Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Adventure Of The Three Gables--Sherlock As Atticus Finch?!?

We've all experienced this, haven't we? We go home for a family gathering, and a favorite uncle or cousin we've long admired is there. Our ideal is shattered, though, when the relative suddenly blurts out something hateful and racist, and suddenly you're disillusioned and uncomfortable and you have no idea what to do.

Which brings us to The Adventure of The Three Gables.

One of the reasons this post is so late is that I have no idea what to do here.

Like when your beloved grandfather starts dropping anti-Semitic comments during Thanksgiving dinner...what do you do? Try and correct him? Start a big argument that ruins dinner for everybody? Press too hard and you find out that many more of your loved ones harbor similar disturbing prejudices? Keep eating and stew in silence? Stop accepting invitations to family gatherings?

Granted, Sherlock Holmes (and Watson) are fictional characters, but in some ways the sting is just as bad. To see a character you admire, the epitome of intellect and reason and not letting unwarranted prejudices cloud your reason, speaking and behaving in way that you feel is racist--it jars. It hurts.

Now, as a middle-aged middle-class white male, I am spectacularly unequipped to speak intelligently on such issues. Anything I can add to the discussion would be as an outsider dilettante, right?

And there are some halfhearted defenses I could try to make of Holmes' behavior in this story. "All his jabs weren't directed at blacks in general, just at Steve Dixie. He wasn't generalizing, he wasn't being racist--Dixie really did smell bad!" Or "Holmes didn't really feel that way--he was trying to use those comments to get under Dixie's skin, to throw him off guard and get him to blurt out information about his boss!" Or "Holmes was just as rude to Sam Merton the boxer in Mazarin Stone! He's not racist, he just hates dumb bruisers in general!" Or "...but The Adventure Of The Yellow Face!!"

And they even be some glimmers of truth, and perhaps mitigation, in those arguments. But Watson himself is also not terribly pleasant in some of his descriptions of Mr. Dixie, and in his transcription of his dialogue.  So we can't just dismiss complaints about this story out-of-hand with rhetorical tricks. As regular reader Arynne said, "[Holmes] is a racist asshole in Three Gables!" It's difficult for me to reject that conclusion.

Perhaps a better question is--should we be surprised? After all, even in real life, people are terribly complicated, and inconsistent in ways that would never pass muster if we analyzed them the way we analyzed literary works. Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, held views on race relations that, while common at the time, would have right-thinking people reject the entirety of his career if spoken today. People can be more than one thing at once, even contradictory things.

That can be true in literature and entertainment, too. Without getting into all of the controversy over the release of the "sequel" to To Kill A Mockingbird, Go Set A Watchman tells of an Atticus Finch in his older days who maybe isn't quite the perfect idol of liberalism 9th grade English classes (and Gregory Peck) have made him to be for decades. He attends meetings of racist organizations! He for "states' rights!" Despite his defense of Tom Robinson, he doesn't support integration or full civil rights for blacks!!

Good Lord, you would have thought they were murdering puppies on Main Street, so great was the anguished outcry by people astonished that their lifetime hero maybe, just maybe, was not an icon of perfection!! How dare you tell us our heroes are complex and contradictory and...

We can see a similar thing in the original Star Trek. It was the 1960s, and they liked to make a big deal over Earth overcoming all its prejudices and hatreds. But every single episode featured the chief medical officer making racist comments about the ship's first officer. So much for racism being over...or does racism not count if you're only racist against fictional races and species? (And yes, insert all of the defenses of "they're friends" and "he's just needling Spock" you like...but then ask yourself why some of those same defenses wouldn't apply to Holmes in this story.) This and later iterations of Trek were quick to assert that everybody on a planet had the exact same culture and behavior: Tellarites are all quarrelsome, Ferengi are all greedy, Klingons are all warlike, etc. Hell, the Next Generation episode Redemption Part II has a high-ranking Star Fleet officer say that, "No one would suggest that a Klingon would be a good ship's counselor, or that a Berellian could be an engineer. They're just not suited for those positions." Even the mighty Federation, it seems, can harbor some racism (or specieism) in the future.

I can't get into the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but surely he was, just as we all are, products of our time. That's not a defense, of course. And I'm not going to get so clever as to say "he was only portraying the racism of the times, he wasn't actually racist himself." Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. We can't know, though, so where does that leave us?

As I said above, I just don't know. The best I can do here is to suggest that Sherlock Holmes is as human as the rest of us. That he is vast, and contains multitudes, and some of the lesser multitudes peeked out during this story...and maybe allowing for a little bit of mitigation for the era, a little bit for the possibility that Holmes may have been trying to provoke a perp...

Yeah, Sherlock is a "racist bastard" in Three Gables. I don't think that we toss out the whole story because our hero was less than perfect this time around. We continue to admire Lincoln and Atticus Finch. We still watch Star Wars despite "I'd just as soon kiss a Wookie." And we still go to family gatherings despite Uncle Bob's occasional embarrassing moment.

That's the best I've got.


**All of the above being said, this is a pretty nice little story, marred only by two things: we should have met Langdale Pike, and the ending was far too abrupt. How did Holmes explain the largesse of a world trip to Mrs. Maberley?

