My Sherlock Holmes book is on the way. In which I muse about each of the original 60 stories from the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Here’s the cover (with its wonderful design by Brian Belanger, based on a Sidney Paget drawing).
And here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite (see below). If you want more, look here: https://mxpublishing.com/products/sherlockian-musings-thoughts-on-the-sherlock-holmes-stories
Okay, the excerpt, about “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” an early story about John Turner, an Australian murderer turned respectable British landowner, and the man who blackmails him (Charles McCarthy). Not to mention the murderer’s bigamous son and the blackmailer’s daughter. Have a read.
The Boscombe Valley Mystery
The only mystery in the canon: Well, of course it isn’t; they’re all mysteries, aren’t they? Or mostly. But this is the only one called a Mystery. There’s one Case (as we’ve just seen), but then mostly Adventures. According to Jacqueline Jaffe, Adventures is a good title, summoning up the archetype of the hero’s journey: is that what’s going on in the stories? I rather think they are more mysteries. On the other hand, this one begins like a classic adventure tale: there’s our hero having a humdrum breakfast with his wife when he is summoned by a telegram.
Oh, wait: That’s Watson, not Holmes. Is he the hero? Not really; he’s just the Boswell – but then again our Boswell is important. Still, in the later stories more often there is no summoning like this: Watson is already with Holmes at Baker Street. And then a client drops in with a mystery to solve. And yet we call them Adventures.
Have fun with your friend, John: So says Mrs. Watson in this tale, or words to that effect. She is almost the mother sending her little boy off to play, and this in a story with few mothers. Both Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Turner are not on the scene. The main female presence is Alice Turner, daughter of the murderer, bank robber, etc. etc., who led a wild life in Australia, making much money in an ill-gotten way and then retiring to the Old Country, where his little daughter somehow civilizes him. Or maybe it was England that civilized him. He seems perfectly respectable now; it’s only his past that’s appalling.
And that past comes back to bite him: In the person of Charles McCarthy, another ex-Australian, who knows all about Turner’s criminal exploits (adventures?) – indeed he was the victim of one of them – and yet it’s this victim who’s described as a devil with wicked eyes. Of course, the person doing the describing is Mr. Turner, so perhaps the description is biased? But no one seems to dispute it in the story, and if there is a villain, it is not the mass-murderer, but the one who witnessed his mass murder. How odd.
And why is that? Well, as we will see elsewhere in the canon, one of the worst crimes is blackmail, and one of the main concerns is reputation. Some see this story as depicting the way Victorian England exploited its colonies, making money in unspeakable ways, ways which are literally not to be spoken of. If you start speaking about them, or threatening to speak about them, if you use that threat to extort money, land, and a wife for your son, then you are the biggest villain around, whatever peccadilloes (like a few murders) your blackmail victim may have committed in Australia long ago.
The past is a hidden country, as someone might have said: we keep our skeletons there. And as a doubling of this crime-in-the-past motif, there is the bigamy that the younger McCarthy (James, the son who loves Alice) got mixed up in. Or at least his secret marriage, which prevents him from marrying Alice. She thinks he hesitates because he is not ready for marriage – but really he is already married. At least he thinks he is, but it turns out the low barmaid he married was married already, so we have bigamy twice over, and he is free, and can marry Alice after all – which is not at all what her father wants.
So who wins here? Sherlock Holmes, playing judge and jury, lets off Mr. Turner, who however is dying. Turner killed McCarthy to keep him from forcing a marriage of James and Alice – but James and Alice do marry. Only, they somehow never learn of their fathers’ criminal ways, and Alice apparently is not told of the barmaid. Really that barmaid affair is just some sowing of wild oats, isn’t it? With a euphemistic cover as a marriage – for the benefit of the tender sensitivities of the readers of the Strand Magazine (where this story first appeared), at least according to Rosemary Jann. And maybe so. And doesn’t that suggest that Alice was right after all? James was sowing his wild oats, what a young man gets up to before he’s ready to settle down and marry. It is as Alice says: James wasn’t ready, though not quite in the way she meant. And his premarital adventures (that word again) are something to be hidden, concealed in the same way as her father’s murders. The past is a hidden country, as I’ve said. We did things then that don’t bear looking into, but now we can go forward into a respectable future.
Even if her father killed his father? Apparently. They are not to know. The murder of Charles McCarthy will remain publicly unsolved, though we know who did it. And that murder, by the way, is not in the distant past; it is here and now, and yet Holmes will let it go: because blackmail is worse than murder apparently, and because vigilante justice is acceptable. At least one critic (Les Klinger) shakes his head over this, but the point is surely to defend the currently respectable. It is a bit odd, though, that Holmes jumps to protect a member of the landed gentry; he’s often at odds with them, as in “The Reigate Squires” and “Silver Blaze.”
But above all the important thing is to defend respectability and reputation – why, we’ll even defend the reputation of the King of Bohemia, though not that of Isadora Klein or of Baron Gruner. But perhaps things are different in those later stories.
Moonshine versus Fog: Lestrade is here, oddly acting as a sort of private consultant to Alice Turner (is that even legal?), and he has no time for Holmes’s theories. Moonshine, he calls them, prompting the response that moonshine is better than fog. Brighter. You can see by moonshine whereas you get lost in the fog. The regular police, like Lestrade, are often in a fog; it takes Sherlock Holmes to set them right.
And how? By becoming a dog on the scent, embarking on a frenzy of detection at the crime scene, like some Romantic artist caught up in the throes of creation. Is this how Conan Doyle felt writing these stories? There’s animal lust here, anticipating the later animal stories like “The Creeping Man.” Those who think of Sherlock Holmes as a mere detecting machine must not forget this side of him. He is transformed from quiet thinker to Coleridgean poet with flashing eyes, from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde – but a good Mr. Hyde, using his animal powers for a good cause, much in the nature of the archetypal hero on his journey. So Holmes is the hero after all, and this really is an Adventure?
Poor Watson: And if Holmes is the hero, what is Watson? The recorder, the sidekick – and the butt. What do we make of Holmes calling Watson slovenly in his shaving? He called him away, made him get ready in a hurry, and then complains because he doesn’t look right. Well, to be fair, he’s not complaining, just making an example of Watson to prove his superior deductive abilities. I can show you what a great detective I am by explaining why it is you shave so badly. Hmm. Putting one up to put the other down: is that really necessary? Or is it all part of making us Watsons feel unworthy in the presence of the Master? Holmes has a reputation to maintain too, after all, and so what if he does so at the expense of yours?
The son’s just deserts: Why does James feel he deserves to be arrested and blamed for his father’s death? Because he quarrelled with him? Because he’s frustrating his father’s desire for a marriage between James and Alice? Or frustrating his own desire? Because he married that barmaid? For whatever reason, he does get punished in this story, having to endure a trial even though Sherlock Holmes knows he is innocent. Why? Because he is the son of a blackmailer? So much worse to be even the son of a blackmailer than a murderer, it seems. But he does get to marry Alice in the end, and we are left with Sherlock Holmes musing about the tricks of fate, by which, however, he seems to mean the suffering inflicted on old Turner the murderer rather than on James. And Holmes says, “There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.” As if Holmes has some crimes on his conscience too? Does he have a past that does not bear looking into? Ah, who can tell? But the main thing is: he sympathizes with the murderer. How strange.