Saturday, August 22, 2015

His Last Bow--On His Majesty's Secret Service!!

We've covered 4 novels and 43 short stories of Sherlock Holmes solving mysteries and dispensing justice.

Which brings us to His Last Bow.

His Last Bow is a tale that I've always found a tiny bit frustrating. Neither fish nor fowl, it tries to straddle two genres, and put our hero in an unfamiliar situation for his final coup de grace.

Because His Last Bow is most certainly not a standard mystery--it is a spy thriller, an espionage tale, a story not of Sherlock Holmes fighting crime, but of his protecting England from spies on the eve of The Great War.

Not that there aren't often many similarities between spy stories and mysteries. Indeed, espionage tales often involve a mystery--who is the spy? Who is the traitor? How is the information getting passed to the enemy?

But there can be just as many differences between a spy story and a crime thriller as there are congruities. We have to overgeneralize, of course, because there are as many sub-genres of spy story as there are for mysteries.

But allow me to explore a couple of ways we can expect spy stories to differ from mysteries, and whether Sir Arthur Conan Doyle does a good job of positioning Holmes within that milieu.

First, while many espionage tales do not include a mystery. Whodunnit of howdunnit is often less important than stop them from doing it again, or finding a way to lessen or even reverse the impact of the nasty business.

We have seen Sherlock in mysteries involving espionage and the theft of government secrets three times before Last Bow--The Naval Treaty, The Second Stain, and The Bruce-Partington Plans. But in each of those cases, Holmes was involved only in the the mystery side of things--find the papers, and find who stole them. He wasn't involved in the deeper matters of mitigating the impact of their thefts, or penetrating enemy organizations.

But in His Last Bow, there is no mystery. We already know who the spy is, we know what he is doing and whom he is working for. Hell, the first half of the tale is spent with the spy and his master telling us everything!! (Although I must confess, when I first read this story, I suspected that Von Bork was really Holmes in disguise. So young, but so stupid...). The only mystery at all is the reader wondering where the hell was Sherlock Holmes in this story!!

The second difference between many spy and mystery stories is the stakes. Not to suggest that murder and blackmail and the like are trivial. But espionage tales generally eschew the individual level tragedies and are focused on the national or global threats. We have to maintain the balance of power! We have to safeguard our country!! At their most absurd level, of course, we have to save the globe from a monomaniacal billionaire who wants to kill everyone. Mysteries? The hero just wants to catch the crook, and perhaps stop him from murdering or stealing again. Important stuff, to be sure, but without the geopolitical implications that characterize many a spy thriller.

And that is the case with His Last Bow. Holmes is not acting at the behest of some mere client, but the Foreign Minister and Prime Minister of Great Britain! Sherlock is not out to catch some predator--as far as we know Von Bork has never hurt a fly--but to prevent England from being at a massive disadvantage in the forthcoming war! Rather than saving a life or two or rescuing a damsel or recovering some bank's fortune, Holmes is trying to save thousands of lives, potentially!! Higher stakes, indeed!!

So His Last Bow is very much in the spy mold, and not the standard Sherlockian mode. But does that make for as satisfying a tale?

Not only is there no mystery in this story, but there is precious little use of Holmes' brilliant, deductive mind. Consider that when he detected a "deep organising power" behind much of the crime in London, Holmes used his powers discover that his foe was Professor Moriarty. In this story, however, there was no flight of brilliance--Holmes went deep undercover, until he "caught the eye of a subordinate agent of Von Bork." In other words, instead of tracking down the master spy himself, he made himself an attractive tool and waited for the villain to come to him. I don't want to denigrate that--it took two years of hard work, and not breaking character, and heaven knows what other hardships. But people don't read a Sherlock Holmes story expecting Donnie Brasco, and it is a little bit jarring.

Furthermore, the format of the short story is perhaps too constraining for this type of tale. Holmes' undercover work here obviously parallels that of Birdie Edwards, the Pinkerton who infiltrated the Molly Maguires in Valley Of Fear. But Birdie's story was given 7 chapters in a full novel.

Yes, I did criticize that approach for being too great of a a digression. But that was mainly because a) it didn't involve Holmes at all, and b) so much detail really wasn't necessary for explaining a mystery that was already solved. But Doyle over-corrected here to the other extreme. Holmes' entire two years undercover is covered in half of one paragraph! Perhaps we didn't need seven chapters, but this is the hero of the Canon, and we wanted much, much more detail here, especially as in this case it wouldn't be distracting us from the main story--it was the main story!! This is too much like The Final Problem, where all of Holmes' investigation has been done "off-screen," before the reader ever got there, lessening our involvement in the stakes of the hunt. And Von Bork is no Moriarty, so we don't have the satisfaction of that clash of brilliant minds to distract us from the sketchiness of the plot.

Also jarring is the narrative style--His Last Bow is the first Holmes tale not to be narrated by John Watson (excluding, of course, the historical digressions in Study In Scarlet and Valley Of Fear). That's not to say that it is bad--the story is well written, the characterizations of our villains well done and interesting. But for me, one of the best things about the Canon is Watson, his personality and perceptions. In His Last Bow, he has at best a glorified cameo, and an oft-quoted Holmes phrase about him does little to ease our unrest at his absence. And given that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle seemed to plan this to be, once again, the last Sherlock Holmes story, it is off-putting to have to experience it with so little of Sherlock's own Boswell.

So while His Last Bow does make the necessary moves to position itself as more of a spy story than a mystery, it does so at the expense of making it a less good Holmes and (especially) Watson story. The experimentation by Sir Arthur is welcome, and contemporary world events perhaps justified changing Holmes' focus. And it is a very engaging read. But His Last Bow is not done as well as other Holmes' "espionage" cases, and it is done in a manner to deny us what we want most in what many must have thought must be the last Sherlock story--our heroes being celebrated for what caused us to love them in the first point, rather than being virtual guest stars in Van Bork's schemes.