Otherwise, it is a fairly low stakes affair, with the whole motive revolving around that old Victorian fear of scandal. Good heavens!!

**The Granada adaptation manages to greatly raise the stakes. In the television version, Douglas Maberley actually because of the beating Isadora Klein's goons gave him. Apparently, the attack "ruptured his spleen," according to Watson, which somehow caused the pneumonia that killed him!! That was the reason she was so desperate to get the "novel"--it functioned as an accusation (and proof?) of murder!! And despite the seeming impossibility of proving that in a court of law, Holmes essentially blackmails Klein with it, by promising not to report it to the authorities if she founds Mrs. Maberley's trip, and breaks off her engagement to Duke and leave England forever!!! Which she does!!

Also, Granada makes Mary Maberley Douglas' grandmother, instead of his mother. Go figure...

**Man, Sir Arthur was using "Three" a lot in his stories. Three Gables, Three Garridebs, Three Students, Missing Three're making it very confusing for us to remember which story was which, Sir!!

**Good old Watson: "...the slight clatter which I made as I picked up the poker." Always ready to leap to Holmes' aid.

**If Holmes actually knew something of the murder of "young Perkins," why hadn't he gone to the authorities with it? Or did he just have his suspicions, which he was able to conveniently used to scare Dixie? Does he have a lot of "I suspect but can't proves" in his arsenal, ready to dispense when needed?

**Mrs. Maberley's note said, "I have had a succession of strange incidents occur to me in connection with this house." Yet, as far as we can tell, there was only one incident: someone trying to buy the house with odd conditions attached to the sale. Did other things happen, that she never bothered to tell us about? There was no sign of threats, or break-ins, or anything, right? Or was one eccentric, rich anonymous person trying to buy your house enough to justify hiring a detective?

**Then again, Mary was familiar with Holmes work: "I believe that my late husband, Mortimer Maberley, was one of your early clients." Holmes says, "it is some years since he used my services in some trifling matter."

So a minor, apocryphal case...

**Watson, architecture critic, on the house name Three Gables: "the house, a brick and timber villa, standing in its own acre of undeveloped grassland. Three small projections above. the upper windows made a feeble attempt to justify its name."

**Apparently, Douglas Maberley was the talk of the town. Holmes:
But of course all London knew him. What a magnificent creature he was!...I have never known anyone so vitally alive. He lived intensely -every fibre of him!"
One can only wonder at what inspired such fame and adoration for a minor diplomat.

**Mary: "You remember him as he was -- debonair and splendid. You did not see the moody, morose, brooding creature into which he developed. His heart was broken. In a single month I seemed to see my gallant boy turn into a worn-out cynical man."

Holmes: "A love affair -- a woman?"

Mary: "Or a fiend."

Hmmm. Does Mary know that Isadora was the one who broke Douglas' heart and spirit? That "fiend" comment suggests she knew something. It's a pity she wasn't more forthcoming. as she could have saved Holmes some time hanging around with gossip columnists!

Also? When Holmes says. "A love affair--a woman?" Is he implying that maybe it wouldn't have been a woman? That he suspected Douglas of having...ahem...other interests? It just seems odd to insert that qualifier in there, in that way, if you didn't have some reason to think that maybe it wasn't a woman...

**Of course, someone willing to considerably overpay for a house could be an indication of evil-doing. Or it could be a sign of a housing bubble with imminent economic collapse coming...

**This "Haines-Johnson" and Klein make a bit of a mistake by over-egging the offer a fair bit.

Buy the house and all the furniture for far more than market price? No problem. But language in the contract stating that she "could not legally take anything out of the house -- not even your own private possessions?" And his explanation to her, "'Well, well, some concession might be made for your personal effects. But nothing shall go out of the house unchecked," is obviously going to be unacceptable to a woman of "refinement and culture."

There should have been some way to make that contract more subtle, without forcing Mrs. Maberley to an option that anyone would see as offensive and unacceptable--not to mention immediately alerting her lawyer that something odd was going on.

**What other options existed?

Douglas effects had arrived "last week," and been untouched, "piled in a corner." Surely the wicked maid Susan knew his luggage was there, unopened. Surely she and her cronies should have known that Douglas' novel must be there. Couldn't Susan have searched Douglas' things? Offered to unpack them for Mrs. Maberley? Mary had no idea that the novel even existed--she would never notice that it was missing?!?!

Surely Mary was not at much as a shut-in as Garrideb was. Break in  (or have Susan let you in) while she's at the market, or visiting friends, or at church. Why do you need to rush in and chloroform her, especially when you must know, through Susan, that Mary has no idea the manuscript exists? What's the infernal rush?

Offer Mary the contract, without the offensive clauses. Include her moving expenses as part of the deal. Stockdale and his gang pose as movers, and search the trunks while in transit...or even switch them out entirely.

There were an awful lot of options available before resulting to insane contracts and break-ins that involved physically assaulting an old woman.

**Holmes catching Susan eavesdropping: "He strode across the room, flung open the door, and dragged in a great gaunt woman whom he had seized by the shoulder. She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop."

