admonition, and dissect every detail as if the doctor wasn't actually trying to disguise things.

Indeed, at the end of that very first paragraph, William S. Baring-Gould, in the first Annotated Sherlock Holmes, gives us a footnote suggesting that Watson has already given up the game, because Oxford at the time was a city, while Cambridge was only a town.

In other words, one of the greatest Holmes scholars decided that Watson, despite his promise to disguise things, didn't even make it through the very first sentence of his story without failing in his purpose.


**One interesting point, both from Watson and the panicked Soames, is the supposition that the revelation that a student tried to cheat damage over the entire school. "There will ensue a hideous scandal, which will throw a cloud not only on the college, but on the university," says Soames.

That is an odd supposition. Why would the university be found at fault because a student tried to cheat? Was it their fault for admitting a young person who proved later to have questionable ethics? If the scandal became public, would the populace of England say, "Oxbridge admitted a cheater! The rogues! I'll never send my sons there!"

Certainly, there have been cases where colleges have helped students to cheat, usually in order to maintain some athletic eligibility. But this isn't that type of scandal. Why should the university itself experience any disapprobation in this case? (Unless, of course, you wanted to blame them for Soames' and Bannister's incompetence) If such a case happened today, barring any finding of gross negligence on the school's part, the blame would go to cheating student (and his parents who raised him so poorly).

So perhaps this story does indeed give us some glimpse of the Victorian moral structure--any dishonour stains the whole institution, no matter who was involved, or what the circumstances.

**Thus, given that climate, it makes sense for Soames to seek out Sherlock Holmes. He tells Holmes that "your discretion is as well known as your powers..."

Well, we've seen that, in several cases. But should it really be "well known?" Does everyone in England know that Holmes will let scoundrels escape, and bury secrets for those he deems worthy? How can those deeds stay secret, then? If everyone knows Holmes is using his discretion, hasn't he (or Watson) been indiscreet in letting that knowledge out? Won't everyone just look at each of his clients, and speculate--perhaps even deduce--what scandal say, the Duke of Holdernesse is covering up?

Once Holmes has a reputation as a "man of discretion," his involvement itself would seem to become indiscreet...

**Apocryphal case: "Sherlock Holmes was pursuing some laborious researches in early English charters--researches which led to results so striking that they may be the subject of one of my future narratives."

Sadly, that story was never told.

**Holmes is very brusque with Soames: "I am very busy just now, and I desire no distractions..." This is what, the 4th time in the stories in Return that he's tried to turn away clients because he's just too busy?

**Sherlock, it seems, is sort of like me when I'm forced to spend time away from my stuff...
My friend's temper had not improved since he had been deprived of the congenial surroundings of Baker Street. Without his scrapbooks, his chemicals, and his homely untidiness, he was an uncomfortable man.
Like me, Holmes needs to be in his nest.

**Many have complained that Soames' choice of material for the translation exam--Thucydides--is far too basic and too well known to make an adequate test for an expensive scholarship. I have no real comment to make, as it is all Greek to me.

Perhaps Watson was altering details to hide the truth? Was the subject even Greek?!? Was Soames a tutor of some other subject, and Watson just altering details to protect his identity and reputation?

**Soames defends the integrity of his butler: "Bannister--a man who has looked after my room for ten years, and whose honesty is absolutely above suspicion."

Well, we have obvious reasons to question Soames' ability to judge character. He was completely wrong in his assessment of which student might be capable of stealing the exam. And obviously, even though it was for honourable reasons, Bannister does outright lie to their faces, so his honesty cannot and should not have been "above suspicion."

**The Fortescue scholarship is apparently quite a hefty one: "A large sum of money is at stake, for the scholarship is a very valuable one, and an unscrupulous man might very well run a risk in order to gain an advantage over his fellows."

Shouldn't, then, Holmes' investigation at least considered who needed the money to continue their education the most? We know nothing about Maclaren and Das' financial situation. We do know that Gilchrist's father lost his fortune playing the ponies. That would certainly seem to suggest some monetary need on Gilchrist's part, and should have been one more reason to suspect him.

**Speaking of dad, the lad's father is "the notorious Sir Jabez Gilchrist." With a name like that, of course he's notorious!!

**"Sherlock posits a theory to Soames: "the man who tampered with them came upon them accidentally without knowing that they were there." Soames agrees, and Holmes gives an "enigmatic smile," because he has already dismissed this possibility as an "unthinkable coincidence."

Well, as I mentioned above, it seems to be just as unthinkable coincidence that the only student tall enough to see through the window just happens to walk by for the brief time that the proofs were unattended, and that was also at the exact same time the butler just happened to leave the key in the door.

I can't conceive over why that far more complex coincidence should be any more unthinkable to Holmes...

**Holmes is rather cheeky to Watson throughout the story. Insult #1, as he suggests that Watson not come along with them: "Not one of your cases, Watson--mental, not physical. All right; come if you want to."

WTF, Sherlock? Watson has come along on many, many of your "mental" cases.

Total dick move, Mr. Holmes.

**Holmes solves the mystery pretty much right away: "Holmes halted and looked earnestly at the window. Then he approached it, and, standing on tiptoe with his neck craned, he looked into the room."

After that, by his reasoning, only someone as tall or taller than himself could have seen through the window. So all that's left is to find out the height the students!

 In other words, every bit of the rest of the investigation is a waste of time.

**Remember the crap Holmes gave Inspector Hopkins in Black Peter for not examining the ground carefully enough outside of the crime scene? "As long as the criminal remains upon two legs so long must there be some indentation, some abrasion, some trifling displacement which can be detected by the scientific searcher."