**Meanwhile, there is a great deal of controversy over the quality of Holmes' tradecraft in this story. Should Holmes have revealed his identity to Von Bork, and revealed that much of "secrets" he had been passing on were misinformation? Should Holmes have let Von Bork leave, and keep up the relationship, so "Altamont" could continue passing bad information? What should have been done with Von Bork? Some even seem confused as to whether or not Von Bork was actually arrested or not.

Part of the confusion lies in Doyle's writing of the scene, which leaves things purposely vague. He is the sum total of what we're told about Von Bork's fate:
No, Mr. Von Bork, you will go with us in a quiet, sensible fashion to Scotland Yard, whence you can send for your friend, Baron Von Herling, and see if even now you may not fill that place which he has reserved for you in the ambassadorial suite.
We should remember that, perhaps emboldened by suddenly being able to be himself after 2 years, Holmes was being particularly ebullient and pawky with his prisoner. Can anyone seriously think that by this taunt  Holmes actually meant that, after a night at Scotland Yard, Von Bork would be released to go visit his diplomatic master? He's teasing and tormenting his prisoner, not predicting his future.

The second thing to remember is that, in this tale, Holmes is most certainly not a "private actor." This isn't a case where the police dismissed his help, or where Holmes could dispense private justice with a deserving criminal. Holmes was quite clearly working for the Crown, and against a foe who was trying to undermine his country. Decisions about what to do with Von Bork, and when to bring him in, were surely "above his pay grade." He was no doubt acting under instruction--perhaps even from Mycroft, who was surely involved in such dealings, given how deeply he was involved in security matters in the Bruce-Partington affair. If Holmes "blew his cover" and brought in Von Bork "too early," it was surely at the direction of someone higher-up.

Why? Let's look at what we do know, and what many have overlooked. While Von Bork was expected to drop off his signal book the next day, Von Herling suggested that, "So far as I can judge the trend of events, you will probably be back in Berlin within the week." That means Von Bork wasn't thought to hopping the fastest route home--especially given the events of the next few days, travel could be tricky for a German national. If he fell out of contact for a day or two, or was late, it wouldn't be that remarkable, given the chaos about to grip the continent.

And what about Von Bork's family? "[M]y wife and the household left yesterday for Flushing..." And our narrator tells us "for his family and household had been a large one. It was a relief to him, however, to think that they were all in safety."

But he never actually knows that they are safe, does he? And given that Holmes knew the truth of Von Bork's activities, so did the British government. How likely was it, then, that they would allow a master spy's family to leave for home? Wouldn't you detain them, and hold them as leverage against a dangerous enemy? Search them, and find the "less important" but nonetheless incriminating materials she was carrying?

It might be playing dirty, but this was a time of (incipient) war. Mightn't the authorities charge Von Bork's wife with espionage, and threaten to imprison her for life unless Von Bork himself agreed to turn double agent? That would be reason enough to reveal the truth about Altamont to him--Von Bork's night in Scotland Yard would be spent with counter-espionage people blackmailing him to work for them now, cutting "Altamont" out as the middle-man. And that would be more effective if Von Bork already knew how miserably he had failed.

I can picture Mycroft laying out the very logical case to the prisoner: "You care deeply about your family, you'd hate to have them come to harm. Well, if word got out how badly you've been gulled, I think you and your family can bid adieu to the triumphant reception you were expecting home in Germany. Disgrace, or worse, will be your fate. Even more, we have your wife on espionage charges, with a 100% chance of conviction and a lengthy prison stay. Yet all of that could be easily avoided, if you agree to keep passing on bad information to your masters--and perhaps send us some sensitive information form your side. Really, it seems to be the only way to protect your family and keep your reputation and freedom."

That sales pitch is stronger if Von Bork knows the whole truth, and if he agrees to turn, there is no more need for Altamont. Holmes' revealing himself was a feature of the plan, not a bug.

**Who is the "author," the narrator of our story?

For the first time in the Canon, it is not explicitly John H. Watson, M.D.

Well, I think it still is. But why hide the fact? Why tell the story in third-person?

Well, 75% of the tale occurs outside of Watson's presence. If he maintained his previous style, telling us only what he had personally witnessed, this would be a very short story indeed.

Another factor to consider is that this story was released in wartime, more than a year before the war's end. Perhaps Watson, returning to service for the war, was occupying some sensitive position, and therefore wished to deemphasize his role in the events of this story.

Or, perhaps, someone saw the propaganda value in the tale, and wrote it up without Watson's permission?

[Realistically, of course, if Watson is narrating the tale from the beginning, the "surprise" of Holmes' revealing himself is totally spoiled, so Doyle felt it necessary to mix things up a bit.]

Still, much of the descriptive writing bears the marks of Watson's prose, evocative and very English:
It was nine o'clock at night upon the second of August--the most terrible August in the history of the world. One might have thought already that God's curse hung heavy over a degenerate world, for there was an awesome hush and a feeling of vague expectancy in the sultry and stagnant air. The sun had long set, but one blood-red gash like an open wound lay low in the distant west.
They stood with their heads close together, talking in low, confidential tones. From below the two glowing ends of their cigars might have been the smouldering eyes of some malignant fiend looking down in the darkness.
Delicious stuff!

**This was a patriotic story released in a time of war, and clearly marketed as such:

I think the desire to boost public morale, to belittle the enemy, and yet protect classified secrets from the affair, are all the explanation we need to elide over some of the more dubious and less clear points.

