The Golden Pince-Nez

The noble lady from The Golden Pince-Nez. Illustration by Sidney Paget.

The Golden Pince-Nez

Golden? Okay, so why is the pince-nez golden? Well, Holmes tells us that it’s because its owner is no slatternly type but a lady, though she turns out also to be a revolutionary, a Nihilist, another foreigner. The stories lately seem interested in foreigners. Of course, we don’t know that she and Professor Coram are foreign, Russians, till the very end. At first it seems we’re being all very British and academic, buried in the past. Holmes even begins the story by looking at a palimpsest from the fifteenth century …

A palimpsest? Something whose original peeps through from underneath, which could be a symbolic statement of what these stories are all about: finding the hidden, the secret that lurks underneath. And what is the secret here?

It is a very palimpsest of a story, isn’t it? On the surface all very proper and English, but underneath the Russian Revolution. (Well, not theRussian Revolution, that was a decade in the future, but old style Russian Nihilists out of the nineteenth century; perhaps you’ve read your Turgenev.)  Those foreigners, they’re everywhere: are we back in the mindset of the xenophobic Napoleons? But our foreign lady is impressive and noble, commanding and yet admirable.

And then she kills herself: Yes, what? We’re moving along, following Holmes in a nice set of deductions in this country house … Yoxley Old Place, how very British. But as I say it turns out to have a whole long Russian history behind it, and Coram is not Coram but … well, something else, we don’t know the real last name, though the Professor’s first name is Sergius, or is that a last name? But Anna, the noble Russian lady, won’t reveal his name, she said.

But she kills herself: Yes, I am getting to that. Holmes smokes her out, so to speak, and has essentially solved the crime, the killing of poor Willoughby Smith, which turns out to be no crime but an accident, or is it a crime to kill someone accidentally while you’re in the process of committing burglary? And Anna emerges and tells her story, which is odd in itself and in its placement in the story: a very long exposition at the end. But okay, it is interesting, and now we understand, but then …

She kills herself: Yes, but why? Her original plan was to steal the papers and show them to the Russian authorities to exonerate her lover Alexis. (A touching faith in the Russian authorities, that, but never mind.)  When she accidentally kills Willoughby Smith and ends up in her estranged husband’s bedroom, her plan is still to slip away once the police have left. But now that they have found her, she kills herself with a convenient phial of poison. She brought no weapon to commit murder, but did bring something for suicide. Odd. Was she planning that all along? Did Anna have to die? Why?

Why does Anna kill herself? If she wants to get the papers to the Russian government, this is a marvellously foolish thing to do. She is forced to rely on Holmes and Watson to deliver them. So why then? Perhaps she does not want to go to jail, because she is an upper class Russian lady who has never seen the inside of a prison – no, that’s not right, she’s spent years in Siberia.

Perhaps she feels guilty? For killing young Willoughby Smith? But it was an accident. For stealing papers? But they were her papers, and it’s in a good cause, to save Alexis, who was innocent of the violence the other Nihilists got up to. Ah, there’s the clue perhaps. She and the other Nihilists got up to violence. A police officer was killed. Noble and admirable as Anna is, she was involved in an actual murder: not now, but in the past.

But she served time for that: Yes, but on a deeper level is that enough? Could we let this accessory to murder (and murdering a police officer, an agent of order, of civilization … note, by the way, that Professor Coram is embarked on a study that will undermine the foundations of revealed religion; he may have betrayed his comrades, but he is still attacking civilization? He’s a nasty sort. He’s the one who should die. Why doesn’t he die? The story is odd, the wrong person dies …).

So why does Anna have to die? If she hadn’t, would she have eventually gone off with her lover Alexis? Wait, Anna was committing adultery, perhaps an even worse crime than murder in 1904. Oh, these adulterous triangles, they torment Doyle so, torn himself between Jean Leckie and Louise. Caught like that, the guilt, the guilt: better just to kill yourself. So Anna’s death is symbolically Doyle’s own to escape from an adulterous situation? Or it’s just because in 1904’s England, you can’t allow a happy ending to an adulteress who helped kill a policeman?

