Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Adventure Of The Creeping Man--"Risible Science Fiction"?

I've discussed before why I feel that horror and supernatural stories aren't appropriate for Sherlock Holmes. Doyle himself has Holmes declare why, in The Hound Of The Baskervilles and Devil's Foot: "if...we are dealing with forces outside the ordinary laws of Nature, there is an end of our investigation.", and "I have hitherto confined my investigations to this world. In a modest way I have combated evil, but to take on the Father of Evil himself would, perhaps, be too ambitious a task."

But what happens if the Holmes story seems to cross over into science fiction, instead of horror?

Which brings us to The Adventure of The Creeping Man.

Author David Stuart Davies, in an afterword to a 2004 edition of Case-Book, dismissed Creeping Man as "risible science fiction." He's written a number of Holmes pastiches, so he has some qualifications to discuss what may or may not be appropriate for The Great Detective.

This quote gives me two things to discuss regarding Creeping Man. First, in general, are science fiction-type stories an appropriate milieu for Holmes? Secondly, is Creeping Man science fiction? And if it is, is it "risible?"

As to the first question, let me plead that I'm having to speak in overly broad generalities here--there are as many sub-genres of horror and science fiction as there are of mystery, if not more. So, as I gather my thoughts here, I'll gladly concede that of course there are exceptions to any of my pronouncements, and not all genre stories conform to the limitations I suggest.

I won't belabor the horror idea--I've covered that before, and we'll look at that again next story. But there are is one thing in particular that I feel works against horror being a fair genre for Sherlock Holmes.

Horror by its very nature is outside of Holmes wheelhouse. Sherlock is an investigator who relies on absolute physical laws of nature. He's spent his life building up, through observation and experimentation, a system for analyzing and studying crime. But without firm physical laws, that system is useless. If footprints always work like X, and tobacco ash always works like Y, then Holmes, and the police, and ultimately the courts, can rely on his deductions. But if there are beings that are super-natural, able to violate and ignore those physical laws, than Sherlock's observation and deductions become useless. "There are no footprints here, so the killer could not have gone this way--well, unless he was a vampire and turned into a bat and flew away" would make for a pretty unconvincing pronouncement from Holmes, wouldn't it? It also makes it much more difficult to solve cases, and especially to prosecute criminal in court: "Your honor, Sherlock Holmes himself concedes that a vampire could have committed the crime--that's reasonable doubt!"

And I will admit once again that this is largely based on my personal preferences. There are any number of pastiches out there where Sherlock Holmes does indeed interact with the supernatural--so obviously plenty of people don't see it the way I do. And there are plenty of works out there about police and detectives who operate in a supernatural world...and a lot of them are pretty good. Which is fine--different strokes, there's room enough for everyone's interpretations, etc. But for me, Sherlock Holmes is a character who interacts with the real world, a proto-CSI who shows how crime and the like can be investigated and solved by the human mind. Take away that real world, or rather allow the unreal to creep in, and you completely change the dynamic.

Does that same problem apply to science fiction, however?

Well, that depends.

With much science fiction, we're still dealing with the real world, with real physical laws. The creators are just extrapolating and building upon those natural rules. With sufficient education, there's no reason why Holmes couldn't opine on how the mud of my trouser cuff could only have come from the colony on Jupiter's moon, and it would be consistent with how we accept Holmes now. After all, I don't think that any current readers of The Canon can honestly say that they know for certain how mud splashes into which seat of a dog cart, or what particular callouses on on certain finger mean. We just accept Sherlock's word for it. It might as well be science fiction for those who have never been to Victorian England.

And if you wanted to lay sufficient groundwork, sure, Sherlock Holmes could recognize Dalek tracks or recognize that those bullet holes are too precise for Sand People. I'm not sure that you'd want to, but it wouldn't complete violate the precis of how the character works.

Of course, much science fiction goes far beyond that. When we have "star-children" from 2001, or god-like beings who can transport people across the galaxy instantly, we've gone well beyond what we actually know about the physical universe, and well beyond what our earth-bound detective can reasonably intuit. We've entered the realm of Clarke's Third Law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And that indistinguisability from magic takes us back to the problems I have with Holmes and horror--if something isn't physically possible in Holmes' world, than there's no way his powers and faculties can be of use in solving them.

Such "magical" science fiction requires a massive suspension of disbelief, which is the opposite of what a detective story needs. Again, that produces results that I don't care for in my Sherlock Holmes stories. A "locked room" mystery shouldn't have "Well, perhaps a Metron teleported him to a planet light-years away" as a possibility.

So, science fiction could work in a Holmes story in some cases, but in many other cases would result in the same problems as horror. Where does that leave the Creeping Man, then?

At its most basic, this story is: old man injects himself with monkey serum so that he may be more virile for his younger love, but the stuff causes him to act more like a monkey.

Is this science fiction? Was it at the time?

Alvin Rodin and Jack Key, in their Medical Casebook Of Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, relate to us the work of French physiologist Brown-Sequard, who was known for trying to invent elixirs of youth. In 1889, he announced in medical journals
that he had injected himself with testicular secretions pf guinea pigs and dog, and felt "rejuvenated" as a result. He reported that he was now able to engage in sexual relations with his new, younger wife, whereas previously he had found his capabilities limited.
That summary is by Leslie Klinger in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes.

Well, that certainly sounds pretty on point to the case of Professor Presbury, doesn't it? Of course, it was mostly quackery. But quackery was not uncommon in medicine, even into the 1920s, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote Creeping Man. Hell, there were even doctors advocating transplanting actual whole glands from monkeys into humans at the time. Obviously, "science" wasn't what it is now, but this was (unsupported, unproven) scientific thought of the era, not "science fiction."

And much in the way that Devil's Foot seemed prescient of future developments in pharmacology, is Creeping Man in any way out of step with 2015? We still have people slaughtering endangered species because their body parts supposedly increase "virility" and "vigor." And check the spam folder in your email--"boner pills" are a billion dollar business, and even the existence of real medications that actually do improve sexual performance doesn't stop the hunt for newer, cheap, non-presricption-required pills or supplements that will "make her scream in pleasure." An entire industry is based on making men feel inadequate and ashamed of their sexual performance. In that light, the decision of Professor Presbury to seek a little something to put some extra steam in his stride wholly modern, and not "risible science fiction."

And we also know now, with actual medical certainty, that hormones and endocrines and other chemicals that you put into your body can have a tremendous effect on you mentally, as well as physically. Just look at some of the side effects attributed to steroid use, for example, and compare them with the way people describe Presbury's transformation:
"He became furtive and sly. Those around him had always the feeling that he was not the man that they had known, but that he was under some shadow which had darkened his higher qualities....His naturally violent nature is intensified by it..."Apart from his queer fits, he has actually more energy and vitality than I can ever remember, nor was his brain ever clearer."
Becoming stronger, more energy and vitality--but accompanied by mood swings, mania, disproportionate anger, a tendency towards violence? Much of that could come straight out of any reporting from the last 15 years over the dangers of steroids or other performance enhancing drugs. This sounds like many of the descriptions of "'roid rage." Creeping Man is decades ahead of its time in forecasting the dangers of trying to improve oneself, sexually or athletically, through putting gosh knows what into your body.

So, the part where injecting yourself with monkey serum makes you physically act like a monkey? Yeah, that's probably bullshit. But it's not as if the professor had physically transformed into a monkey. And such a serum probably could cause unexpected physiological and behavioral changes. Do we question whether a  dog could detect the "monkey juice" in Presbury, and react violently? Well, modern science has given some credence to the theory that dogs can detect cancer in humans because of the different chemicals that malignancies emit--so is a canine detecting similar changes is his master so completely out-of-bounds?

