The Speckled Band

Illustration by Marek Szczepanek, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Is it time for The Speckled Band?  It must be time.  It’s the run-up to my book launch for Sherlockian Musings (Friday, November 15 at the University of British Columbia in the Performance Theatre in the AMS Student Nest, 7 pm).  Conan Doyle will be there to debate with me about the meaning of the stories, but what does he know?  He’s only the author.  Anyway, he’s dead, but his spirit will waft in, I believe, to talk to us. 

And if you can’t wait, and want to order the book right away, try Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, or  Amazon UK.

But now onto

The Speckled Band

Live by the snake, die by the snake: I think that about sums this one up, Conan Doyle’s favourite story, and one of the most popular too, but is it just because I remember it that it didn’t grip me so much? After all, can there be any question who the villain is? It’s more one of those howdunits, like “The Devil’s Foot,” than a mystery with various suspects.[*]

And how did he do it? With a swamp adder, the deadliest snake in India, if you believe the story. However, if you listen to the commentators, you’ll discover that there is no such snake and certainly not a snake that answers to a whistle and drinks milk or, most importantly, can climb ropes. And who needs both a rope and a snake in the story? It’s all rather “over-determined,” to use a fancy literary term meaning something like: there are too many reasons here, too many symbols, causes, whatever.

Phallic symbols, anybody? So we have a snake and a rope and a hunting-crop, which is a sort of whip, and a dog-lash, which I think means a leash, and which serves as a whipcord, which I think just means a whip. So two whips, a snake, and a rope, not to mention the cane Holmes uses to bash the snake when it comes down the rope after being removed from its cage/safe with the dog-lash by Grimesby Roylott (and what a name for a villain that is, as Samuel Rosenberg says).

         But just to complicate things, some of these phallic symbols can function as symbols of femininity too, if you believe some of the critics, especially the snake when it is curled up into a headband on the dead Roylott’s head, reminding you of Medusa perhaps or the Dionysian Maenads, those ecstatic female devotees of the God of Wine. Hmm. Too many causes and too many results.

But let’s stick to the phallic aspects first: Here we have one of the Roylotts of Stoke Moran (which is an anagram for “snake story tomfool rot,” according to John Hodgson, who thinks Conan Doyle may be having us all on and subverting the whole detective genre in this story). Anyway, here we have Grimesby Roylott, eager for his stepdaughters’ fortune and not wanting them to marry out (the same problem the stepfather had in “A Case of Identity”), and so he decides to pretend to be their fiancés. No, no, that’s not right, that’s what Mr. Windibank does in the other story. Grimesby is much grimmer than that: he plans murder, and since he’s been to India (where he’s already committed a murder), he uses an Indian instrument (that swamp adder) to do the deed.

But where’s the phallic part? Well, the snake, of course, climbing down the rope. Not to mention the whole idea of penetrating a stepdaughter’s bedroom (which Holmes and Watson do too, of course, suggesting … well, who knows?). And then he pierces the other stepdaughter’s bedroom with building renovations. I mean, really. Some critics talk of symbolic rape. Is this another veiled incest fantasy? But I thought he was after their money. Perhaps both. Perhaps as some recent critics argue it’s all part of a program of patriarchal control or a rearguard action against the new rights women were being granted in such things as the Married Women’s Property Act.

And don’t forget the snake is from India: Not to mention the cheetah and the baboon (though actually there are no baboons in India) and the Turkish slippers and the fact that Grimesby lived in India and went thoroughly bad there, if he wasn’t bad to begin with. Perhaps the tropics just exacerbated his inherited bad temper, as his stepdaughter says. In any case, this seems to be one of the stories in which Eastern elements are thoroughly bad (unlike some of the other stories where the East is perhaps a source of wisdom). Sherlock Holmes does not indulge in Buddhist meditation here; he is the severely rational one, testing his hypotheses, and setting them up against the Eastern training of his antagonist.

But is he as severely rational as all that? This is one of the more physical stories, as one commentator (Rosemary Jann) points out. Holmes unbends the bent poker, beats the poor adder (which after all is only doing what an adder does), and then of course he becomes just like his antagonist, using a snake to kill (and before that, there was the entry into the bedroom).

Eastern contagion? Some critics see the story as a lament about the effects of Empire on the homeland: all this colonization is bad, not for India, but for England: it brings back snakes and cheetahs and baboons and makes dissolute English aristocrats even worse than they were before they went there. And look what it does to Holmes: he becomes just as bad, unless you think killing with a snake is okay if the person you’re killing is someone sending a snake against you (or your client) – and perhaps it is, but still …  Is England being corrupted? It seems already in decline: the Roylott family, an ancient Saxon clan, has lost its fortune, and in the changing conditions of the late nineteenth century its scion has been forced to take up something as middle class as doctoring, and meanwhile the ancient manor house has become a picture of ruin.

Gloomy? Is there any hope? Well, Holmes does prevent the second murder, the evil Eastern-inflected aristocrat is done away with, and Helen Stoner is free to marry – what’s his name again? That absent fiancé who had tried to reassure her by saying oh, it’s all in your head. No, it’s all on Grimesby Roylott’s head, though only after Sherlock Holmes sends it there. In a canon full of useless fiancés, this one wins a prize for being worse than useless. If Helen had listened to him, she’d be dead.