Or wait, perhaps she feels guilty to have caused Alexis to be imprisoned. If not for their affair, her husband would not have framed him. Or perhaps she even takes responsibility for her husband’s actions in betraying the comrades. In the end, it’s amazing she didn’t kill herself long before: once you scrape off the surface, the palimpsest reveals all. And she is after all a noble, self-sacrificing woman, more ready to kill herself than her husband.

What else? Well, there’s Stanley Hopkins (another SH, doubling Holmes? but playing more the bumbling Watson role: “What did you do, Hopkins, after you had made certain that you had made certain of nothing?”). And there’s Holmes in an irritable mood, perhaps jealous of Hopkins being on the scene and not calling him in earlier. We had everything there, says Hopkins. Except me, says Holmes. Quite.

And the weather: Nasty, wild, Nature showing she can uproot human civilization? Just like some old Nihilists?

Who’s virtuous, then? Not Holmes and Watson. All the virtuous will be in bed, says Holmes, so you get the door, Watson. Our less than respectable agents of respectability who will perhaps go off to the Russian authorities to plead the case of the innocent Nihilist. But should even innocent Nihilists go free? Maybe Anna has to die because she is a Nihilist, and her husband is allowed to live because he has betrayed the Cause? In the end it’s actually a bit troubling.

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK. Also at MX Publishing.  The musings were originally written for the Stormy Petrels of British Columbia.


The Solitary Cyclist

Holmes and Watson on the case, so to speak. Illustration by Sidney Paget.

Adultery and the Solitary Cyclist

Why is there a fiancé in “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist”? What is the purpose of Cyril Morton? Why did Conan Doyle put him in the story? Why not make Violet Smith unattached?

But perhaps that is the wrong way to phrase the question, for it assumes that such decisions are conscious. Why, then, should the story have occurred to Conan Doyle as being about an engaged young woman? Why did she have to have a fiancé, yet one who does nothing?

Cyril Morton, the fiancé in question, is mentioned early in the story, when Violet explains her odd situation of being regularly pursued by a deferential or bashful – but certainly mysterious – cyclist. However, does she turn to her fiancé for assistance in this matter? No, she goes to Sherlock Holmes. Once things are settled, Violet returns to her fiancé and marries him; but prior to this he is off in Coventry, doing nothing. Sent to Coventry, you might say: exiled.

Is this because Conan Doyle has something against fiancés? Two other stories in the canon come to mind: both “The Speckled Band” and “The Copper Beeches” contain fiancés who are away from the main action; in the latter case, it is true, the young man in question does step in and save his young lady at the end, but that is not the focus of the plot.  In “The Speckled Band,” it is even worse: the fiancé does nothing but offer disastrous advice, forcing the heroine to turn to Holmes.

 Of course, in order for the Sherlock Holmes stories to work, it’s necessary that Holmes do the rescuing. There can’t be eager young fiancés around saving the damsels in distress, or what will there be for Holmes to do? There is, however, more to it than that in “The Solitary Cyclist.”

It is useful to look at what actually happens in the story in order to get a clue as to what might be happening deep below the surface. Violet Smith is hired, in mysterious circumstances, by Bob Carruthers, who falls in love with her and proposes marriage. At the same time she is virtually assaulted by a friend of Carruthers, Jack Woodley, who makes unwanted advances towards Violet and finally forces a kiss on her before subjecting her to a forced marriage. In the meantime, Holmes himself seems smitten by Miss Smith, taking her hand on the flimsiest of pretenses, praising her spiritual-looking face, and remarking how natural it is for a woman such as her to have admirers. Watson, too, appears to be under her spell, speaking of how beautiful and graceful she is, and the two men literally run to her defence when Woodley threatens her. Yet Violet Smith is, throughout all this, engaged to be married, so cannot accept even the proper advances of Carruthers, still less the violent ones of Roaring Jack Woodley, or the more suppressed feelings of Holmes and Watson.