**Isadora may have felt that Susan and Barney were "good hounds who run silent."

But look at what Holmes is able to get out of Susan in about 30 seconds:
"Suppose I tell you that it was Barney Stockdale to whom you spoke?" said Holmes. 

"Well, if you know, what do you want to ask for?" 

"I was not sure, but I know now. Well now, Susan, it will be worth ten pounds to you if you will tell me who is at the back of Barney." 

"Someone that could lay down a thousand pounds for every ten you have in the world." 

"So, a rich man? No; you smiled -- a rich woman. Now we have got so far, you may as well give the name and earn the tenner."
So in quick order, Holmes gets Susan to admit she's with Stockdale, and that they're working for a wealthy woman.

Klein really shouldn't be confident of her droogs' ability to stay silent when Sherlock Holmes on the case.

**Holmes being very pawkey with Susan:  
"Just a little wheezy, Susan, are you not? You breathe too heavily for that kind of work." 

"Now, Susan, wheezy people may not live long, you know. It's a wicked thing to tell fibs." 

"Good-bye, Susan. Paregoric is the stuff..."
 See, he's laying the insults on everybody this case,. not just Dixie...

**Every homeowner's dream: "You don't happen to have a Raphael or a first folio Shakespeare without knowing it?"

**Sherlock is on a roll this day: "I was wondering whether [the previous owner] could have buried something. Of course, when people bury treasure nowadays they do it in the Post-Office bank. But there are always some lunatics about. It would be a dull world without them."

Of course, now there's BitCoin. Then again, people are buying gold as a safety investment again these days, so maybe there are some more folks burying things in their back yards...

And yes, there are always some lunatics about.

**Holmes and Watson ask Mary in about three different ways whether or not something new had come into the household lately. It does make her look a little bit dotty to not think about the "several trunks and cases" that were lying there in plain sight.

**At their second encounter, Steve Dixie avers to help Holmes if he can, and Sherlock replies that "that the lady in that house, and everything under that roof, is under my protection."

So, did Steve take part in the break in? He certainly didn't inform Holmes about it, before or after...does Sherlock follow up on his threat to tell the authorities about the murder of Perkins?

**As mentioned above, I think not showing us Langdale Pike is a lost opportunity:
...his human book of reference upon all matters of social scandal. This strange, languid creature spent his waking hours in the bow window of a St. James's Street club and was the receiving station as well as the transmitter for all the gossip of the metropolis. He made, it was said, a four-figure income by the paragraphs which he contributed every week to the garbage papers which cater to an inquisitive public. If ever, far down in the turbid depths of London life, there was some strange swirl or eddy, it was marked with automatic exactness by this human dial upon the surface. Holmes discreetly helped Langdale to knowledge, and on occasion was helped in turn.
What a delicious description. Obviously Pike is one of the many agents Holmes employed later in his career, and, despite Watson's obvious distaste, could have been a fascinating character to meet. It also would have been nice to hear his stories about Douglas and Isadora first hand, and not have Holmes pull them out as a surprise reveal many (many) pages later.

Some commentators have said that "Langdale Pike" is such an obviously false name, that it somehow proves that this story was not canonical. Please...many a gossip columnist--not to mention dealers in secret information--have used pseudonyms.

**After the break-in, we meet "a bustling, rubicund inspector, who greeted Holmes as an old friend." 

This is the only case where Doyle doesn't name the inspector. Who is it? Why not name him? Why not use Lestrade or one of the old stand-bys?

Perhaps since the inspector is portrayed as a racist and a bigger than usual dolt, Doyle didn't wish to sully Gregson et. al. with this character...

**Unnamed inspector is incompetent, and pompous about being incompetent!
Mary:"There was one sheet of paper which I may have torn from the man that I grasped. It was lying all crumpled on the floor. It is in my son's handwriting." 

"Which means that it is not of much use," said the inspector. "Now if it had been in the burglar's --" 

"Exactly," said Holmes. "What rugged common sense! None the less, I should be curious to see it." 

The inspector drew a folded sheet of foolscap from his pocketbook. "I never pass anything, however trifling," said he with some pomposity. "That is my advice to you, Mr. Holmes. In twenty-five years' experience I have learned my lesson. There is always the chance of finger-marks or something."

**Douglas was certainly not destined to win any writing awards:
". . . face bled considerably from the cuts and blows, but it was nothing to the bleeding of his heart as he saw that lovely face, the face for which he had been prepared to sacrifice his very life, looking out at his agony and humiliation. She smiled -- yes, by Heaven! she smiled, like the heartless fiend she was, as he looked up at her. It was at that moment that love died and hate was born. Man must live for something. If it is not for your embrace, my lady, then it shall surely be for your undoing and my complete revenge."
 It must have been fun for Sir Arthur to deliberately write so badly...

**This is the 3rd time in Case-Book when a woman of Latin American origin has played a substantial role in the story, having married a wealthy American or European and come home with him. I wonder what was going on in Sir Arthur's life that brought that about...