Come to think of it, she is dead, at least by the time Watson writes the story. Why is that? Why kill her off? And did she marry the worse than useless Percy? We’re not actually told that: we simply see her ushered away to live with an aunt. Maybe that’s what women need, to stay away from men. But then she dies. Is England not going to go on, the England of good Englishwomen like the Stoner sisters?

And what about the band? That band of the gypsies with their speckled kerchiefs. But they’re not the band; they’re a red herring, like the cheetah and the baboon. The speckled band is the snake, looking like a headband when it takes up residence on the head of Grimesby Roylott. One can see how it looks like a band then, but before? Why does Julia Stoner call it a band? It’s just a slithering snake at that point, or did it wrap itself around her head too? Or more likely it is just described that way to make us think of the gypsies, another foreign element. Of course, they’re perfectly innocent of the crimes, but this is more of that over-determination: foreign Otherness everywhere, scaring us even more than the snake.

The True Villain of the Tale: Not Grimesby Roylott, not the snake, certainly not the gypsies or the fiancés (did you notice that there are actually two in this story? talk about over-determination). No, the true villain is the banking system. You scoff, but what is it that has ruined the Roylotts? What does Helen say? There’s nothing left, she says, but a few acres and a two-hundred-year-old house, “which is itself crushed …”  Crushed, I say, crushed, by what giant Godzilla of a horror? What could crush a house? “Crushed,” says Helen, “crushed under a heavy mortgage.” Mortgages, they’re the villain, along with Eastern training, the whole British Empire, and the wastefulness of the British aristocracy. And if you import aristocratic values and Eastern methods even into an upright middle-class profession like medicine, watch out.

Is there anything positive here? Well, despite the undercurrent or subtext, the tone of the story does seem upbeat, at least at the end. Holmes is quite happy and not feeling guilty at all about using the snake to kill someone – though if he has to say that, maybe he does feel guilty. And true, the atmosphere early on is full of Gothic terror, and yet Holmes feels zest over the investigation and Watson wouldn’t miss it for the world. Holmes is the magical master here, intuitive yet logical (even if when you look closely – but don’t look closely! – some of it doesn’t make any sense). And that moment when he unbends the bent poker with such nonchalant power and laughs at Grimesby Roylott – what larks. Though true, he also becomes full of horror and loathing when the snake appears. But no matter, there is something inspiringly powerful and even happy about the story despite its dark undertones. Evil forces may abound, but we have Holmes and Watson to fight them.

[*]     Actually, as Thomas Leitch notes, most Holmes stories do not focus on who among a group of suspects is the guilty one. On the other hand, most are not “howdunits” either. Leitch says they are mostly “whydunits” or “whathappeneds.”

You can order Sherlockian Musings at  Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, or  Amazon UK.

Silver Blaze

For the latest excerpt from my new book we’re off to the races for some musings on one of my favourite stories …

Silver Blaze by Sidney Paget

Silver Blaze

Your very excellent field-glass: This is how Sherlock Holmes describes Watson’s pair of binoculars, which Holmes wants him to bring along to Dartmoor so that he can – what? Search the ground for vestas (matches)? No, he does that with the naked eye. He often throws himself down on the ground to examine things with his magnifying lens, but that’s in other stories. Here he has no lens, just the field-glass, and he doesn’t examine the ground with it, but borrows it to – yes, watch the race in which the disguised Silver Blaze romps to victory, satisfying almost everyone (perhaps not John Straker, but he’s dead; perhaps not blustering Silas Brown either, but you can’t please everybody). All of which is to say that though there is a woman behind it all, and at least one critic goes on about gender dynamics (but that’s what he does about all the stories) – despite all this what this story is really about, which is why the field-glass is so necessary to it, what the story is really about is …

Racing. Yes, I know, you’re surprised. If not about gender, is it not about the Othering of the gypsies, or the brilliance of detection, or the importance of imagination, or the importance of not theorizing before you have all the facts? (Wait, doesn’t not theorizing contradict the use of the imagination? Well, perhaps, and in fact though not theorizing is a watchword of Holmes in other stories, here the emphasis is on careful selection of important facts from amidst irrelevant or misleading details.) In any case, the story may be in part about gender, gypsies, and the imagination, but what it’s mainly about is horse racing, which made me muse about the significance of horse racing. Conan Doyle confessed to ignorance about the sport, so what was he aiming at here? What does horse racing signify?

Competition? Perhaps. Manliness? This is a men’s club sort of story, and even though the motive for the attempted crime stems from a woman or a man’s desire to please a woman with expensive tastes, really the whole focus of the story is on men and their games, in this case the horse-racing game. And why do men play such games? What is it that men want, as Freud might have asked. Mastery? Domination? Triumph? Arthur Conan Doyle liked mastery. After apologizing for his horse racing errors he said that after all he was never nervous about details, and “one must be masterful sometimes.” What an odd thing to say, really: you can just be masterful and get things wrong? In this story, though, Sherlock Holmes gets things right. He is quite brilliant in deduction, and thus obtains mastery? Mastery over Colonel Ross, who he toys with. Mastery over Silas Brown, with the suggestive initials (the same as Silver Blaze), who is cowed into doing his bidding. Masterful even with Inspector Gregory in a generous way, congratulating him on his thoroughness but noting his lack of imagination.