At one level the story seems, in fact, to be all about suppressed advances or desires. A Jungian psychologist would have a field day with Roaring Jack, who is reminiscent of another dark creature from the late Victorian period, Edward Hyde, the incarnation of all the dark instincts Henry Jekyll has long suppressed. When Jekyll looses those instincts, letting Mr. Hyde emerge, he does indeed come out “roaring.”           

In ‘The Solitary Cyclist’, however, even good Bob Carruthers has to suppress his own much more polite desires, because the object of those desires, Violet Smith, is already spoken for. It is an interesting situation, and reminiscent of Conan Doyle’s own at the time when the story was written (1903): his first wife, Louise, was seriously ill, and he had fallen in love with another woman. Like the men in this story, Doyle had to suppress his own desires; but suppressed desires usually find their way to the surface, and in Conan Doyle’s case “The Solitary Cyclist” seems to have been the result. The story was originally entitled “The Adventure of the Solitary Man,” and perhaps the author felt himself to be solitary, trapped in a non-marriage and unable to give himself to the new love of his life.

In any case, what emerges in “The Solitary Cyclist” is a study in frustration and male desire, with Conan Doyle examining the two sides of that desire in Jack Woodley and Bob Carruthers. Woodley is the violent brute forcing his affections upon women, and the forced marriage at the end of the story seems a euphemistic presentation of a rape. Carruthers, in contrast, is the polite face of male desire, all propriety and protectiveness; yet even his protectiveness leads to him seeming threatening when he mounts distant guard on his bicycle, frightening the woman he wants to protect to such an extent that she feels the need to consult someone, although that person is a detective, not her fiancé. The latter is out of the picture – at least on the surface – but his background presence is what prohibits even a proper expression of male desire, just as the presence of Conan Doyle’s first wife prevented him from fully expressing his desire for the woman who would eventually become his second wife.

Out of these murky psychological depths comes the notion that any male desire must somehow be tainted. Carruthers protests his love for Violet Smith, but Watson correctly notes that his love was selfish. Carruthers agrees in a way, saying that love often goes together with selfishness: an odd view to take, unless one is feeling so guilty over an illicit love that any love seems selfish.

What appears to be going on in the story, then, is that Conan Doyle is exploring the varieties of male desire, while at the same time suggesting that while there is, of course, some difference between the brutish advances of a Jack Woodley and the polite ones of a Bob Carruthers, in some ways all male desire is the same, all love is selfish, all men – even when trying to be protective – look like dangerous bearded brutes.

This is not to say that this view of male desire is true, or even that Conan Doyle always believed it. But at the time he wrote “The Solitary Cyclist” – a time when his desire for one woman was frustrated by his marriage to a wife who could not be a wife – this seems to have been his feeling. All desire, or all new desire, is forbidden, the story seems to say, because the object of that desire is committed elsewhere to a fiancé who may not be able to act the part, but who still has a claim which may not be challenged.

This is why the fiancé does nothing in the story. It is his role to be a doer of nothing who is important only because his existence prevents others from doing what he should be doing: loving and protecting a woman. Cyril Morton in “The Solitary Cyclist” is thus a strange representation of Conan Doyle’s first wife, whose presence prevented him from expressing his romantic desires for another woman.

This musing can be found in my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK. Also at MX Publishing.  The musings were originally written for the Stormy Petrels of British Columbia, and this one was originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of the Petrels’ magazine, the Petrel Flyer. It was republished in Canadian Holmes, the magazine of the Bootmakers of Toronto, in Summer 2007 under the title “The Mystery of the Missing Fiancé.”

The Beryl Coronet

Dressed as a common loafer: Sherlock Holmes, that is, trying to find out information in The Beryl Coronet. Illustration by Sidney Paget.

