“I Have Taken To Living By My Wits”

An anomaly which often struck me in the character of my friend Sherlock Holmes was that, although in his methods of thought he was the neatest and most methodical of mankind, and although also he affected a certain quiet primness of dress, he was none the less in his personal habits one of the most untidy many that ever drove a fellow-lodger to distraction.

"The setting sun shone full upon the passage floor."
"The setting sun shone full upon the passage floor."

The Musgrave Ritual had, when I first read it, the air of the uncommonly arcane. On this reread, of course, it presented itself a little less wondrously, and without some of that mysterious credibility it once possessed: it is a story which rests on generations of English nobility missing the painfully obvious. Yet it has considerable charm, and is a perennial favourite with readers. (For me, it is at least in part saved from thorough unbelievability by my prejudice that, given in-breeding and braying obliviousness, that central oversight is not entirely impossible.)

Our hero is presented with the problem by an old college acquaintance, and the narrative again takes us back to Holmes’s early career, Watson conveying much of the story in his approximation of the detective’s own voice. The mystery, the first of Holmes’s professional career which was truly successful and involving, centres on a family butler’s unusual interest in the incantations of a curious rite of passage which has baffled scions of the Musgrave family for years. The butler’s intelligence is underpins the story: Holmes mentions it several times and well he might, since it is this perspicacity which leads the butler to see reason in the bizarre rhyme of the ritual where 250 years of Musgraves have failed to do so.

The butler is of course an ex-schoolteacher – Doyle was not known for crediting mere household staff with much in the way of IQ, and he does not break his class stereotypes here. Naturally, with so proletarian a villain, the story turns in to one of the most aristocratic of Holmes’s adventures, entwined intimately with the history of England’s oldest noble houses. There is a post to be made some time about Doyle’s issues with class, but for it can be for another time. Suffice to say here that of course the highly intelligent serving man is thoroughly undone by case’s close.

The story has several other notable moments: the first page is very funny and quintessential Holmes, putting to bed rumours of Watson’s humourlessness; Holmes’s careering around the grounds of Hurlstone House, and rapid feats of mental arithmetic, represent the dynamic sleuthing readers enjoy so much about the intermittently kinetic detective; and Holmes is again on a few occassions stumped where his older and wiser self would surely not have been. “At least,” Holmes shrugs as the problem before him grows knottier, “it gives us another mystery, and one which is even more interesting than the first.” His eagerness here – for the case, of course, but also almost an eagerness to please – powers the narrative, and represents a rare insight into how a youthful Holmes might first have cut the consulting detective bug.

“I trace my first stride towards the position which I now hold [to the case of the Musgrave Ritual],” Holmes informs Watson. Unlike that of the Gloria Scott, this problem – if created by a singularly slow line of noble dolts – was worthy of the man who became the world’s best known private detective. Little wonder, then, that this is the best story since that which opens the Memoirs and also that, in its telling and in its execution, Sherlock Holmes was on such fine, bumptious form.

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