Mastery: Of course, some men seek mastery by illicit means: John Straker by wounding his own horse, Silas Brown by stealing his opponent’s, and Fitzroy Simpson by seeking to bribe the stable boy (and the maid). They all fall short, and Sherlock Holmes comes out ahead, winning the race. One might summarize it thus:

Race Card:

Inspector Gregory’s Intelligence

Silas Brown’s Bluster

Col. Ross’s Sneering

Fitzroy Simpson’s Ineptitude

John Straker’s Greed,

and the Favourite: Mr. Sherlock Holmes’s Imagination.

And it’s Imagination way out in front, and the rest nowhere. But never mind the winner …

The Game’s the Thing: Men like to play and compete and show off, and yes, dominate other men, get the better of them. Some will even resort to underhanded means, but Sherlock Holmes will have none of that: he reveals John Straker’s greed (and infidelity), thwarts Silas Brown’s attempted theft, pays back Colonel Ross for his cavalier attitude, and shows that an intellectual can get the better of those with mere money or brawn. He even outshines dedicated but limited Inspector Gregory.

But what’s it all about? The whole country is convulsed by the disappearance of Silver Blaze. It’s a catastrophe, we’re told more than once. It is of great importance to so many people. Why? Because racing is so important? Surely not. But competition, that’s what men are all about, and a blow to fair competition, a prevention of seeing a favourite run – that is a tragedy. (Oh, and the death of the trainer too, I suppose.) But no, it’s the racing, which here symbolizes all competition, I think, and points us to what men want. Money? I suppose. Power? That’s closer. Women? Yes, but that’s not the main thing. No, I go back to power, mastery, and control. That’s what this story is about.

And an overcoat flapping on a bush: Well, that perhaps shows the opposite of mastery, the best-laid plans and all that. Speaking of plans, after all his plans to hobble the favourite, after practising on the sheep, obtaining a special cataract knife, and so on, why does John Straker pick up the red and black cravat of Fitzroy Simpson? What a strange bit of improvisation. The mysterious cravat and the flapping overcoat, symbols of failure: maybe in picking up the cravat of the incompetent Simpson (who can’t even bribe a stable boy), Straker was dooming himself to failure. Perhaps.

Other men’s bills: One doesn’t carry those around, no. And why? Because it’s each man for himself, and the devil take the unpaid milliner’s bills. Actually, it’s the devil that gets into Silas Brown when his first impulse is to return Silver Blaze to King’s Pyland. The devil leads men astray and keeps them from helping their fellows. Or is it women with their expensive tastes? But only some women: Mrs. Darbyshire, married to the mythical Mr. Darbyshire, but not Mrs. Straker, who seems simply anguished (of course, this is after her husband’s been killed in such a horrific way).

Or is it money that drives things? People think Fitzroy’s little packet contains opium, but no, it seems to be money: another drug, one might say. And money, or the need for it, corrupts John Straker, and of course many people are seeking to win money on the race, and yet it seems racing’s the thing in itself, and Sherlock Holmes is there to protect the integrity of it, even if he does it by disguising the favourite and no doubt confusing the bettors. He certainly confuses Colonel Ross, who doesn’t know whether to complain or to celebrate. Just as we can’t have counterfeit money in circulation (see “The Three Garridebs”), we can’t have corrupt ways of determining the winners of horse races or the outcome of life in general, or at least of competitive life, capitalism, one might say: one can see Sherlock Holmes as the great regulator in the capitalist economy, making sure everyone plays fair, but not questioning the whole basis of things, the competitive instinct.

Speaking of instincts, the horse’s instincts save it from a hobbling. This reminds me of Holmes’s praise of feminine instincts in another story. He may be the voice of logic and reason, but he has a soft spot for instinct (and of course imagination). He even pricks his ears up like a horse: is he an animal? Would that be the ideal? Is he at his best following instinct and imagination, less like the serious logical Inspector Gregory and more like, well, like a woman? Sherlock Holmes as a woman: I’m sure there have been pastiches like that.

I follow my own methods: Perhaps Holmes is neither beast nor woman, nor logician nor policeman; he is one of a kind: singular, to use one of his favourite words. He will even contradict himself, and yet he demands our full belief and loyalty, though I must say it is a favourite pastime of Sherlockians to point out his failings: he couldn’t possibly have figured out the speed of the train, say some, though others disagree. Why this drive to bring down the hero? Just human nature, I suppose, but even when he’s your own hero? But here we are venturing far from the story, and perhaps should just end by smoking a cigar and promising to provide further details at a later date.

For more musings, see the full book of them, which you can find at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK.

The official book launch for Sherlockian Musings will be November 15 at 7 pm in the AMS Student Nest at the University of British Columbia Vancouver.

Was Sherlock Holmes a Vampire?

Was Sherlock Holmes a Vampire?