Of course, Doyle meant a lot of this on an allegorical level, as did Stevenson in Doctor Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, of Mary Shelley in Frankenstein. He didn't intend it merely as a condemnation of dangerous and untested medicine, but also as a moral parable about knowing and being content with ourselves:
"The real source," said Holmes, "lies, of course, in that untimely love affair which gave our impetuous professor the idea that he could only gain his wish by turning himself into a younger man. When one tries to rise above Nature one is liable to fall below it. The highest type of man may revert to the animal if he leaves the straight road of destiny."
And Doyle amplifies that by opining how such "crazy" medicine endangers our world and our souls:
There is danger there -- a very real danger to humanity. Consider, Watson, that the material, the sensual, the worldly would all prolong their worthless lives. The spiritual would not avoid the call to something higher. It would be the survival of the least fit. What sort of cesspool may not our poor world become?"
So, sort of like Left Behind, with the remaining population consisting only of those "base" enough to put a priority on extending their lives past their natural limits. Pretty deep for a mystery story.

Was Creeping Man science fiction, then? A bit, perhaps, but it was based on a lot of medical thinking at the time, and modern medicine has shown that much of the story is not as far-fetched as older criticisms have tried to make it seem. Doyle took one half-step into the future, as part of an allegory. It seems churlish and short-sighted to dismiss the story as "risible science fiction."


**On the other hand, it is perfectly acceptable to dismiss the story as a poor mystery.

Indeed, there's not much "mystery" here. A respected man is behaving oddly. And...well, that's about it. The only question we have is why. No crimes have been committed, no one seems to be in any danger. There are no consequences--Sherlock promises to write a threatening letter to Lowenstein, but otherwise there is no follow-up whatsoever. We don't know if Presbury recovers; we don't know no if he resumes taking the monkey serum; we don't no the fate of his romancing of Alice; we learn nothing about the "other client" Lowenstein has in England; does Bennett end up marrying Edith? The entire story is "Oh, it's monkey hormones," a shrug, and a rush to lunch without actually resolving anything. 

And since Watson is telling us this story some twenty years after it happened, there's really no excuse for his not giving us any resolution to some of these questions.

**Granada also apparently didn't think it was much of a mystery, so they seriously restructured things to try and keep the audience in the dark. Edith couldn't tell that it was her father in the window, only a vague someone or something. The fact that the dog had attacked its master wasn't revealed until much later in the story. Bennett hadn't wanted to consult Holmes, but Edith forced him. And no one suspected that anything was wrong with the professor, while the adaptation kept sowing red herrings about stolen or escaped apes.

**Watson has decided to tell us this story "if only to dispel once for all the ugly rumours which some twenty years ago agitated the university and were echoed in the learned societies of London."

What rumors?!? If Bennett and Presbury and Holmes didn't go to the authorities, what rumors would there be? "The professor had to take some time off after his dog went mad and attacked him" seems like it would have been a perfectly fine excuse to spread around. Who was telling tales out of school, then, and what were the "ugly" rumours?

By the way, Watson, telling everyone that the professor was shooting up monkey testicle juice so he could be a better lover for his young wife isn't terribly non-ugly...Surely that's as bad as any of the rumours themselves?

**"Now we have at last obtained permission to ventilate the facts..."

From whom? The professor would be 81ish at the time of the story's publication--was he still alive? Perhaps the serum was effective at extending life!

It would be odd to think that his daughter Edith had relented, if she had opposed the affair becoming public all this time. What changed? Who else could have had the right to give permission?

**Great "laconic message" from Sherlock: "Come at once if convenient -- if inconvenient come all the same. S. H."

**How Watson sees his later relationship with Sherlock:
As an institution I was like the violin, the shag tobacco, the old black pipe, the index books, and others perhaps less excusable. When it was a case of active work and a comrade was needed upon whose nerve he could place some reliance, my role was obvious. But apart from this I had uses. I was a whetstone for his mind. I stimulated him. He liked to think aloud in my presence. His remarks could hardly be said to be made to me -- many of them would have been as appropriately addressed to his bedstead -- but none the less, having formed the habit, it had become in some way helpful that I should register and interject.
Nice cocaine reference, John.

Some people see bitterness it Watson's litany here. And John does seem a bit snippy this story. But really, it is more bittersweet, as Watson is acknowledging that their lives have drifted apart. With Watson's practice thriving, and probably married, there's not just as much time in John's life for adventuring.

But it's also a bit of a humble brag, I think. Given the high regard Watson has for the intellect of his friend, to suggest that he was Holmes' muse, even if in a passive way, is no small thing. "I was a whetstone for his mind" doesn't sound like a rebuke to me.

"I was able, by watching the mind of the child, to form a deduction as to the criminal habits of the very smug and respectable father...A dog reflects the family life. Whoever saw a frisky dog in a gloomy family, or a sad dog in a happy one? Snarling people have snarling dogs, dangerous people have dangerous ones. And their passing moods may reflect the passing moods of others."
Watson is probably right to find it "far-fetched." It is interesting, though, as a reversal of Holmes' prior position on nature vs. nurture. Earlier in his career, Holmes was quick to blame "bad blood" and evil ancestry for a criminal's corruption. But this statement seems much more like suggesting that nurture is as important, if not more so...

**Just as Holmes and Watson have suggested that a woman in "middle age" should no longer be lusty ("Miss Burnet, an Englishwoman of forty or thereabouts...I may add that Miss Burnet's age and character make it certain that my first idea that there might be a love interest in our story is out of the question"), society seems to disapprove of older men being too "active" in romance.
"Then the current of his life was broken. He is sixty-one years of age, but he became engaged to the daughter of Professor Morphy, his colleague in the chair of comparative anatomy. It was not, as I understand, the reasoned courting of an elderly man but rather the more passionate frenzy of youth, for no one could have shown himself a more devoted lover..."
And his family disapproves "We thought it rather excessive."

No passionate frenzy for you, older men!! And women, if your over 40, forget it!! Leave that mushy stuff for the youngsters!!

**Holmes could sometimes appear not to be listening...
...but I fear I weary you." Mr. Bennett spoke in a tone of reproach, for it was very clear that Holmes was not listening. His face was rigid and his eyes gazed abstractedly at the ceiling. With an effort he recovered himself.
Dude, let the man think!

**Bennett's fear-filled description of his beloved mentor acting oddly:
I could see that something was coming along the passage, something dark and crouching. Then suddenly it emerged into the light, and I saw that it was he. He was crawling, Mr. Holmes -- crawling! He was not quite on his hands and knees. I should rather say on his hands and feet, with his face sunk between his hands. Yet he seemed to move with ease. I was so paralyzed by the sight that it was not until he had reached my door that I was able to step forward and ask if I could assist him. His answer was extraordinary. He sprang up, spat out some atrocious word at me, and hurried on past me, and down the staircase.
**Watson, as always, practical:
"Lumbago, possibly. I have known a severe attack make a man walk in just such a way, and nothing would be more trying to the temper."
"Good, Watson! You always keep us flat-footed on the ground.
**Watson continues to be the only practical one, suggesting that Presbury's problems just might be psychological:
"Speaking as a medical man," said I, "it appears to be a case for an alienist. The old gentleman's cerebral processes were disturbed by the love affair. He made a journey abroad in the hope of breaking himself of the passion."
Good old Watson. In a sane world, you would be right...

**Of course, Holmes is also willing to prick the balloon of Watson's practicality:
"His letters and the box may be connected with some other private transaction -- a loan, perhaps, or share certificates, which are in the box." 
"And the wolfhound no doubt disapproved of the financial bargain."
**Holmes again being wry:
The door opened and a young lady was shown into the room. As she appeared Mr. Bennett sprang up with a cry and ran forward with his hands out to meet those which she had herself outstretched.
"Edith, dear! Nothing the matter, I hope?"
"I felt I must follow you. Oh, Jack, I have been so dreadfully frightened! It is awful to be there alone."
"Mr. Holmes, this is the young lady I spoke of. This is my fiancee."
"We were gradually coming to that conclusion, were we not, Watson?" Holmes answered with a smile.
**Once again we play the Oxford/Cambridge guessing game. But this time, Doyle is clearly aware of the controversy, and in on the joke. Instead of simply not naming the university, he calls it Camford.

I don't have a horse in this race, so I honestly don't care. It is fun, though, to watch everyone tie themselves into knots trying to make their arguments.