**That being said, Doyle does tell us that Isadora "is pure Spanish," and "her people have been leaders in Pernambuco for generations." But Pernambuco is in Brazil, which was under Dutch and then Portuguese  control!! It's not impossible a Spanish family could have lived there, of course...

**Holmes describes Klein as "the richest as well as the most lovely widow upon earth." Wow. I'm not sure how extensive his research on that esoteric topic is, though.

Meanwhile, Watson may not be 100% in agreement, at least on the beauty part, as he noes "The lady had come, I felt, to that time of life when even the proudest beauty finds the half light more welcome."

As to the "wealthiest" part? The reason Isadora rejected Douglas' pleas for marriage was that he was "a penniless commoner." And nothing was more important to her then "her life's ambition" to marry a young duke, so it was "imperative" to avoid scandal. Money, and perhaps royal title, were still of great importance to her, no matter how wealthy she may have been.

**Quite a humourous bit from Watson:
A machine-like footman took up our cards and returned with word that the lady was not at home. 

"Then we shall wait until she is," said Holmes cheerfully. 

The machine broke down. 

"Not at home means not at home to you," said the footman.
Ha ha!

**Holmes: "Surely no man would take up my profession if it were not that danger attracts him." And, by hiring goons to warn him away, Isadora "forced me to examine the case of young Maberley."

Yet another reason pursuing some alternate, easier plans for obtaining the manuscript might have been in order...

**Kudos to Isadora for being bright enough to burn the manuscript immediately, unlike many another mysteries where the criminal keeps evidence around for no good reason.

**The fickle winds of fate--if Douglas hadn't died of pneumonia, he would have sent the other copy of the (awful) manuscript to the publisher from Italy, and it would have been printed. Talk about lucky...and perhaps the reason Granada chose to make Isadora's actions the (not quite believable) cause of his illness and death. Because we don't like to think of fortune favoring the wicked like that...

**Holmes: "I am not the law, but I represent justice so far as my feeble powers go."

Well, this is no murderer he is freeing in this case. Yes, she is a fairly nasty "belle dame sans merci," ruthless and cruel...but that is hardly a crime. The actual crime, burglary and assault, are not nothing, but no one was seriously hurt. And Mrs. Maberley wasn't even aware of what was lost, and wasn't hurt substantially by its taking.

Still, it was a crime, and as Holmes notes, Mrs. Klein does like to play with "edged tools," so more incidents were not unlikely in the future.

So, a tough call on the feeble powers of justice here. Certainly Mrs. Maberley wouldn't have been too happy with a lurid scandal involving her dead son, either. And she does get to travel around the world the substantial check from Klein, AND she gets to keep her house and furniture! And perhaps becoming a Duchess will encourage Klein to end her questionable associations and illegal activities. So, justice?!?

**I would have loved a scene where Sherlock hands a big check to Mrs. Maberley, and tells her to go on a world cruise, but can't tell it who it's from or what it's about, or explain the mysteries of the offer to buy the house, or the break-in. Is it justice to keep your client in the dark...?


Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Adventure Of The Illustrious Client--The Incomplete Story Of Miss Kitty Winter!!

I won't lie--I'm not a big fan of The Adventure Of The Illustrious Client.

Sorry. I know that's not much of a lead-in. No deep thoughts, no underlying metaphors, no discourses on what the story tells us about Victorian/Edwardian society.

To a large extent, that's because we have already covered this story before. On a fundamental plot level, Illustrious Client is the exact same story as Charles Augustus Milverton. Except it's not as good.

In both tales, Holmes is hired to protect an upper class woman from the mechanizations of an evil, evil man. After a meeting with the villain that proves Holmes has nothing in his detective arsenal to thwart the villain, Sherlock resorts to burglarizing the bad guy's home. He succeeds, but is almost caught, when a former female victim shows up and physically neutralizes the villain.

Yes, there are some differences. But these are basically the same stories. You'll recall that I wasn't fond of the Milverton story as a Sherlock Holmes story, and Illustrious repeats many of those missteps. There is no mystery to solve--we know who the bad guy is, there's never any question about that. There's no whodunnit, howdunnit or whydunnit. Hell, unlike Milverton, there's not even a crime being committed. Sherlock makes no deductions in either story, and the greatest detective of all time simply resorts to blunt force breaking and entering to "solve" the case. An outside party steps in to settle the villain's hash.

On another level, Illustrious Client just seems to be, well, a seedier, seamier story. If you disregard the speculation over the identity of the client, you're left with a tale that could as well come from some penny dreadful. Holmes is hired not to solve a crime, but to break up an engagement. He's a fixer, not a detective!! Baron Gruner may be murderer, but his chief interest seems to be using and discarding woman. He keeps a "lust book": "Snapshot photographs. names, details, everything about them. It was a beastly book -- a book no man, even if he had come from the gutter, could have put together." We get precious few details about the women he has "ruined," but one of those victims throws acid in his face, and we spend several paragraphs in a rather grisly description of the resulting injuries.