I’ve just returned from the Left Coast Sherlockian Symposium, where I heard fascinating talks about Sherlock Holmes in various incarnations, from Holmes in the 22nd century to Holmes and Watson in Harlem, along with references to Frankenstein and horror stories, and then I had a brief conversation with a delegate about what I say in my new book (Sherlockian Musings) about how Conan Doyle kept trying to kill Holmes off.

“More than that time at Reichenbach?” the delegate said.

The “death” of Holmes at Reichenbach.

Why, yes, I said, mentioning the very next story after the “death” of Holmes at Reichenbach, “The Empty House,” in which Sebastian Moran is trying to kill Holmes again and does succeed in blowing him up in effigy: a symbolic death, I said, symbolizing Conan Doyle’s exasperation at having to bring Holmes back and perhaps his secret wish to kill him off again.

But there are other symbolic or would-be deaths: there’s a repeat of the blowing up the dummy episode in “The Mazarin Stone”: the characters even know it’s a repeat.  “We used something of the sort once before,” says Watson.

“Who will rid me of this troublesome detective?” I can almost hear the Author saying.  If not Sebastian Moran, then perhaps Count Negretto Sylvius?  Or maybe a quartet of knights; he was one himself; he just needed three more.

Of course, long before this, Doyle tired of his detective and talked of slaying him, only to have his mother say, “You mustn’t!”  And then he demanded an exorbitant price from the Strand, only to have them meet it.  And then he keeps trying to marry Watson off so he can kill the adventures that way.  Or he portrays Holmes as a “Dying Detective” threatened by a rare tropical disease beyond Watson’s ken; or he has him (and Watson) nearly die by ingesting the “Devil’s Foot.”

Then he tries things like having Victor Hatherley (a Doyle surrogate, some say) lose a thumb: hacked off for doing hack work.  Won’t be able to be an engineer anymore: if Doyle himself lost a thumb, would that not keep him from having to write more genre stories?  Why, then, he could go off and write Sir Nigel (though perhaps you’d need a thumb for that too).

Or then there’s the moral of “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” which seems to be that it’s time to give up these silly disguises, the game of playing a beggar, and go back to a regular life, domesticity, the whole respectability thing: the opposite of adventures.  Go back to being Neville St. Clair.  No more Hugh Boone.  No more Sherlock Holmes.

But none of this works.  He tries throwing off a cliff, depriving him of Watson, blowing up a facsimile, giving him a tropical disease …  Not to mention the “murderous attack” on him in “The Illustrious Client”: Baron Gruner’s thugs try to do him in with sticks, but Holmes is a bit of an expert in single-stick fighting, so he sustains only minor injuries.

Perhaps Doyle should have had someone throw acid in Holmes’s face or reveal his lust-diary.  He does in the end send him into retirement, with his bees (if only they had been killer bees), but he still does investigations even then, and though jellyfish come to attach him, he survives yet again.

The only way out perhaps was for Doyle himself to die.  No more Sherlock Holmes, then, once the original author was out of the way, unless he was to start writing by way of mediums.

Or unless other authors took up their pens or computers or phones and started producing pastiches, fan fiction, and multiverses.  Is there no killing Sherlock Holmes?  Is he an unkillable “monstrous growth” as Doyle himself said in 1927?  He’s sort of a Frankenstein’s monster, well out of his creator’s control.  But perhaps also a vampire: you can’t kill them by throwing them off cliffs or using poison.  What Sir Arthur really needed was a wooden stake.

For my book of Musings, see  Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK.

The official launch for the book will be November 15 at 7 pm in the AMS Student Nest at the University of British Columbia Vancouver.

The Red-Headed League

Jabez Wilson at his red-headed sinecure.
  John Griffiths from London, United Kingdom [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

So I’m off to Portland, Oregon for the Left Coast Sherlockian Symposium.  I hear they are looking for Red-Headed Men.  No, wait, that’s just one of the Holmes stories, and many people’s favourite.  Anyway, here is my Musing on it from my new book of Sherlockian Musings.

The Red-Headed League

The Front of the Picture and the Back: They are very different, aren’t they?  On one side is the bustling artery to the City, filled with fine shops and stately businesses.  On the other, the shabby genteel Saxe-Coburg Square, with its poky pawnbroking establishment.  The good and the bad?  The fine and the declining?  The rich and the … Well, you get the idea, but what exactly is the point?  To show the variousness of London?  To draw a contrast between the financial heights and the struggling shopkeeper?  (The bank with its gold bullion is on the fine side.)  Is there some class symbolism here?  One commentator at least, in the Twayne literary series no less, thinks so …

Theory, Theory, who’s got a theory?  That would be Rosemary Jann, in her book on the Adventures, who sees an alliance between aristocrats and the lower orders going on here.  In contrast, in another study in the Twayne series, Jacqueline Jaffe turns more to Jung and Joseph Campbell than to Marx, and sees the hero’s journey, the struggles in the dark, the quest that leads the hero (heroes?) underground to grapple with powerful forces …

Maybe.  And of course there’s also the notorious Samuel Rosenberg, who sees homosexuality in the story, with Holmes thwarting a homosexual assault to defend order and propriety.  (This assault consists of John Clay’s attempted attack on the bank from below.)

