Or at least two stories touching on anti-Semitism: “The Stockbroker’s Clerk” and “Shoscombe Old Place.”
The Stockbroker’s Clerk
Connection/connexion: Watson bought a connection (or connexion, depending on your edition), by which he seems to mean a medical practice, but I can find no other examples of the word used in that meaning. It’s not recognized (or even recognised) in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Sheeny: Derogatory term for a Jew. In using it, Hall Pycroft demonstrates not only anti-Semitism, but suggestibility. Pinner is a Jewish surname; Pycroft thus assumes that the man calling himself Pinner is Jewish, and presumably that’s why he says he had a “touch of the sheeny about his nose.” But Pinner is really the non-Jewish Beddington.
Beddington himself is playing on Jewish stereotypes about money-lending by taking on the Jewish name Pinner when he pretends to be a financial agent.
If only we knew all: The most memorable part of the story for me is when Holmes notes that Watson got the more successful medical practice, which he can tell because the tread is more worn at Watson’s new residence. Watson had no idea; he just lucked out. But Holmes knew. If only we could see as perceptively as Holmes, how easy life would be …
Except did Watson really get the best practice? He notes that it used to be a good practice, but it has fallen on hard times because the doctor he bought it from fell ill, scaring off the patients.
So Holmes was right to say, judging by the steps, that the practice had been popular, but other factors have been at play since. Even the far-seeing Holmes may not be right, then, and in fact in this story, as in the previous (“The Yellow Face”), we see Holmes stumble. This time he calls himself an idiot for not realizing the importance of the newspaper.
Are we meant to think that even the greatest of us mortals is not infallible and that there are limits to human intelligence?
Greed and gold: “The glint of the gold” in the villain’s mouth is what gives the game away, and the glint of gold, metaphorically speaking, i.e., greed, is the main motive both for the Beddington/Pinners and for Hall Pycroft. It leads to disaster for all of them, though: the love of money is …
Holmes and Watson are pure, though: their motive is not monetary gain, not in solving the crime at least, though Watson is interested in making a living from his medical practice (and yet he is prepared to drop it every time Holmes shows up). But even freedom from greed doesn’t guarantee success: Holmes stumbles. Why? Over-confidence? Or just human fallibility as suggested above?
Brothers galore: There are two actual Beddington brothers, and one Beddington brother who pretends to be two Pinner brothers. Why? You might say Holmes and Watson are a brotherly team too. And it’s brotherly affection that drives one of the Beddingtons to attempt suicide. “Human nature is a strange mixture,” Holmes says: both greed and fraternal feeling can co-exist, apparently: is the result good, though?
Confused identities: Following up on the brothers theme, but from a different angle, we have a lot of impersonation in this story. Is the point to warn that appearances can be deceptive? Pinner is not Pinner; the Hall Pycroft who shows up at Mawson & Williams is not Hall Pycroft.
I note, too, that we have a Harry Pinner and a Hall Pycroft (both HP), and then Holmes and Watson pretend to be Harris and Price (another HP, if you will): does that mean anything? Who is who in this story? Can we tell anything for sure in a world of masquerade?
And why all this doubling? Two Hall Pycrofts, two Pinners, two Beddingtons, two or even three HP’s, not to mention Holmes and Watson. Lots of couples, and yet not a woman in sight. You might say there’s a lot of asexual reproduction going on: the Beddingtons manufacture a Hall Pycroft and two Pinners, and Hall Pycroft manufactures Harris and Price, but is it a good thing?
Shoscombe Old Place
Holding off the Jews: That’s what Sir Robert Norberton is doing, according to his head trainer, John Mason. What does that mean? Well, it means “the Jews” are here functioning as a sort of figure of speech representing all moneylenders because stereotypically the Jews were moneylenders. (As Les Klinger notes, this is rather a slur because in fact not all Jews were moneylenders, and not all moneylenders were Jews. Dickens felt obliged to write a whole novel, Our Mutual Friend, to point this out and make amends for creating Fagin. Still, it was a common thing to say someone was “in the hands of the Jews,” as both Norberton and Sherlock Holmes do later in the story, and this would simply mean the person was in debt.)
So a little casual anti-Semitism: Yes, and odd in a way to have it expressed by a Mason because after all weren’t Masons working together with the Jews in the worldwide conspiracy? (Sorry, a little joke.) But let’s look at the underlying issue here: the fact that Sir Robert, acting like a Regency buck out of his time, has been squandering the fortunes of the ancient Falder family, so that all will go bust if his Derby horse doesn’t win.
Isn’t this a rather shaky basis on which to preserve a family fortune? Well, yes: yes, it is. And it’s not even his fortune or his family. Did he have a fortune of his own? How did he get to be a baronet? We don’t learn anything about that. He’s just leeched onto the Falders by way of his sister who married one. He’s something of an outsider or cuckoo – or no, a cuckoo lays eggs, and Sir Robert has produced no children. Neither has his sister, Lady Beatrice Falder, and so the estate will go to her late husband’s brother: has he any children? Will there be anyone to hand this estate down to even if the horse does win the Derby? It’s all very unclear, but what is clear is that we are once again seeing …
England in decline: Or the old landed aristocracy, with their heraldic griffins (eagles and lions) in decline, with their crumbling chapel and haunted crypt full of ancient bones of Hugos and Odos from centuries past, not to mention the bones of the unnamed ancestor who Sir Robert arranges to burn to make room for his dead sister in a coffin.
What? Yes, inexcusable, as Sherlock Holmes puts it. And why? Disrespect for the dead? Sir Robert says no, but surely that is there. And not just any dead, but the dead of a respected landed family (both the unknown ancient ancestor and Lady Beatrice). And yet Sir Robert gets away with a mere slap on the wrist, his horse does win, the creditors hold off until it does, they all get paid, and there’s enough left for Sir Robert to fade into an honoured old age, free of his earlier “shadows” (his violence, gambling, and womanizing).
But is that a good thing? Holmes, as we’ve seen, does not think so, but the story lets it happen. Is Doyle shrugging and saying, Well, that’s where things are going: respect for the dead, respect for Old England, is gone, and we’re in a world where your take at the track is what keeps you afloat. Rickety old England? No more grandeur of the ages, but shady dealings involving, ugh, money. The old baronets had money, of course, but that was from renting out land; that was somehow dignified, but this man who horsewhipped his creditor nearly to death and who has essentially defrauded the betting public, not to mention playing fast and loose with his sister’s body and the laws on burials (and of course the crypt of his brother-in-law’s ancestors) – this is the man who will succeed into an honoured old age? Is this what England has come to?
But fresh blood: Yes, often in the canon there’s been a sense that old families need an infusion from somewhere, but from ill-gotten gambling gains? From Regency bucks? Regency bucks were the dissolute gamblers prominent in the early nineteenth century, before Victoria: should we be going back to that? Or are we stuck going back to that? What is Conan Doyle up to?
Some commentators share Holmes’s displeasure over Sir Robert, but after all he’s committed no murder, contrary to what Holmes rather rashly suggests early on in the story. All he’s done is disturb the dead – and when has Conan Doyle cared about that? His stories are usually about murdering the living. I wonder, though, if Spiritualism requires that the body of the departed remain undisturbed in its grave.
And might it not be good to disturb the dead? Or at least shake up the society of old England, especially its old landowning families? One does get that sense earlier in the canon, as with the Baskervilles, and yet here it’s almost as if this shaking up is a regression to an earlier, dissolute time. Are the 1920’s no better than the Regency of 1810? Do we need a return to some Victorian propriety? Or at least a return to eagles from carrion crows? Or perhaps just a return to the “humble abode” of Holmes and Watson? Meaning what? A return to “unpretentious middleclass productivity,” as W.W. Robson says in a comment on the story. But what could be a better example of middle-class productivity than money-lending: making money out of nothing. We’re not celebrating that, are we?
No, so what do we have? Moneylenders, dissolute Regency bucks, decaying landed families – and of course detectives. Perhaps we should just celebrate Holmes and Watson (and we do). There’s also an actor in the story, but he’s no role model: the rat-faced, cowardly Norlett. The loyal retainers of Sir Robert? But Mason is not so loyal: he calls his employer mad, suggests he is having an affair with the maid, and warns against his violence. And the maid, who wants to continue the deception about her mistress? No, who else is there? The innkeeper, I suppose, but if we want the most loyal creature in the story it is of course the spaniel. This story was almost called “The Adventure of the Black Spaniel,” and who is more loyal than Lady Beatrice’s dog, barking madly at the well-house where her body is first kept and then rushing eagerly to her carriage when he thinks she is in it only to bark angrily when he realizes he’s been deceived.