**For example, yes, Von Bork is made to look like an idiot. He's arrogant and dismissive, and he looks like an amateur when Holmes takes him down. And of course, his cocky derision of the English comes back to bite him in the arse: Von Bork laughed. "They are not very hard to deceive," he remarked. "A more docile, simple folk could not be imagined."

But, Von Bork is given a lot of crap from commentators for showing his safe to Altamont, and sharing the combination.

Well, not to argue against the herd, but let's remember that Von Bork was leaving the next day, and would presumably never be back again. Who cares who knew the combination? The safe was going to be empty!!

Plus, most people overlook the fact that you needed more than a mere combination to open the safe--you needed a key, as well: "Von Bork detached a small key from his watch chain, and after some considerable manipulation of the lock he swung open the heavy door."

As to getting fooled by Holmes, well, let's not cast aspersions on Holmes skills. Watson lived with the dude, and never recognized him in disguise. After 2 years undercover, without once breaking character, "Altamont" would have convinced almost anyone. On their last day together, Von Bork let his guard slip. As Holmes said, "it is better than to fall before some ignoble foe." Don't diminish Holmes' achievement by casting Von Bork as overly dull.

**Baron Von Herling described: "He was a huge man, the secretary, deep, broad, and tall, with a slow, heavy fashion of speech which had been his main asset in his political career."

A "slow, heavy fashion of speech" is a political asset? In Germany, I guess...?

**Shades of the Second Stain: Von Herling passed on something he overheard at a cabinet minster's social gathering, and "Unfortunately our good chancellor is a little heavy- handed in these matters, and he transmitted a remark which showed that he was aware of what had been said."

So, this is a second case where an indiscreet upper official caused problems. And in Second Stain, most observers think that the indiscreet potentate was Kaiser Wilhelm.

Kaisers and chancellors...always making life difficult for diplomats and spies!

**Von Herling believes that Von Bork's cover is so perfect, that the British never suspect because, "You yacht against them, you hunt with them, you play polo, you match them in every game..." So athletes are the best spies?!?

**Despite obvious propaganda going on here, it is important to note that Doyle presents the Germans cynical and manipulative, but not out-and-out evil. "We live in a utilitarian age. Honour is a mediaeval conception," says Von Herling.

Doyle clearly gives the Germans the blame for starting the war. But he also doesn't portray as inhuman monsters, but as worthy opponents. And he also shows the British playing some of the same games.

**Von Herling also says that Germany tried pretty hard to keep England out of the war, by stirring up internal problems: "We have stirred he up such a devil's brew of Irish civil war, window-breaking Furies, and God knows what to keep her thoughts at home."

So, women's suffrage: a German plot. Try running that by your female friends!

**Who hates Britain most of all? "I assure you that our most pan- Germanic Junker is a sucking dove in his feelings towards England as compared with a real bitter Irish-American." Certainly at that time, Von Bork may well have been right...

**Von Herling and Von Bork debating the use of paid underlings:
"Five hundred pounds for this particular job. Of course he has a salary as well." 
"The greedy rouge. They are useful, these traitors, but I grudge them their blood money." 
"I grudge Altamont nothing. He is a wonderful worker. If I pay him well, at least he delivers the goods, to use his own phrase."
Hatred and politics are a wonderful motivator, but money usually seems needed in these cases to clinch the deal...

**That does raise the question, though...what did Altamont do? Did he have a job? How did a bitterly anti-English Irish-American supposedly get access to all those deep English secrets?

**Oh, Sir Arthur, tell us how you really feel about Americans? "If you heard him talk you would not doubt it. Sometimes I assure you I can hardly understand him. He seems to have declared war on the King's English as well as on the English king."

At least we don't say "maths."

**"That is Martha, the only servant I have left." The secretary chuckled. "She might almost personify Britannia..."

You're more right than you know, Von Bork.

As for those who suggest that Martha is Mrs. Hudson, please. The universe is not that closed...there are many woman in England who would help Sherlock Holmes in a patriotic effort, and for him to use someone who had a known personal attachment to Sherlock Holmes risked discovery. Besides, it's not likely that neither Watson nor Mrs. Hudson would acknowledge the other when meeting again after so long.

** "I'm bringing home the bacon at last." OK, maybe Von Bork was right about Altamont's war on the King's English.

Seriously, though, Sherlock's contemporary Americanisms are pretty good...

**It's too bad no one has adapted this story to TV or film: "and a small goatee beard which gave him a general resemblance to the caricatures of Uncle Sam." Oh, man, I would pay to see that!

**How long have the Germans been planning this?
"Well, I chose August for the word, and 1914 for the figures, and here we are." The American's face showed his surprise and admiration. "My, but that was smart! You had it down to a fine thing." "Yes, a few of us even then could have guessed the date.
Well, that was certainly prescient, considering he got the safe four years ago!

Of course, short of Asimov's psycho-history, it's impossible to believe that Germany could have micro-managed events--both with allies and enemies--to such an extent that Von Bork could have predicted to the very month when hostilities would break out.

Unless, of course, you choose to believe that Germany was actually behind the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand...

**Citizenships are no protection when one is charged with espionage: "Well, so was Jack James an American citizen, but he's doing time in Portland all the same. It cuts no ice with a British copper to tell him you're an American citizen. 'It's British law and order over here,' says he."

**He sat down at the table and scribbled a check, which he tore from the book,

Wait wait wait wait.

Von Bork paid his agents...with checks?!?!?!?

Jesus, maybe he was a pretty stupid spy!

**The reveal: "Only for one instant did the master spy glare at this strangely irrelevant inscription. The next he was gripped at the back of his neck by a grasp of iron, and a chloroformed sponge was held in front of his writhing face."