**Watson again seeming a bit exasperated with Holmes, as dropping everything to go off on a case is "an easy effort on the part of Holmes, who had no roots to pull up, but one which involved frantic planning and hurrying on my part, as my practice was by this time not inconsiderable."

Yes, John, we sympathize. Would you rather go back to the days where Holmes bought your practice, paid your rent, and kept your checkbook for you?

**Holmes questions whether Watson can bluff their way through a meeting with Presbury: "Have you the effrontery necessary to put it through?" But Holmes himself seems to lack the nerve, completely changing  the planned story in the heat of the moment. Instead of claiming that the professor made the appointment himelf during one of his "spells," Holmes tries to soft pedal it as someone esle might have invited him: "I heard through a second person that Professor Presbury of Camford had need of my services."

**Presbury's overreaction to Holmes' visit is pretty epic:
"Hardly enough, Mr. Holmes!" the old man cried in a high screaming voice, with extraordinary malignancy upon his face. He got between us and the door as he spoke, and he shook his two hands at us with furious passion. "You can hardly get out of it so easily as that." His face was convulsed, and he grinned and gibbered at us in his senseless rage. I am convinced that we should have had to fight our way out of the room if Mr. Bennett had not intervened.
He's ready to beat the crap out of our duo just because of what could be explained as a misunderstanding!

Holmes tries to excuse him, a bit: "Explosive, no doubt, but then from his point of view he has something to explode about if detectives are put on his track and he suspects his own household of doing it." Really, if that's sufficient justification, than life amongst the luxury class in those days must have been much more violent than we thought!

**Another reason is that this mystery is a bit lacking is that Holmes doesn't do all that much detecting. How does he find out about Dorak? Someone else does and hands the information to him: "I have the address of the man in London to whom the professor writes. He seems to have written this morning, and I got it from his blotting-paper. It is an ignoble position for a trusted secretary, but what else can I do?"

He has one of his agents track down Dorak. He waits until Presbury has been nearly killed to take his key and open the mysterious wooden box.

Honestly, most of this story would have played out exactly the same had Holmes not gotten involved!

**As Holmes got older he adopted some agents to carry out menial tasks for him: "Mercer is since your time," said Holmes. "He is my general utility man who looks up routine business."

There could have been some interesting stories about these agents. Who are they? How did they come to work for Holmes?

**"It's surely time that I disappeared into that little farm of my dreams." Soon enough, Sherlock.

**A crazy scene:
In all our adventures I do not know that I have ever seen a more strange sight than this impassive and still dignified figure crouching frog-like upon the ground and goading to a wilder exhibition of passion the maddened hound, which ramped and raged in front of him, by all manner of ingenious and calculated cruelty.
I don't know that monkeys are that interested in tormenting angry dogs. But what do I know? The Granada adaptation adds a line that in Hindu mythology, the dog and the monkey are mortal enemies to try and justify it.

**Macphail the coachman apparently knew a lot of what was going on well ahead of everyone else:
The uproar had brought the sleepy and astonished coachman from his room above the stables. "I'm not surprised," said he, shaking his head. "I've seen him at it before. I knew the dog would get him sooner or later."
Wait a minute!! You're "not surprised"?!??! You knew this all along, and didn't bother to tell anyone?!? Macphail knew that his employer was acting in a crazy fashion, and was tormenting the dog so much that he was jeopardizing his own life...and he keeps this information to himself?!?!?! If he speaks up earlier, perhaps Holmes cracks the case earlier, before anyone is maimed!

Maybe Macphail was the one spreading ugly rumors...

**Mad Czech scientists:
Lowenstein! The name brought back to me the memory of some snippet from a newspaper which spoke of an obscure scientist who was striving in some unknown way for the secret of rejuvenescence and the elixir of life. Lowenstein of Prague! Lowenstein with the wondrous strength-giving serum, tabooed by the profession because he refused to reveal its source.
In modern times, Lowenstein would have an hour-long informercial on late night TV...

**You know, given the revelation that his employer and mentor was injecting himself with monkey testorone (or whatever), Bennett is pretty damn calm: "Well, thanks to you, Mr. Holmes, it is very clear that we have traced the evil to its source."

Really, that's all you have to say? No reaction of shock, or disgust, or outrage? Nothing?!?

**Holmes plan to impede Lowenstein's research:
When I have written to this man and told him that I hold him criminally responsible for the poisons which he circulates, we will have no more trouble.
Well, first of all, it's not at all clear that Lowenstein has violated any laws at all. And just because Holmes will hold him responsible doesn't mean that the law will. And there's no indication whatsoever that Lowenstein would stop his research no matter what Holmes says. Heck, there's not even any indication that Presbury will stop buying the damn stuff and using it!!

I'm just saying, writing a stern letter is not the most satisfying way to resolve a mystery...


Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Problem Of Thor Bridge-A Tale Of Two Women

One of the reasons I gave for starting this little blog was that I felt the Sherlock Holmes Canon gave us insight to an entire different time and culture, a look at a different country and class structure and moral framework.

Which brings us to The Problem Of Thor Bridge.

Thor Bridge is a great story, well-written and fascinating, with a cracking good mystery (based on a real crime!). Holmes is at the top of his game, the dialogue sparkles, and Watson is back in charge narratively. By itself, Thor Bridge is a firm rebuttal to those who want to disparage the Case-Book based on a few below-average stories.

But Thor Bridge also serves as--perhaps unintentionally--an examination of the place of women in Victorian society, and how sexism and class rules trapped females into fairly terrifying existences.

Let us start with our victim--and our killer!--hmmm, what's her name again?

That's only half a joke. Imagine my surprise when I searched through the story several times before I realized that Maria Gibson is referred to by name only 3 times in this story. Once her widow refers to her, but by her maiden name, Maria Pinto. Once a police sergeant refers to her as Mrs. Gibson. And her alleged murderer, Grace Dunbar, also calls her Mrs. Gibson once. Every other time--literally every time she's mentioned--it's not by name, but as "Mr. Gibson's wife," or "my wife" or "she" or "that poor woman." Her identity is, essentially, erased in this story--never once is she referred to as Maria Gibson. Even Holmes can only identify her as "a wife, the victim of this tragedy, of whom I know nothing save that she was past her prime..." Though she is the victim in a high-profile murder case, Maria Gibson is reduced to a mere prop, a placeholder, until we're told the true nature of her involvement at the end.

In place of her name, though, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has everyone in the tale reduce her to an ethnic stereotype. In Thor Bridge, Maria is referred to as "tropical" more often than she is referred to by name. Think about that.

Marlow Bates refers to Maria as "a creature of the tropics, a Brazilian by birth..." He follows by calling her, "Tropical by birth and tropical by nature. A child of the sun and of passion." Her husband said she had a "deep rich nature, too, passionate, whole-hearted, tropical, ill-balanced..." Of course he felt the crime was due to her Latin American origins: "She was crazy with hatred and the heat of the Amazon was always in her blood." And Grace Dunbar felt that Maria "hated me with all the fervour of her tropical nature."

OK, we get it. "Tropical" = hot-headed, emotional, out of control. Those damn Latin Americans get so excitable, they just can't help it.

Of course, all of these staid middle and upper class white folks of the era would think in such terms, as the era was full of ethnic (and other) stereotyping. What's less clear, is whether this is Doyle accurately presenting what the attitudes of the day were, or his projecting his own prejudices into the story.

On one level, we should reject this, if for no other reason than basing a characters behavior on a biased view of "hot-blooded" Latinos is lazy, and robs that character of much of their own agency. Certainly, there are woman of many times and cultures who become obsessive and manic in their love. Why rely on stereotype to explain it?

Then again, having everyone else in the story talk about Maria this way does serve to reinforce the sense of loneliness and isolation she must have felt. Imagine her plight--a bold, attractive American marries her, moves her around three continents, has children with her...and then suddenly decides that he doesn't love her anymore, and he decides he must be "harsh to her, even brutal" in order to "kill her love," because that "would be easier for both of us." And so now Maria is trapped--trapped in a loveless marriage with a total jackass, trapped in a country not her own, and trapped in a society where every single person in her life treats her as a cartoon character, "tropical" and "fiery". And her husband is trying to get the governess to be his new lover! Is it any wonder she went a little bit bonkers?