So we need to go to the dogs? We are going to the dogs? Lady Beatrice has no children and treats her spaniel like a child. Is that all there is? There are other animals, of course, and not just in this story. There’s the racehorse of course and even a Green Dragon. Not to mention metaphorical vultures (the moneylenders) and rabbits (the frightened Mason and Stephens the butler). And in other late stories, lions and jellyfish and monkeys. Also, another loyal dog: McPherson’s in “The Lion’s Mane,” who gets thrown through a plate-glass window in the same way it seems Sir Robert is ready to attack Lady Beatrice’s spaniel. Maybe it’s the dogs who will inherit (though McPherson’s is dead). Ah, well.
The House of Usher: A couple of commentators see parallels with Poe’s story about a strange brother-sister relationship and the burial of the sister. It is a strange relationship, isn’t it? Holmes at first assumes Lady Beatrice is Sir Richard’s wife, and then assumes she lives in his house. No, says Mason, it is her house, the house of the Falders. And she gets buried in the crypt, like Madeline Usher, but at least she doesn’t come back from the dead like Madeline, and the house doesn’t split in two. Still …
Falder, falter: Is that why the name is Falder? If their house won’t split in two, it certainly is in danger of faltering. Maybe all of England is. And that is where Conan Doyle leaves us with his final Sherlock Holmes story. So long, and thanks for all the fish: Holmes and Watson do end up fishing and eating some trout for dinner. And maybe that is a fine way to go.
Or maybe we need something, some glue to hold us together: perhaps that is why the story begins with Holmes looking for glue. Perhaps.
We were compelled to eat it: The bird that is, the goose, the Christmas goose. So says Holmes, talking to Henry Baker. Not that Holmes ate it exactly; it was the commissionaire, Peterson, though Holmes and Watson will eat a bird soon, a woodcock, though not without checking its crop first for carbuncles. (No, that’s just a joke, one of many in this light-hearted Christmas treat.)
But is it so light-hearted? A gem in a goose, ha ha, an inept jewel thief, yes, and the festive season and all that, a time for compassion and forgiveness, letting the jewel thief go, but I’m not so sure. I keep thinking of poor Henry Baker. He does get a goose in the end, that’s true, and also his hat back – but what a hat … A battered old felt thing that has seen better days, as has poor Henry himself. Some critics say the jewel theft is rather pushed off to the side in this story, and one of the things it is really about is Henry’s hat.
That hat: It must be the most famous hat in the canon,* the excuse for Holmes to launch into a series of deductions about the life and lifestyle of Henry Baker, sight unseen, much to the astonishment of Watson (and to the dismay of some Sherlockians, who quibble about the Master’s conclusions). And what does Holmes tell us about poor Henry? That he used to be well-to-do but has fallen on evil days. He used to be far-sighted but now has been driven to drink. And most astonishingly of all he has lost the love of his wife.
Poor Henry: And what is more, how does Henry Baker even enter this story? By being set upon by a gang of roughs and getting the hat knocked off his head, after which he raises his stick to defend himself but accidentally breaks the shop window behind him, prompting him to flee when a commissionaire arrives on the scene. Oh, poor Henry, fearing the roughs, fearing the law, down on his luck, losing his goose (and his hat).
But he does get his goose back: Or not his goose but another. And his hat. Not the gem hidden in the goose, of which he knew nothing, but that’s really not his affair. But does he get back the love of his wife? He is bringing her the goose as a peace offering: did it work? And will his fortunes be repaired? Will he get some more shillings and free himself of drink? This we do not know. Sherlock Holmes can identify him and lay out his problems, but those really aren’t the sort of problems a consulting detective can fix.
So what good is he? Well, he restores the blue carbuncle to its rightful owner, but do we even care about that? The rightful owner is some countess we never see. She never hired him; she was not the client. Nor was Horner, the unjustly accused, whom we also do not see. If there is any client here, it’s the commissionaire who brought the problem to Holmes, and Holmes does solve it, it’s true, making everything clear: he finds Henry Baker, restores him his hat, and also discovers how it is that an expensive jewel made its way into the crop of a Christmas goose.
Assuaging our anxieties: That’s what Stephen Knight says Holmes does in the stories, by restoring order and letting us know what has happened, dispelling any fog and mystery. But another critic, Nils Clausson, wonders how assuaged we can be in this case, knowing that Holmes is out there letting criminals go free. I myself, as a reader rather than a property owner in 1889, am more likely to be in the assuaged camp, except I am troubled – not by the fact that a jewel thief may be on the loose thanks to Holmes’s arrogating to himself the powers of commutation and soul-saving, but by the fact that nothing has been done to help poor Henry Baker.
The limits of detection: Perhaps this story lays those out. Problems, disorder, puzzles: Sherlock Holmes can put those right. Declining fortunes, fading affections – not so much. And what sort of universe does that give us? A strange one, as the critic Joseph Kestner says, where passerbys’ breath resembles pistol shots and the stars shine coldly upon us. The more I think about it, the less assuaged I am. Solving puzzles is all very well, but where is happiness in this universe? Is Henry Baker happy? For no reason that we know of, he has come down in the world. How about James Ryder, our jewel thief? Holmes lets him go, as he lets Henry go, and yet … James Ryder was supposed to get a goose for Christmas. His sister has promised him one. He takes it, or at least takes another one, but he ends up leaving it with his criminal accomplice in order to go after the goose with the golden (or at least carbuncular) egg. But he doesn’t get that one either. He ends up without a goose at all.
And what does that signify? One pair of commentators (Enda Duffy and Maurizia Boscagli) suggest that this story tells us that geese are more important than gems. Perhaps, in the sense that geese here stand for Christmas cheer, for conviviality, family gathering and celebration. James Ryder doesn’t get any of that; he has to flee. And why? Because he gave way to a criminal impulse. Perhaps there is a lesson here: don’t give in to such impulses, or you may risk jail and, even worse in the early canon, a loss of reputation: Oh, I have given away my character, says Ryder (by which he means his reputation). And don’t tell my father or my mother: as if that is more serious than actually going to jail.
Reassurance? Some see reassurance, redemption even, in that James Ryder is give a second chance. Holmes himself seems to think this. And yet the last we see of him he is clattering down the stairs, fearing that he has been branded as a thief. It makes me think of Cain sent out of Eden with a mark upon him (and Ryder does keep talking about God and the Bible). So the lesson is a stern Old Testament one of, Do no evil, or you will suffer. This would hardly assuage those young men from the City reading this story in the Strand Magazine. Nor would the mysterious fall from grace of Henry Baker: that would be even more disturbing. At least one can learn from Ryder’s tale that you shouldn’t steal carbuncles. But what can you learn from Baker’s? Don’t indulge in drink? Don’t wander the streets at 4 am?
Is it Henry’s fault? One critic (Rosemary Jann) does say the story seems to be blaming him for wandering around drunk in the middle of the night. But the commissionaire was out at the same time, and not in an official capacity but after some Christmas Eve “jollification.” Was he drinking too? But he profits from it. Why, though, was he up so late away from his wife? Is that a happy marriage? Are there any happy, festive Christmas-celebrating couples in this story?
Couples: There’s the unhappy Bakers. There’s the commissionaire and his wife: they may be happy, and they do get a Christmas goose. Ryder is outcast from society, the Countess we know nothing about, John Horner is still in custody and we know nothing of his family life. And all this in a city of four million inhabitants constantly jostling each other – and worse. What about those roughs? What kind of world is this where roughs can attack you for no reason at all?
And yet: Under this cold starry sky we do have one couple that sits down happily to a roast bird in this Christmas season: Holmes and Watson, of course, having figured out all the puzzles and made themselves feel better by being charitable towards James Ryder, and now being able to sit down to a woodcock prepared by Mrs. Hudson. (And where is Mrs. Watson in all this? Well, never mind her.)
So that’s all right, then? But I’m still uneasy about Henry Baker. There is decline here, something that will feature repeatedly later in the canon, but at least in the later stories there are suggestions that fresh blood from afar or below may help out. Here it’s merely a shrug and a substitute goose, which is good as far as it goes, but how will we pull someone like Henry out of his decline? Or is that simply not what detecting, however brilliant, can do?