**Our heroes reunited: "Another glass, Watson!" said Mr. Sherlock Holmes as he extended the bottle of Imperial Tokay. The thickset chauffeur, who had seated himself by the table, pushed forward his glass with some eagerness.

**More evidence that Holmes was winding Von Bork up. When the spy is still unconscious, Holmes tells Watson,  "I may say that a good many of these papers have come through me, and I need not add are thoroughly untrustworthy."

That "thoroughly" vanishes, though, when Von Bork wakes up, and Holmes is using understatement to let Von Bork realize the depth of his predicament:  "It is certainly a little untrustworthy," said Holmes...
"Your admiral may find the new guns rather larger than he expects, and the cruisers perhaps a trifle faster."

**Oh, it is good to see these two together again:
How have the years used you? You look the same blithe boy as ever."
"I feel twenty years younger, Holmes. I have seldom felt so happy as when I got your wire asking me to meet you at Harwich with the car. But you, Holmes--you have changed very little-- save for that horrible goatee."
Pawky, Watson, pawky!!
"These are the sacrifices one makes for one's country, Watson," said Holmes, pulling at his little tuft. "To-morrow it will be but a dreadful memory."
**Holmes is very proud of his bee book:
Here is the fruit of my leisured ease, the magnum opus of my latter years!" He picked up the volume from the table and read out the whole title, Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. "Alone I did it. Behold the fruit of pensive nights and laborious days when I watched the little working gangs as once I watched the criminal world of London.
**The very (very) brief summation of Holmes' time undercover:
When I say that I started my pilgrimage at Chicago, graduated in an Irish secret society at Buffalo, gave serious trouble to the constabulary at Skibbareen, and so eventually caught the eye of a subordinate agent of Von Bork, who recommended me as a likely man, you will realize that the matter was complex. Since then I have been honoured by his confidence, which has not prevented most of his plans going subtly wrong and five of his best agents being in prison. I watched them, Watson, and I picked them as they ripened.
Again, that took 7 chapters in Valley Of Fear. Perhaps there is a happy medium somewhere between the two?

**Holmes: "Though unmusical, German is the most expressive of all languages,"

**Apocryphal case: "It was I also who saved from murder, by the Nihilist Klopman, Count Von und Zu Grafenstein, who was your mother's elder brother."

**An unlikely assessment from Holmes:
But you have one quality which is very rare in a German, Mr. Von Bork: you are a sportsman and you will bear me no ill-will when you realize that you, who have outwitted so many other people, have at last been outwitted yourself.
Somehow, I doubt that will be Von Bork's attitude...

**A telling discussion of civil liberties and wartime:
"I suppose you realize, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," said he, "that if your government bears you out in this treatment it becomes an act of war...You are a private individual. You have no warrant for my arrest. The whole proceeding is absolutely illegal and outrageous."
"The Englishman is a patient creature, but at present his temper is a little inflamed, and it would be as well not to try him too far."
While Von Bork is a bit blustery here--certainly detaining an enemy agent who has admitted espionage is not an act of war, and Holmes is working for His majesty's government, so he is no private individual here--he does raise some important points.

I won't pretend to know the legalities of 1914 British law on detaining suspected criminals, assault, and the such. I would suppose that Holmes' position as proto-MI5 might give sufficient leeway to capture the spy.

But Holmes' reply--the English are a bit pissed at foreigners right now, so you'd be better off not crying "oh my rights" right now--sounds a little bit too much like the ad hoc justifications that lead us to Guantanamo and other abuses. Rights shouldn't be determined by popularity, or public temperament...

**Saddest line in the Canon? "Stand with me here upon the terrace, for it may be the last quiet talk that we shall ever have."

"There's an east wind coming, Watson."
"I think not, Holmes. It is very warm."
"Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age.

**Sadly, these words, while well-intentioned, were destined to be very, very wrong:
There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.
That's what believing in a divine hand in the affairs of man gets you--a belief that everything, no matter how awful, must really be for the best. Phooey.


Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Adventure Of The Devil's Foot--Holmes And Watson Totally Get Wasted!!

For forty-some stories I've managed to preface my trivial detail-obsessed wallow in each Sherlock Holmes story with a longer essay, focusing on some aspect of the mystery I felt particularly fascinating.

Which brings us to The Adventure of The Devil's Foot.

Because I got nothing.

Not that there isn't a lot of interesting things going on in Devil's Foot. There certainly are. It's a great story.

But most of most fascinating ideas in the tale are reprises of issues I've already talked about in earlier essays, as this story returns to a lot of themes from earlier Holmes stories. And I don't want to repeat myself too much. Yet what's left, as curious and informative as it may be, doesn't justify a longer piece.

So forgive me, dear reader, for no huge and overlong analysis this time. Let's just get straight to the...


**We have discussed, most extensively in Abbey Grange, how problematic it is when Sherlock Holmes takes it into his own hands to determine if criminals--even killers--deserve punishment.

So while I won't belabor my conclusions again (spoiler alert: it's very problematic), Devil's Foot provides a couple of unique aspects we should acknowledge.

First of all, Dr. Leon Sterndale, unlike the others Holmes allowed to go unpunished, committed deliberate, premeditated murder. This was not arguably self-defense, or the unfortunate result of a fight, or a crime committed "in the heat of passion." Sterndale, like the big game hunter he is, stalked and killer Mortimer Tregennis, and executed him in cold blood. And in a particularly heinous way: "Then you passed out and closed the window, standing on the lawn outside smoking a cigar and watching what occurred."