John Clay: The Moriarty-like villain, one of the smartest men in London, says Holmes, who later compliments him on his clever red-headed scheme.  A young (well, not that young, says Jabez Wilson) criminal genius.  Almost womanish in his appearance: no hair on his face and a womanish hand.  There are no women in this story, just John Clay as a pseudo-woman, perhaps lending credence to the Rosenberg hypothesis?  But maybe we should look more to the pseudo part of this.  Clay is not really a woman; he is not an amiable clerk named Vincent Spaulding; and his accomplice is not really named Duncan Ross or William Morris (the latter alias, by the way, was the name of a noted Victorian socialist and craftsman, perhaps lending credence more to the Jann thesis about social class).

Things are not what they seem: As I was saying, John Clay is not really a woman, or young, or an innocent.  You have to beware of surfaces and schemes.  And especially of Red-Headed Leagues.  A Red-Headed League, what a notion.  And a street full of red-headed men, all applying for an imaginary job copying articles out of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.  What is going on here?

Of course, yes: It’s all a ruse to lure Jabez Wilson from his pawnbrokerage so that Clay can dig in the clay, down deep, where he pretends to do photography.  Holmes and Watson travel to the location by Underground (the only time they go Underground in the whole canon).  It must mean something, plunging into the depths, looking at the backside of the picture. 

But why such an elaborate ruse?  Why summon hundreds (thousands?) of red-headed men when you want just one, and one particular one.  And when you have him, why do you almost turn him away, shaking your head when he says he has no children, for the point of the Red-Headed League, founded by that fabulous American, Ezekiah Hopkins, is supposedly to propagate red-headed men (as if genetics really worked that way).  Haven’t we got a little carried away, believing our own ruse? 

And then to pull on his hair!  Causing pain, seeking for a wig.  We wouldn’t want to have a pseudo-redhead, would we?  But wait, why do we care?  The redhead thing is just a hoax, a ruse.  We seem to have here a case of believing one’s own propaganda, or just getting carried away playing a role …  But it also makes one wonder about the significance of redheads for John Clay or Conan Doyle, or someone.  There are all sorts of prejudices and stereotypes about redheads, but the story indulges in none of them.  So why this obsession?  What does redheadedness signify in this story? 

Or maybe that is to miss the point.  As yet another commentator (Martin Priestman) notes, the important thing about Jabez Wilson is not his hair but his shop: the shop borders the bank.  This is a story about stealing gold, not about an alliance of redheads.

Or is it?  Of course, the plot is about stealing gold, but the theme?  And the title?  What is surface and what is reality?  Is it the fine shops and stately businesses?  Or is it the shabby shop?  Was England still a nation of shopkeepers, or something else?

Maybe both?  This is a story of duality after all.  Watson goes on about Holmes’s dual nature, the languorous aesthete and the severe rationalist.  Or is he such a rationalist?  Near the beginning Holmes threatens to destroy Watson’s reason (over the issue of whether truth is stranger than fiction, and this in a work of fiction, I note).  And he will destroy Watson’s reason by means of facts.  Facts versus reason?  On the other hand, don’t all these things work together in a sort of creative synthesis?  Isn’t Holmes following a standard method of creativity: gather the facts, meditate upon them (smoking three pipes if necessary), then take a break, listen to Sarasate, then eureka, you’ve solved it.

But how?  Holmes is almost godlike here.  Or as Watson puts it, he knows what has happened and what is going to happen.  Holmes versus the devil (Clay, that man of the earth).  And then Holmes explains – a dangerous thing to do: when he explained to Jabez Wilson how he knew Wilson was a Freemason who had visited China etc., Wilson dismisses it as nothing.  (Only after the explanation, I note: beforehand he is astonished.  But then the magician explains the trick.  You should never do that.)

Admiration: Watson, though (at least this time), expresses admiration for the Holmesian chain of reasoning and calls Holmes a benefactor of mankind.  Holmes turns suddenly modest, disclaiming anything but having been of slight use.  But it’s not really modesty, is it?  Some see Holmes as seeking acclaim, but what he yearns for here is the game, stimulation, something worthy of his talents.  How sad for a man of talents to not be able to use them, or have nothing to use them on.  The Red-Headed League gave him a chance to shine, but he doesn’t care so much about shining as about figuring things out and saving himself from boredom.  That is perhaps what the League is really about: a first-class problem for a first-class mind to solve.  Something mundane to winkle out from underneath the bizarre.  It is reassuring in the end: life presents its oddities, its baffling mysteries, but there is our God, Sherlock Holmes, to figure things out for us and assure us that life can go on without further disruption (at least until the next case).

For more musings, see my book of them, which you can find at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK.

The official launch for the book will be November 15 at 7 pm in the AMS Student Nest at the University of British Columbia Vancouver.

Thor Bridge

The sort of thing that can ruin an egg – or a marriage. The Kiss, by Francesco Hayez (1859).

Here is one of my favourite Musings, complete with a poem and a fairy tale, along with thoughts about South American beauties, the Christian subtext, and the parallels with Jane Eyre.  Not to mention the eggs.

 Thor Bridge

                             Wife found dead – bullet to the head,                                                     No weapon found – perhaps it drowned.

