“Whatever Remains, However Improbable”

“Holmes,” said I, as I stood one morning in our bow-window looking down the street, “here is a madman coming along.”

"I clapped a pistol to his head..."
"I clapped a pistol to his head..."

The Beryl Coronet begins, topically enough, with a banker who has approved a loan but lost the security. Alexander Holder, a partner in “the second largest private banking concern in the City of London”, is visited by a member of the high aristocracy, who offers as collateral against a loan of fifty thousand pounds the Beryl coronet, a priceless piece of jewelery held as a national treasure. Naturally, Holder elects to carry this bit of bling with him wherever he goes. Equally naturally, someone tries to steal it – Holder’s son is found, in the dead of night, with the coronet in his hands, a section of it broken off and hidden beyond the powers of the police to find.

Interestingly, Holder recounts that an inspector at Scotland Yard recommended he visit Sherlock Holmes: inter-service rivalry is not beyond reaching over the fence. Still, once Holmes is added to the mix, this ostensibly run-of-the-mill mystery is of course rendered rather more interesting. In some of the earlier stories – The Speckled Band, The Engineer’s Thumb or The Five Orange Pips – Conan Doyle has seemed to be under the impression that the weirder the case the more exciting it will be for readers. In truth, however, Holmes is enough to enliven a story, and the more human the solution the easier it is for the story to focus on the detective’s prowess.

It follows, then, that here Holmes is at his best: disapproving of weak or slow characters (“‘There is one other thing you owe, Mr Holder,’ said Sherlock Holmes, rather sternly.”);  demonstratively eccentric in his methods (“here is the corner which corresponds to that which you have so unfortunately lost. Might I beg you to break it off.”); and, of course, wholly arrogant (“[I] must get these disreputable clothes off and return to my highly respectable self.”) His sense of achievement when on the right scent is palpable and personal – he starts the story weary and slouching around in a housecoat, but is soon swinging boots around on their laces and throwing them with a flourish into the corners of his rooms. “I could see by his manner,” Watson writes with an insight into Holmes’s vanity, “that he had stronger reasons for satisfaction than his words alone would imply.”

The great detective is a master of the grand reveal – he prefers to keep all in the dark as to why he wants to look at the windowsill until the final moment. He gathers his pieces first, revealing the jigsaw only when it is whole. In part, this is simply authorial trickery on Conan Doyle’s part – rather transparently, it is a gambit which makes it easier to persuade the reader to marvel at Holmes’s brilliance. But, as in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, this tendency is also central to Holmes’s character, as Watson’s narrative begins subtly to imply. In this way, the secrecy becomes less an authorial device and more a quirk of character.

The story begins with another wonderfully warm evocation of Baker Street life. The Holmes stories are of course ultimately mystery stories – whodunnits, driven by a central problem. But they find their real life, and the secret of their longevity, in these quieter moments. The quiet of a snowed-in Baker Street, and the theatrical bent of its most celebrated occupant, provide more entertainment, and more wonderment, than a thousand exotic menageries or unlikely killing machines.

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