You can argue whether he was justified (Holmes: "I have never loved, Watson, but if I did and if the woman I loved had met such an end, I might act even as our lawless lion- hunter has done. Who knows?"). You can argue that the case might have proven impossible to prove before a jury--that was Sterndale's excuse for executing Tregennis in the first place! But given Sterndale's propensity for violence and attitude towards civilized justice--"'I have lived so long among savages and beyond the law,' said he, 'that I have got into the way of being a law to myself,'" and "I have come at last to be a law to myself."--we cannot have any confidence in Holmes' standby of "he is unlikely to commit another crime, so..." No, even a an "exile" in Africa, it seems not unlikely that Sterndale will take justice into his own hands again.

Let us also remember that Sterndale had absolutely no proof--none whatsoever--that Mortimer Tregennis murdered Brenda. Holmes wouldn't share any of the investigation's facts with the great hunter. So Sterndale merely presumed that Mortimer had stolen some Devil's Foot--even though he had no idea when or how. He assumed Mortimer had sufficient motive. He threatened and tortured Mortimer, yet Tregennis did not confess--Sterndale only says, "The wretch sank into a chair, paralyzed at the sight of my revolver." Surely, in his self-justifying confession, he would have told Holmes if Tregennis had admitted to the deed. [The 1965 BBC adaptation does have Tregennis confess, albeit at gunpoint].

I think that a case--admittedly shaky--can be made that Holmes overreached on some of his conclusions, and perhaps Mortimer Tregennis was not guilty. With none of the facts at his disposal, there is no way the Leon Sterndale could have been been certain of Tregennis' guilt. It's certainly possible that he tortured and killed an innocent man, which is the danger of taking the law into your own hands.

But most damning of all--why was Dr. Sterndale still carrying the poison with him when he came in response to Holmes' summons at the end? It was two days after Mortimer's death...surely carrying that packet on his person could only lead to his conviction if was somehow searched, giving the police the only clue they might need to convict him. Why the hell risk it--unless he planned to use it to kill again?

Remember, Holmes had summoned Sterndale after the murder of Mortimer, and Sterndale had to be suspicious as to why. Did the detective suspect him? Twice Watson has the hunter look surprised, if not annoyed, at having to meet with them outside, and not in their dwelling: "He turned in some surprise towards the rustic arbour in which we sat....'You will excuse this informal reception in the open air...'" And Sterndale was carrying the Devil's Foot with him, when that would be foolishly reckless--unless he intended to use it again.

It is all implication (or an overly eager misreading on my part). But I believe that when Holmes summoned Sterndale, he feared that the detective had sussed him out. And he brought some radix pedis diaboli with him to the cottage, planning to kill Holmes (or drive him insane)--with Watson as collateral damage. Just another victim of the "Cornish horror," which the pedestrian local police would never solve. But his plan was thwarted when Holmes insisted on taking the meeting outside.

And that is why Leon Sterndale should not have been allowed to escape untouched by the law.

**Devil's Foot also reprises a theme I cover at great length in my essay on The Hound Of The Baskervilles: a rejection of the supernatural in favor of reason and intellect.

Holmes strength--his mind, his deductions--are worthless in the milieu of ghost and demons. And, as in Hound, he declares as much several times:
"It is not of this world. Something has come into that room which has dashed the light of reason from their minds. What human contrivance could do that?" 
"I fear," said Holmes, "that if the matter is beyond humanity it is certainly beyond me. Yet we must exhaust all natural explanations before we fall back upon such a theory as this.
I take it, in the first place, that neither of us is prepared to admit diabolical intrusions into the affairs of men. Let us begin by ruling that entirely out of our minds.
I won't go on to much about this, as I covered it pretty well back in Hound. But I will reiterate that Holmes and Watson should treat the supernatural like a Scooby-Doo episode: something to be debunked, not embraced. And if you're doing a pastiche where Sherlock is interacting with actual supernatural forces, I don't think I agree with your understanding of the character.

**This is the second time that Holmes' nervous exhaustion has led to an enforced exile from London: "Holmes's iron constitution showed some symptoms of giving way in the face of constant hard work of a most exacting kind...but he was induced at last, on the threat of being permanently disqualified from work, to give himself a complete change of scene and air."

Of course, both times a case dropped into his lap, and Sherlock certainly showed no signs of the stress of working threatening his health. To the contrary, getting his mind engaged on singular problems seems to have been the best medicine, not an enforced rest that would let his mind go unused and sink into the depths of depression again...

**Of course, Watson says that Holmes' condition was "aggravated, perhaps, by occasional indiscretions of his own."

A cocaine use reference? Or some other "indiscretions?" Stop being so damned discreet, Watson!!

**Watson claiming that Holmes' "aversion to publicity" made it difficult to get the detective to allow his cases to be published:
To his sombre and cynical spirit all popular applause was always abhorrent, and nothing amused him more at the end of a successful case than to hand over the actual exposure to some orthodox official, and to listen with a mocking smile to the general chorus of misplaced congratulation.
Of course, that's quite a contrast with Holmes' penchant for sometimes ridiculous dramatic flourishes in the resolution of his cases. Stolen documents under food trays, fires to smoke out hiding killers when Holmes knew where they were the whole time, dramatic revelations--the detective loved to show off.

Perhaps that was only for his peers (and clients), and it was the applause of the general public which Holmes disdained...

**Watson on why so few of Holmes' cases were published: "My participation in some if his adventures was always a privilege which entailed discretion and reticence upon me."

Well, sure. But by your own admission, you had records of hundreds of cases--hundreds!! Quit holding out on us!!Discretion be damned!

**Apocryphal case : "Dr. Moore Agar, of Harley Street, whose dramatic introduction to Holmes I may some day recount..."

It was never recounted. Boo!