Once upon a time there was a Gold King who was unhappy with his wife.  And he encountered a lovely new young woman and wished to be with her.  But the young woman said no, that would not be right, and Sherlock Holmes said you were evil to try to ruin such a pure thing, and the pure thing stayed on as a mere guiding light or moral compass, teaching the Gold King to be generous and good.  But his wife was very angry.

So there you have it: Doyle must have found the story in the Brothers Grimm.  Or perhaps he was reading Jane Eyre.  The mad woman in the attic (well, there’s no attic here, but a pond and lakes or something and a bridge of course, named after a Norse god) and not Grace Poole, but Grace Dunbar playing the role of Jane.  And Neil Gibson is Mr. Rochester.  And Bertha Mason of course is Maria Pinto, one of those “tropical” beauties from Latin America, whose beauty unfortunately has faded and who seems to have gone insane.

Whose side are we on?  At first we don’t much like Neil Gibson; he is brutal to his wife: he defends this by saying he is trying to kill her love, but surely there must have been a better way – and in any case it doesn’t work, or it turns her feelings into “perverted love” and hatred, leading to her fiendish plan to frame the innocent governess by killing herself.  Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre similarly kills herself, but at least doesn’t try to frame Jane.  Her death does, however, open the way for Jane to marry Rochester, just as Sherlock Holmes envisages a union, now that Maria Pinto is gone, between Grace Dunbar and the Gold King.

Is that okay, then?  Grace (a very religious term, I note) marrying the Gold King, who she will presumably reform (she may have already reformed him).  But he was so brutal; can we approve?  Perhaps, because in one of the most surprising moments in the story, when Sherlock Holmes upbraids Neil Gibson for immorality, what he is talking about is not his brutality to his wife but his near ruining of the innocent governess: a young girl would be considered ruined, you know, if she had sex before marriage: autre temps, autre moeurs.

 That was the problem in Jane Eyre too: Rochester wanted to marry Jane, but he was already married, so that would have been bigamy, but once his wife is dead, everything is fine.  And here too?  One critic (Joseph Kestner) shakes his head, and calls the story conflicted and deplores the ethnic prejudice against the South American wife.  I do note that in another story in the Case-Book the South American wife was the hero, so it’s not a continuing prejudice; there does seem to be a continuing obsession with creating Latin characters, though, especially women, from the Spanish Isadora in “The Three Gables” to the Peruvian wife in “The Sussex Vampire.”

Speaking of Isadora, how is it that there is a man in this story with that name?  Isn’t it a woman’s name?  Do we have some gender bending?  And I also was amused to note the thought experiment Holmes begins by saying, “Well now, Watson, suppose for a moment that we visualize you in the character of a woman …”  Hmm.

But mostly I want to talk about eggs: There’s a new cook and she’s ruined the eggs, letting them boil too long because she was distracted by a romance story in a popular magazine.  Ah, romance, so disruptive.  If only people didn’t fall in love or fall out of love or marry one person and fall in love with another.  It’s such a nuisance.

This is a story about disruption, isn’t it?  As Joseph Kestner says, you get that sense starting with the wild October morning and the leaves being whirled off the plane tree in the backyard (wait, 221B has a backyard?).  And then there’s poor Isadora, driven mad by some mysterious worm in a matchbox: irrationality intruding into everyday life, as the critic Barrie Hayne puts it.  And what could be more irrational than this love story mixed with murder and revenge?  If only everyone could have been rational about it: then Mr. and Mrs. Gibson and their lovely governess could have worked something out.   Hmm, well, maybe not.

But we’re supposed to learn something from this.  Or Neil Gibson is.  From “the schoolroom of Sorrow.”  And what is that Sorrow exactly?  That his wife died?  That she tried to frame his girl-friend?  Maybe more the latter.  And what is he supposed to learn?  To be nicer?  To not think he can get everything with his money and bluster?  But he’d learned that already from Grace.  What does the Sorrow teach him?  That he shouldn’t have married the tropical Brazilian woman?  That he should have sent Grace Dunbar away?  Grace does say that she should have left because her presence caused unhappiness (for Mrs. Gibson).  But that’s not where the story takes us; instead we head towards a union of the Gold King and the ethereal Grace.  Which means what?  That it’s good to get out of a bad marriage and into a good one?  Hmm.

Mixtures: We have the usual Tudor and Georgian house in the story, and maybe the point is that the rough and powerful Gold King needs to acquire a little grace (or Grace).  Meanwhile Holmes is positively brilliant here, conjuring up a deduction out of an orgasmic frenzy, and yet he is surprisingly self-deprecating, saying Watson’s account will not show him in a good light; he was too sluggish.  Why does he say that?  He’s not sluggish at all; he sees what no one else can.  Where others just shrug off the chip on the bridge or the clutching of the note, he notes their strangeness, and explores that until the actual explanation emerges.  This is a Holmes at the height of his powers, and a bit surprising perhaps since this is his first appearance after the disaster of “The Mazarin Stone.”  Here is the real return of our Sherlock after the hiatus following “His Last Bow,” and perhaps it is the fact that this is his first real case in years that leads to the modesty and humility.

And the length?  This must be one of the longest of the stories: it had to be published in two parts.  Did Conan Doyle have so much pent-up Sherlockiana in him that he had to write at such length?  Not that I’m saying it’s too long; it holds your interest to the end, even if the plot is so memorable that you remember it from the last time you read it.