The Beryl Coronet

Here is a madman coming along: And why do his relatives let him out? But can you really stop someone from getting out? Can you stop your niece/adopted daughter from falling for the evil aristocrat? Or your son from falling under the same aristocrat’s influence? (I suppose I shouldn’t call Sir George Burnwell an aristocrat, since he’s only a knight, not like the noble lord, or prince, who gets the story going by depositing a national treasure in a bank: who would do such a thing? There seems to be some confusion of categories, and perhaps this reflects the changing times, times when aristocrats had to resort to businessmen like Mr. Holder for loans, but it shows something of the persistence of an older, more personal world that Mr. Holder at first contemplates a personal loan rather than one from his bank, and then even when he makes the loan from the bank itself, he decides the best thing is to take the beryl coronet home for safekeeping.)

Safekeeping? Well, he does have a safe, or at least a bureau with a lock, but Sherlockians have a field day mocking the idea of keeping a national treasure in your dressing-room bureau which can be opened with “any old key.” What could have possessed Holder? But I’d rather ask what could have possessed Conan Doyle. Presumably, a desire to create a story about the effects of bringing an aristocratic treasure into a private household. It’s a bit like a fairy tale test, which Mr. Holder begins by failing immediately when he ignores his instructions not to gossip. He tells Mary and Arthur, and perhaps Lucy overhears. Foolish man.

Family circle: It’s a story about the pressures on a family circle, though admittedly not a completely typical circle. There’s no mother, and the young woman is either a niece or a daughter, or both. Which makes Arthur not only her cousin, but her … Some critics talk of incest, but critics like to talk about such things. Still, what is going on here? Some compare the story to “A Case of Identity,” where the father (or stepfather) of the family goes to great, and deceitful, lengths to keep the daughter in the household. Mr. Holder doesn’t go so far as pretending to be a suitor – or is he really Sir George in disguise? (No, we’ll leave that to the Sherlockians.)  And it seems a bit harsh to say, as Martin Priestman does, that he keeps Mary prisoner. True, she doesn’t go out, and Mr. Holder doesn’t socialize, but could she not go out on her own? Would that not be proper in those days? Mary Sutherland in “Identity” goes out: that’s how she meets the fiancé who is no fiancé.

No fiancé: There could be a fiancé in this story, as in so many others, but Mary turns down Arthur’s proposals, and is it as a result that we get a young man who is able to act heroically? Usually in the canon, fiancés do nothing, but young Arthur thwarts the crime while at the same time chivalrously protecting the guilty Mary. Innocent fiancées usually don’t get protected in the other stories (you’re just imagining things, dear), but here a non-fiancée who is guilty of assisting in a robbery finds protection. What does that mean? And not protection provided by Sherlock Holmes, who often protects where fiancés fail, but protection by the would-be fiancé, almost you might say against Sherlock Holmes, who of course is trying to find the guilty culprit, which in this case would be Mary.

Relatives can’t keep you down: Even if you’re mad, or madly in love, or doing something clearly unhealthy like gambling your money away. Mr. Holder can’t keep Arthur from going to that aristocratic club, and when it comes to a crisis, Arthur threatens to leave and make his own way in the world. Of course, what really happens is that he is shipped off to prison, though he will presumably be let go, and then …  Well, the story doesn’t tell us. Will he go home to live with his papa? Will he track Sir George Burnwell down and capture Mary? But Mary doesn’t want to be captured by Arthur, though Sherlock Holmes predicts that she will suffer at the hands of Sir George: would she then be more open to Arthur’s proposals? But he’s her brother, or at least her cousin. It’s time to flee the nest perhaps, but not this way. Maybe by trying to keep this little circle too closely bound, Mr. Holder inadvertently pushes his children to take unsavory ways out: visiting gambling clubs or running off with villainous noblemen (or quasi-noblemen) out of a Victorian melodrama.

Good child and bad: Mr. Holder seems a very poor judge of his two children, a little like King Lear perhaps. The one he thinks is good is bad and vice versa. And the result is personal affliction and near public disgrace, which he tries to avoid by having his own son arrested. Something very wrong in that family circle. What is really going on? You have the disappointing son who loses money at cards and horses, the apparently sweet daughter/niece who lies and steals and tries to blame the maid, and the father who tries to keep too strong a hold on things: perhaps that’s why he’s called Holder.