Yet, ironically, I found I wanted far more detail about one character in particular: Miss Kitty Winter. She's obviously of great importance in the tale--she tells Holmes about Gruner's diary; she goes with Holmes to try and convince Violet de Merville that her fiance was a snake; Holmes grabs her to help find the diary in his study; and of course she gains her vengeance by tossing vitriol on him. She's feisty, she's likable (well, at least until the acid-throwing), she's the most colorful and vital and interesting character in the story.

But we need more details to make her character work within the story. Perhaps it was due to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Victorian prudishness, but we never learn exactly how the baron wronged Kitty. He clearly didn't murder her. He pretty clearly didn't rob her of any family fortune, as the story (and both of the TV adaptations) portray her as lower class.

What then, did Gruner do to Miss Winter to make her a raving maniac whenever his name comes up? We never find out. When she has her confrontation with Violet, Kitty neglects to say a single word about what the baron did to her--negating the reason she came in the first place!! She merely comes across as a madwoman because of that, constantly raving and never explaining, which weakens her position in the narrative. It's hard to take sympathy with someone's cries from justice, when we never know what the injustice was to begin with.

When tried for the "grave crime of vitriol-throwing," "Such extenuating circumstances came out in the trial that the sentence, as will be remembered was the lowest that was possible for such an offence." What extenuating circumstances? Why aren't we told at any point in the story what actually happened to her?

Clearly Gruner did more than "love her and leave her," or cheat on her, because that certainly doesn't seem like it would be extenuating enough to let her off lightly for what could have been charged as an attempted murder.

Did he leave her with child, or force her into an abortion? Make her participate in some particularly degrading sexual acts? Did he prostitute her? Did he beat her? The Granada adaptation showed us that Gruner had scarred her neck and chest with acid himself, which makes her fury more understandable, and her acid-throw at him seem at least somewhat justified.

But in the printed story, we have no idea of what motivates Kitty Winter, unless there are some coded words and phrases in the story which made sense to a 1920s fan that now escape the modern reader. But I think Doyle was just being too delicate and discreet--a gentleman shouldn't write of such things! Yet by eliding past any actual explanations, he weakens the character, and makes us question the justice of her actions.

Holmes also treat Miss Winters very oddly. After Gruner's goons attack him, he insists that Watson get her out of town, because she is danger:
Tell Shinwell Johnson to get that girl out of the way. Those beauties will be after her now. They know, of course, that she was with me in the case. If they dared to do me in it is not likely they will neglect her. That is urgent.
But just six days later, Holmes drags Kitty along to Gruner's residence!! How unbelievably callous--"you're in grave danger from this man, now come with me to his house?!?" No wonder she brought acid!! Holmes' reason, "But I had to be sure of the position of the book, and I knew I had only a few minutes in which to act...therefore I gathered the girl up at the last moment" makes little sense. In their first meeting, Kitty had told Holmes, "How can I tell you where [the book] is now? It's more than a year since I left him." It seems a very slender thread upon which to justify bringing the woman along, risking both her safety and her arrest for abetting a felony, when the lust book might not even be in the same location.

So, as promised, no particularly deep thoughts. It's just a story I don't particularly like, and the most interesting character, who could have tied everything together much better, is underdeveloped to the point of actually harming the narrative.


**For what it's worth, Sir Arthur was quite pleased with this story, telling a friend in a letter that he considered it among the top six Sherlock Holmes stories.

Well, I'm a terrible judge of my own writing, too.

**Holmes tells Watson that "it can't hurt now" to write up this adventure.

"Now" would seem to imply that earlier it hadn't been all right to tell it. Since the tale occurred in 1902, and was published in 1924, obviously something--or several somethings--had changed in the intervening 22 years.

Edward VII, most people's choice for the "illustrious client," had of course died in 1910. So there could be no fear of upsetting him--although certainly his part in tale can only make him look good, unless he were embarrassed as having been seen interfering in a society wedding. Or perhaps, given tales of Edward's past, there is a deeper reason--perhaps he is really Violet's father?!?

If Baron Gruner were still alive, some of what Watson recorded here might seem actionable--actually accusing him of a murder, assaulting detectives and of "ruining" young women, at the least. So perhaps he had passed.

The only other person who might care would be Violet de Merville, for being made to look like such a fool. She probably wouldn't be too happy that the circumstances of the breaking of their engagement be made public. Surely she had actually married by this point. Perhaps she had left the country, or maybe she had passed in the intervening decades, as well...

**"Both Holmes and I had a weakness for the Turkish bath." Do they even have Turkish baths anymore? There don't seem to be any in my neck of the woods...

**A number of commentators suggest that the following is Sherlock Holmes snidely tweaking an upper class twit:
...said Holmes with a smile. "Don't you smoke? Then you will excuse me if I light my pipe. 

See, Sir James Damery had not taken off his elegant gloves, and he was a bit of a dandy, so Holmes asking him if he wanted to spoke was supposedly the detective's way of subtly criticizing him for not having taken off his gloves to shake hands with them, and...

No, I really don't see that, sorry. And neither the 1965 BBC adaptation nor the Granada version do anything with that either--they show not a trace of Sherlock taking umbrage or making merry.

