Holmes had been seated for some hours in silence with his long, thin back curved over a chemical vessel in which he was brewing a particularly malodorous product.
The Dancing Men opens with Holmes in suitably scientific mood. From the experiment table, he delivers to Watson a lecture – “with the air of a professor addressing his class” no less – about the simplicity of deducing that his old friend does not propose to invest in South African securities. There is something of parody, almost of farce, about the incident (“Now, Watson, confess yourself utterly taken aback,” Holmes insisits), and in a self-aware way it sets the tone for the rest of the story, which revolves around messages of curious heiroglyphs sent to Elsie Cubitt, the wife of a redoubtable Norfolk squire.
This was perhaps my favourite Holmes story as a younger reader, and I was still looking forward to it despite Mark Loper‘s cruel deconstruction of my wonder. I confess to checking the findings of Mark’s other half, and in fact the Rs seem to me sound, each more or less identical. It is in the Cs, Os and Ms that Doyle becomes unstuck: in the last message Elsie receives the Os are mixed with the Ms, the right leg bent rather than straight, thus resembling the consistent symbol for M (in Holmes’s message to the villain, and the third message to Elsie, the Os are correctly formed); the two instances of C also differ – in Holmes’s message, the C resembles again an M, possessed of two arms where the villain’s C has only a left.
Yet the genius of the code, as the villain himself admits, is that it “would pass as a child’s scrawl unless you happened to have the key to it” – the code is always hand written, and the dancing men are mere scribbles. The weakness of the code is that a bent leg is at times difficult to discern from a straight one in a stick man; Holmes’s sad lapse, meanwhile, at least comforts us that he is all too human. Bar these small kinks, the code seems sturdily formed. The story, though, is so compelling because the sinister little stick figures are but an element of it. Holmes’s famed explanation of his scientific approach to solving the code remains one of the finest example of the great detective at work, but Doyle successfully resists the temptation to give the story no life beyond its gimmick.
True, The Dancing Men again calls upon that classic Doyle trope of the American with a shadowy past, and features something similar to the mysterious scrawl of The Five Orange Pips, to boot. But these elements coalesce here into a story with a good deal of scope: we have events in the Baker Street rooms, and out in the country; a consultation and a crime scene investigation; Holmes’s clients do not make it through unscathed, and the story feels very much one of many scenes – not something which all Holmes stories can say for themselves. Cubitt himself is well characterised, and if his wife is relegated to the status of faithful cypher, then at the very least her strength of will is without doubt. The story might rely on the reader’s assumption that the code works and that America is a bit weird really, but it stretches itself across space, time and character just enough to take on (the illusion of?) depth.
“I have fulfilled my promise of giving you something unusual for your notebook,” Holmes ventures towards the story’s end. Too true: he has also given Watson what might well remain, many years after that first uncritical reading, one of my favourite stories in the canon.