**Watson is once again a poor travel agent, painting a fairly bleak portrait of Cornwall:
We looked down upon the whole sinister semicircle of Mounts Bay, that old death trap of sailing vessels, with its fringe of black cliffs and surge-swept reefs on which innumerable seamen have met their end. With a northerly breeze it lies placid and sheltered, inviting the storm-tossed craft to tack into it for rest and protection. Then come the sudden swirl round of the wind, the blistering gale from the south-west, the dragging anchor, the lee shore, and the last battle in the creaming breakers. The wise mariner stands far out from that evil place...It was a country of rolling moors, lonely and dun-colored...
Obviously their vacation was not endorsed by the Cornish Tourism Bureau...

**Man, sometimes you just don't get to enjoy your time off:
We found ourselves, even in that land of dreams, plunged into a problem at our very doors which was more intense, more engrossing, and infinitely more mysterious than any of those which had driven us from London. Our simple life and peaceful, healthy routine were violently interrupted, and we were precipitated into the midst of a series of events which caused the utmost excitement not only in Cornwall but throughout the whole west of England.
Yeah, sometime work bothers me on my attempted day off, too. Nothing as exciting as the Cornish Horror, though!

**Watson, angry at the attempt to interrupt Holmes' rest, gets as close to rude as a Victorian gentleman can get with guests: "I glared at the intrusive vicar with no very friendly eyes..." Dude, where are your manners?

The Granada adaptation has Watson trying much harder, and with much less discretion, to keep Holmes out of the case. With just as much success.

**Wonderful, well also terrible and terrifying, tableau:
His two brothers and his sister were seated round the table exactly as he had left them, the cards still spread in front of them and the candles burned down to their sockets. The sister lay back stone-dead in her chair, while the two brothers sat on each side of her laughing, shouting, and singing, the senses stricken clean out of them. All three of them, the dead woman and the two demented men, retained upon their faces an expression of the utmost horror--a convulsion of terror which was dreadful to look upon.
Horrifying stuff. And to their credit, both BBC 1965 and Granada do a wonderful job of portraying this scene.

**"Mrs. Porter, the old cook and housekeeper, who declared that she had slept deeply and heard no sound during the night."

OK, hold one just one minute--if our victims were "laughing, shouting and singing," wouldn't she have heard something?!? Shouting?!?

Holmes doesn't see anything wrong with this, and declares, "Mrs. Porter may be eliminated. She is evidently harmless." But really, this is too dismissive by far. She claims not to have heard any of the ruckus the insane gentlemen were making. She would have been just as able to put the devil's foot into the fireplace as Mortimer, if not more so--who notices servants? And her insistence on leaving immediately might be another red flag.

Granted, she has no motive that we know of, and no access to Doctor Sterndale's African mementos. But it seems unwise to eliminate her as a suspect, especially if we consider the possibility that she might have been acting as an accomplice to someone else...

**"We were a family of tin-miners at Redruth, but we sold our venture to a company, and so retired with enough to keep us. I won't deny that there was some feeling about the division of the money..."

Is there some reason that it wasn't merely a 3-way split? Or 4-way? Why was Mortimer so aggrieved? Did he actually receive less, or did he feel that he deserved more? Did he think that Brenda should not have been included in the division of funds, which would have reduced his share? Had he not wanted to sell in the first place?

Without any details on the dispute, it's hard to evaluate how credible is was as a motive for Mortimer to go so far as to eliminate his entire family.

 **Mortimer Tregennis claims that he and his brother saw...something outside the window the night of the tragedy:
I could just make out the bushes on the lawn, and it seemed to me for a moment that I saw something moving among them. I couldn't even say if it was man or animal, but I just thought there was something there...
"Did you not investigate?"
"No; the matter passed as unimportant."
Now, Holmes concludes that no one could have been seen through the window, and therefore the story must be untrue, and therefore Mortimer must be lying, trying to distract Holmes.

Yet Sherlock overanalyzes this, I think, claiming that Tregennis' vague tale said several things that he didn't actually say.

Even though Mortimer never said with any certainty that they saw a person--"something moving, I couldn't say if it was man or animal"--Holmes goes on to claim that Tregennis had said they saw an actual person: "Anyone who had the design to alarm these people would be compelled to place his very face against the glass before he could be seen." Well, sure, but that's not what Tregennis said that he saw!

Holmes always says that Tregennis claimed the family was terrified by what they saw: "It is difficult to imagine, then, how an outsider could have made so terrible an impression upon the company." Of course, Tregennis said no such thing--"the matter passed as unimportant."

Holmes establishes that there was likely no one there. But anyone who has caught a shadow moving out of the corner of their eye at night can tell you that nothing can look like something. In all likelihood Tregennis was making his story up--but it is not beyond the pale that there was a bird or animal or some of debris blown by the wind that created the "movement." Holmes, meanwhile, has to vastly inflate what Tregennis told him in order to be able to "disprove" it. Poor deduction/argumentation, Sherlock!

**Oh, and your methods!
So absorbed was he in his thoughts, I remember, that he stumbled over the watering-pot, upset its contents, and deluged both our feet and the garden path.
Both Granada and BBC 1965 have Holmes physically bump Tregennis into the dirt of a garden in order to get his footprints...

**Sterndale: "This villain had thought that I would be at sea before the news could reach me, and that I should be lost for years in Africa."

Some have questioned why Mortimer didn't wait until he was certain Sterndale was gone to enact his plan. Well, perhaps this explains it:

Holmes: "Why a fire?" he asked once. "Had they always a fire in this small room on a spring evening?" Mortimer Tregennis explained that the night was cold and damp.

Perhaps this explains why Mortimer had to act so quickly--he felt that he had to use the fireplace, and as the spring weather warmed, there might not be any more cold and damp nights until fall. If he were to use the fireplace, it had to be now, which justified the remote risk of Sterndale being notified and returning. As it was, word only reached the hunter just before he departed the country...

