Christmas Eve, in case you hadn’t noticed, is when I re-read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of Blue Carbuncle’. When I took down my bound volume of the relevant year’s Strand magazines (itself a very kind Christmas gift), I noticed the date embossed on its spine: 1892. This was a reminder, if one were needed, that this story is now one hundred and twenty years old. (In fact, the story was originally published in January, so it is almost one year older than that.)
Inevitably, the story creaks in the ways that your great-grandfather’s popular fiction will: all those interjections – “My dear Holmes!” – and all that reporting of action via direct speech – “Pray take the basket-chair. I will just put on my slippers before we settle this little matter of yours. Now, then!” But there are also moments which signify its age in a less grating fashion. Take Holmes’s answer to the question of which newspapers should carry his message to the owner of an abandoned Christmas goose, for example: “Oh, in the Globe, Star, Pall Mall, St. James’s, Evening News, Standard, Echo, and any others that occur to you.” Would that today’s press were so vibrant and varied!
In his The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey makes a good deal of Holmes’s reliance upon and love of the press. For Carey (though alas he doesn’t cite any one story as evidence for his assertions), this addiction to news is in a roundabout way of a piece with the redemptive message at the festive heart of ‘The Blue Carbuncle’:
“[The] contempt among [modernist] intellectuals for newspapers is not, we should note, shared by the great fictional intellectual of the period, Sherlock Holmes. While the intellectuals were busy inventing alarming versions of the masses for other intellectuals to read, Conan Doyle created, in Holmes, a comforting version of the intellectual for mass consumption [...] Holmes’s redemptive genius as a detective lies in rescuing individuals from the mass [...] by giving an accurate account, before they have spoken a word, of their jobs, their habits and their individual interests. The appeal of this Holmesian magic and the reassurance it brings to readers are, I would suggest, residually religious, akin to the singling-out of the individual soul, redeemed from the mass, that Christianity promises.” [pp. 8-9]
By this logic, ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ is the quintessential Holmes story: the great detective explicitly cites the case as “one of those whimsical little incidents which will happen when you have four million human beings all jostling each other within the space of a few square miles”; yet even before meeting him he deduces in exacting detail the shape of the life lived by the man who lost his Christmas goose (“it is extremely improbable that he has gas laid on in his house”). From there, Holmes follows the trail through to a villain whom he sets free with the justification of “saving a soul”. Given ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ is set during the Christian festival which most celebrates the potential for salvation, it’s remarkable that Carey uses that word ‘redemptive’; and, if we were to use Holmes’s methods upon an unreferenced passage which also discusses newspaper personal columns, we might be forced to deduce that Carey had on his mind as he wrote precisely Holmes’s little Christmas miracle.
Elsewhere, Carey argues that Conan Doyle’s Holmes practiced a weird kind of anti-intellectualism in his adventures: all those disparaged clerks and, for instance in ‘The Naval Treaty’, a defence of the intellectuals’ hated Board Schools as “lighthouses”. It seems to me, however, that the redemptive power of Holmes’s method – if we are to join Carey in his vision of Holmes as a saviour of the individual against the mass, which on Christmas 2012 as much as on Christmas 1892 it is almost possible not to do - lies precisely in his intellect. Sherlock Holmes is not an impossible shaman – “Your reasoning is certainly plausible,” says Watson – but an improbable savant. And when one has eliminated the impossible, whatever remains – however improbable – must be the truth.
Merry Christmas, everyone.