No, if you want a suggestion of Holmes' being so insolent, you really have to go to his reading Damery's missive: "It may be some fussy, self-important fool; it may be a matter of life or death..."

Of course, Holmes hadn't met Damery yet, and only knew of his reputation as a "fixer" and high society diplomat.

And to be honest, Damery isn't a twit at all. He doesn't take issue with Watson joining in. He doesn't talk down about people from lower classes, or from America. He shows ample respect for Holmes' power, acknowledging that Holmes could easily deduce Damery's patron if he tried. He makes sure that Holmes will "have a free hand." He listens with "deepest attention." Damery certainly comes across as much more likable and friendly than, say, Lord Cantlemere in Mazarin Stone or Lord St. Simon in Noble Bachelor. Really, the only reason Holmes could have to subtweet Damery as folks claim is that Holmes objected to his being a clothes horse.

No, if Doyle is having Holmes take the piss with Damery, it's far too subtle for me to see (or understand why).

**Despite my misgivings about the story as a whole, Watson's (and Holmes'!) character descriptions are amazing, deep and rich. When they first meet Colonel Damery:
...many will remember that large, bluff, honest personality, that broad, cleanshaven face, and, above all, that pleasant, mellow voice. Frankness shone from his gray Irish eyes, and good humour played round his mobile, smiling lips. His lucent top-hat, his dark frock-coat, indeed, every detail, from the pearl pin in the black satin cravat to the lavender spats over the varnished shoes, spoke of the meticulous care in dress for which he was famous. 
Again, Watson doesn't seem to be tweaking him, either, unless "meticulous care in dress" is a subtle shot. But this reads to me like an approving assessment of the man, not a criticism at him.

**Damery on Gruner: "I should say that there is no more dangerous man in Europe."

Holmes seems a bit dismissive: "If your man is more dangerous than the late Professor Moriarty, or than the living Colonel Sebastian Moran, then he is indeed worth meeting."

Of course, Gruner does a good job of having the crap kicked out of Holmes by minions...and Holmes is not able to outwit him. So Damery's description seems apt.

**Damery: "To revenge crime is important, but to prevent it is more so."

Of course, what Gruner is doing is no crime. As distasteful as it might seem, a cad marrying a well-to-do woman isn't illegal--even if his previous wife came to a bad end.

**Damery: Gruner "has been fortunate in some rather shady speculations and is a rich man, which naturally makes him a more dangerous antagonist."

So, wait--he made his money from "shady" investments? He didn't murder his first wife for her money? Than why did he kill her?

And if he is already well off, why is he so insistent on marrying Violet? For more money? For the sheer sadism? Or...does he really love her?

**Holmes doesn't like anonymous clients: "I am accustomed to have mystery at one end of my cases, but to have it at both ends is too confusing." 

**Ah, the mysterious client.

I will credit Doyle for this much--the use of this device helps disguise how much this story is merely a re-run of Milverton.

If Damery himself had been the client--or General de Merville--we wouldn't be so wrapped in speculation, deduction and argument over the identity of the "illustrious" gentleman. And without those "bookends" around the story, we might notice its weaknesses more easily.

Perhaps its just because I'm an American, but I get no particular thrill over pondering which high-born noble person is secretly Holmes' patron in this case. One prince or baron or king is as good as another to me.

Of more interest is why, exactly, King Edward (or whomever) was so adamant that "his honoured name has been in no way dragged into the matter," that his "incognito not be broken." Perhaps there was some social/class taboo; perhaps a reigning monarch simply couldn't be seen to interfere in non-royal matters. Or, as I asked above, perhaps there's some secret relationship between the monarch and the maid...

Than again, since Holmes' detection abilities were never used in this case, it is interesting that the Emperor of The British Empire didn't have someone available for burglary and undercover dirty work, without involving an outsider an commoner and risking the story getting out. "007, we have as job for you..."

**And one very important point about the plot device of the secret, illustrious client?
Sir James carried away both it and the precious saucer. As I was myself overdue, I went down with him into the street. A brougham was waiting for him. He sprang in, gave a hurried order to the cockaded coachman, and drove swiftly away. He flung his overcoat half out of the window to cover the armorial bearings upon the panel, but I had seen them in the glare of our fanlight none the less. I gasped with surprise.
Seriously, bro, if you want to keep your client's identity a secret, you don't drive around in a carriage bearing his coat of arms!!!!!!!!!! Good gravy, that's a really stupid and amateurish bit of business...

**Baron Gruner is a ladies' man:
The fellow is, as you may have heard, extraordinarily handsome, with a most fascinating manner. a gentle voice and that air of romance and mystery which means so much to a woman. He is said to have the whole sex at his mercy and to have made ample use of the fact.
**He also, apparently, does a brilliant job of innoculating his "victims" against anyone telling bad stories about him:
The cunning devil has told her every unsavoury public scandal of his past life, but always in such a way as to make himself out to be an innocent martyr. She absolutely accepts his version and will listen to no other.
 Gee, if I had known it was that easy to make a woman forgiving of my flaws, well, a lot of my relation ships might have gone differently...

 **This story is the first, and sadly only, appearance of Shinwell Johnson:
During the first years of the century he became a valuable assistant. Johnson, I grieve to say, made his name first as a very dangerous villain and served two terms at Parkhurst. Finally he repented and allied himself to Holmes, acting as his agent in the huge criminal underworld of London and obtaining information which often proved to be of vital importance. Had Johnson been a "nark" of the police he would soon have been exposed, but as he dealt with cases which never came directly into the courts, his activities were never realized by his companions. With the glamour of his two convictions upon him, he had the entree of every night-club, doss house, and gambling den in the town, and his quick observation and active brain made him an ideal agent for gaining information.
And Holmes:
"Johnson is on the prowl," said he. "He may pick up some garbage in the darker recesses of the underworld, for it is down there, amid the black roots of crime, that we must hunt for this man's secrets."
 In other stories in the Case-Book, Watson has mentioned "agents" that Holmes used in his latter days. Shinwell is one of the few we ever actual meet.

It's an intriguing set-up, but Johnson doesn't actually do anything in the story except find Kitty Winter and introduce her to Sherlock, which seems to be considerably beneath the talents that Watson and Holmes lay out in his description.

**Watson's description of Shinwell: "a huge, coarse, red-faced, scorbutic man, with a pair of vivid black eyes which were the only external sign of the very cunning mind within."

**Holmes: "Woman's heart and mind are insoluble puzzles to the male. Murder might be condoned or explained, and yet some smaller offence might rankle."

Well, that's maybe a little bit sexist, Sherlock...

**Holmes description of Gruner:
He is an excellent antagonist, cool as ice, silky voiced and soothing as one of your fashionable consultants, and poisonous as a cobra. He has breeding in him -- a real aristocrat of crime with a superficial suggestion of afternoon tea and all the cruelty of the grave behind it...Some people's affability is more deadly than the violence of coarser souls.
**Holmes' attempts to sway Gruner are particularly ineffective:
No one wants to rake up your past and make you unduly uncomfortable. It is over, and you are now in smooth waters, but if you persist in this marriage you will raise up a swarm of powerful enemies who will never leave you alone until they have made England too hot to hold you.
The baron calls his bluff rather easily, and Holmes is no more effective than he was against Milverton.

**Gruner on his power over women: "You have heard of post-hypnotic suggestion. Mr. Holmes. Well you will see how it works for a man of personality can use hypnotism without any vulgar passes or tomfoolery."

Some have taken that to mean that Gruner actually did use some form of hypnosis to enchant Violet.

How silly--it's obviously a metaphor.

**Watson, after hearing of Gruner's threats against Holmes: "Must you interfere? Does it really matter if he marries the girl?"

My thoughts exactly. It's not as if she's being forced, and if she wants to be a damned fool despite the efforts of everyone in her life, well, it's a free country.

**Watson's description of Miss Winter: "a slim, flame-like young woman with a pale, intense face, youthful, and yet so worn with sin and sorrow that one read the terrible years which had left their leprous mark upon her."

**Nice turn of phrase: "If I can help to put him where he belongs, I'm yours to the rattle." 

**Having called out Holmes for sexism, I feel obliged to point out Watson's take on the difference between men and women: "There was an intensity of hatred in her white, set face and her blazing eyes such as woman seldom and man never can attain."

**Holmes' description (as transcribed by Watson) of Violet:
I don't quite know how to make her clear to you, Watson. Perhaps you may meet her before we are through, and you can use your own gift of words. She is beautiful, but with the ethereal other-world beauty of some fanatic whose thoughts are set on high. I have seen such faces in the pictures of the old masters of the Middle Ages...she waved us into our respective chairs like a reverend abbess receiving two rather leprous mendicants. If your head is inclined to swell. my dear Watson, take a course of Miss Violet de Merville.
Sounds charming, doesn't she?

That's a difficulty with the story, and any adaptations: if you portray Violet as a young, flighty thing--the type you'd think might easily fall for a bad man--than the hold Gruner has on her really isn't such a big deal. We've probably all known someone like that who fell in love with the wrong man.

But you have to be careful not to overcorrect. Yes, build up Miss de Merville so Gruner's ability to enchant her is impressive. But don't make her such an unpleasant--and I hate to use the term--"ice queen" that she becomes an unsympathetic character. Unfortunately, that's how far Doyle took it. Her voice is "like the wind from an iceberg." No one "could not bring one tinge of colour to those ivory cheeks or one gleam of emotion to those abstracted eyes." "There was something indescribably annoying in the calm aloofness and supreme self-complaisance of the woman whom we were trying to save."

Now, in fairness, these were all Sherlock's descriptions. Perhaps, had Watson met her, her might have found warmer, more charitable words to draw her picture. Then again, when Sherlock Holmes says that you're being frosty and unemotional, well, he knows what he's talking about!!

When the hero of your story tells us the woman they're trying to help is icy and aloof and haughty and, well, unpleasant, it really dispels any sympathy the audience might have for her plight, and instead leaves us thinking that she probably deserves Gruner.

**So besotted is Violet, and so arrogant, that she actually believes that she is heaven's agent: "If his noble nature has ever for an instant fallen, it may be that I have been specially sent to raise it to its true and lofty level."