Even worse, those around her subtly blamed Maria for her marriage's failure. Bates said, "She had loved him as such women can love, but when her own physical charms had faded -- I am told that they once were great -- there was nothing to hold him." See, she got old and less beautiful--it's her fault! Miss Dunbar suggests that Maria was too emotionally immature to hold the love of a great white person: "I would not wish to wrong her, but she loved so vividly in a physical sense that she could hardly understand the mental, and even spiritual, tie which held her husband to me..." See, those damn Brazilians don't understand true love! And the Senator? "It was only when the romance had passed -- and it lingered for years -- that I realized that we had nothing -- absolutely nothing -- in common. My love faded." Hers didn't. Why couldn't she just get over it? And her jealousy? Well, those foreigners couldn't understand a pure, spiritual connection like I have with the hired help:
"There is a soul-jealousy that can be as frantic as any body-jealousy, and though my wife had no cause -- and I think she understood this -- for the latter, she was aware that this English girl exerted an influence upon my mind and my acts that she herself never had."
There were possible solutions, other than tormenting the poor wife, and trying to make her hate you so she'll happier spending the rest of her life with you (WHAT?!?). Yes, England's divorce laws were fairly draconian, but Gibson was "the world's greatest economic force"--surely he could have managed to work some pressure for a favorable interpretation of those laws. Or, since they weren't married in England and weren't British citizens, he could have had them take a trip to wherever the Victorian version of Reno was. From what we're told, Maria probably wouldn't have wanted a divorce. Still, Gibson could have had his wife and children reside at another of the many estates he owned world-wide. Instead, he chose to keep her in his household, abusing her, and forcing her to watch him bond with another woman.

And then we come to our second woman in this tale, Miss Grace Dunbar, the lovely young governess.

We have seen a lot of governesses in the Canon, because in the day, there weren't a lot of other career options available for unmarried middle class women. Typist, teacher, governess...that was about it, if you weren't independently wealthy. And Miss Dunbar didn't seem to have one of those convenient bequests that would allow her independence.

The problem with being an attractive governess, especially if you're a lovely young lady, is that you might be in a bad position if your employer is a predator. You depend on him for your income, you live under his roof...there's no escape.

And let's be clear--the ex-senator was a bit of a cad:
I guess all my life I've been a man that reached out his hand for what he wanted, and I never wanted anything more than the love and possession of that woman. I told her so."  "I said to her that if I could marry her I would, but that it was out of my power. I said that money was no object and that all I could do to make her happy and comfortable would be done."
Remember, he told us the Latin Americans were the ones unable to control their passions. Ha!! Also, a proposal that can be broken down to "I will pay you to be my concubine who lives with me and my wife" isn't the type of proposal that most women want to hear, I think.

So what does a young woman do when her incredibly wealthy (and potentially abusive) boss comes on to her? Grace couldn't leave his employment, because "others were dependent upon her, and it was no light matter for her to let them all down by sacrificing her living." Not to mention, if he were vindictive, he could make it very difficult for her to get any other jobs of any valuable.

Holmes quite sensibly remonstrates Gibson: "I do not blame you for feeling (passion for her). I should blame you if you expressed it, since this young lady was in a sense under your protection." That's a fairly enlightened position to take in Victorian times--that men shouldn't abuse their positions of power to undertake romantic relations with their employees.

Perhaps Sherlock does a little bit creepily paternalistic when he chides Gibson, "you have tried to ruin a defenceless girl who was under your roof," and asserts that such harassment might be worse than murder. Heavens, we can't have a girl "ruined," can we? Then again, given the multiple instances Holmes had witnessed of women terrified that their husbands/fiancees would find out that they had had prior dalliances, our detective is justified in worrying about Grace's future might be once Gibson's love "faded" after he had had his way with her. Still, that's another other trap Miss Dunbar faced--if she returned her employer's affections, she would be viewed as tarnished and ruined. Yeesh.

That's not to say that these characters are merely studies in victimology. Neither of these women are exactly candidates for sainthood in how they deal with their problems. While Maria did suffer greatly, I think most of us will agree that nothing can justify killing yourself and framing someone else for the murder so they will suffer. That goes beyond justifiably upset to straight-up crazy.

Meanwhile, Grace was not above using her charms to manipulate things to her advantage. The other reason she didn't quit immediately?
She knew the influence she had over me, and that it was stronger than any other influence in the world. She wanted to use it for good...She believed and said that a fortune for one man that was more than he needed should not be built on ten thousand ruined men who were left without the means of life. That was how she saw it, and I guess she could see past the dollars to something that was more lasting. She found that I listened to what she said, and she believed she was serving the world by influencing my actions. So she stayed.
And Dunbar admits this much to Holmes--"it was only my desire to influence his power to good ends which kept me under his roof." I don't wish to be harsh to Grace here, but "I won't let my rich married boss have sex with me, but I will stay and use his feelings for me to influence his multi-million dollar empire" might not be the most ennobling response she could have had. Then again, it's not as she had a lot of other if she's forced to stay, some good could come from Gibson's besottment.

It should also be noted that Grace was a little bit of a self-justifier: "Nothing could justify me in remaining where I was a cause of unhappiness, and yet it is certain that the unhappiness would have remained even if I had left the house." So, since Maria is going to be miserable anyway, you might as well stay on let Gibson dote on you? Please. That's hardly standing up for the sisterhood.

So, that is our tale of two women. One was a wife, who was trapped in a marriage of unrequited love when her husband suddenly discovered he didn't love her anymore. He was terribly abusive to her, because "make her hate me" seemed like a more practical solution than "divorce" or "separate homes." She was forced, in a foreign country and foreign language, to helpless watch while her husband rejected her but wouldn't release her, and while he preyed on the hired help. The other woman is that hired help, a woman trapped in a society that provided no means of support for her and her family outside of marriage or working for her sexual harasser. Maria and Grace were stuck in situations with no good options, and forced to essentially be in conflict with each other over the affections of a rich man.

I can't say that Doyle intended this story to function as a critique of how women were treated in Victorian England, but it doesn't take a lot of digging to tease out this interpretation. So the next time someone wants to write an article on how superior Victorian times are to modern day, perhaps we can recommend that she read this story, and remind her that back in those "good old days" she might not have had the option of publishing articles under her own name, or of having legal protections against abusive husbands or sexual predator employers.


**For the first time, we have a story titled "Problem." Huzzah!!

I never understood why Doyle so overused  "Adventure" in the titles of his story, especially since so many of them were not terribly, well, adventurous. And most of the stories that didn't use the adventure naming convention have titles that work perfectly fine.

After this brief and welcome respite, though, all of our remaining tales are "adventures."

**As a young Marvel Comics fan, I was quite distressed when I read this story and found out that not only did it NOT feature a hammer-wielding Norse god, but there was also not a trace of a magical Asgardian rainbow bridge. What a rip-off!!

**Thor Bridge is a wonderful mystery--and the best part is, it's apparently based on a real case!

Dr. Hans Gross, an Austrian professor of criminology, wrote the Handbook For Criminal Investigators in 1893, and it was translated into English in 1898.

In the book, Gross describes the case of  "A.M.," a supposedly wealthy grain merchant who was found apparently murdered by gunshot in the middle of a bridge. His wallet and watch were missing, and it was assume that he had been robbed murdered by a local vagrant, who was arrested. But the "Investigating Officer" noticed "a small, fresh injury" on the wooden parapet of the bridge. He assumed the murderer had thrown something into the water and nicked the bridge; upon dragging the riverbed, they immediately found a large rock tied with 14 feet of rope to a gun with one chamber discharged! Experiments easily recreated the fake/suicide scenario, with nearly identical marks made in the parapet each time. It turned out that A.M. was really in deep financial trouble. He had taken out a large life insurance policy, and staged his suicide to look like a murder so his family would get the benefits. (You can read the full version of the case reprinted in Volume II of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes.)

Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, eh? Clearly Doyle had read this account, or at least had it described to him in some detail. It is interesting that he changed it from an insurance fraud to a more melodramatic love triangle and attempt to frame someone else for the "murder."