**At the beginning of the tale, Watson tell us:
Shortly after our breakfast hour, as we were smoking together, preparatory to our daily excursion upon the moors.
But later, Sherlock says:
I think, Watson, that I shall resume that course of tobacco-poisoning which you have so often and so justly condemned...
So wait--which is it Watson? If you condemned Holmes tobacco use, why the hell were you smoking with him in the morning? Perhaps you were only referring to Holmes' excessive use of tobacco. But even if that were true, your smoking with him sure isn't helping him cut down any! Physician, heal thyself!!

**Holmes: "To let the brain work without sufficient material is like racing an engine. It racks itself to pieces."

That's sort of a condemnation of the enforced vacation as cure for nervous exhaustion, isn't it? Sherlock's mind needs something to occupy it...enforced rest with no mental challenges may be the exact opposite of what he needs to recover--as both this story and the Reigate Squires seems to establish!

**Watson's description of the great white hunter:
The huge body, the craggy and deeply seamed face with the fierce eyes and hawk-like nose, the grizzled hair which nearly brushed our cottage ceiling, the beard--golden at the fringes and white near the lips, save for the nicotine stain from his perpetual cigar--all these were as well known in London as in Africa, and could only be associated with the tremendous personality of Dr. Leon Sterndale, the great lion-hunter and explorer.
**Sterndale "lived an absolutely lonely life, attending to his own simple wants and paying little apparent heed to the affairs of his neighbors."

Well, obviously that wasn't true, as we learn that he was courting Brenda and hanging out with various members of the Tregennis family. Given the intense gossip in little villages like that, how was this relationship kept a secret?

**Another great "Holmes suddenly on the hunt" moment:
One realized the red-hot energy which underlay Holmes's phlegmatic exterior when one saw the sudden change which came over him from the moment that he entered the fatal apartment. In an instant he was tense and alert, his eyes shining, his face set, his limbs quivering with eager activity.

**Holmes: "I cannot remain to discuss the matter with the police..."

Why ever not?

 Sherlock doesn't make any effort to inform the police of his investigation, except to send cryptic messages through the vicar. Heavens, people are being murdered in the most horrible fashion--this is no time for your silly games, Sherlock. At least in the Granada version, the police explicitly tell Sherlock not get involved, so there is a reason for him not to share with them.

Watson tells us later, "It may be that the police resented the intrusion of an amateur, or that they imagined themselves to be upon some hopeful line of investigation; but it is certain that we heard nothing from them for the next two days." Idiots.

**Whatever the state of Holmes' mental health, he's still pretty sharp, deducing the existence of a heat-activated mind-altering drug when something like that had been completely unknown before:
In each case there is evidence of a poisonous atmosphere. In each case, also, there is combustion going on in the room--in the one case a fire, in the other a lamp. The fire was needed, but the lamp was lit--as a comparison of the oil consumed will show--long after it was broad daylight. Why? Surely because there is some connection between three things--the burning, the stuffy atmosphere, and, finally, the madness or death of those unfortunate people. That is clear, is it not?

**Ah, Victorian sexism, even in the autopsy phase?, since in the first case only the woman, who had presumably the more sensitive organism, was killed, the others exhibiting that temporary or permanent lunacy which is evidently the first effect of the drug.
Of course, it's possible that for some reason woman are more susceptible to the devil's foot. Or perhaps Brenda had a more tenuous hold on her sanity to begin with? But nope, woman are more vulnerable because they are "more sensitive." Which is not far from Spock's "woman are more easily and more deeply terrified." So it's not just the Victorian era.

The Granada adaptation does away with this, asserting that Brenda died merely because she was sitting closest to the fireplace, and thus received a bigger dose than her brothers...

**Let's just acknowledge this: Stupidest. Experiment. Ever. And of course, after it is over, Holmes himself acknowledges it.

Especially given that he is, theoretically, under treatment for extreme mental stress, exposing himself to mind-altering substances might not be the brightest idea.

Of course, we do have to understand Holmes' dilemma here. All he had was speculation that this substance behaved like no other substance known to man did, and that someone could deliberately use this powder to literally frighten people to death. Certainly the local authorities weren't interested in Holmes conclusions, nor would they be able to get there themselves.

So if Holmes were to prove anything, if he were to know that he was right, there had to be an experiment. And, let's be honest--for the reader to accept the premise, she had to see it in action, and see someone as grounded as the good Doctor Watson brought to edge of madness by the devil's foot.

And, in fairness, Holmes was properly chastened and apologetic afterwards.

**TV adaptations wish they could be this effectively frightening:
I had hardly settled in my chair before I was conscious of a thick, musky odour, subtle and nauseous. At the very first whiff of it my brain and my imagination were beyond all control. A thick, black cloud swirled before my eyes, and my mind told me that in this cloud, unseen as yet, but about to spring out upon my appalled senses, lurked all that was vaguely horrible, all that was monstrous and inconceivably wicked in the universe. Vague shapes swirled and swam amid the dark cloud-bank, each a menace and a warning of something coming, the advent of some unspeakable dweller upon the threshold, whose very shadow would blast my soul...The turmoil within my brain was such that something must surely snap. I tried to scream and was vaguely aware of some hoarse croak which was my own voice, but distant and detached from myself...
Well done, Sir Arthur.

The question, of course, is how the hell do you portray this on screen!

Wisely, the 1965 BBC adaptation really doesn't try to show us exactly what Holmes and Watson we experiencing. They just gave us tracking close-up shots of our actors' faces, and everything is done merely merely with facial movements. It's is terrifyingly effective, and given the level of TV technology at the BBC in those days, a wise decision to leave it all in the actors' hands.