Oh, barf.

**I had noted this above, but it's worth mentioning again. When Kitty has her chance to tell Violet everything that Gruner had done to her...she doesn't mention a single thing. Not one. Instead, she harangues Violet, insulting her, and ultimately physically attacking her. No wonder the gambit failed!

**It's an indication of Sherlock's fame at this point in his career that an attack on him rates as front page news.

It's also fun to see that--as in The Six Napoleons--Holmes has mastered using the press to confuse his foes.

**Watson is a medical doctor, right? He seems all too willing to listen to news reports and other doctors' reports, rather than actually taking a look for himself. It's difficult to believe that Watson didn't insert a line of two along the gist of "my experience told me Holmes was right, and the injuries looked worse than they were" or some such.

**"There was a curious secretive streak in the man which led to many dramatic effects, but left even his closest friend guessing as to what his exact plans might be." Or, translated: Sherlock Holmes is a jerk!

The same evening papers had an announcement which I was bound, sick or well, to carry to my friend. It was simply that among the passengers on the Cunard boat Ruritania, starting from Liverpool on Friday, was the Baron Adelbert Gruner, who had some important financial business to settle in the States before his impending wedding to Miss Violet de Merville, only daughter of, etc., etc.
That does seem a little intrusive, for the press to be printing up the comings and goings of people, and passengers lists for ships, and the like. Certainly, an American would bemoan the invasion of privacy (well, at least pre-9/11).

It is mighty convenient, though. Had they not printed that notice, Holmes wouldn't have known to act in time...

**The whole gambit regarding Watson posing as an expert and connoisseur of Chinese pottery fails to work as a story element for two separate reasons.

First, we were told early in the story that Gruner had written a book on the subject. Now, it's either not credible, or extraordinarily foolish on Watson's part, to believe that during his 24 hour cram session on the subject, he didn't read Gruner's book. Either way, it makes it ridiculously easy for Gruner to disbelieve Watson's story.

Secondly, not once does Watson actually use any of that knowledge he stuffed into his head. Not once. Oh, sure, he name drops a bunch of things earlier in his narration. But go reread his meeting with Gruner--not once does he bring up a single fact that he had learned. The entire conversation would play exactly the same had Watson never picked up a single book on Chinese pottery. Watson evades, deflects or ignores every one of Gruner's queries and tests. Considering that he was playing for time, this is inexcusable. John might as well have spent that 24 hours napping.

And just how hard would it have been to come up with a vaguely plausible provenance for the Ming saucer? "The father of one of my patients had served in the Opium Wars, and when he died he left this box full of plundered antiquities to his son. Knowing my interest in such things...blah blah blah." At least that would have Gruner off guard for a few more minutes, rather than instantly being suspicious.

So, either we are to believe that Watson is a complete dunce, or that Sir Arthur did a particularly poor job writing that gambit.

**Watson's description of Baron Gruner:
He was certainly a remarkably handsome man. His European reputation for beauty was fully deserved. In figure he was not more than of middle size, but was built upon graceful and active lines. His face was swarthy, almost Oriental, with large, dark, languorous eyes which might easily hold an irresistible fascination for women. His hair and moustache were raven black, the latter short, pointed, and carefully waxed. His features were regular and pleasing, save only his straight, thin-lipped mouth. If ever I saw a murderer's mouth it was there -- a cruel, hard gash in the face, compressed, inexorable, and terrible. He was ill-advised to train his moustache away from it, for it was Nature's danger-signal, set as a warning to his victims. His voice was engaging and his manners perfect. In age I should have put him at little over thirty, though his record afterwards showed that he was forty-two.
**Sherlock really isn't a very good burglar, is he?
Then something struck upon [Gruner's] ear, for he stood listening intently...Beside [the window], looking like some terrible ghost, his head gin with bloody bandages, his face drawn and white, stood Sherlock Holmes. The next instant he was through the gap, and I heard the crash of his body among the laurel bushes outside.
Holmes didn't get away cleanly while breaking into Milverton's crib, either...

**Again, Doyle goes a bit grand guignol here, devoting 4 long paragraphs to the effects of the acid thrown in Gruner's face. Yuck.

**This story does a better job than most Holmes' tales of giving us some resolution.

Still, I can't help but feel cheated by not seeing Violet receiving and reading Gruner's diary. Not chivalrous of me, I know...but Doyle does such a fine job of making her unbelievably arrogant, I'd love to see her get her comeuppance.

**Sherlock Holmes was threatened with a prosecution for burglary, but when an object is good and a client is sufficiently illustrious, even the rigid British law becomes human and elastic. My friend has not yet stood in the dock.

In other words, the fix was in, and The Man got Sherlock off the hook. In effect, he had been granted His Majesty's License To Burgle.

Still, not matter what a scumbag Baron Gruner was, or how "good" the cause is, it really doesn't show British law in a very good light when you can burgle a man's home and maim him with acid and no one pays any real penalty. Vigilante justice, sponsored and protected by The Crown. That's more the hallmark of a despotic regime than a just democracy...