**The sentences that launched a million pastiches:
Somewhere in the vaults of the bank of Cox and Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch box with my name, John H. Watson, M. D., Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid. It is crammed with papers, nearly all of which are records of cases to illustrate the curious problems which Mr. Sherlock Holmes had at various times to examine.
That particular bank was destroyed during the Blitz. Thus, it became de rigueur for pastiches to preface themselves with tales of somehow finding tin boxes in the attic, or storeroom, or antique shoppe, or handed down by deceased relatives, to justify them as "actually" based on the writings of John Watson.

**Watson describes some of these "lost tales":
Some, and not the least interesting, were complete failures, and as such will hardly bear narrating, since no final explanation is forthcoming. A problem without a solution may interest the student, but can hardly fail to annoy the casual reader.
Uh, this is one reader who disagrees, doctor. We want all the cases, not just the successes!!

**A panoply of apocryphal--albeit failed--cases:
Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.

No less remarkable is that of the cutter Alicia, which sailed one spring morning into a small patch of mist from where she never again emerged, nor was anything further ever heard of herself and her crew.

A third case worthy of note is that of Isadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duellist, who was found stark staring mad with a match box in front of him which contained a remarkable worm said to be unknown to science.
Tell me that you don't read that last one and immediately think of Khan's mind-control worms from Star Trek II. KHAAAAAAAAANNNN!!!

**One of John's reasons for suppressing some stories seems to be, well, we must protect the rich:
...the secrets of private families to an extent which would mean consternation in many exalted quarters if it were thought possible that they might find their way into print. I need not say that such a breach of confidence is unthinkable, and that these records will be separated and destroyed now that my friend has time to turn his energies to the matter.
But what if they are "non-exalted" quarters? Is it OK to spoil the secrets of the poor?

Given this standard, it seems most likely means that Senator Gibson has passed on, or at the very least left England...certainly his family would feel "consternation" at the publication of this tale, unless he were no longer around to know of it...

**The reason Watson didn't publish more stories? "I feared to give the public a surfeit which might react upon the reputation of the man whom above all others I revere."

No, no, we wanted more, not less!! More stories could not hurt the reputation of Sherlock Holmes!! More stories, dammit!!

**A lot of the controversy over the last two stories being narrated in the third-person was totally unnecessary, according to Watson: "In some I was myself concerned and can speak as an eye-witness, while in others I was either not present or played so small a part that they could only be told as by a third person."

Funny how so few commentators seem willing to take John at his word there, and come up with increasingly unlikely theories as to who "really" wrote those tales.

**Watson continues to improve with "the method," according to Holmes: "The faculty of deduction is certainly contagious, Watson," he answered. "It has enabled you to probe my secret."

**Our client: "You have heard of Neil Gibson, the Gold King?" he said. "You mean the American Senator?" "Well, he was once Senator for some Western state, but is better known as the greatest gold-mining magnate in the world."

Wait, don't famous ex-senators all run for president, and take high-paying jobs on cable news networks while waiting for their return to power? Different times, I guess.

**Holmes: "The interesting personality of the accused does not obscure the clearness of the evidence."

Wait--interesting how? At this point Holmes knows nothing about Grace Dunbar except that she is the young governess. He certainly doesn't know anything about her personality, other than the fawning letter Gibson sent. How is her personality "interesting," then?

**Really, does this sound like a letter from a man whose wife has just been slain?
I can't see the best woman God ever made go to her death without doing all that is possible to save her...It has been the gossip of the country. And never a voice raised for her! It's the damned injustice of it all that makes me crazy.
It's pretty incredible that a man doesn't once mention his murdered wife in a plea for the detective to help clear the woman accused of murdering her. There's falling out of love with your wife, and then there's not giving a tinker's damned that the mother of your children was murdered in cold blood. What a bastard.

**Fine set-up for a mystery:
The wife was found in the grounds nearly half a mile from the house, late at night, clad in her dinner dress, with a shawl over her shoulders and a revolver bullet through her brain. No weapon was found near her and there was no local clue as to the murder...A revolver with one discharged chamber and a calibre which corresponded with the bullet was found on the floor of her wardrobe...Then the dead woman had a note upon her making an appointment at that very place and signed by the governess.
**Of course, that just points out that there was little ballistics or other forensic science yet. "Same calibre" by itself would get a verdict of not guilty on most episodes of Law & Order. And if you could run ballistics, do fingerprints, check for gunpowder residue, etc., the frame-up would completely fall apart even without Holmes' help.

**Marlow Bates: "a thin, nervous wisp of a man with frightened eyes and a twitching, hesitating manner -- a man whom my own professional eye would judge to be on the brink of an absolute nervous breakdown."

Love those Watson descriptions. And given that Sherlock has twice been forced to rest due to "nervous exhaustion," we can take it that he knows what he's talking about here.

**Bates: "But his wife was his chief victim. He was brutal to her -- yes, sir, brutal! How she came by her death I do not know, but I am sure that he had made her life a misery to her."

Of course, he doesn't specify exactly what that brutality was.

In a later conversation with Gates: "Did you ever witness physical violence towards her?" "No, I cannot say that. But I have heard words which were nearly as bad -- words of cold, cutting contempt, even before the servants."

I don't want to belittle the agony of constantly being verbally and emotionally abused. But even Gibson's biggest critic can't claim that he physically abused her.

Apparently some thought that physical abuse was necessary to justify her murderous scheme--the Granada adaptation has Gates say that Gibson actually struck her more than once.The better for the audience to hate him, and sympathize with her, I suppose.

 **More delicous Watson descriptions:
If I were a sculptor and desired to idealize the successful man of affairs, iron of nerve and leathery of conscience, I should choose Mr. Neil Gibson as my model. His tall, gaunt, craggy figure had a suggestion of hunger and rapacity. An Abraham Lincoln keyed to base uses instead of high ones would give some idea of the man. His face might have been chiselled in granite, hard-set, craggy, remorseless, with deep lines upon it, the scars of many a crisis. Cold gray eyes, looking shrewdly out from under bristling brows, surveyed us each in turn.
"An Abraham Lincoln keyed to base uses instead of high ones." My god, that's great stuff, even if you don't agree with Doyle's theories that physical appearance echoes moral character...

**This statement by Holmes has caused some controversy: "My professional charges are upon a fixed scale," said Holmes coldly. "I do not vary them, save when I remit them altogether."

That may or may not be consistent with what we've seen in other stories. Perhaps this is a newer policy, once Holmes' successes have made him financially secure. Or perhaps the "fixed scale" is not per hour or per case, but the clients' wealth..."if you're this rich, I charge this much"?

** Holmes sarcasm to Gibson is breath-taking:  "I suppose you are within your rights -- and maybe doing your duty -- in asking such a question, Mr. Holmes." "We will agree to suppose so," said Holmes.


This case is quite sufficiently complicated to start with without the further difficulty of false information." "Meaning that I lie." "Well, I was trying to express it as delicately as I could, but if you insist upon the word I will not contradict you."


You've done yourself no good this morning, Mr. Holmes, for I have broken stronger men than you. No man ever crossed me and was the better for it." "So many have said so, and yet here I am," said Holmes, smiling.


"Very generous, I am sure," said Holmes with a sneer.

Ypu have to love the stories where Holmes take the piss out of the upper class, and this story is problem the detective at his most snide and vicious.

**Holmes admits that, for once, he doesn't actually know everything for certain right away:
Bluff, Watson, bluff! When I considered the passionate, unconventional, unbusinesslike tone of his letter and contrasted it with his self-contained manner and appearance, it was pretty clear that there was some deep emotion which centred upon the accused woman rather than upon the victim.
**More Holmes upbraiding a rich man pretty severely:
"I don't know that anything she is accused of is really worse than what you have yourself admitted, that you have tried to ruin a defenceless girl who was under your roof. Some of you rich men have to be taught that all the world cannot be bribed into condoning your offences."
Nice sentiment, except for the implication that adultery or deflowering a young woman is worse than murder.