Yeah, well, Holmes himself doesn't seem that diligent in this case: "We stood at the entrance while Holmes made an examination of the carpet. 'I am afraid there are no signs here,' said he. 'One could hardly hope for any upon so dry a day.'"

So much for the claim that there must always be some indication which can be detected.

 Perhaps Holmes was just jerking Hopkins around...?

**Much is made of the pencil shaving found at the scene:
The pencil was not an ordinary one. It was above the usual size, with a soft lead, the outer colour was dark blue, the maker's name was printed in silver lettering, and the piece remaining is only about an inch and a half long. Look for such a pencil, Mr. Soames, and you have got your man.
Well, not so much.

Despite visiting all the stationers shops in town; despite an elaborate ruse to trick the students into showing their pencils; despite the declaration that this pencil was so unique that it must reveal the thief...despite all of this, nothing is found out about the pencil, and it plays no role whatsoever in the outcome of the story.


**A second insult to Watson, when Holmes is frustrated that Soames cannot seem to follow his reasoning:: "Watson, I have always done you an injustice. There are others."

 Oh,what a nasty left-handed apology: "you're not the only one who is stupid!"

WTF, Sherlock?!?

**The ironic part of that bit is that Sherlock gets that same bloody clue backwards!!
 What could this NN be? It is at the end of a word. You are aware that Johann Faber is the most common maker's name. Is it not clear that there is just as much of the pencil left as usually follows the Johann?"
Well, no. If the NN were shaved off, then everything following NN would already be gone from the pencil!! JOHA would be left on the pencil, not FABER.

Of course, if you don't know precisely where the wording is on the pencil originally, you can't tell how much pencil is left.

So the one original deduction Holmes makes in the story is, well, wrong. And it is useless in solving the mystery, as we've seen above.

**One good bit of dialogue, as Sherlock pressures Soames to pick whom he thinks is the most likely malfeasor:
Soames: "One hardly likes to throw suspicion where there are no proofs." 
Holmes: "Let us hear the suspicions. I will look after the proofs."

**Astute Holmes, noticing when people behave oddly:
Where were you when you began to feel bad?" 
"Where was I, sir? Why, here, near the door." 
"That is singular, because you sat down in that chair over yonder near the corner. Why did you pass these other chairs?"
**Bannister, whose honesty is "beyond suspicion": "I don't believe there is any gentleman in this university who is capable of profiting by such an action. No, sir, I'll not believe it." Of course, at this point, Bannister knew for a fact that a gentleman did attempt to profit by it. So, straight, bald-faced lie.

**Does Watson really not understand that this was just a ruse to find the pencil?
Holmes was so charmed with one of them that he insisted on drawing it in his notebook, broke his pencil, had to borrow one from our host and finally borrowed a knife to sharpen his own. The same curious accident happened to him in the rooms of the Indian...
The doctor shows no trace of understanding that this is a ploy. This is definitely a retrograde writing of the character, as most of the stories in Return show Watson well able to keep up with most of Holmes reasoning, and to recognize Holmes laying his traps.

**We're told by both Watson and Soames how "rude" and "foul-mouthed" MacLaren is:
...nothing more substantial than a torrent of bad language came from behind it. "I don't care who you are. You can go to blazes!" roared the angry voice. "Tomorrow's the exam, and I won't be drawn by anyone."
This is foul language? "You can go to blazes"?? Heavens, hide the children!!

**A third insult of Watson? Holmes suggest that Watson will get them evicted: "What with your eternal tobacco, Watson, and your irregularity at meals, I expect that you will get notice to quit, and that I shall share in your downfall."

I'm more forgiving of this one, as the context makes it clearly playful banter, and the paraphrase of Shakespeare a sentence earlier shows Holmes was being more puckish than rude.

**The clue of the little lumps of clay may--just may--give away the game on the school's identity. It turns out, from several sources, that such stuff was used to line the jump pits at Cambridge, but not Oxford.

So closed case? Maybe. Unless, of course, Watson knew that, and he threw in that "clue" to mislead readers.

See what a trial it can be to come to firm conclusions when you have an unreliable narrator?

**More Holmsian private justice: "If this matter is not to become public, we must give ourselves certain powers and resolve ourselves into a small private court-martial."

**Ah, the classic "make the perp think his cohort has confessed when he really hasn't so the perp will give himself away ploy":
The unfortunate young man staggered back, and cast a look full of horror and reproach at Bannister. "No, no, Mr. Gilchrist, sir, I never said a word--never one word!" cried the servant. "No, but you have now," said Holmes.
Works every time.

**It is terribly convenient that Gilchrist has an alternate job already lined up. Did the Rhodesian police regularly go about offering positions to undergraduates at Camford and Oxbridge?

**Again, the story would have ended exactly the same had Holmes never been involved:
"I have a letter here, Mr. Soames, which I wrote to you early this morning in the middle of a restless night. It was before I knew that my sin had found me out."

**The most unthinkable coincidence of all? "Time was, sir, when I was butler to old Sir Jabez Gilchrist, this young gentleman's father." What are the odds of that--a butler leaves the service of a bankrupt gentleman, get a new position at a major university, and that gentleman's son just happens to go to that same university--and lives in the very same building?

Of course, one could argue that Bannister kept track of young Gilchrist, and pulled some strings to get him in (or to get himself closer once Gilchrist were admitted). Then again, the servant class usually didn't have that many strings to pull...