Treasure: The true treasure in a family circle would be what? Not a coronet, surely; not money generally. Money is for work time, but Mr. Holder brings it home with him, or brings the coronet home, mixing business and family ties, and business, represented by the coronet, totally disrupts those ties. Is this a plea for keeping work away from home? Don’t bring your coronets home with you, gentlemen. Or don’t let your family in on your work secrets: don’t tell them there’s a coronet in the house. If only there’d been a mother in the house instead of an overly indulgent father who wants everything to stay the same: nothing stays the same, and in two days you can go from happiness and prosperity to shame and disgrace.

And prosperity, what is that? A man with a wooden leg? He’s named Prosper, but it doesn’t sound like prosperity to me. Mr. Holder worries that he’s lost his honour, his gems, and his son (and then his daughter too). But wait, how are they his gems? They’re a national treasure which he values more than his own son, it seems (or why put his son in jail for them?), but they’re not his gems, are they? Well, I suppose they’re in his safekeeping, but by trying too hard to keep them safe – and after all he brings them home because he thinks they will be safer there, as if a home is safer than a bank, and maybe it is for some things, though not for keeping money locked away … By trying to keep them safe, he loses both them and his children. Perhaps he is trying too hard. There seems some lesson here about letting birds fly free, or something, not that there are any birds in the story.

Trust: Maybe this is a story about trust. Mr. Holder needs to trust his own bank for keeping the coronet safe. Let business be business. Bankers should be trusted to safeguard treasures, just as detectives should be trusted to solve crimes. Watson has trust, or faith as he puts it: even though he and the banker are sure the son did it, since Sherlock Holmes thinks otherwise, Watson will follow along. But what about trust in people? You can’t trust Sir George Burnwell, whose name (as Stephen Knight points out) conjures up images of hellfire. You can’t really trust Mary. And Arthur? He squanders money – but in the end he comes through, though he nearly comes to grief trying to be true to both Mary and his father (and the nation, I suppose). Maybe Mr. Holder needs to trust them just to make their own way.

Public disgrace: The canon is full of stories motivated by fears about reputation. In this story Sherlock Holmes himself plays with the notion of reputation: he can suddenly be a poorly dressed vagabond, then return to his “highly respectable self.” Mr. Holder fears losing his reputation and puts his son in jail; in other stories those in fear of losing their reputation are driven at times to murder. There’s no murder here, only theft and lies and deceit, but is there a suggestion that perhaps too much stock is put in reputation?

Of course, there are other motivations: Mary acts from love or passion. Arthur is motivated in part by his love for Mary, but also from fear of disgrace. He needs money to pay his club debts and can’t just leave the club as his father suggests, because that would be dishonourable. (Honour seems like an old-fashioned aristocratic word in this context.)  Of course, Sir George has other motives and cares nothing about reputation, only money and lust, but then though honour is an old aristocratic term, in Doyle’s time it’s the middle class that worries more about it. At least that’s the stereotype: you have all these dissolute noblemen not caring whose lives they ruin, while the bankers and shopkeepers worry inordinately about reputation. Is Conan Doyle suggesting they should worry less about it, become more like aristocrats? No, that can’t be quite right: the aristocrats are the villains. Still, maybe there’s a time to dress up like a vagabond and forget about respectability.

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK. Also at MX Publishing.  The musings were originally written for the Stormy Petrels of British Columbia.

The Yellow Face

Climactic scene from The Yellow Face. Illustration by Sidney Paget.

The Yellow Face

Racism: The late Peter Wood, a previous discussion leader in my Sherlock Holmes group, asked if this story, taken together with the derogatory depiction of the black boxer Steve Dixie in “The Three Gables,” indicated that Conan Doyle was a racist. A strange way to put it, because this story is typically contrasted with “The Three Gables” as one that is quite liberal on matters of race. But how then do we square this circle of the liberal Doyle in “The Yellow Face” and the indulger of stereotypes in the later story? Perhaps it is simply a matter of time: in this story and the next (“The Stockbroker’s Clerk”) a young author subverts conventional racist (or in the Stockbroker story, anti-Semitic) attitudes, whereas at the end of his career a more curmudgeonly author indulged in them.