Granada is less successful, although I certainly don't blame them for trying. Sadly, though, Holmes' nightmares are merely flashback clips of previous episodes, particularly Moriarty and the Reichenbach Falls, glossed over what looks like very amateurish and crude paint box effects. We also don't get to see any of what Watson experiences, which robs him of a bit of his agency and heroism in his ability to rouse himself in the need to save his friend.

No, the better approach is to leave the actors to suggest what's going on, and let the audience fill in the rest themselves.

**As foolish as the experiment was, it does provide us with perhaps our purest glimpse of the friendship between Watson and Holmes.

Watson: "It was that vision (of Holmes in torment"which gave me an instant of sanity and of strength..."
Holmes: "Upon my word, Watson!" said Holmes at last with an unsteady voice, "I owe you both my thanks and an apology. It was an unjustifiable experiment even for one's self, and doubly so for a friend. I am really very sorry."
"You know," I answered with some emotion, for I have never seen so much of Holmes's heart before, "that it is my greatest joy and privilege to help you."

Oh, you two....

**Holmes: "When I think of Mortimer Tregennis, with the foxy face and the small shrewd, beady eyes behind the spectacles, he is not a man whom I should judge to be of a particularly forgiving disposition."

Another example of Doyle equating moral weakness with physical appearance. 

For what it's worth, in the 1965 BBC adaptation, Mortimer Tregennis is played by a pre-Doctor Who Patrick Troughton.

**Watson raises an interesting possibility:
"Then his own death was suicide!"
"Well, Watson, it is on the face of it a not impossible supposition. The man who had the guilt upon his soul of having brought such a fate upon his own family might well be driven by remorse to inflict it upon himself."
Of course, we know that Mortimer was murdered. Still, we are never given any glimpse into his psyche after the tragedy befall his family. How guilty does he feel? Does he regret it? What would he have done if Holmes had caught him? Or would he have come forward on his own, plagued by shame and horror? We'll never know, thanks to Leon Sterndale.

For what it's worth, the 1965 BBC adaptation has Tregennis telling Sterndale that he never meant for Brenda to die, only for her to be driven insane. Well, that was not exactly going to calm Sterndale down, was it?

"I followed you."
"I saw no one."
"That is what you may expect to see when I follow you."

**Sterndale: "I could not marry her, for I have a wife who has left me for years and yet whom, by the deplorable laws of England, I could not divorce."

Gee, I wonder why she left him?

As we've mentioned before, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a great advocate for reforming England's draconian divorce laws. Usually, though, they were portrayed as victimizing woman...

**"It has not yet found its way either into the pharmacopoeia or into the literature of toxicology."

At the time of publication, the effects of radix pedis diaboli surely seemed fanciful at best. Of course, Once LSD and other hallucinogens were discovered, the possibility of a drug causing visions so extreme they melt your brain seemed less far-fetched.

Of course, there were always hallucinatory plants and fungus out there. And this "devil's foot" has the sound of some rumor or legend that Doyle had heard about somewhere. Old wives' tale? Something that perhaps actually existed, but is lost to history?

And a drug that acts only on the fear centers of the human brain? Surely Jonathan Crane, a.k.a. the Batman villain Scarecrow, read this story as a youth...

**Sterndale's thought on Tregennis' motives: "for the sake of money, and with the idea, perhaps, that if the other members of his family were all insane he would be the sole guardian of their joint property..."

That begs a couple of questions. Were the effects of the devil's foot permanent? Were his brothers insane forever?

And now, with Mortimer deceased...who gets the estate??

**Terrible theory, and I apologize for making it: Brenda and Leon were in love. What if she had willed her portion of the money to Sterndale? There's a possible motive for him to be the murderer (perhaps with the maid Porter as the accomplice?).

Or...perhaps the brothers feared that, should Brenda actually end up being able to marry Sterndale, they would lose the use of her portion of the funds. So one (or both) planned to drive her mad with the powder--surely, if Sterndale had told Mortimer, whom he disliked, about it, he told others--but something went terribly wrong...

This is why they don't let me write mysteries...

**Holmes lit his pipe and handed me his pouch. "Some fumes which are not poisonous would be a welcome change..."

Oh, the years before the Surgeon General's report...

**So, given that Holmes kept the whole affair quiet, what were the ultimate conclusions of the police? Did they even call it a murder spree, or just write it off as some unexplained natural (or supernatural) event? What about the press? What did they report? What were the conclusions that a fearful public was left with for over a decade?!?


Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Adventure of The Terminally Late Blog Post!!

OK, so I suck.

Real life, and my occasionally poor ability to handle it, means I'm going to have to take yet another week until I finally get to The Adventure of The Devil's Foot. Sorry.

As a means of totally inadequate recompense, allow me to share the following with you.


This is a wonderful movie. Ian McKellen stars as a 93 year old Holmes, his mind starting to go, struggling to remember why his last case caused him to retire thirty years earlier. Highly recommended.


Finally available on Blu-ray and affordable DVD, Without A Clue is the fanciful tale of how Doctor John Watson (Ben Kingsley) began solving crimes as a hobby, but quickly found that was considered socially unacceptable for a doctor. So he hired an actor (Michael Caine) to portray the character he invents--Sherlock Holmes!--to take the credit for solving his cases!!

Tremendously funny, worth it just to see Kingsley & Caine. Go and rent it, or buy it, or whatever you kids do these days.


Data analysis is the hip thing with all you children these days, so you might enjoy this Guardian article breaking down lots of aspects of the Canon into charts and graphs. Sample:

Obviously, some of the conclusions depend upon your interpretation of things, so feel to bang away in the comments sections there.

There--I've salved my cinscience by providing you alternate entertainment for the week.

We'll be back next week with Devil's Foot, guaranteed--or your money back.