So here’s how it all begins: Or maybe not. And I don’t mean in the Baring-Gould sense that since there are earlier cases, the Holmes canon actually began earlier. No, I’m talking about publication and how A Study in Scarlet was the first Holmes story to be written and published, to be followed of course by 59 others. And how tempting to refer to those other 59 when discussing the first. The origin story which led to all the others, which you perhaps can only understand by referring to all the others. But …
There’s a problem here: When Arthur Conan Doyle wrote this story (novel or novella, really), it does not seem that he was planning a series, still less to write 59 sequels. He had to be dragged, kicking and screaming (or bribed by huge payments), to write some of them. And after finishing Scarlet in 1886, he didn’t immediately write another detective story; instead he wrote a historical adventure called Micah Clarke and then embarked on another, The White Company. His great aim, when not trying to be a doctor, was to write serious historical novels; he would later complain that Sherlock Holmes distracted him from that more serious work. It was not for a few years after Study in Scarlet that he decided to write some more Sherlock Holmes stories, so let’s try and look at the Study as a work in itself.
And how does it begin? Not with Sherlock Holmes at all (except as the title of Chapter One), but with that other character, without whom there would really have been no series, and who may even have been thought of first: Dr. John H. Watson. The sources are unclear, but perhaps Ormond Sacker (Doyle’s original name for Watson, and thank God he abandoned it) was going to be a sort of combined doctor-detective and the hero of the whole thing. And why would Dr. Doyle have thought of making his hero a doctor? The question perhaps answers itself, though one should also remember Dr. Joseph Bell, Doyle’s deducing professor in Edinburgh. In any case, we begin with …
Watson: And what a Watson. A wornout, wounded, aimless Watson. An idler drawn to that great “cesspool,” London, where he is squandering his government pension and feeling sorry for himself. The ideal situation for a life transformation, a typical beginning for an adventure story in which someone will be swept up into exciting situations and made to become a hero. Will Watson be the hero? Perhaps like a Marlow going to discover Mr. Kurtz? And his Kurtz will be Mr. Sherlock Holmes, a mystery man he is warned about by young Stamford – and by the way, all the characters are young here, are they not? Holmes is some sort of student, Watson only graduated a few years before: these are very young men, not the middle-aged codgers we may think of from later in the canon. But let’s not think about the canon. Let’s just think about Scarlet.
Thinking about Scarlet: And thinking about it from the point of view of the character who is positioned as the hero, not Holmes, but Watson. Reminiscent a bit of the situation of Violet Hunter (oh, there I go, thinking about the canon again), who ends up in a strange establishment and has to figure out what is going on. Here Watson tries to figure out what is going on with his new companion, who seems quite mysterious. What is his profession, first of all? And why does he swing between moods of enthusiasm and periods of languor? Drugs, I hear you say – but no, no, no, you’re thinking of later stories. We are reading Study as if there are no other stories, and our hero, Watson, is sure there can be no drugs involved. Perhaps he is wrong; perhaps he is naive; and don’t we know from the very next story … But we don’t know that, not yet; let us stick to our text.
Let’s forget about the drugs and think about the profession: Watson is strangely “delicate” (his word) about asking directly. Is this Victorian reticence or a sign of how passive he is at the start? I note that the very text of the novel begins in a passive way: he is “removed” from his brigade and later, after being struck by the famous Jezail bullet, is removed again (to hospital), then is struck again (by enteric fever): the very grammar is passive. Later his adventures begin when someone else taps him on the shoulder (not the one he got the bullet in, I hope), so he is not at first very assertive. Instead, he makes his famous list of Sherlock Holmes’s attributes and tries to deduce something from them: but he is not the master of deduction and gives up in despair. Poor Watson.
Humorous Watson: He does have a sense of humour, though, and when confessing his bad habits (laziness and an aversion to rows) adds, “I have another set of vices when I’m well, but those are the principal ones at present.” What are those other vices? Well, later in the canon we might note his eye for the ladies, but we must stick to this story, and we don’t really see Watson when he’s well here, so we don’t know.
Does Watson get better? Yes, I think he does, and it begins perhaps when he is roused to action by reading Holmes’s article, “The Book of Life”: a rather high-falutin title with perhaps Biblical overtones that suggests grand things when it’s really only about detective work, and is detective work all there is to life?* Not a question Watson raises, but he does question whether this science of detection is valid, and he does so by wielding as his weapon an eggspoon. Another humorous moment, but effective because in calling the article “ineffable twaddle,” he provokes Sherlock Holmes into defending it, owning it as his, and explaining his profession as the world’s only consulting detective.
Does Watson find a profession? Yes again, he does. Not as a detective; he only accidentally provokes the discovery of what Holmes does for a living. But by the end of this novel Watson does seem dedicated to something. If the hero’s journey traditionally is a journey of self-discovery, then Watson does discover in the course of this tale what it is he wants to do. Not doctoring; he seems uninterested in that, really, though later in the canon … (but never mind later in the canon). In this story, after being rather skeptical of Holmes to start with, Watson becomes quite a quick convert and celebrator of him, a sort of hero-worshipper, which makes sense since he is quick to quote Thomas Carlyle, the author of Heroes and Hero-Worship.
So Watson’s role is to be what? A devotee? Perhaps, but something much more concrete than that. In a world in which the true hero, Sherlock Holmes, is not getting his due, Watson will take on the role of chronicler. Imagine that, a doctor who becomes a writer: who ever heard of such a thing? But it does seem to invigorate Watson: he will tell the world the truth.
But what about Jefferson Hope? Who? What does Watson say about him? Well, not very much, because mostly we get his story about fighting the Mormons in Utah from the strange middle section of the novel told not by Watson but by an anonymous, omniscient narrator. As several critics note, Holmes and Watson, thanks to the odd construction of the novel, don’t even know this Mormon story. They are on one plane, solving a murder in London, while Jefferson Hope is on quite another, trying to save the Ferriers and then plotting their revenge. How do these things even connect?
Doesn’t the Mormon story disrupt the mystery? So say some, though the critic Joseph McLaughlin says that presumes that what is going on here is a mystery story. Conan Doyle, the writer of historical adventures, may have thought the main point was the Mormons in 1847 and 1860, not the detectives in 1881. Or maybe not. In any case, on either side of the Mormon tale we have a tale of detection, but the Mormon tale itself is more an adventure, a historical romance, romance in both meanings, with a love story between Hope and Lucy and an adventure in the mode of The Count of Monte Cristo, in which an evil organization has to be brought down by a brave individual, or maybe individuals plural because John Ferrier is another who opposes the Mormons alongside young Hope, and if they don’t succeed in bringing down the Mormons altogether, at least Hope is able to avenge the Mormons’ murder of John Ferrier and the virtual murder and forced marriage of his stepdaughter Lucy.
Stepdaughter? Yes, I suppose we should call her that. John Ferrier is fierce in claiming her, though it seems she is not his own flesh and blood. And why should the story be set up this way as a story of adoption? Are we echoing Watson’s adoption of a new career? Or Conan Doyle’s?
Echoes: Does Jefferson Hope echo Sherlock Holmes? They’re both solitary trackers, unofficial, not part of any organization, certainly not part of an authoritarian organization like the Mormons, and not even part of a more bumbling organization like London’s Metropolitan Police, personified by Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade. Though actually are they so bumbling? Lestrade discovers RACHE, though he thinks it means Rachel, and Sherlock Holmes laughs at him: he is always laughing at them, but to be fair, they laugh at him too, and for that matter so does Watson at times: yes, Watson the worshipper.
Laughing: Should we be laughing at Sherlock Holmes and at all of these London detectives? Maybe Jefferson Hope is a more solid type to celebrate. But he’s a murderer. Well, there is that, so he is the villain of the outer story even while being the hero of the inner one. In his murders doesn’t he do good? Isn’t it good to get the simian Enoch Drebber out of the way? Well, perhaps, but murder? Here we have the clash of the Wild West and modern London, of the adventure novel with its rougher code of morality and the detective novel based on codes of law.
Clash or mixture? Perhaps, anticipating later stories (and I know we mustn’t do that), this is one of those Holmes stories in which two different approaches to life need to be combined. We have Holmes on one side, for whom blood belongs in a test tube; and on the other we have Jefferson Hope, for whom blood belongs in the heart (or perhaps the nose): Hope is full of feeling, full-blooded feeling that makes his face red and his nose bleed.** Holmes is the man of logic and reason. And yet even here he is also a man of the arts who knows his art jargon and his violin; still, he is not a man of passion. Does Watson strike a balance somehow? Or is that left to the readers who know not only the London murders but the tale of Utah?
Choosing: Watson chooses Sherlock Holmes over Jefferson Hope; he becomes Holmes’s chronicler, not Hope’s. Is the message that in modern times we cannot follow the path of Hope but must stick to logic and reason? Of course, the paths are not entirely different: they are both hunters, trackers, bloodhounds, almost literally, just one will go beyond the law – and wait, won’t Holmes in later stories go beyond the law and become his own judge and jury just like Jefferson Hope here? Except not his own executioner; he won’t go that far. So maybe the two parts from this story will combine later on. But for now Jefferson Hope has to die – peacefully perhaps, satisfied, but still he has to die. He must answer the second summons to Baker Street and have his career of vengeance stopped. Of course, he’s already completed it, and we are invited to feel grateful to him for it to a certain extent, but it has to stop.
Politics: The newspapers write up the events from their particular political standpoints. One blames foreign socialists and revolutionaries; another blames the Continental despotisms that create such revolutionaries. We don’t actually have a Continental despotism on display here, but we do have the Mormons, who stand in for the Catholic Inquisition and other tyrannies. And on the other hand, we have their enemy, the Jefferson Hopes fighting for freedom who resort to violence like some modern-day anarchists. What we need perhaps is some middle path between them? A Holmesian detective who won’t go in for violence but who won’t become an agent of tyranny either. Perhaps.
Religion: We don’t like the Mormon religion as displayed here. It’s not even Christian, says John Ferrier. Is there any other religion in the story? Is Holmes’s Book of Life a sort of religious text? It sounds as if it should be. How about anything supernatural? Well, the constable is afraid that the ghost of the typhoid victim may be about, and Jefferson Hope is certain he sees the ghosts of John Ferrier and Lucy leading him on. There are those numbers that appear inside John Ferrier’s house: what sort of strange necromancy is that? And Holmes declares the importance of having faith in reason or a chain of reasoning even if the facts seem against it. And there is Nature, wild and frightening in the American West, with its great desert, or just broad as described by Holmes. And the great chain of being alluded to by Holmes, a traditional philosophical concept.
Demons: Besides ghosts, there is a demon: John Ferrier is described as being the genius or demon of the desert. He is part of that Old West? Later Jefferson Hope crawls like a serpent: is that demonic too? But maybe demon is meant here in a good way.
Numbers: Back to those numbers appearing in the house. Very Gothic, as the critic Nils Clausson says: this is not a Western; it’s Gothic horror, he says. And there are other numbers: nine to seven and seven to five, the sign and countersign of the Avenging Angels (oh, more religious terminology). And then there is the number four: Four Mormon elders, four houses in Lauriston Gardens, Gregson’s four men with a stretcher to carry out Enoch Drebber, the four million inhabitants of London (Sherlock Holmes’s estimate), the group of four who tackle Jefferson Hope (Holmes, Lestrade, Gregson, and Watson), and the three key dates in the story: March 4, when the murder investigation begins; May 4, when John Ferrier and Lucy are rescued by the Mormons; and August 4, when John Ferrier is murdered by the Mormons. All pointing to The Sign of Four perhaps, but that’s the next story.
Providence: Back to more direct references to religion, there’s Jefferson Hope’s belief in a Providence that would ensure the guilty Stangerson would choose the poisoned pill rather than the harmless one (is he right?). And there’s the “higher Judge” who summons Hope via death: what will He decide? Watson seems to believe that there is such a judge, so seems to side with Hope’s belief in Providence. Otherwise is it mere chance that is ruling our world? The critic Sarah Heinz sees Victorian England as fearing violence and chance: perhaps Sherlock Holmes is meant as a bulwark against both. But the police force could say the same. Or even the Mormon Church – unless it is the source of violence. Does the Study ask us to trust in God? Or are there more earthly supports? But Holmes, Lestrade, and Gregson seem almost more interested in one-upping each other than providing protection, and they are all wrong at various points, even Holmes, who is fooled by an old woman who is not an old woman, but who is really – well, who? We never learn. Some mysteries remain. Will God preserve us? The God who created the whole world – or did He? Little Lucy is dubious. He created the country in Illinois and Missouri, she says, but whoever created the Great Alkali Desert did not do as good a job: “They forgot the water and the trees.”
Alkali, alkaloid: One seems to mean salt, as in the salt desert; one is a poison Holmes would happily test on a friend – or a poor little terrier. Also the poison Hope makes Drebber take, right after showing him Lucy’s wedding ring: at least that was his plan, that Drebber’s dying eyes should see it. But in the moment, what does he shake in front of Drebber’s face? Not the ring that signifies the horrifying forced marriage, the crime of the past, but the key to the door that has locked Drebber in, locked him in the room from which he can only escape by death. The symbolism has changed, and we seem now in a story about how we cannot escape retribution for our sins: we are locked in a room with our judge and executioner, the instrument of Providence.
Drunken Drebber reading his Boccaccio, harassing young women, looking like a baboon. Perhaps he deserved to die? Is Jefferson Hope justified? But Sherlock Holmes captures him, perhaps protecting England from the transportation of foreign grudges to its unspoiled shores. The idea is not to take sides in these grudges, but to make sure violence is not done in the name of them. And most of all to celebrate this protective activity, as Dr. Watson will do by publishing his account. And that perhaps is what A Study in Scarlet is about.
*I got the idea of Biblical overtones from an article by Tanya Agathocleous on Doyle and Henry James.
** For more on blood, Holmes, and Jefferson Hope, see the article by Martin Rosenstock called “Bloody Patterns.”
Collaborators? Oscar Wilde and Conan Doyle? Check out my musing below and see.
The Sign of the Four
What’s up there in the attic? Here’s a story about something up at the top of a
house, something that looks like one of the major characters except that it’s
become all twisted and distorted. It
seems that whenever the character commits a sin, the picture upstairs becomes
distorted, and while he never ages, the picture gets older and … No, wait, that’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, not The
Sign of the Four, but The Sign of the
Four is similar in presenting a Thaddeus Sholto out in the real world and a
twin brother whose face has become distorted, though not by sin but by an
Andaman Islander’s poisoned dart.
Did they consult? Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde, that is. How unlikely, you say, and there’s no
evidence of that, except for the strange fact that the two of them were both
commissioned by the managing editor of Lippincott’s
Magazine at the same dinner party.
Yes, if you can imagine it, Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde sharing a dinner
and hearing from the editor how he’d like a short novel from each of them. Did the editor say, Maybe you could each try
something with a strange-looking double in an attic? Who knows?
Anyway, both stories were published in Lippincott’s in 1890.
Not exactly the same, of course: Dorian
Gray is a beautiful young man, and only his picture is hideous. Bartholomew Sholto looking like a disembodied
head at the top of Pondicherry Lodge is hideous enough, but Thaddeus Sholto is
no beauty: rather, he’s a twitching, terrified, blubbering mess, with a great
bald dome of head looking like a mountain-top amid a fringe of hair that
reminds Watson of fir trees.
Watson! Yes, Watson is there, of course, in this second
Sherlock Holmes story, and doing all the narrating this time, not leaving half
to Jefferson Hope, though actually he does leave a large chunk to Jonathan Small
and then complains that Small is too frivolous in his story-telling. Professional jealousy?
But back to the Sholtos: There’s twisted, hideous Bartholomew in his
chemistry lab, the sort of place you might find Sherlock Holmes and conjuring
up notions of scientific rationality, as several commentators note. Is Holmes like Bartholomew Sholto? Or is he more like Jonathan Small the
tracker? Or the complete outsider
Tonga? Critics have suggested all these
comparisons for the man who we first see in this story injecting himself with
cocaine – not perhaps the most rational thing to do, and prompting (eventual)
objections from Watson that he’s ruining his constitution: symbolizing the
English constitution ruined by foreign substances? (That’s a suggestion from the critic Joseph
McLaughlin. The critics have a field day
with this story, especially with all the references to Empire.)
But Thaddeus Sholto: His head
makes me think of a barren Arctic landscape, and there’s much that is barren in
this story, or bleak and muddy and like a desert. Thaddeus, though, has an oasis of art in “the
howling desert of South London” and so in the midst of fog and coarseness,
there is a room full of Oriental, Eastern luxury, not to mention French
paintings. (Some see the influence of
Oscar Wilde there too.) And yet Thaddeus
himself does not seem a happy man. He is
continually twitching and worrying about his health, even getting Watson to
check his heart. “Have you your
stethoscope?” And oddly it seems Watson
does. And there’s nothing really wrong
with Thaddeus’s heart, though if there were, one could see that as symbolic of
heartlessness – except it’s Thaddeus’s brother and father who seem the
heartless ones, too greedy to share the Agra treasure with Mary Morstan, whereas
Thaddeus insists on sending her pearls and making sure she gets her fair share.
But he’s so twitchy: Some would call him the good Sholto, even if a bit
thoughtless in so casually mentioning the death of Mary Morstan’s father. Now, there was a man with a bad heart:
Captain Morstan. Was he heartless
too? But the real villain was Major
Sholto, stealing the treasure that belonged to Jonathan Small. Or did it belong to him? Who did it really belong to? Maybe better not to know: it just brought a
curse to all who handled it. Or so says
Jonathan Small. Of course, he’s a
villain too, though he has his defenders (loyal to his fellow murderers, you
know, the Sikhs, and friendly to Tonga, even if he does make racist remarks
about “black devils,” and then he bashes someone over the head with his own
wooden leg: shades of Long John Silver: hmm, I’m not so thrilled with Jonathan
But Thaddeus: It’s so
hard to stay focused on him, but there is something very interesting about
him. Also something rather off-putting,
with his airs about art and finding policemen and other things unaesthetic or
distasteful. Just a little too affected
and pretentious for my tastes, but he does try to do right by Miss Morstan, and
he suffers so, though maybe the suffering, the herky-jerkiness, the perpetual
covering of his yellowing teeth, his self-indulgence with the hookah – it’s all
perhaps a bit much. I suspected him at
first of having nefarious plans: is there really a twin brother in the
attic? Maybe it’s all Thaddeus. And even Watson, when he glimpses Bartholomew
through the keyhole, has to check to see if Thaddeus is still beside him.
It’s all this Eastern stuff: Is
Thaddeus some sort of warning to us? Is
this what happens when you try to assimilate all the things of the East, the
Oriental vases, the hookah, and so on?
The Sholtos are British; maybe they shouldn’t pretend to be from India,
though of course Major Sholto was stationed there and brought home money,
“curiosities,” and native servants. But
maybe that’s just the problem, maybe the moral is the one stated in the opening
line of another famous work from just before 1890: “East is East, and West is
West …” But Thaddeus Sholto tries to mix
them, and perhaps Doyle is warning about the results.
The problem of Empire: Here we
get into a subject that activates the critics, the evils of the British
Empire. And what is the message of
Doyle’s novel concerning that? It does
not seem pro-Empire, though it’s true that the description of the non-white people
of foreign lands does not seem very complimentary. But then the British are not portrayed in a
very complimentary way either. Major
Sholto is a greedy liar, Jonathan Small’s villainy I have already alluded to,
and the motivations of the British colonizers are perhaps best summed up by the
Sikh murderer who tells Jonathan Small, the British guard at the fort in Agra: “We
only ask you to do that which your countrymen come to this land for. We ask you to be rich.”
And how does one
get rich in India? By
exploiting the natives? By running an
indigo plantation as is done by Abel White (a perhaps allegorical name, though
he doesn’t seem so able in the end)? Or
simply by stealing the Agra treasure.
Even Watson gets into the act in a very symbolic way in the end: he
takes a poker to smash the Buddha-shaped lock on the box where the treasure
was. Is this what Europeans are doing:
smashing native culture (Buddhism) to grab the loot?
But there is no
that’s the irony. Smashing and looting
leaves you with nothing. And perhaps
this has nothing to do with Empire-building: as one critic (Nils Clausson)
says, the Empire was more about those indigo plantations, not loot, especially
not loot that got hidden away in an attic and never used. For Clausson this is primarily a moral fable,
echoing stories as old as Chaucer, stories about how greed for money leads to
disaster. And it may be that, but still
the whole thing has roots in India; it has the air of Empire about it; it takes
place at the time of the Great Mutiny, the uprising of Indians against British
rule. If not about Empire, what is it
Well, many things:
Holmes and his drugs perhaps, Watson’s marriage, Sherlock Holmes’s views on
work, or need for work, the growth of London with its monster tentacles
(perhaps a bit of Empire-building at home).
But certainly also about Empire, the depiction of which seems to amount
to saying it’s dangerous out there, and those who are growing our Empire are
motivated too much by greed, and the danger may lash out and hurt us (i.e., the
British) there in India and even here at home: we may get convicts and
cannibals coming to our shores. Better
to send them and their treasure back into the primordial ooze. This is an anti-Empire story written from the
point of view of those who think the British are being contaminated by their
But what about
Sherlock Holmes? It is a
Sherlock Holmes story, isn’t it? Or is
it? Just as Study in Scarlet almost seemed more about Watson finding a purpose
in his life (to write up accounts of his new friend’s exploits), so this second
entry in the series seems about how Watson will find yet another purpose in his
life: marriage, domesticity, settling down.
Which, as he announces at the end, will mean an end to his adventures
with the great detective. It’s almost as
if Conan Doyle is shutting down the series before it even begins. And why is that?
Holmes is just too irritating: Never mind his drug-taking, how
about invading Watson’s privacy by announcing that his brother was a drunken
failure? Or how about dismissing
Watson’s first story as not very well done at all: mixing too much romance with
the pure Euclidean geometry of Holmes’s deductions. Watson begins to get tired of his friend’s
egotism, his need to be at the centre, and is there also a suggestion that
Holmes doesn’t really know as much as he thinks? He first dismisses the map as of no
relevance, he thinks the pearls are compensation for Captain Morstan’s
disappearance, not for any treasure, and his hound-dog gets confused on the
creosote trail. Poor Toby. But it’s true Toby gets set right, and Holmes
does in the end track down the murderers, though he underestimates the speed of
their boat and so cuts it very close, as Athelney Jones is quick to point out.
But adventures: Yes, it
is a glorious adventure, capped by the high-speed boat chase, like something
out of a Hollywood movie. But can you
really go adventuring forever? Isn’t the
standard journey of the hero one that takes him into exotic climes, lets him
show his stuff, teaches him something, and then sends him home? And by home I don’t mean 221B Baker
Street. Or maybe I do. Maybe that’s why the ending of this novella,
though meant to wrap up the series, doesn’t really work. What we get at the end is almost like
something out of Jane Austen: the characters overcome obstacles (in this case
the horrible Agra treasure that Watson fears is putting Mary out of his reach) and
come together in marriage. It’s the
traditional marriage plot, more typical one might think of a heroine’s story,
an Emma or an Elizabeth. Some see Mary
Morstan as the wisest character in the story (and perhaps she is for her lack
of interest in money), some even see the love story as convincing, but most I
think find it insipid.
The contest for
Holmes and Mary battling it out over the poor doctor. Not that Holmes seems to care; he’ll just
reach for another shot of cocaine. And
perhaps that makes him even more alluring.
Or perhaps Watson ends up feeling that responsibility for Holmes’s
constitution that I alluded to earlier.
And then Holmes has perhaps become even more interesting than in A Study in Scarlet. Not only is he taking drugs, but he’s
philosophizing about men in the aggregate and whether even the toughs down on
the docks have a spark of immortality in them.
He can even talk about pink flamingos.
And he does after all solve the case, so perhaps there is something
about him that Watson wouldn’t want to lose.
And so a mere year after sending Watson packing, Doyle revived the partnership in “A Scandal of Bohemia” and created a series of adventures for those who are always children at heart, perhaps a bit childish even, and who aren’t quite ready to settle down in tranquil English domesticity but who want to go and figure out exactly what happened to a naval treaty or a stolen racehorse. Or if not go and do these things themselves, then at least read about them in a never-ending series. And thus the remaining fifty-eight stories.
SG [at podium]: Good evening. We are here to conjure up the spirit of Sherlock Holmes, and I thought, What better way to do that than to conjure up the spirit of his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Sir Arthur was a great believer in the spirit world and in fairies and the like, a follower of Spiritualism, table rapping [rapping noise from backstage] – oh, look, he is rapping now; he’s an impatient spirit. So perhaps we should have a sort of seance: hold hands and focus our energies … I will be the medium and will try to conjure up Sir Arthur.
Arthur, is that you?
ACD: Who is that? Where am I?
visiting us here in Vancouver, British Columbia.
ACD: Vancouver, eh? Interesting. Came here in 1923 to talk about Spiritualism. Lovely place … Enthusiastic reception … But I liked all of Canada. Took a fine trip across it in 1914, just before the Great War. Hmph. Not so great, really. Cost me a brother and a son. But of course we remained in touch. Who did you say you were again?
Sheldon Goldfarb in Canada.
ACD: Yes, yes, Canada. I especially remember the 1914 trip. We started in Montreal and before you knew it, thanks to the wonderful Grand Trunk Railway, we made our way to the Great Lakes, sailing across them to Winnipeg and the Rockies.
I wrote a
poem about Canada, you know …
Arthur, I didn’t realize you were a poet.
I mostly know you because of …
not mention that person’s name, please.
Now listen to my poem:
My life is gliding downwards; it speeds swifter to the day When it shoots the last dark Canyon to the Plains of Far-away, But while its stream is running through the years that are to be, The mighty voice of Canada will ever call to me.
SG: Um, that’s quite um, different, Sir Arthur.
ACD: There is more, you know.
SG: Well, we wouldn’t want to detain you too
long. What we really wanted to talk to
you about was …
ACD: Don’t speak the man’s name.
SG: But Sir Arthur, he made you famous.
ACD: I would have been just as famous, more famous, if I could have had more time for my poetry. Or my historical novels. Have you read them? Micah Clarke. The White Company. Sir Nigel.
SG: Let me ask the others: has anyone here read
these? None, I’m afraid.
SG: But we all admire you greatly because of,
well, you know …
ACD: All right, we might as well get it out
there. I’m remembered because of those
detective stories and that eagle-eyed investigator I conjured up who knows
how? I used to tell people he was based
on an old professor of mine, Joe Bell, but who is to say where a character
really comes from? People came to visit
me and said, Why, you’re not the Great Detective, you’re Watson. I guess I look more like a Watson, but you
know you can’t really create a character without having some of him in you, and
later I tried to play detective myself, looking into cases people brought me,
though of course really I was just a doctor and a writer.
SG: Yes, people might not know that first of all
you worked as a doctor …
ACD: Yes, in Plymouth, sharing a practice with this
wild colleague of mine; he might have been a model for you-know-who too. Then in London, where I tried to become an eye
specialist, but I found I attracted no patients. I had a waiting room and a consulting room,
but really it was just two waiting rooms.
And while I waited, I’d write, and I got various stories published, but
I knew really the thing was a book, and what would I write a book about? I admired Poe and his detective, and thought
maybe I could do something in that line, and so I created …
ACD: Oh, we might as well say his name; I can’t
conjure him away now. I tried to, you
know, threw him off the Falls at Reichenbach, had him seem to die, symbolically
you know, any number of times: why, in one story I created a bust of him, a
dummy – that was a nice touch, you know, turn the brilliant detective into a
dummy, ha ha ha … Hmm. Oh, and then I
created his even smarter brother, Mycroft, to sort of put him down … But I was
talking about the bust: I had it blown to smithereens: that will do for you,
Mr. Holmes … Oh, I’ve said the name …
SG: Sir Arthur?
ACD: Yes, it’s okay. I should be grateful to Holmes, though he distracted me from my more serious work. How many more Micah Clarkes might not I have written? I admire that Milne person …
ACD: A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh. People went mad for that silly bear, but
Milne said I’m not just a creator of silly children’s stories; I’m a serious
writer, and went on to write plays and novels and all sorts of works for adults.
SG: Did he?
I’m afraid he’s just known for Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore and of course
ACD: Yes, that’s the problem. The public try to turn you into a one-hit wonder when you want to do many things. You know, that Milne character wrote a Sherlock Holmes story, a parody, a spoof. I hear of lots of these things now. People not only wanted me to write about Sherlock Holmes; they decided they could write about him too. Hmph. I don’t know what’s worse, making me do it or doing it themselves. And then my old friend Gillette portrayed him on stage and invented that silly deerstalker cap – or no, maybe that was Paget’s doing, Paget, you know, the first illustrator – well, not the first, there were ones before, even my dear father, who was a bit, well, I think alcoholic is the term you use now … very sad …
SG: Sir Arthur?
ACD: Very sad to lose a parent that way, but he
was a good illustrator you know, perhaps not as good as his brother – my uncle:
I wonder if illustration runs in families: Paget, Sidney Paget, that’s who we
got to do the illustrations of the stories in the Strand Magazine, but it was
actually some sort of mistake; we really wanted his brother Walter. Oh, well, Sidney did well, and ironically
used his brother as his model, and so we have the Paget Holmes.
Not really what I had in mind, you know. I wanted someone both uglier and more powerful; sharp featured. Like this perhaps
– ah, no, that’s Shylock from Shakespeare. I wonder if I had him in mind. Would that make Holmes Jewish? …
The mind is a strange thing. People say I got the last name from Oliver
Wendell Holmes, who was indeed a sort of hero of mine, a doctor-philosopher in
the United States, author of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table. But the Sherlock part: people say there was a
cricketer – and I was a great cricket
fan, even played some myself – and a
schoolmate and an aunt’s maiden name, and even a police detective, an Inspector
Sherlock who I might have heard of.
Perhaps, perhaps. But now I’m
thinking Shylock: why not?
But there have been so many Holmeses:
Gillette, of course, and Basil Rathbone and Jeremy
Brett and in your time this Downey person and then the one everyone swoons
over, with a name that sounds like part of a dinner jacket. You know the one.
SG: Benedict Cumberbatch.
That’s the one. Anyway, Holmes
rather got away from me. Sometimes an
author says a character ends up doing things he didn’t intend at all, but they
still mean within their own books.
Holmes has escaped out of my books and into the world. It reminds me of that Star Trek episode,
where Moriarty tries to escape the holodeck.
Which reminds me of yet another Holmes, Data.
It is quite incredible actually. I wrote stories. I confined Holmes to those stories, and here
he is just everywhere.
SG: But Sir Arthur, isn’t that good? Now you are known as the creator of one of
the most famous characters of all time.
ACD: Some would deny me even that. Some say Watson wrote the stories. And they won’t call them stories. True accounts, they say, imagining that Holmes
and Watson really lived and that 221B Baker Street was a real place. …
SG: I think they’re just playing a game, Sir
ACD: Yes, yes, and I blame Ronald Knox, who
started the whole thing while I was still alive. I got my own back at him, you know, by having
Holmes mock Watson one time for saying, Maybe everything we heard is made up. As if the aim was to ignore what’s been
written and come up with the most outlandish explanations … But then I thought, I’ll play the game
myself, make up that brother for Sherlock …
Or was that before? Anyway, others
were imagining whole biographies for him, so I … but never mind …
SG: Well, we can ignore all that, Sir Arthur, and just discuss the stories as you originally wrote them.
ACD: I’d still rather talk about Micah Clarke.
SG: I’m afraid most of us here are more interested in some details about the Holmes stories. For instance, is there any truth to the rumour that you collaborated with Oscar Wilde on The Sign of the Four. Or perhaps that the two of you wrote that book and Dorian Gray together?
ACD: Wrote Dorian Gray together? Wherever did you hear such poppycock?
SG: Well, actually it’s in my own book.
ACD: I’m very sorry to hear that. I thought you Canadians were more sensible than that. … I met Wilde, of course, at a very interesting dinner party arranged by Joseph Stoddart of Lippincott’s Magazine. He wanted each of us to write a story or novella for him, and we did: mine was Sign of the Four and Wilde’s was Dorian Gray, and they appeared the same year in Lippincott’s, but we didn’t write them together: what a notion.
SG: They do both have interesting doubles in
them, though, doppelgangers. Dorian and
his picture. The twin brothers Sholto.
ACD: Oh, that.
Well, we may have discussed, or maybe Stoddart the editor said … but the
whole idea is nonsense …
SG: And which is your favourite Holmes story, Sir
ACD: I’ve answered this question before, you
know; you could look it up. I think I
said the one about the snake; can’t remember its name.
SG: The Speckled Band.
ACD: That’s the one.
SG: Full of phallic imagery.
ACD: Phallic what? What poppycock! Is that how you people talk now? Why, it’s indecent. All that man Freud’s fault. It’s just a story about a snake.
SG: And a rope, a snake slithering down the rope,
and beaten back by a stick, and a whip and a leash … All in the name of patriarchal oppression …
ACD: Patriarchal oppression?
SG: Yes, very far-seeing of you, Sir Arthur. And many of your stories contain strong women,
New Women …
ACD: Ach, New Women. I suppose you’ll be talking of the suffragettes
next. Insuffragettes, really;
insufferable. Chaining themselves to
railings and threatening to blow things up …
SG: But Sir Arthur, when you wrote about women in
your stories they are often very heroic and resourceful …
ACD: Well, yes, yes, in the stories.
SG: Like Violet Hunter figuring out what was
going on in The Copper Beeches and of course Irene Adler …
ACD: Ah, yes, Irene Adler, the woman. It’s interesting how alive they seem to me still. How your characters live on even after the books they’re in are done. Like Holmes himself, as we’ve been saying … And but look here, what I really should be talking to you about is people living on. After death, I mean. Spiritualism. That was my great calling, much more important than a foolish detective and his rather stupid friend.
SG: Surely not a foolish detective.
ACD: All right, a clever detective, but his
friend was rather stupid.
SG: Sir Arthur!
ACD: I made him up; I can say what I like of him, and look :
See? They both look rather stupid there.
SG: Sir Arthur …
ACD: Not fair?
Well, never mind. Anyway, I wanted to talk about Spiritualism:
talking to the spirits. Why, I’m one
myself. It’s great proof of what I
argued for all along.
SG: It is actually quite interesting that though,
especially at the end, you became a believer in the paranormal, the
supernatural, in the Holmes stories there’s not a hint of that …
ACD: You forget The Hound …
SG: Well, perhaps a hint, then, but you don’t
have Sherlock Holmes believe in fairies like one of your other characters, Professor
ACD: No, well, it wouldn’t have been true to the
character. But that was just a story;
you seem to be forgetting that. In the
stories the great hero, the great detective, is a severe rationalist …
SG: Not always, though …
ACD: Yes, you’re right, I had him become a bit mystical at times, had him undergo an out of body experience. I even called him a strange Buddha and had him meditate on an Eastern couch, divan … why, I see you’ve used that picture for your book
… And he was a great believer in the imagination, the creative spirit …
SG: So a sort of hidden Spiritualist …
ACD: You may be on to something there. But of course overtly I had to keep him scientific
and rational. But it was just a
story. In the stories there’s nothing
overtly supernatural, but of course in real life there is. There are no fairies in the Sherlock Holmes
SG: Nor vampires.
ACD: Ha, ha, good one. Not even in “The Sussex Vampire” story;
there’s not a real vampire there … Oh,
should I have said that? That’s what you
people call a spoiler. And Holmes says
he and Watson must stay rooted in reality, which is a good joke, you know,
because reality actually includes fairies.
SG: And vampires.
ACD: Well, I don’t know about that. I think my friend Bram Stoker just made them
up. But fairies, yes, we had photographs.
SG: You don’t think those were faked, Sir
Nonsense. Spirit photography is
an important aspect of the manifestation of the other world in this one. Like ectoplasm. I have lots of ectoplasmic photos I could show you.
SG: Sir Arthur …
ACD: Well, never mind that. But you mustn’t take the views in my stories
as real; they’re just fiction.
SG: Some people find them quite real.
ACD: Yes, I’d get letters addressed to Mr.
Sherlock Holmes asking him to solve some little mystery of theirs or to hire
them as the new housekeeper.
SG: Why do you think people felt that way?
ACD: Why, indeed?
He became a monstrous growth. I
can’t explain it.
SG: Someone to worship perhaps in a time of waning
ACD: You may be on to something there. We’re always looking for meaning, and Holmes
could provide it. Dispel the fog, shine
a light, comfort people in their bafflement.
SG: But not actually save anyone.
ACD: What do you mean?
SG: Sherlock Holmes is better at solving than
saving; he can explain things afterwards but not protect anyone from harm.
ACD: My dear sir, he saves Helen Stoner.
SG: But not John Openshaw, and in The Greek
Interpreter there is such delay, and putting the advertisement in the paper …
ACD: Well, that was Mycroft’s fault, and I think I was trying to suggest that two detectives is one too many; or two Holmeses. They get in each other’s way; it’s like having an extra leg. But it was fun to write about Mycroft and put Sherlock in his place. Family dynamics, you know; very interesting. Usually among the clients, though: have you thought about “The Beryl Coronet”: those rival children, and who is good and who is not?
SG: A bit like King Lear, actually.
ACD: I would never claim to be in the same
category, but yes. The good child seems
to be bad, and the bad one seems to be good.
SG: And then there are the characters named
ACD: The characters named Arthur?
SG: There are eight characters named Arthur in
the Sherlock Holmes stories.
ACD: Are there really people who go around
counting these things up? Who does these
SG: Well, me.
But others too. I wasn’t the
first. Anyway, it made me wonder if you
named some people Arthur for a special reason.
It is your name after all.
ACD: It was simply a common name, my dear
boy. I fear you are looking for meaning
where there is none.
SG: But …
ACD: Come, come, enough of that. They are just names. Arthur, John, Violet …
SG: Yes, there are lots of Violets too. What do they signify? Holmes once talks about roses. Are violets also important?
ACD: Perhaps I just liked the name. It’s so long ago now. Do you have any other questions?
SG: What were your views on Empire?
ACD: The British Empire? Or the Roman? I wrote about that too, though perhaps one
writes about one just to write about the other.
SG: Either one, Sir Arthur.
ACD: Well, of course, the British Empire was a
deucedly good thing, bringing civilization.
My friend Kipling wrote about it, probably better than I could.
SG: He’s not in that much favour anymore, Sir
But he was a fine writer, and not just an apologist or anything like
that. One would have to be a fool not to
see both sides of things. Even in my Boer
War books, well, I was quite generous to the Boers.
SG: Some would say you were also quite generous about the Germans. In “His Last Bow,” for instance, you seem quite respectful even though the war was already underway.
ACD: Yes, yes, well, fair play, you know. Do you play cricket? You would understand better then. British fair play and all that.
SG: But you yourself showed the British at
perhaps not their best in The Sign of the
Four. Stealing that treasure. Empire doesn’t seem that good there.
ACD: Well, of course, there are lots of greedy
types who latch onto things, and one problem about Empire is that if you go out
there, you end up bringing things back.
It’s like contagion.
SG: We certainly don’t talk like that anymore,
Sir Arthur, unless we’re living in the White House. But your attitude seems rather changeable.
ACD: The Empire is changeable. The world is changeable. You can’t be having the same attitude to it
all the time.
SG: So that’s why sometimes the mysterious East
seems to bring us danger and sometimes wisdom.
It can do both, you know.
SG: And sometimes you seem to be warning against complacency and not doing anything despite real dangers: I think of Violet de Merville and Baron Gruner. And sometimes you warn against over-reacting, as in “The Blanched Soldier,” when it’s fearing disease that causes disease.
ACD: Yes, yes, moderation in all things. There is no one explanation of everything.
SG: And yet Moriarty.
ACD: Yes, what of him? He plays a minor role, you know. How many stories is he in? Two, three?
Out of 60.
SG: And yet when he’s there he seems to be the
explanation of all crime, which made no sense to me. Was he responsible for stealing the racehorse
and the naval treaty? For what happened
in Study in Scarlet …
ACD: You ask a lot of questions.
SG: It’s my way.
ACD: Well, that’s good. I followed the Society for Psychical Research in my younger days, asking questions about Spiritualism but eventually you come to answers.
SG: And Moriarty is the answer?
ACD: He’s one answer. Emerson has a line somewhere about containing
SG: And contradicting himself.
ACD: Yes, life is full of contradictions.
SG: I wanted to ask you about Study in Scarlet and Sign of the Four …
ACD: Yes, the first two Holmes books. Not that I ever thought of them that way, or not at the time. I mean, I didn’t write Study in Scarlet thinking: this will be a series. I mean nowadays I understand series are everywhere. It wasn’t like that in my day. In fact, you could say I invented the idea. I thought I could take my detective, Sherlock Holmes, and write a series of stories about him.
Not a serial, you understand. Those had been around forever: Dickens, Thackeray … But with a serial if you miss an installment you’re lost. No, I got in touch with the Strand Magazine and pitched them the idea of a series of self-contained stories, each one with Sherlock Holmes in it, but each one standing alone, so if you missed one, it didn’t matter.
SG: But what I wanted to suggest was that the focus wasn’t even on Sherlock Holmes in the first story, in Study in Scarlet.
ACD: How do you mean?
SG: Well, I’d like you to cast yourself back to
that time in 1886 when you were inventing John Watson.
ACD: Holmes’s stupid friend.
SG: Was he so stupid? He’s just like us, isn’t he?
ACD: Well, you say it, not I.
SG: Isn’t Holmes rather the odd man out, the
thinking machine taking cocaine, divorced from all normal relationships, all
ACD: If you say so.
SG: I’m just drawing on your own stories, Sir
ACD: I feel like I’m being cross-examined.
SG: Sorry, but I wanted to focus on Watson …
ACD: He wasn’t going to be called that, you
know. He was going to be Ormond Sacker.
SG: So I’ve heard.
ACD: But that was much too exotic. I wanted something down to earth for my sidekick.
SG: But was he even going to be just the sidekick? I think I read somewhere that you wanted the doctor to be the hero; he’d be a doctor-detective, like your old medical professor, Joe Bell, just solving criminal mysteries instead of medical ones.
ACD: It is hard to remember now; it’s so long
ago. In any case, it pretty quickly
became Holmes and Watson.
SG: But I’m thinking that in the first novel, and
the second too, the focus is really on Watson.
ACD: But it’s a detective story, at least its first
part; then I got transported to Utah and talked about Jefferson Hope and the
Mormons. Neither Holmes nor Watson
SG: Yes, that’s part of what makes me say the
first Holmes novel was not really a Holmes novel. But mostly I mean that in the opening section
it’s all about Watson. I was saying this
just the other day on a podcast called The Watsonian Weekly.
ACD: What is this strange thing called a podcast? It sounds like science fiction. And there are people running around calling themselves Watsonians? What a strange world you inhabit. I tried my hand at science fiction, you know, but it was nothing like this. But how is Study in Scarlet a story about Watson?
SG: I see it as the story of a doctor down on his
luck looking for a new direction, something like you, Sir Arthur, shifting from
medicine to literature, only for Watson the literature he writes will be
celebrations of Sherlock Holmes.
Actually, that is quite like
you. And then in The Sign of the Four you have Watson pursue a romance and you end
up marrying him off. It’s like something
out of Jane Austen.
ACD: Jane Austen?
Piffle. She wrote matrimonial
SG: But isn’t that what The Sign of the Four is? Oh, I know there’s a great chase scene on the Thames, and the mystery and the treasure, but really it’s about rejecting all that and settling down, marrying.
ACD: Hmm, be that as it may, I couldn’t leave Watson
settled, could I? I had him off on his
adventures again. Holmes’s adventures, I
SG: And it’s true, if the career goal he found in
the first novel was to celebrate Sherlock Holmes, you had to bring them
ACD: Well, actually it was just to get a foothold
in the literary world so I could have time to devote to my serious novels.
SG: Oh, Sir Arthur … If there’s anything I can convince you of
tonight, it is of the serious merit of Sherlock Holmes, or of the stories you
wrote around him. They deal with all
sorts of interesting themes: the dangers of reputation …
ACD: The dangers of reputation?
SG: I don’t know how many stories present crimes due to characters wanting to preserve their reputation, leading them to murder their blackmailers or put their own sons in jail. And then there’s the recurrent theme of the decline of England …
ACD: The decline of England? My dear boy.
SG: All those decaying manor houses and the need
for new blood, the supernatural Hound that threatens an ancient family. And then of course it all comes crash during World
ACD: Yes, when the east wind was supposed to sweep through and cleanse things. I had Holmes say that, but then I just worried we would repeat ourselves, repeat the war, or just grow old and weak and feeble. “The Creeping Man” had an antidote for that.
SG: Yes, monkey glands. To let old men marry young women.
ACD: Well, if you must put it that crudely.
SG: Which reminds me of the earlier stories full
of love triangles, much like the one you were in yourself.
ACD: I was never in any love triangle. How dare you!
SG: I mean married to Louisa but falling in love
with Jean Leckie.
ACD: I was always perfectly proper, caring,
supportive of dear, dear Louisa. I would
never do anything to hurt her. But she
was very ill, of course. Tuberculosis.
SG: And so you took up with Jean.
ACD: I never took up with anybody. What a suggestion. Jean was a dear friend.
SG: Who you later married.
ACD: It’s not a crime to marry.
SG: My point, though, is how triangles showed up in your stories around that time, like in “The Solitary Cyclist,” where there’s a woman with a fiancé who’s pursued by other men: quite literally pursued by one on a bicycle.
ACD: But he’s protecting her.
SG: Is he, though? But this does remind me of the prejudice
against fiancés in your stories.
ACD: Prejudice against fiancés? You do come up with some strange ideas.
SG: It’s what literary scholars do. But you must admit that none of the fiancés
come off very well. They’re either
missing altogether, leaving Sherlock Holmes to come to the rescue of their
damsels in distress, or they give positively wrong-headed advice, like telling Helen
Stoner it’s all in her head: her stepfather couldn’t possibly be planning to
kill her. She’d have been dead if she’d
listened to him. Did she go off and
marry him, by the way?
ACD: You want me to tell you what happened after
the story? Why, you’re just like all the
rest of these Games-players.
SG: Touché, Sir Arthur. So let’s talk of why you think Sherlock
Holmes has survived so well.
ACD: I wish he hadn’t. I kept trying to kill him off, but he was
like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. Or one
of those vampires like my friend Bram Stoker created.
SG: Or maybe a sort of god whom people worship. Watson worships him.
ACD: Yes, Watson. Poor Watson. I let Holmes rather put him down from time to time. Though other times you can see true affection between them, like the time in “The Three Garridebs,” when Watson gets shot. Or in “The Devil’s Foot,” when they try that poisonous drug together.
SG: They are an enduring couple, are they
not? Much more so than Watson and his
wives, however many he may have had.
There’s a lot in the stories on couples, and often they’re not that
happy, the husbands and wives, but there’s Holmes and Watson happily enjoying
each other’s company. Is it possible that
it was the partnership with Watson that is so enduring? Can you imagine Holmes without his Watson?
ACD: I did it a couple of times. In “The Lion’s Mane,” for instance. Holmes told his own story there.
SG: And laments the absence of Watson.
ACD: Very true, very true. They go together like bacon and eggs or roast
beef and Yorkshire pudding.
SG: I wanted to talk to you about eggs, actually, the eggs in “Thor Bridge” that get overcooked because the new cook is distracted by a romance story in a magazine. Did you put that in to echo the theme of the disruption caused by romance? That’s what the story’s all about, and I thought the little eggs scene reflected that.
ACD: You do come up with odd perspectives. I had to fill some space, so I mentioned
breakfast. Or maybe it just showed Holmes
and Watson interacting. They could have
been complaining about the weather just as easily.
SG: Well, we’ll move on from breakfast to …
Bob (from the audience): I must interrupt here. This has all been very amusing, but I don’t believe for a moment that that is Conan Doyle at the podium. But what’s more important is that everyone knows Conan Doyle didn’t write the stories: Watson did. Doyle was just the literary agent.
ACD: Now, wait just a minute. How dare this person question my authorship?
Bob: The so-called stories are in fact true
accounts of actual events.
ACD: Why, if I weren’t a disembodied spirit, I
would come down there and show you what’s actual and what’s not.
SG: Gentlemen, gentlemen, no fighting please.
ACD: I could demonstrate my skill at baritsu. That’s Japanese wrestling, you know.
Bob: It’s bartitsu, Sir Arthur. And it was Holmes who knew it, not you.
SG: I think perhaps we should wrap this up. We can continue the discussion over a drink
perhaps. And I will adjourn to the table
at the back to sign some copies of my book.
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.
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.[*]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
For the latest excerpt from my new bookwe’re off to the races for some musings on one of my favourite stories …
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:
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.