The Golden Pince-Nez

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

The Golden Pince-Nez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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