Perhaps: But perhaps we should look more closely at the portrayals. Can they all be reconciled? “The Three Gables” mocks the black boxer, treats him as a joke and a coward, and disparages his physical characteristics. In “The Yellow Face,” the little black girl is treated lovingly and accepted into the Grant Munro family, to the applause of Watson and the silent approval of Holmes.

But what about those physical characteristics? When we first realize that the “creature” behind the yellow mask is not a monster, but a little black girl, she emerges with “all her white teeth flashing in amusement,” in contrast to the rest of her “coal black” appearance. She’s very non-threatening and even lovable, and yet the flashing white teeth conjures up something stereotypical, I would say.

         Or how about Watson’s reaction to seeing the picture of John Hebron, Effie’s late husband? He is handsome and intelligent-looking (Doyle always thinks you can read character or in this case intelligence in a face): anyway, Watson says Hebron in the little portrait within Effie’s locket looks handsome, “but” (the “but” is important) shows clear signs of African descent. Handsome but African. So not so handsome? Or surprisingly handsome for an African? Or does it just mean handsome but now you can see why little Lucy is coal-black?

And Effie’s own reaction? Unfortunately, she says, the little girl takes after her husband’s people rather than mine. Now, does that simply mean that in a society with racist conventions it would be better to look white? Or does it show Effie’s preference for white over black?

Preferences versus actions: Of course, preferences are one thing and active discrimination is another. The whole thrust of “The Yellow Face” is to endorse acceptance of the little coal-black girl. That’s why it is hailed as liberal and ahead of its time. And yet, and yet …  “Dark or fair, she is my own dear little girlie,” says Effie, which sounds noble, and yet perhaps should be interrogated, as they say. You could replace dark or fair with good or bad, and then which one would be good? Is this a story about accepting someone even though they are black? Which of course is better than rejecting them because they are black, and it says a lot about Grant Munro and Watson and Doyle that they will accept little Lucy. A lot positive, I mean, and yet behind that acceptance is still the notion of difference.

Locket and pipe: But let us move on to two interesting objects in the story, the locket and the pipe. First the locket, which Grant Munro had been led to believe did not open, but it does open and it reveals Effie’s secret: the race of her first husband. Grant Munro had begun the story by telling Holmes and Watson that he and his wife had no secrets from each other, that they shared every word and thought, and had not even had an argument in three years. An extended honeymoon, one might call that. But then it turns out that Effie hasn’t really shared every thought; she has this whole hidden past that Grant Munro knows nothing about. It is as if after three years Holmes finally revealed he has a cocaine habit. But Watson knows all about that habit, and deals with it as one does when you are one half of a couple that lives together in intimacy. Is the story in part about getting beyond the honeymoon and dealing with the reality of the other person rather than your idealized projection of them?

This is not a pipe: Or at least not just a pipe. Grant Munro’s pipe, that is, which he leaves behind, and upon which Holmes bases some character analysis. This is reminiscent of the hat in “The Blue Carbuncle,” but in that case what Holmes discovered seemed important. How important is it that Grant Munro is muscular and left-handed? But on closer examination there is something important about the pipe: it has been mended twice, which suggests that Grant Munro is one of those people who prefers to patch up something he values rather than throw it away in favour of something new. Is this symbolic of something? Of his tendency to hold onto things, like his marriage to Effie even if he finds it broken in some way? Even if she’s been hiding things from him, even if it turns out she has a coal-black child? Yes, even then he’s not going to move on to another marriage; he’s going to make this one work.