But back to mixtures: Often in the canon there is talk of the need for foreign blood (Italian, American, even South American) to revive an enfeebled England.  Often England seems to be in decay.  But here, despite a reference to an autumnal panorama (which is in any case said to be “wonderful”), there’s no sense of autumnal decline.  Disruption, yes; decline, no.  And to bring order to the disruption what is necessary is to bring in the English qualities of Grace Dunbar to tame the rough-hewn Gold King.  Conan Doyle has certain recurring motifs, but he comes at them in various ways.

And so they lived happily ever after, except of course for poor Maria.  Ah well, is that what life is like?  Someone always suffers even if others prosper.  Do they have to suffer so others will prosper?  In a story with a Maria and a Grace, is somebody dying for everyone else’s sins?  Or to be less Christian about it, is it simply that life moves on, people move on, and unfortunately sometimes someone gets left behind.

For the book from which this little essay is taken, see Sherlockian Musings, which you can find at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK.

The official book launch for Sherlockian Musings will be November 15 at 7 pm in the AMS Student Nest at the University of British Columbia Vancouver.

The Copper Beeches

Violet Hunter with Holmes and Watson. Illustration by Sidney Paget.

A Musing about another story featuring an independent woman who almost outdoes Sherlock.

The peaceful beauty of the scene: That would be the scene from the window of the Copper Beeches, but it suddenly ceases to be beautiful when Violet Hunter, who is the one viewing it, sees Carlo the mastiff come into sight, sending a chill into her heart.  But that’s not the first disruption of apparent beauty: Watson thinks the countryside beautiful until Holmes tells him, No, no, the country is more dangerous than the vilest alley in London, full of hellish cruelty.

Okay, then, so what is beautiful?  It is an odd thing in this story that beauty is associated with Violet’s hair (and Alice’s, but then their hair is identical, so that makes sense) – well, that’s not odd, but Carlo the ferocious mastiff is also called a beauty, though that is by his evil master, Jephro Rucastle (Castle of Rue?), so maybe we should not take that too seriously.  And Rucastle himself is called a beauty by none other than Sherlock Holmes, but perhaps he is being sarcastic when he says so.  And yet … Is beauty simply in the eye of the beholder?  Is there any true beauty?

Travellers’ beauty:  Maybe if you’re just passing through, the isolated homesteads can be beautiful, but if you are a tortured child living in one, perhaps not.  Not that we see any tortured children in the story; instead we have a child who delights in torturing others: other creatures, that is, and he is a creature himself, according to Violet Hunter, and perhaps not important in this story except as a sign of the cruelty of his father.  Or even his mother?  That mother is a strange one: a nonentity, Violet calls her, but with a secret sorrow.  What secret sorrow?  That her stepdaughter is locked up in a room upstairs?  Was she not a party to this plan to lock Alice away like a princess in a tower, shorn of her hair so she cannot even let it down to a passing prince?

No, wait, that’s Rapunzel: Which some commentators are reminded of (Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your golden hair, and so on).  Others think more of Bluebeard and locked rooms where you can find the corpses of dead wives and learn that you may be next.  Horror stories, Gothic tales.  Well, fairy tales, but perhaps that’s the same thing.  Is this a Gothic horror story?  But there’s also detection going on.  Maybe it is both, an interesting mix of genres, with yet a third one added in, what we might call the thriller.  When a detective is under threat, that’s more a thriller, isn’t it, than a straight detective tale where Sherlock Holmes bustles in, puts things straight, and then goes on to his next case.

So who is under threat?  Not Sherlock Holmes and not Watson, he with the gun able to blow the brains out of Carlo the mastiff, and wow, is that Watson’s most violent moment in the canon?  And done so casually: “Running up, I blew its brains out.”  There you go; now what were you saying?  Our detectives remain firmly in detective land, where they can step in and help others who are under threat, but they are not threatened themselves.

Who, then?  Well, Violet Hunter.  That’s who this story is mostly about.  It’s her story about being in need of employment, of finding the cupboard bare after several comfortable years with the Spence Munros, and being driven to take a dubious position because she needs the money.  It’s a bit of a coming of age story: you have to leave the nest, you have to make your way in the world, you can’t be turning down positions (or Miss Stoper will upbraid you), but is the world safe?  There may be dangers out there.

What sort of dangers?  Well, who knows?  That’s the problem.  If we could define them, they would cease to be dangers.  Well, so says Sherlock Holmes, though this isn’t literally true: Rucastle could easily define the danger of Carlo, but that doesn’t save him from it.  Still, the point is that there is danger in not knowing, in being in the dark, uncertain, not knowing what might be lurking.  And what is lurking for Violet Hunter?  Well, the loss of her hair, for one thing.

But hair, who needs it?  Many people are improved by cutting it short, says Violet, rationalizing.  But is this the price you have to pay for venturing into the world?  Your hair?  (Which some might call a major part of your identity.)  We’ll give you lots of money; you can survive now; but we’re going to tell you how to do your hair.  Also what dress to wear.  And we’ll make you sit there and there and there at our whim.  Is this what being an adult entails?  Well, maybe an adult who is employed and has to do what their boss says.  Better not to take a job like that perhaps.  But then you starve.

