When I glance over my notes and records of the Sherlock Holmes cases between the years ’82 and ’90, I am faced by so many which present strange and interesting features, that it is no easy matter to know which to choose and which to leave.
In The Five Orange Pips, Watson is infected by Holmes’s worst instincts. As we’ve seen over the last few weeks, Holmes is a problem solver, but one who loves the puzzle more than he does the solution. Watson admits that he is telling this latest yarn more for its unusual qualities than for its coherence as a narrative: “I am tempted to give some account of it, in spite of the fact that there are points in connection with it which have never been […] entirely cleared up.” It shows. Intriguing and evocative as it is, The Five Orange Pips is not much of a story.
Kevin Phillips, in his fascinating history The Cousins’ Wars, provocatively argues that “the southern taste for plumed cavaliers and knights lived on even after the collapse of Appomatox” in a more twisted kind of Knight. This sense of the consciously theatrical cult is at the heart of The Five Orange Pips. Holmes immediately recognises the letters ‘K K K’ in a way unusual to his time but not to ours – reading the story today, our own ancestral memory is played upon, but at the time of both the story and its writing, the Klan had been closed down, not to return until the 1920s. Whilst we are filled with foreboding and revolt, then, contemporary readers may simply have felt a Boy’s Own frisson at the secret society mumbojumbo. Either way, the machinations of the Invisible Empire is what grants The Five Orange Pips its memorably mythic proportions. Doyle chooses his adversary carefully here, and the mystique of the Klan lends his story its only real power.
It’s almost as if, having thrown in the white hoods, Conan Doyle felt the story would write itself. Indeed, it is otherwise a little confused: Watson dates it to 1887, whilst mentioning both his wife and The Sign of Four, in fact encountered in 1888; unusually even for the ‘drawing room consultation’ structure of this mystery, everything of any importance happens away from Watson, and therefore away from the page; even the story’s ending is rushed, inconclusive and unrewarding. The central mystery, told by Holmes’s client John Openshaw and seen to its unsatisfying conclusion in the course of the story, makes little sense, either: the Klan is terrified of some old papers, but at no point does it make any move to regain them. Some Sherlockians (I didn’t invent this term, don’t shoot the messenger) have even theorised that the whole story is an elaborate ruse by Watson to protect an investigation into a case involving Moriarty. We should leave pretending that it all really happened to the professionals, though, and simply admit that Conan Doyle was sometimes a little lazy. Holmes gets a definitive monologue about his method of reasoning, and that’s about it.
Thanks to a thoughtful friend, I have a few bound copies of ‘The Strand’ on my bookshelves. On the page immediately preceding the first appearance of The Blue Carbuncle, no less, there lies this sentence, tucked into an otherwise innocuous piece about street musicians: “Niggers – real niggers – never could either sing or play, but our ‘Nigger Minstrels’ can do both.” Holmes never really engages with the disgust a modern reader must feel for the Klan (remember – to him it’s just a puzzle), but, less comfortably, neither does the story – Watson learns of the Klan from so studiedly a neutral source as an encylopedia (the entry is quoted verbatim). The story is therefore of its period, and as memorable as it is for its villain, the way it treats the Klan is simply another sign that it is also one without much in the way of forethought.