What did Effie think? Did she think her husband would throw her over when he discovered her black child? Divorce? And what was her plan? She told him to trust her and he would know all some day. When? What would happen to allow that? And in the meantime what was she planning to do? To run off every night to visit her child and still keep her husband in the dark? Effie keeps talking about trust, but she is the one who has no trust: she does not trust her husband to stick by her; she gives him less credit than he deserves, as he puts it. But then he shows what he is made of, and the new family of three walks out of the story together, presumably to become a stronger unit for no longer having a dark secret at its core.

Dark secret: Pun only half intended. That’s what’s at the core of this story, as it is of so many of the stories. This at first seems like so many of the other stories: a character has some unpleasant bit of history that has suddenly come forward to haunt him (or in this case her). Often this leads to blackmail and then murder. Holmes has seen this many times, and if he is guilty of prejudice in this story, it is not race prejudice but the lazy prejudice of thinking every case is just like another. So he assumes there is something like an American lover come to blackmail Effie, and there is bigamy or infidelity. Even Grant Munro fears there is some sort of infidelity, and though Holmes tells him not to fret until the truth can be known (good advice though hard to follow), he himself tells Watson it’s a bad business and constructs an elaborate theory which even Watson dismisses as pure surmise.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a dark secret is only dark because of skin colour. There is nothing criminal in Effie’s past. Though if you think of it more, and if we look at this story as an indictment of Victorian mores, maybe (by the standards of the time) Effie has done something wrong in marrying a black man. Such things were frowned on; that’s why she is so frantic to cover it up, to hide her first husband and her little girl even from her new husband. Not because of bigamy, infidelity, or any other sin or crime, but because in Victorian times one might be shunned for having done what Effie did.

But is she guilty of something else? We of course see nothing wrong with her marriage, but what about her treatment of her child: leaving her behind for three years or more, and for what? Because she fears losing her husband, over whom she seems quite smitten or something: half crazy with fear of losing him, based on what? Her own misperceptions of his character. It’s about time these two came to know each other better. Husbands and wives not sharing fully is a problem Doyle will touch on in “The Second Stain.” And of course there is Neville St. Clair’s secret in “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” but would that have been a good one to hold onto? Ah, marriage.

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK. Also at MX Publishing.  The musings were originally written for the Stormy Petrels of British Columbia.

The Cardboard Box

Excitement in The Cardboard Box. Illustration by Sidney Paget.


The Cardboard Box

No foreigners here: After several stories in the late collections about external threats, this story from His Last Bow takes us back to the domestic issues of the early stories. Which after all is no surprise because in fact this is an early story, originally published in 1893, but then suppressed until 1917. And why suppressed? Because it was about sex, some report Doyle saying. Can that be true?

Perhaps it was just too gruesome: Those severed ears, you know. Ugh. And what do they represent? Some commentators go on wild Freudian excursions: castration anxiety, they say. Well, there certainly is some sort of anxiety here, residing in the heart of the murderer, Jim Browner, but he’s the one who performs the double “castration,” so it’s not clear how the Freudian approach would work. But Browner certainly has reason to question his situation, as his wife seems to be involved in an extramarital affair.

Or perhaps it was too bleak: Consider the closing lines, where Holmes almost seems to descend to lament, noting the “circle of misery and violence and fear” that humanity seems trapped in. Did Doyle not want this sentiment spread abroad? But he did publish the story again eventually, in 1917, in the midst of a horrific war, at a time when its sentiments may have been more appropriate.

A preposterous way to settle a dispute: War, that is, but also perhaps murder. Holmes voices Watson’s thought in the famous mind-reading passage at the beginning of the story (so famous that when the rest of the story was suppressed, Doyle rescued the passage by inserting it in “The Resident Patient”).

War and Murder: One tiny appearance of the foreign in this story is Henry Ward Beecher, the American preacher and anti-slavery advocate, whose trip to England on behalf of the North in the American Civil War is what Watson was thinking of. Watson, says Holmes, then went on to think about the preposterousness of war as a means of settling international disputes, a comment much more à propos in 1917 perhaps than in 1893.

Sex scandal: Yes, even in the nineteenth century there were sex scandals, and there was one involving Henry Ward Beecher and some alleged adultery. Some critics say that’s why Beecher is mentioned in the story, and adultery certainly is relevant to the story, but after all Watson was thinking of Beecher’s public life and war and the preposterousness of resorting to violence, which seems even more à propos to the story’s theme than the rumours of adultery, which after all only have to do with the story’s plot.

But let’s consider the plot: It is a tangled one. There’s Browner married to the angel Mary, who turns out to be rather less than an angel; and there’s her sister Sarah, who is attracted to Browner herself, creating a triangle that Browner wants no part of. Then there is Alan Fairbairn, whom Sarah pushes on Mary, creating yet another triangle: we move from Browner and two women to Mary and two men.

And what comes of it all? A double murder, a crime passionnel, committed by Browner, for which he takes the blame while at the same time laying off some of it on Sarah Cushing. We get to hear Browner’s confession at the end, a confession that I think makes us sympathize with him – and yet can we allow people to go about committing murder (or starting wars) even if their cause is just? The last lines of the story, the lament of Holmes, leave that question unanswered. “What is the meaning of it?” he says, voicing the great Victorian question that troubled the likes of Tennyson mourning the death of his friend Hallam.

Well, what is the meaning of it? The Victorians tended to buck themselves up and somehow still saw meaning. By the time of this story, however, especially the time of its second publication, modernism was in the air: meaning was threatened altogether. And so we can see this story as almost ahead of its time, or at least as being in tune with Doyle’s bleakness in The Valley of Fear.

But the mystery is solved: Yes, it is. But what does it amount to in the end? A postal error. The reason two severed ears were sent to Susan Cushing was that they were actually meant for someone else, as Susan Cushing herself says. Holmes thinks so little of his solution to this problem that he asks Lestrade not to mention him in connection with it. Is this fair? It is after all a clever solution to what seems like a baffling problem: it baffled Lestrade after all. But if the puzzle can be solved, something larger remains intractable: the passions of the human heart, the love that turns to hate (in both Sarah and Browner), the violence that a man may resort to … Instead of feeling uplifted by the solution to this crime, we feel with Holmes: what is the way out? What does it all mean?

And what else? Watson is the bored one here, eager for a case in the manner we usually associate with Holmes, meaning … Well, who knows? He also gets a “thrill” when he learns there may be more than just a bizarre prank going on. But Watson is us: if he is excited by the thought of “strange and inexplicable horror,” what does that say about us? Perhaps that we are the bored ones looking for stimulation? Like Holmes usually, like Watson here? Oh, it is very confusing. Is this the most confusing story in the canon? Some call it the darkest, and this despite the lack of fog: instead we are in the blazing August heat, but we still can’t see because of the glare. The glare hurts our eyes. Is it the glare of reality? The reality that people cannot stand, to paraphrase a later poet? The glare from the human heart? The heart of darkness?

Respectability: Often respectability is a cover for a deep dark secret from the past (or America). Here the respectable Susan Cushing is simply that: a respectable lady with nothing in her past that can account for the crime, for the simple reason that the crime is nothing to do with her. So what is she doing in the story? Just one of those innocent bystander types, like Scott Eccles in “Wisteria Lodge,” dragged into things to serve someone’s ends? But not even that: she’s in it by mistake, by sharing the same initial as her sister Sarah. But wait, there is something there: it is her sister who’s at the heart of things. It’s not completely accidental, and one of her sisters is a scheming manipulator and the other is an adulteress: can she be as innocent as all that? She even has ears that look like her sister’s. How is it that one from the family can be so proper, and the other two … well … Hmm. Oh, wait …

Respectability in the midst of horror: Perhaps we are not Watson and his thrill at horror (or maybe that too), but Susan Cushing, the respectable one, in a world of horror, horror that she generally is able to keep at bay, but which here presses in on her through the agency of the post office. And so it means we thrill to horror and shrink from it and are guilty of it ourselves. Perhaps that’s what it all means.

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK. Also at MX Publishing.  The musings were originally written for the Stormy Petrels of British Columbia.