So you give up your tresses:  Another word for tresses, by the way, or a related one, is Strand, as in Strand Magazine, and I wonder if this is another story in which Conan Doyle is chafing against the pressures to keep writing Sherlock Holmes stories (for Strand Magazine).  Here I am out in the world wanting to write serious fiction (which doesn’t pay), but to get some money I have to keep writing this detective stuff.  Oh, well.

But it is all a bit horrifying, though more so for Alice locked away than for Violet.  We seem to have doubling here: two nearly identical women with identical tresses, and yet their stories are a bit different.  As I was saying, there are different genres mixed in “The Copper Beeches” – and by the way, I have wondered about those beeches: why are they here?  What might they signify?  There’s a coppery colour, sort of red, like a Red-Headed League, and there is eccentricity as in that story, but suddenly I thought, Copper!  Slang for police.  Is something being policed here?  Violet Hunter’s desires?  Alice’s desires?

But back to the different genres: There’s a detective story featuring Holmes and Watson, which in a way ends quite early, as Debbie Clark in About Sixty points out: there’s Holmes pages from the end essentially explaining everything, based on the legwork done by Violet and with details to be filled in by Mrs. Toller, but essentially the detective story ends with Holmes explaining that the plan must have been to put off Alice’s fiancé by making him think she is happy without him.

         But then we return to the thriller story, going off to rescue Alice, and that story ends with the confrontation with Jephro Rucastle and his unfortunate encounter with his own dog.  But then there’s a third story, the Gothic horror, to wrap up: the rescue of the princess from the castle, and we find out that this has already been done, by Mr. Fowler the fiancé.  The Fowler has got there before the Hunter.

Three stories in one: Yes, and almost not connected.  At least Violet’s story doesn’t connect very closely to Alice’s.  Alice is the passive victim locked in her room; Violet is the active investigator out-Sherlocking Sherlock, almost (well, no, he has to explain things in the end), but she does act very resourcefully in exploring this strange situation, using a makeshift mirror, penetrating into the forbidden wing, and then bringing in reinforcements.  And she ends up with a career while Alice goes away and is married.  Watson is disappointed that there is no further connection between Holmes and Violet, but did he really expect …  Anyway, Violet apparently marries no one, which depending on your brand of feminism means either she is being punished for being too independent or being celebrated as a New Woman who doesn’t need a man.  Maybe a bit of both, or maybe Doyle is just delineating various options: If you’re a passive Gothic heroine you end up married; if you’re a resourceful and brave investigator you become head of a private school.  The Entrepreneur and the Bride, a possible title for a pastiche.

And what is the meaning of it all?  Which is what Violet keeps asking.  That as a child becomes an adult sometimes their parents want to keep them from going out into the world?  We saw that already in stories like “A Case of Identity” and “The Speckled Band,” not to mention “The Beryl Coronet.”  But at the same time if you do go out into the world there can be real dangers there.  The Gothic story is about the horrors of being locked up.  The thriller is about the dangers of being free (which can lead to you not being so free, and can lead you to come up against horrors like the Rucastles and the very eerie experience of seeing what seems to be your own tress of hair locked up in someone else’s secret drawer: oh, where are the Spence Munros when you need them?).  So the thriller can almost turn into the Gothic horror.  But perhaps that is where the detective story fits in, explaining everything so that you know what is going on and can define the dangers.  I’m not sure that really means the dangers cease, but at least now you can feel a little bit more in control.

         And that is about it for this story, which as Debbie Clark says has everything and more in it: dog, child, eccentricity, detection, Gothic horrors, and above all a very appealing Nancy Drew-like central character in Violet Hunter.

For the book from which this little essay is taken, see Sherlockian Musings, now available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK.


Photo of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Arnold Genthe

Steve Emecz, my wonderful publisher at MX Publishing, is going to do an interview with me about my new book of Sherlockian Musings, and he’s thinking of asking me what my favourite Musing is, among my musings on all the Holmes stories.

This led me to suggest that he also ask me what my favourite story is, though I’m not sure what my answer will be.  We all know Conan Doyle’s: that snake thing, he told someone when asked – though if he couldn’t even remember the name of the story, could it really be his favourite?

I used to say “Silver Blaze” was my favourite, primarily because of the brilliant exchange and deduction surrounding the dog that did nothing in the night-time.  But when I reread it to muse about it for the new book, somehow it didn’t quite measure up.  Perhaps I had over-hyped it in my memory, and nothing can live up to over-hype.

So what is my favourite story?  What is my favourite musing?  Going through the stories again for the book, “Copper Beeches” stood out.  Oh, of course, there’s much to be said for Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four (with or without its extra “the”), not to mention “The Red-Headed League,” with its wonderful ruse and the “Scandal,” with the woman.

But “Copper Beeches” struck me as quite rich, with its multiple plot strands and intersecting genres.  It prompted what perhaps is my favourite musing, though perhaps that honour should go to “Thor Bridge,” where I had great fun with fairy tales and even invented a rhyme: poeticizing as well as musing.

All of which reminds me that it’s time to post another musing.  Maybe it will be one of those two.

You can find Sherlockian Musings at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK.