The Blanched Soldier

Portrait of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget (1904)

The Blanched Soldier

Our Man Godfrey: Godfrey, Godfrey, haven’t we had a Godfrey before? No, not the one who married Irene Adler … (by the way, in the Hollywood movie My Man Godfrey, Godfrey marries an Irene too; I wonder if the screenwriter read “A Scandal in Bohemia,” but that’s another story).

Another Godfrey: The one I was thinking of was the one in “The Missing Three-Quarter.” In fact, he is the missing three-quarter. So a missing Godfrey there and another one here. If you want a missing man, he has to be a Godfrey, I suppose (though originally it was going to be a different name, I learn from Klinger).

But why? I don’t mean why does the name have to be Godfrey, but why do each of these Godfreys go missing? I note a similarity in the two stories: in both cases Godfrey has a good friend who is looking for him. So is “The Blanched Soldier,” like “The Missing Three-Quarter,” about friendship? I think so. In both a good friend goes looking for the missing Godfrey. In “The Blanched Soldier,” as if to bring home the point, someone else has gone missing: Watson. Watson has deserted me for a wife, says Sherlock Holmes. In “The Missing Three-Quarter” that Godfrey has also deserted his friend for a wife. In this story, though, the latest Godfrey has deserted for – well, because of illness. A skin condition. Leprosy (maybe).

Leprosy? Or maybe it’s not leprosy, maybe it’s only pseudo-leprosy. Now, the first story this one reminded me of is the one just before, “The Illustrious Client,” in which Kitty Winter’s face is described as leprous and Shinwell Johnson also has a skin condition – not to mention the bad skin condition Baron Gruner ends up with. Is Doyle suddenly obsessed with skin conditions? And horror? Is this some sort of delayed reaction to World War I, as some suggest?

Horror: The blanched soldier at the window, like something out of Wuthering Heights. And leprosy. But it isn’t leprosy (probably). So, wait. In “The Illustrious Client,” the problem was that a real danger was being ignored (Violet is blithely going to go ahead with marriage to a predator), but here what seems like danger isn’t. Well, that’s okay then, we can just relax. Maybe we need to read these two stories in tandem: don’t ignore real dangers, but don’t get upset over false ones?

And danger from whom? Godfrey has been to Africa. Always something bad out of Africa? Though note that it’s a Boer hospital that he stumbles into, where he sleeps in the leper’s bed. Don’t go sleeping with lepers (people did think leprosy was sexually transmitted – though of course Godfrey didn’t have sex in the bed). And Boer lepers, not native Africans, but Dutch, another set of rival Europeans. Is there danger out of Europe? That’s what I thought the message of “The Illustrious Client” was. But here the danger turns out to be illusory. In fact, it’s thinking there is a danger that is the danger: if you think you’re going to come down with an awful skin condition, you will. If you think there is danger, you could create it with your thinking: sounds a bit like how World War I came about: if you mobilize for war out of fear of war, then you’ll get war.

But back to friendship: Chris Redmond’s father says the absence of Watson means we lose the usual Holmes-Watson interchange. But do we? James Dodd seems to fill in nicely, first by being amazed at the standard Holmesian parlour tricks (You’re from South Africa, the Middlesex Corps, etc. etc.) and then by getting in a Watsonian jab when he plunges into his story midstream and in response to Holmes’s bafflement says, But I thought you knew everything.

         So a friend can be replaced? But Holmes does seem to miss his Watson, and perhaps the point of the story is to tell us that the two should not be separated, certainly not for a marriage. James Dodd won’t give up his friend to illness. Should Holmes give up his to marriage? Is marriage an illness? Of course, in this story what we seem to have is a pseudo-illness. Perhaps Watson’s marriage is a pseudo-marriage?

When you have eliminated all which is impossible: That old quote, recycled from The Sign of the Four, but not so convincingly deployed here. What’s so impossible about Godfrey being insane or even a criminal? No, the dice are loaded here in favour of leprosy, because it is somehow important to get leprosy into this story, as in the story before. The strange obsession I have already noted.

         Still, Holmes deduces well here, though it is a bit of a misfire to ask about the newspaper which, if it had been the Lancet or the British Medical Journal, might have told him something. But instead it was the Spectator. So why bother even telling us about it? I suppose to let us know that that would have been further proof that the “keeper” in the garden was a medical man. But Holmes knew this was a medical man without that proof; was the deductive theorizing enough in this case? That would seem to go against all of Holmes’s usual emphasis on the facts. Oh, well, I suppose there just had to be leprosy, or pseudo-leprosy.

Bleached skin: One of the symptoms of the disease. And the disease, or something, has turned Godfrey Emsworth, a “frank, manly lad,” into “something slinking … furtive … guilty.” If “The Illustrious Client” showed us a predatory masculinity in Baron Gruner, here we have something much weaker. Is this a danger Conan Doyle sees, upstanding manly Brits being laid waste by foreign diseases? But it’s just a pseudo-disease, so maybe not.

But where are the women? There’s a phantom whom Watson has married. There’s Emsworth’s mother and the butler’s wife. In “The Missing Three-Quarter” there was an important female presence at the end which explained all: the dying wife. The men in that story are trying to save her. Here there’s no woman to save; the person who is sick is not the wife of the missing man; it is the missing man himself, and perhaps even though the illness is waved away at the very end, the story is betraying some anxiety about the health of British men. It is the missing man in this case who needs caring for or rescue, and who is indeed rescued more than once: by the doctor in the leper hospital and now by more doctors, along with Sherlock Holmes and his friend, and even his gruff but protective father.

         Once upon a time, it was Godfrey who could do the protecting, saving his friend Dodd in battle. “He was a fine man,” says the butler, but now … One critic I’ve read (Joseph Kestner) sees postwar anxiety in the later stories, reflecting a dissolution of “patriarchal structures.” Is that what’s going on? Is it the end of patriarchy that this story foresees? Though if it is, it’s strange that there are no women around to pick up the pieces.

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK. Also at MX Publishing.

The Illustrious Client

Illustration by Howard K. Elcock

The Illustrious Client

“In the mud with my foot on his cursed face”:  That’s how Kitty Winter would like to see Baron Gruner.  And I thought, Wait a minute, we’ve seen something like that before: Lady X grinding her heel into the face of Charles Augustus Milverton after shooting him.  Grisly stuff, female revenge on the male.  Is Conan Doyle just repeating himself?

Not entirely: For instance, in the earlier story a lady does the shooting and the heel grinding.  In this one Kitty Winter is no lady; she’s what?  A force of nature?  A whirlwind, a flame, a she-devil, a leprous female Shinwell Johnson found in the “garbage” of the underworld?  She lives in “Hell, London,” but wishes Gruner in a deeper one.  And she doesn’t in the end go in for shooting and heel grinding, but for tossing acid in a man’s face.  It seems almost more horrifying.

And what man? Baron Gruner, a suave aristocrat from the Continent, from Austria.  The Austrian murderer (perhaps), but civilized, handsome – except for a murderous mouth (oh, Conan Doyle, how you still believe in physiognomy: the face tells us all).  But if we’re looking at faces, there’s Shinwell Johnson’s coarse, scurvy-looking one, and Kitty Winter’s … we have delved into the underworld, the dregs, though Kitty Winter has a certain attractive liveliness about her.  Maybe she represents the dark energies that we need to harness to avoid turning into frozen ethereal Violet de Mervilles.  But still …

Aristocrat vs. Aristocrat: So what we have here is our heroes reaching into the gutter to find a weapon with which to attack the aristocratic Baron Gruner on behalf of Colonel Sir James Damery and his illustrious client (the King?) who has taken an interest in the prospective marriage of Violet to the Baron.

            Now, earlier in the canon, aristocrats are not a favoured species.  In “The Naval Treaty” we are told that it is uncommon for a nobleman to act nobly.  But here the first nobleman we see is quite appealing.  (Well, he is not a nobleman perhaps, only a Colonel Sir, but Watson calls him an aristocrat.)  Anyway, Colonel Sir James Damery seems quite appealing.  Pleasant, honest, delicate.

            So for a change the English upper classes seem to come off fairly well here, but the German baron …

German baron? Okay, Gruner is Austrian, not German.  We did have a German baron in “His Last Bow,” a story that is somewhat surprising for its lack of animus against the Germans.  It was the middle of World War I, with Germany at war with England, but Holmes’s attitude (and Conan Doyle’s?) seemed to be, Pip, pip, good try, old boys, you’ve played well, only we have played better.

Austrian baron: The attitude to Baron Gruner is quite different.  He is someone who must be stopped at all costs, even burglary and acid-throwing.  And for what?  What crime is he committing?  Charles Augustus Milverton is in the midst of blackmailing when his life is brought short.  Holmes wants to stop him and destroy his papers to save various marriages.  In this story everything is inside out.  Holmes wants to save papers (the “lust diary”) to prevent a marriage.

            But again, what crime is the Baron committing?  He simply wants to marry Violet de Merville.

Ah, but what will he do? He’s a murderer, we’re told.  He killed his previous wife, so action must be taken now to prevent another wife-murder.  Is this about that past murder, Holmes asks?  No, says Colonel Sir James, this is not about revenge for that, but prevention of a repetition.  (And a repetition here in our blessed England, one might add.)

Symbolism: It suddenly struck me that this desperate attempt to use the lower orders to attack a foreign aristocrat might actually have something to do with international politics.  The leaders of Germany had fought one war with England.  Was there fear they might launch another?  Is this what lurks beneath this story?  A return of the German threat?

Revenge? But in the early 1920’s was there such a threat?  Maybe this is about revenge after all; maybe what is driving this story is what we might have expected to see in “His Last Bow”: anger against Germans.  (Yes, I know, Baron Gruner is Austrian.  Still …)

Ethereal Woman: And what are we to make of Violet de Merville?  So angelic and remote, not realizing the danger she is in.  It annoys Sherlock Holmes: you have to see the danger of the Baron, why can’t you?  If I were to pursue the political allegory, I might see Violet as representing the wilfully ignorant leaders of Europe, not recognizing the dangers of a second European conflict.

Or is she just Woman? Women are the Other here: mysterious creatures no male can understand.  Who can fathom their motives?  Though Holmes (and Doyle) seem confident that a lust-diary will kill their interest.  Maybe acid disfigurement too, though Holmes says that wouldn’t have been enough.

Secrecy: Then there is the theme of secrecy.  Holmes doesn’t like Sir James’s secrecy surrounding the client, but he is quite willing to be secretive himself, even to Watson, which of course is sometimes necessary for the sake of the story, but is secrecy good or bad?  Holmes is actually quite open and unsecretive towards Baron Gruner: he sends in his card to him and tells him exactly what he wants.  Is it more important to keep your friends in the dark than your enemies?  Maybe there are things your friends are better off not knowing.

            In Milverton the idea is to protect secrets, the secrets of good people who’ve committed indiscretions.  Here the idea is to expose secrets, the secrets of a bad person who poses a threat.  Secrecy is neither good nor bad, but a tool?  After all, Watson is always secretive to us: he knows the solutions when he sits down to write, but he keeps them from us till the end so we’ll be entertained.

And finally, insects: Why is Baron Gruner described as having “little waxed tips of hair under his nose, like the short antennae of an insect”?  Is this an attempt to dehumanize him?  What do antennae do anyway?  They are feelers, sense organs?  Baron Gruner’s “quivered with amusement” when he listened to Holmes.  It seems quite monstrous somehow; is he being portrayed as a monster to justify the acid attack to come?

            He’s also called an affable cat contemplating mice, and “some people’s affability is more deadly than the violence of coarser souls.”

            In this story the threat is not from coarser souls like Shinwell Johnson.  Shinwell Johnson can be used as an agent; Holmes uses him as an agent.  The true threat is this smooth-talking foreign aristocrat who loves Chinese pottery.  I was going to say it’s not 1895 anymore; there are snapshots and telephones.  But even in the earlier stories the threat is from where?  Not the lower classes.  And here it’s creatures from below who can be used to fight the real threat – except maybe they get a little bit out of control.  Maybe it’s dangerous to set a Kitty Winter loose.  The result makes Holmes recoil in horror – and do we?

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK.

The Empty House

Holmes returns from the dead in “The Empty House.” Illustration by Sidney Paget.

The Empty House

Killing Him Softly: I had seen birth and death and thought they were different, says the speaker in a poem by T.S. Eliot. “The Empty House” is a sort of birth, a rebirth, and yet how full of death is it. Here is Holmes returned from the watery grave looking as pale as a spirit, giving Dr. Watson the greatest shock of his entire life, but a shock of joy, he says, and yet … It’s a story all about death, isn’t it? Reluctantly, Conan Doyle has brought his famous sleuth back to life, but it’s almost as if he would like to kill him off again.

          The whole story, almost, is about shooting a dummy of Holmes. And how excited Moran is to do it, gripped with enthusiasm, going rigid with excitement, then letting out a little sigh of satisfaction when he’s done. But Holmes isn’t actually dead – to Moran’s great disappointment. For a moment there, Holmes is just an object to be shot at; the focus is on his would-be killer; the point of view is his. We are away from Holmes, as we have been for years; isn’t it glorious? But no, Holmes is there, pouncing like a tiger, making his dismissive gibes – at Moran, at Watson, even at the police.

          Enough. Wasn’t it enough to do two novels and two sets of stories? But no, the public demanded more, and so we have to bring Holmes back, though we do so in a story where we get to, almost, kill him again. Ah, well.

Rebirth and transformation? Holmes has been away, as if on a spiritual journey, as far as Tibet, talking to a lama, then to Mecca, the holy place of Islam, and off to Khartoum, and elsewhere. He’s away for years; it’s the hero’s journey, on which he should return a changed man – but he doesn’t.[1]  It’s the same old Holmes, full of asperity, though minus his parlour tricks, it’s true, and not detecting yet. No, this is another thriller: Holmes on the run, as in “The Final Problem,” being pursued, though laying a trap for his pursuers.

          But why all the trappings of spiritual crisis and development when there is actually none? Did Doyle hope to transform his hero and just fail? Does he want to show that it’s the same old Holmes despite the spiritual journeying? Is it all a thumbing of the nose at the conventions, or at the public who forced him to bring Holmes back?

          Or is there some great spiritual change that we’re missing?

          We can look for clues in the books Holmes the bookseller carries: British Birds, Catullus, The Holy War, and most intriguingly, tantalizingly: The Origin of Tree Worship. What indeed is the origin of tree worship, and why should Holmes be interested in it? Or why should Doyle give him that book to carry? What does it signify, tree worship? I cudgel my brains: trees produce paper, paper gives us books and stories, Sherlock Holmes stories; is this about worshipping Sherlock Holmes? It seems a stretch. Is it about weird faiths? Like worshipping Sherlock Holmes? Is Doyle mocking those who would idolize strange, undeserving things?

          And then Catullus, the love poet, mixed in with birds and war. Love, war, death, birds – and trees, of course. What does it all mean? Maybe nothing, maybe it is empty of meaning. This is the Empty House, after all: maybe Doyle has brought back the mere shell of his man, an empty man, a signifier signifying nothing. (But we know he has some good stories left in him; this is just the feeling of the moment, the feeling that he has to bring Holmes back even though he has nothing left to say through him. Perhaps.)

And the rocks: I almost forgot: besides shooting at him with an airgun, Colonel Moran hurls rocks at Sherlock Holmes. It feels very mythic, like out of an ancient Greek story. And of course it’s another way to kill our hero, and in such a powerful way: rocks cast down from above. Punishment from the heavens for daring to survive.

Watson’s bereavement: Watson’s bereavement, presumably the death of Mrs. Watson, is almost a cheery note. The gesture towards grown-up living, marriage, domesticity – that can all be forgotten now. Watson and Holmes can be adventuring boys again, and will be. So perhaps Conan Doyle is getting into this now, remembering the fun of adventure, and removing an obstacle to it (not that she was a very strong obstacle to it). Holmes and Watson will be able to take up lodgings together again, just like old times.

          Just like old times, Holmes suggests in hoping he can still amaze Watson. And even though he’s amazing him through creating a lifelike dummy rather than in apparently reading his mind, maybe there is a hint that the good old Watson-Holmes interaction will be back, and perhaps even Conan Doyle can appreciate that.

Holmes as a dummy: Now there’s a joke at Holmes’s expense; the brilliant detective becomes a dummy. More of Conan Doyle’s revenge, and yet of course Holmes is back; there may yet be good times ahead.           

[1] I have not forgotten the Cornish boatman who said Holmes came back from Reichenbach a changed man, but he meant in the sense of not being as skilled anymore. I’m talking about character and personality.

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK.

The Final Problem

Holmes and Moriarty locked in embrace, as depicted by Sidney Paget.

The Final Problem

Begone with you:  Poor Conan Doyle, burdened by his most famous creation (though I was bemused to read, in Wikipedia, that his Professor Challenger is also popular: is he?).  In any case, as every schoolboy knows, Doyle was fed up with Holmes and resolved to kill him off, something easier said than done, it turns out – but in this story he seemed to have succeeded, provoking anguished outcry (though the story of people putting on black armbands in mourning seems not to be true: one of those stories that ought to be true, but …).

         I’ve been working on an article on A. A. Milne (whose first published work, oddly, was a Sherlockian pastiche).  He too was beset by one of his creations (the famous Pooh Bear).  It is salutary to compare what Milne did with his unwanted creation: he did kill him off (in a manner of speaking) and unlike Conan Doyle, Milne never brought Pooh back: did that get readers to shift their attention to Milne’s other works?  What, you say, A. A. Milne had other works?  So there you go.  It didn’t work.  So it’s just as well that Conan Doyle brought Holmes back; that’s what he was going to be remembered for anyway.

Death of a Hero:  But a death it is, however temporary.  And what sort of death?  Nothing ignoble or demeaning here.  Tired as he was of his hero, Doyle resolves on a noble death for him – and what could be more noble than a death at the hands of a worthy antagonist, a very Napoleon, a clever intellectual character in some ways a mirror image of our hero, who will grapple with him at the edge of a terrifying waterfall: there’s Holmes’s chance to study Nature, as he says he would like to do.

         It is curious that two such intellectual figures should end with physical combat, in a sort of duel, like jousting knights of old.  It seems fitting and yet odd.  As if this question of intellect, of mind, can only be settled by destroying the vessel that holds the mind.  As if, unable to defeat a computer with advanced programs, you resorted to smashing it to bits.  Perhaps that is the only way Doyle could see to rid himself of this superior brain: by sending him to his death.  Then he could never come back, could he?  (Ah, but he left himself a sort of out, as we shall see.)

The Death of Detection: There is an interesting article on this story by Michael Atkinson (“Staging the Disappearance of Sherlock Holmes”) that notes that the story is in many ways the inverse of the traditional Holmes story.  There is no mystery here; indeed this is almost an anti-mystery: the solution is announced at the beginning: there is one man, Moriarty, behind it all.  And by all Holmes does mean all.  It turns out that half the crime of London can be laid at Moriarty’s door; he and his vast shadowy network arrange everything.

         How odd, how jarring even.  How after all can this be?  Can we explain the disappearance of the naval treaty this way?  Did Moriarty steal Silver Blaze?  Did he set up the Red-Headed League?  It makes no sense.  In fact, it takes away from all the individualized detection Holmes has done over the years.  It is to abandon the fox for the hedgehog, to adopt a grand unified theory, to pronounce a Key to All Mythologies.

         Oh, well, it will do for a swan song, I suppose.  It wouldn’t do for starting off in the detecting business, because then you’d have your solution even before you begin, and where would be the fun in that?  There’d be no exploring, just saying, Oh, it’s Moriarty again.

         The whole Moriarty invention seems a radical attack on the canon, which is perhaps fitting in a story meant to kill off the canon.

Absences: Michael Atkinson’s article discusses absences in the story, notably the absence or invisibility of Moriarty.  But the most important absence is a death scene, and this is where Conan Doyle leaves himself an out.  We don’t see Holmes die, his body is not discovered; we have circumstantial evidence, and we have clues, and we have Watson pronouncing on what those clues mean, but when has Watson ever been a reliable detective?  Maybe Conan Doyle wanted to kill his great detective, but at some level decided to leave it just a bit ambiguous, so that someday it might turn out that … But we must not anticipate.

That organized network: Holmes is always a bit of a loner, but here he seems a persecuted loner.  That whole network of Moriarty’s is out to get him.  Wherever he goes there they are, tossing rocks at him, mugging him, chasing him.  It’s like a celebrity being hounded by fans, like an author being beset by readers who adore his stories and beg for more … Oh, wait: this would cast us, the readers, as the network hounding the poor author, Arthur Conan Doyle, something he is perhaps only too capable of rendering into a criminal conspiracy.  How we afflict our heroes.

         But if we are Moriarty’s network, who is Moriarty?  Who is Holmes’s biggest fan?  Watson?  Perhaps it’s Watson that Doyle should have sent over the falls.  Then there’d be no stories, would there?  What a chance Conan Doyle missed.

How many wives had Dr. Watson?  Some would say as many as six, but I doubt he had any at all.  Holmes shows up, and Mrs. Watson is conveniently absent.  It’s true that Watson says that his marriage has meant he has seen Holmes less in recent years – but since the stories are the only place we see Holmes, and in the stories he is almost always with Watson, and Watson’s wife is almost always conveniently absent, it becomes hard to credit her very existence.

         When Holmes suggests the trip to the continent, Watson says his practice is quiet (his practice is always quiet, it seems; he is always ready to go off with Holmes; Watson’s very life is bound up with Holmes; his practice?  Pah).  And, says Watson, he has an accommodating neighbour.  What does that mean?  He will accommodate what?  Look after the house?  But isn’t there a wife?  I think not.

         Lest you fear I have suddenly succumbed to the Game, fear not.  If the story says there’s a wife, I am not going to doubt it, but she doesn’t seem very real.  Watson’s practice doesn’t seem very real.  All that is real for Watson is having adventures with Holmes.  It’s a Boy’s Own world, away from domesticity and adult cares, a Huckleberry Finn sort of world, a world in which you can simply spend your time messing around in boats – and if only there’d been a boat at the bottom of the waterfall.

Fire: They set fire to Baker Street.  “Good heavens, Holmes!  This is intolerable,” says Watson.  Indeed: the base camp of adventures under attack.  But Holmes himself is under attack throughout this story, so it only makes sense.  But how intolerable it really is.  No more Holmes, no more Baker Street; it is the end of everything.  Conan Doyle pulls out all the stops.  It really is intolerable.  No wonder people wore black arm bands (even if they didn’t).

But hope, or faith: Why must Holmes wait three days?  The story about waiting seems so contrived that it must be there for some other reason.  I mean an authorial reason.  After death will there be a resurrection?  After three days?  And is it a necessary death?  Holmes smiles at the falling rock.  Is he going willingly to his death?  Perhaps as long as it will take Moriarty with him: that sounds more like Samson than Jesus, actually.  Well, there can be all sorts of echoes buried in the death of a hero.

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK.

The Creeping Man

The Creeping Man creeping down the stairs,
illustration by Howard Elcock.

The Creeping Man

Monkey glands, Watson!  Or is it lumbago?  No, not lumbago.  You are so flat-footed, Watson.  You have to think outside the box, or in this case inside the box.  What is in that box?  Some mysterious injectable drug.  Cocaine?  No, that was my drug.  This is Professor Presbury’s drug, which he is using to, well, you know, become young again so at the age of 61 he can properly function as the fiancé of a young woman – if you know what I mean.

And maybe he’s ready to function, but he’s only the fiancé, not the husband, and in those days fiancés didn’t get conjugal rights, did they?  But he has to work off his energies somehow, so he climbs the ivy and peers in his daughter’s bedroom, even seeming about to push in the window of the bedroom in order to … well, what?  Is this turning into the lurid incestuous fantasy that critics like Joshua Wade see?  But Sherlock Holmes says that climbing to the daughter’s window was mere chance because the monkeyfied professor enjoyed climbing.

He certainly did that, and was quite agile about it.  Maybe he is still quite agile about it.  Holmes doesn’t stop him from taking his monkey serum, does he?[1]   Does anyone?  Does he marry his colleague’s young daughter and show her some of his monkey tricks?  Would that be a bad thing?

Well, of course it would be a bad thing, a scandalous thing, an “excessive” thing, as the family says, and as Holmes reinforces.  And this is not even considering the monkey drug; it’s the idea of an old professor marrying a young girl.  Where did he even get such an idea?  Perhaps from studying Comparative Anatomy?  Or does that just take us back to monkeys?

But wait: As a couple of recent critics have suggested, doesn’t the monkey serum actually make the Professor come more alive?  And it doesn’t dim his mental faculties as Holmes at first expects; he remembers things very well and is able to give brilliant lectures.  He has even more energy than before, his assistant and son-in-law-to-be says.  So what’s the problem?  Well, it does mean he gets rather irascible, pervertedly spies on his daughter, and tries to torture his own dog, who finally slips his leash and attacks back, perhaps reflecting the transgressiveness of his master.

And it’s all a great threat to humanity, says Mr. Sherlock Holmes.  All this playing with science to go against Nature.  It will mean encouraging all the sensual, physical types to prolong their lives, especially their, ahem, sexual lives, turning Darwin on his head and ensuring the survival of the unfit.  Though as the critic Virginia Richter says, are we sure those are the unfit?  If they’re so strong and all, aren’t they after all the fit?  But true, they’re not spiritual types who are ready to give up this life on earth for “something higher,” as Holmes puts it.  Would that be the better way?  To just give up?  You’re 61, you’ve had your innings, let the young people play now.

Retirement, that’s the thing, and after retirement, well, you know.  Holmes thinks maybe it’s time he was moving on to “that little farm of my dreams,” and Watson lets us know that in fact by the time of publication he has done it.  The critic Sylvia Pamboukian slyly notes that though Holmes seems eager for retirement, that’s not the path his creator chose for himself: Conan Doyle embarked on his new career of promoting Spiritualism and kept on writing, even writing these Sherlock Holmes stories about retirement, and of course he remarried just like that aging Professor and even produced some more children.  Was he using monkey glands?

Older men pursuing young women: This features a lot in the Case-Book, Pamboukian says.  Check out “Thor Bridge” and “Sussex Vampire.”  Are these good things?  But Holmes and Trevor Bennett disapprove, and they are proper Victorian gentlemen, so shouldn’t we believe them?  Maybe not, says Pamboukian.  She says this story, which lacks an actual crime and seems on first reading to fizzle out into implausibility and obviousness, may actually be a quite serious study of the problem of aging.

And what does Sherlock Holmes have to say about aging?  Well, really, you know, this is not exactly the detective’s area.  If you’ve lost your racehorse or your naval treaty, he can help you.  But to retrieve your youth, ah, well.  So what is one to do?  There seem to be two choices: either you gracefully slide into retirement and, well, you know.  Or you resort to the back alleys of science and find some questionable means to prolong your life and rejuvenate your essences.  But that second path could undermine all our social norms, our civilization, the boundaries of what is proper.  Is there some middle path?  Lawn bowling?

Fresh blood: Several of the stories talk about the need to reinvigorate England by drawing on the Continent or North or South America, but this one goes a step further and talks about actual blood, or serum.  Perhaps that is taking it too far?  But who knows?

Meanwhile, the most entertaining part of the story, unless you really enjoy professors acting like monkeys, is the opening, in which Watson explores the nature of his “alliance” with the Master Detective.  I’m sort of a plodder, Watson says, but useful for all that, as a sort of whetstone that helps produce sparks.  But is he beginning to resent his role?  Dorothy Sayers, as reported by Klinger, seems to think so: why else does he complain about being dragged away from his work to hear about the problems of the professor’s dog?  When has Watson ever been reluctant to abandon doctoring for an adventure?  But maybe he’s growing old too; maybe our old friends have reached the age when soon they’ll just be creeping along.  Will they become creeping men?

But no, no, no, that’s not what the story means by a creeping man.  Professor Presbury can leap large buildings in, well, not a single bound, but in perhaps several.  Bounding, that’s what he seems to be able to do, or skipping as Watson puts it at one point.  He doesn’t crawl on hands and knees; he goes on all fours, hands and feet.  So it’s bounding or, perhaps, bouncing.  And his knuckles, we are supposed to notice his knuckles: they have grown thick and horny, as they would if you were knuckle-walking like an ape.  No, creeping is not at all the right word for the Professor, unless it is to suggest that his actions are creepy; he is certainly creeping the other characters out, to use a much later idiom.  But he is bounding along, really, not creeping.  Full of energy, not sluggishness.  The title of the story seems unfair to him, as if written by the other characters who fear his new powers, though I suppose to have called it “The Skipping Man” might not have conjured up the right sense either.

Some huge bat: That would be the Professor again, now reminding us of Dracula.  And earlier all that talk of dates and the phases of the moon, not to mention the wolfhound, can make you think of werewolves.  But no, it’s monkeys all the way, and not something supernatural, but out of the realms of science, or at least science fiction: something to scare us about science gone wild and creating a race of bestial men.  But at the end we put it all behind us, and go off to the Chequers inn, where the linen is above reproach and one can get a nice cup of tea.  Holmes carries us back to civilization, leaving The Monkey-Man behind.  (Now that would have been a better title, though it would of course have given the game away.)

         Ah well, an end to these experiments with rejuvenation or with solving the problem of 61-year-old men who seek after young women, and let us return to the natural current of life, carrying us inexorably towards our end.

[1] Well, he tries to by cutting off the supply, but does he succeed?

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK.

The Two “Jewish” Sherlock Holmes Stories

Or at least two stories touching on anti-Semitism: “The Stockbroker’s Clerk” and “Shoscombe Old Place.”

Sherlock Holmes et al bursting into the secret room
in “The Stockbroker’s Clerk.”
Illustration by Sidney Paget.

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.

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK.

The Blue Carbuncle

The hat and the goose in The Blue Carbuncle.
Illustration by Sidney Paget.

The Blue Carbuncle

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?

An excerpt from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK.

*     Well, next to the deerstalker, which isn’t really in the canon.