**Trouble getting in to see Miss Dunbar in jail:  "There was some delay in the official pass,...We were compelled to spend the night at Winchester, as the formalities had not yet been completed..."

Was it really so difficult for someone--especially Sherlock Holmes--to get in to visit an accused person in jail prior to trial? Or was this red tape just a plot device to delay his meeting with Grace, and thus make the story last a little longer?

**Sergeant Coventry:
He was a tall, thin, cadaverous man, with a secretive and mysterious manner which conveyed the idea that he knew or suspected a very great deal more than he dared say. He had a trick, too, of suddenly sinking his voice to a whisper as if he had come upon something of vital importance, though the information was usually commonplace enough.
Seriously, Doyle/Watson was pretty much on fire in this story with the descriptive prose.

Coventry is also a fairly reasonable copper, not afraid at all of having Sherlock make him look bad:
 "Anyhow, I'd rather have you than Scotland Yard, Mr. Holmes," said he. "If the Yard gets called into a case, then the local loses all credit for success and may be blamed for failure. Now, you play straight, so I've heard."
Maybe it was just Scotland Yard inspectors who resented Holmes' "interference."

**"And these Americans are readier with pistols than our folk are."

Unfortunately, still true in the 21st century.

**Holmes on why the nature of the crime speaks against the killer making panicky mistakes:
You have planned it. A note has been written. The victim has come. You have your weapon. The crime is done. It has been workmanlike and complete. Do you tell me that after carrying out so crafty a crime you would now ruin your reputation as a criminal by forgetting to fling your weapon into those adjacent reed-beds which would forever cover it, but you must needs carry it carefully home and put it in your own wardrobe, the very first place that would be searched?...Where a crime is cooly premeditated, then the means of covering it are coolly premeditated also.
Of course, just because a killing is coldly planned doesn't mean that, once the blood start flowing, that a first-time criminal might not freak out a little bit and do something stupid. Still, the point is well-taken: the fact that everything else was so well planned makes the suggested "panicked mistake" less likely.

**Grace describing her meeting at the bridge with Maria:
Never did I realize till that moment how this poor creature hated me. She was like a mad woman -- indeed, I think she was a mad woman, subtly mad with the deep power of deception which insane people may have. How else could she have met me with unconcern every day and yet had so raging a hatred of me in her heart?
This is a good example of Dunbar's lack of self-awareness. By her own admission, Dunbar was having a "mental and spiritual" relationship with Maria's husband--can she really be surprised that the woman is upset with her? Does she really believe that most wives would be fine being put on the sidelines emotionally while their husbands bonded "spiritually" with their "work wives"?

Granted, Maria was indeed insane--but Grace shows a stunning lack of empathy and some serious self-deception to claim befuddlement at Maria's anger.

**According to the Granada subtitle, Brazilian women yell and Spanish:

**Holmes shows the perils of having too good an imagination while spinning theories: "but one drawback of an active mind is that one can always conceive alternative explanations which would make our scent a false one." 

Of course, this also applies to various commentators spinning out alternate theories as to what really happened in the various Holmes stories (myself included).

**Holmes defends the police investigation (and his own) against anticipated press attacks, once the truth is known:
The papers may ask why the mere was not dragged in the first instance, but it is easy to be wise after the event, and in any case the expanse of a reed-filled lake is no easy matter to drag unless you have a clear perception of what you are looking for and where.
Of course, believing that they had found the gun right away would have made dragging the mere pointless, so there's really not much for the press to attack--especially since they themselves were enthusiastic supporters of "the gorgeous governess did it" theory!

**"Well, Watson, we have helped a remarkable woman, and also a formidable man. Should they in the future join their forces, as seems not unlikely, the financial world may find that Mr. Neil Gibson has learned something in that schoolroom of sorrow where our earthly lessons are taught."

Given that Watson wrote this story up decades after it happened, he already knows what happened in the future with Gibson and Dunbar. He really should have told us, instead of signing off on a "I wonder what will happen" note. Boo!


Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Adventure Of The Mazarin Stone--Worst. Holmes. Ever.?

There is a tendency--no, more like an obligation--among fans of various shows and genres to rank the objects of their obsessions. It's become even more prevalent during the internet era, when everyone can have a free platform, where we have immediate access to every episode or story, and where expressing your detailed opinion--and having it validated by "likes"--seems to be a major source of self-esteem.

So you don't have to look very far to find people's opinion of what the best episode of Star Trek is, the best James Bond movie, the best season of Buffy.

And because the yin is lonely without the yang, we also get much discussion of what the worst episode/story/season of a creative enterprise is.

Which brings us to The Adventure Of The Mazarin Stone.

Now, I'm not going to use this essay to belabor why I feel that Mazarin Stone is the worst of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales. I'll discuss some of my reasoning below.

No, what I'm going to talk about today is what it means for something to be the worst of something good.

So what do we mean? Clearly, even if something is the worst Sherlock Holmes story, we still read it, still analyze it, still collect it. We still love it, in our own way.

I'm on record, for example, arguing that Moonraker is the worst James Bond film. But that doesn't mean that I hate the movie, or I refuse to watch it. It's 007, man! And the worst James Bond movie is more interesting to me than, say, the best Matt Helm movie.

We should, of course, make declarations about how "bad" something is with a measure of humility--every story, no matter how lowly we grade it, is still somebody's first James Bond film, the first Sherlock Holmes story they ever read. Nostalgia and context can have a large impact on someone's critical opinion, and I certainly don't want be seen as deriding something they may love better than I.That's part of the joy of fandom--that every story is loved by someone.

And even the worst episode of most of our favorites has something to recommend it, some bit of dialogue or characterization or background--that adds to our overall understanding and enjoyment of the canon. Yeah, Spock's Brain is horrid...there are still bits of gold you can sift out. So it is with Mazarin Stone--there are some good moments, things that carry you away and make you forget that the story is supposed to be poor, until something comes along and jars you again.

That's the important thing, to a canon-lover. It's not just the obsessive completeness. It's the knowledge that everything plays a part in the whole, even if on its own it might not be very good. It may well be impossible for a series of 60 stories or 179 episodes to be great every time out of the block. But just like family members, we accept these "black sheep" with almost a deeper love, because the "awfullness" makes the better stories stand out. No one can tell you what the worst episode of Full House is, because no one cared enough to keep track (queue the deluge of comments from Full House fans...). But we care, and because we care, we shouldn't ever fully reject the terrible.

So we embrace the "worst." We don't seek to excise it from the canon. We don't throw away our precious VHS copy of Angel One (complete with commercials & trailer!). We don't try to dismiss the "bad" ones as dreams, hoaxes or hallucinations. We don't insist that the terrible run on our favorite comic "didn't really happen." We love the "worst," even when we hate it.


There is a feeling among certain Sherlock Holmes fans that certain stories should perhaps not be accepted as Canon because of their quality.

Now it's quite possible that I overstate this phenomenon. In addition, the fact that many Holmes commentators are playing "The Grand Game," the gentle fiction that all of Holmes' adventures are real, certainly makes it possibly to interpret a tongue-in-cheek jest as a bit more serious than it really is.

But take one prominent example, the famous pastiche The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, by Nicholas Meyer. In the book's introduction Meyer, writing as Watson, tells us that Mazarin Stone, as well as 3 other stories in Case-Book, are "forged drivel." Now, this is within the context of a pastiche that also tells us that Final Problem and Empty House didn't really happen, so perhaps a grain of salt is needed here. But still, this message seems loud and clear to me: because some stories are of dubious quality, they don't really belong in the Canon.

Others, even including editors of Holmes collections, have opined that some of the stories in Case-Book are not the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, because they seem to fit Doyle's "style." And they proceed, without a lick of evidence, to pile up "likely" other authors--his son! His wife! His agent! In other words, they're not good stories, so perhaps they shouldn't count.

Well, I can't agree with that. Are the stories in Case-Book, on average, poorer than those in earlier collections? That's pretty inarguable, I think. But I don't think that we should easily leap to "this story isn't as good as others, so it can't be by Sir Arthur," or "this story is a failure, therefore we shouldn't count it."

I love Doyle's work, but I don't think anyone can seriously argue that it's impossible that, late in his life, Sir Arthur was incapable of putting out a poor story or three, especially as he tried to continue to write a character he thought he had already said goodbye to (twice!). To assume that any drop in quality is automatic evidence that Sir Arthur didn't actually write the stories is too assign him to a pedestal of perfection that I think is unwarranted. And honestly, it is a lit bit immature--"If X is good, it's by my hero; if it's not good, it can't be by him" isn't so much a line of reasoning as an knee-jerk emotional reaction to disappointment.

As we noted above, the bad stories or episodes shouldn't be excised as "forged drivel." They are part and parcel of the whole, and deepen our understanding of the works. The Mazarin Stone, as poor as it may be, is part of the family. You don't deny its authorship or exile it from the Canon--you re-read it each time you work your way through Holmes again, understanding it for what it is--appreciating the good parts, and trying to understand why the less-good parts fail. You don't throw out your errant children...and we shouldn't try to distance ourselves from the occasional artistic misfire.


**On a housekeeping note, if you were expecting a different story here, sorry. Different editions of the Case-Book have presented the stories in different orders. Why, I couldn't tell you. But for our purposes here, I choose to go with the original publication order, which was also the publication order of the individual stories. I've been chronological throughout the rest of the blog, why stop now?

**Also, the collection has been known alternately as The Case-Book Of Sherlock Holmes, The Case Book Of Sherlock Holmes (no hyphen) and The Casebook Of Sherlock Holmes. Sigh...

For no real reason besides my aesthetic preference, I'll be going with Case-Book.

**The first problem-causing aspect for this story is that it was based upon a play Sir Arthur had written some months earlier, The Crown Diamond. You can read the whole thing here.

I've heard varying (and perhaps contradictory) reports of the play's success--it closed down in London after only a week, it later toured the country for 18 months? Regardless, it is the first Holmes that Doyle had written in some 4 years, and Sir Arthur decided to use it as the basis of a Holmes short story.

The play is dreadfully short (can it have taken more than 20-25 to perform live?), and has only one set, which explains the story's claustrophobic setting. The entire story takes place in the confines of 221B Baker Street, with a parade of people coming and going. All of Holmes investigations take place offstage, and prior to the beginning of the play--perhaps a necessary conceit for the stage--but there's no reason why Doyle couldn't have substantially broadened the mise en scene when he adapted the play to prose form.

As it is, much of Mazarin Stone feels as if it were lazily copied from The Crown Stone, without Doyle bothering to make alterations to make the adaptation more appropriate to a prose story.

**Obviously, this is only the second time that John Watson is not narrating our story--but the second in a row!

I discussed why, in His Last Bow, that I think that led to a weaker story in that case. Well, it's even worse in this case. Watson plays no role whatsoever in the story, and we are robbed of much of his detailed descriptions of characters and scenes.

Observe the fairly prosaic way our narrator describes 221B and Billy, quite unlike the lusher narration we're used to:
 He looked round him at the scientific charts upon the wall, the acid-charred bench of chemicals, the violin-case leaning in the the corner, the coal-scuttle, which contained of old the pipes and tobacco. Finally, his eyes came round to the fresh and smiling face of Billy, the young but very wise and tactful page...
And Watson's dialogue in this story? Almost entirely a barrage of single lines designed to draw out exposition, simple, repetitive and almost child-like:
"It all seems very unchanged, Billy.
"Yes, Billy, I know."
"But what is it all about, Billy?"
Watson doesn't even rise to the level of a plot device in this story.

**As I alluded to above, this story has no mystery whatsoever. Holmes has already solved it before the first paragraph, although the reader doesn't so much of a sentence about how Holmes came to suspect the Count, or how he tracked him down. It's like coming into an Agatha Christie story in the final chapter!

The only thing left unknown at the "mystery's" beginning is the location of the Stone itself. And Holmes doesn't used detection or deduction to discover it, but rather a fairly cheap (and unbelievable) parlor trick. Boo!

**In the play, Doyle used  Colonel Sebastian Moran as the villain, and used aspects of The Empty House. Fair enough, I suppose, for presenting Holmes in another medium.

For the purposes of adapting the short story, Doyle changed the villain to Count Negretto Sylvius (Great evil name!). But he kept him as a big-game hunter, he kept the false Holmes mannequin, kept the references to airguns. And of course, as readers we already had seen all of this, giving us a distinct deja vu.

Doyle does have Watson explicitly acknowledge this--"we used something of the sort before"--to try and take the sting out of it. But a re-run is still a re-run. And calling attention to an earlier, far better story does no favors to our appreciation of this one.

**There is simply no way to picture the denouement so that it works. I'm sorry, it just can't happen in my mind:
Hallo! What was that?" There was a vague sound which seemed to come from the window. Both men sprang round, but all was quiet. Save for the one strange figure seated in the chair, the room was certainly empty.

"Thank you!" With a single spring Holmes had leaped from the dummy's chair and had grasped the precious jewel. He held it now in one hand, while his other pointed a revolver at the Count's head. The two villains staggered back in utter amazement.

You are not aware that a second door from my bedroom leads behind that curtain. I fancied that you must have heard me when I displaced the figure, but luck was on my side. It gave me a chance of listening to your racy conversation which would have been painfully constrained had you been aware of my presence."
In the stage play, Sherlock had caused the light to black out for a few seconds, which gave him ample time to switch himself with the dummy unobserved.

But that blackout doesn't happen in the short story!! The mannequin is in plain view the entire time!! So even if you grant that Holmes' bedroom suddenly has 2 hidden exits, you still have to believe that the Count and Merton would have their entire conversation with their back turned to the dummy, AND that Sherlock could move the dummy to some other spot and replace it without the movement and noise attracting attention. I'm sorry, without the blackout, I just don't buy it, not in the tiniest, least bit.

**Lord Cantlemere wasn't in the play--he's a creation for the short story.

But he's only vaguely referred early in the play, by Billy: "He's a stiff'un...but I can't stand his Lordship."

That's hardly a strong indictment of him, is it? Particularly coming from a young lad. So at the story's end, when Holmes goes through an elaborate charade to prank Cantlemere, it doesn't feel earned or justified--its just feels cruel. We also don't know who he is--what is his role in the government? Why is he apparently in charge of Holmes investigation?

If Doyle was going to bring in this character, and base the whole post-climax scene on him, he really should have brought Cantlemere into the story earlier, so the audience could loathe him early on, and feel that he deserves Holmes' "perverted" sense of humor.

**Billy: "We had the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary both sitting on that very sofa."

Of course, in the last story, we had the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary coming to Holmes to beg him to help out. So again, this feels like Doyle just riffing on some of Sherlock's greatest hits.

**How, exactly, was the stone stolen? We are given no detail whatsoever. If we are to respect the Count as a master villain, we really need to see some aspect of the crime as particularly daring, or clever, or worthy of Holmes' talents. Instead, we got not one single word regarding the theft itself.

In the regrettable Granada adaptation, the Stone is on display, and the count just hits the commissionaire with his cane, smashes the case, and takes the stone. Hardly the robbery of the century.

**Speaking of the Granada adaptation...well...sigh. it's pretty dire.

Jeremy Brett was ill, and only appeared in a tiny prologue and epilogue that were clearly filmed separately.  Holmes was "up north," so the government went to Mycroft to recover the stone.

Fair enough. But the story was so short, it was apparently to difficult to pad out to 51 minutes, so they combined it with The Three Garridebs, in a way that made little sense, and...pshaw, let's just say it's awful and move on, shall we?

**Holmes, referring to the danger of having Billy the page working for him: "That boy is a problem, Watson. How far am I justified in allowing him to be in danger?"

Watson, of course, was often in danger, too. But at least he was an adult.

Of course, anyone Holmes used in his investigations--street urchins, cab drivers, steamer captains, dog owners--could have been just as much in dangers.

And given that just a few minutes later, Holmes instructed Billy to go and taunt and insult a huge boxer, his concern for Billy's welfare was short-lived...

**Despite all my kvetching about the story, there is still some fun dialogue...
"I'm expecting something this evening."
"Expecting what?"
"To be murdered, Watson."
**Holmes seems to have a completely opposite understanding of biology from, say, the real world:
"You have not, I hope, learned to despise my pipe and my lamentable tobacco? It has to take the place of food these days." 
"But why not eat?"
"Because the faculties become refined when you starve them. Why, surely, as a doctor, my dear Watson, you must admit that what your digestion gains in the way of blood supply is so much lost to the brain. I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix. Therefore, it is the brain I must consider."
**Count Negretto Sylvius. Sounds like he could have been a better villain than he turned out: "half-ltalian, you know, and with the Southern graces of manner when in the mood, but a devil incarnate in the other mood. But..Possibly you have heard of his reputation as a shooter of big game."

**Holmes not wanting Watson's help:
"Count me in, Holmes. I have nothing to do for a day or two."
"Your morals don't improve, Watson. You have added fibbing to your other vices. You bear every sign of the busy medical man, with calls on him every hour."
Where's the explanation of these deductions?!? Surely in such a short tale, you could spare three lines to tell us how Sherlock knew Watson had calls on him every hour!

**Padding out a story that should have been over already:
"I've cast my net and I have my fish. But I have not got the stone. What is the use of taking them? We can make the world a better place by laying them by the heels. But that is not what I am out for. It's the stone I want."
Fair enough, I suppose. And we can't blame Holmes for knowing ahead of time that Sylvius would be stupid enough to be carrying the stone on him. Still, if you really do know the whole thing already, the wiser course might be to have them arrested, and then try to sweat the stone's location out of them, perhaps with an offer of a deal. Instead of, say, putting your own life (and Billy's...and Watson's) at risk in an extended interview that on the surface didn't seem any more likely to produce success...

**"The other is Sam Merton the boxer. Not a bad fellow, Sam, but the Count has used him. Sam's not a shark. He is a great big silly bull-headed gudgeon. But he is flopping about in my net all the same."

Sam Merton is a good sounding idea for a character. But he's not really used well. What was his part in the theft? Why would a sophisticate like the Count hook up with a big lug like Merton?

As it is, Sam only exists in the story because Sylvius needs someone to talk to about the stone's location. Otherwise, there is no conversation to overhear!!

Plus, Doyle missed a prime opportunity to remind us of Holmes boxing prowess, and his reputation in the fighting community.

**That bedroom. Holmes damned bedroom. How many exits does that bedroom have?

When Sylvius arrives, Holmes has Watson go for the police, but has him go through another bedroom exit, so he won't encounter the Count: "I think we will go out through the bedroom. This second exit is exceedingly useful." 

OK, fine, I suppose--but wait--there is yet another exit: one that leads to behind a curtain next to the mannequin in the window: "You are not aware that a second door from my bedroom leads behind that curtain."

So now my head is spinning. Does Holmes' bedroom have 3 exits? Or are there only two, and the second one somehow leads both out of Baker Street and back into the sitting room?!?! Terribly poor attention to detail.

**We're back to Watson quality verbosity with the description of Count Sylvius: "The famous game-shot, sportsman, and man-about-town was a big, swarthy fellow, with a formidable dark moustache shading a cruel, thin-lipped mouth, and surmounted by a long, curved nose like the beak of an eagle. He was well dressed, but his brilliant necktie, shining pin, and glittering rings were flamboyant in their effect."

**Holmes gets persnickety about criminals treating him with the proper manners:
"Two can play at that game, Holmes." 

"It is a small point, Count Sylvius, but perhaps you would kindly give me my prefix when you address me. You can understand that, with my routine of work, I should find myself on familiar terms with half the rogues' gallery, and you will agree that exceptions are invidious."
Geez. Good thing he didn't call you Sherlock...

**Apocryphal case: "Old Baron Dowson said the night before he was hanged that in my case what the law had gained the stage had lost."

**Another fine exchange on why Holmes chases criminals (even if it furthers the "borrowed wholesale from Colonel Moran" problem):
"Come now, Count. You used to shoot lions in Algeria." 
"But why?" 
"Why? The sport -- the excitement -- the danger!" "And, no doubt, to free the country from a pest?"
"Exactly!" "My reasons in a nutshell!
**Holmes getting scary: "You can't bluff me, Count Sylvius." Holmes's eyes, as he gazed at him, contracted and lightened until they were like two menacing points of steel. "You are absolute plate-glass. I see to the very back of your mind."

**Holmes has at least done his homework of the Count:
"Do you know what I keep in this book?..."It's all here, Count. The real facts as to the death of old Mrs. Harold, who left you the Blymer estate, which you so rapidly gambled away."
"You are dreaming!" 
"And the complete life history of Miss Minnie Warrender." 
"Tut! You will make nothing of that!"
"Plenty more here, Count. Here is the robbery in the train de-luxe to the Riviera on February 13, 1892. Here is the forged check in the same year on the Credit Lyonnais."
Of course, all of that is completely irrelevant to the case at hand. If he could have been prosecuted for any of these misdeeds, he likely would have been already. So, aside from trying to convince us what an evil badass Sylvius is, how does this help Holmes solve the case, or force the Count to confess? It doesn't.

Holmes is far bolder and more accusatory in the original play, outright saying that Moran had committed murders and robberies. Still, it is to the same effect--no impact on the story at all.

**How Holmes can prove Sylvius is guilty" "I have the cabman who took you to Whitehall and the cabman who brought you away. I have the commissionaire who saw you near the case. I have Ikey Sanders, who refused to cut it up for you. Ikey has peached, and the game is up."

Again, with no details, we can't tell if this is brilliant detection on Holmes' part, or if the Count is just a really, really terrible crook, leaving at least 3 witnesses to his crime and doing a lousy job of disposing of his booty.

**For once, at least, Holmes is deferring to the authorities, and not his own personal sense of justice. Despite his obvious distaste for the Count, Sherlock is willing to let him escape in exchange for fulfilling his mission: "We don't want you or Sam. We want the stone. Give that up, and so far as I am concerned you can go free so long as you behave yourself in the future. If you make another slip well, it will be the last. But this time my commission is to get the stone, not you."

"Billy, you will see a large and ugly gentleman outside the front door. Ask him to come up." 
"If he won't come, sir?" 
"No violence, Billy. Don't be rough with him.
Haha he's sending a child to confront a dangerous crook!!

**More droll dialogue:
"You won't die in your bed, Holmes." 
"I have often had the same idea. Does it matter very much? After all, Count, your own exit is more likely to be perpendicular than horizontal.

**I complained about Sam's characterization earlier, so in fairness I must praise this small bit: Holmes's debonair manner was a new experience, and though he vaguely felt that it was hostile, he did not know how to counter it.

**Holmes leaving the villains alone to talk it over:
I'm going into that bedroom. Pray make yourselves quite at home in my absence. You can explain to your friend how the matter lies without the restraint of my presence. I shall try over the Hoffman 'Barcarole' upon my violin. In five minutes I shall return for your final answer.
Merton and Sylvius didn't know the police had already been sent for. Why not flee? Holmes got lucky here.

**Ah, modern technology:
"I suppose he's not listening?"
 "How can he be listening with that music going?"
Really, these are master criminals?

**Sam, on why they can't flee the country yet: "But the false bottom ain't ready." Uh, false bottom to what? The line in the play is "The false bottom ain't in the hat-box yet."

**Master criminals at work again:
"Here is the stone."
"I wonder you dare carry it." 
"Where could I have it safer? If we could take it out of Whitehall someone else could surely take it out of my lodgings."

Wow, it's hard to imagine these clowns stealing candy, let alone swiping a crown jewel...

**At the end, we're back to brief, unremarkable narration, and a fairly abrupt finish: There was an inrush of police, the handcuffs clicked and the criminals were led to the waiting cab. Watson lingered with Holmes, congratulating him upon this fresh leaf added to his laurels.

**And again, the whole Lord Cantlemere bit is anti-climactic and overlong. Without properly setting up the noble as a boor, makes Holmes look a bit like a jackass.