The Compliments of the Season

“This stone is not yet twenty years old. It was found in the banks of the Amoy River in southem China and is remarkable in having every characteristic of the carbuncle, save that it is blue in shade instead of ruby red. In spite of its youth, it has already a sinister history. There have been two murders, a vitriol-throwing, a suicide, and several robberies brought about for the sake of this forty-grain weight of crystallized charcoal. Who would think that so pretty a toy would be a purveyor to the gallows and the prison?”

Another investigation, in which also a bird is the chief feature.

A double bill of Holmes this week, because Christmas Eve means, chez Hartland, the Blue Carbuncle. The stone from which the story takes its name is a symbol of greed, and of the baser human instinct to acquire. Regular readers will remember my reference to Michael Chabon’s essay on the Holmes stories, in which he calls them “story-telling engines”; in his brief sketch of the carbuncle’s history above, the detective characterises it by the storied sadness and pain it has caused as a result of the value placed almost randonly upon it by human beings. That will to own a thing, to extract grubby monetary value from it, perverts its beauty into something quite other.

The market trader whom Holmes tricks into revealing his source for high quality town-bred geese is guilty of a minor form of this acquisitive spirit: “When you see a man with whiskers of that cut and the ‘pink ‘un’ protruding out of his pcoket, you can always draw him by a bet.” The academician fallen on hard times whose goose and hat put the investigation into motion is also guilty of a middling sort of greed, as Holmes deduces from his bowler: “He had foresight, but less now than formerly, pointing to a moral retrogression, which, when taken with the decline of his fortunes, seems to indicate some evil influence, probably drink, at work upon him.” And, of course, the villain of the piece, James Ryder, is guilty of the worst crime – that is, bringing misfortune upon another merely for monetary gain.

“The temptation of sudden wealth so easily acquired was too much for you,” Holmes says to Ryder, “as it has been for better men before you.” Yet in this story Holmes is open to the idea of redemption, that the human predisposition to sins of excess does not necessarily damn them for eternity: he goes out of his way to help the dissolute Henry Baker, and of course lets Ryder go free; and, though at the story’s close he says that the “solution is its own reward”, whilst in the thick of it he frames it differently: “Remember, Watson, that though we have so homely a thing as a goose at one end of this chain, we have at the other a man who will certainly get seven years’ penal servitude, unless we can establish his innocence.” His is a mission of mercy.

Of course, the dangers of acquisitiveness, and the possibilities for redemption, are at the very heart of the Christmas message. The subtelty with which they are woven into the fabric of The Blue Carbuncle is one of the many ways in which it becomes a densely-packed story of commendable, and comforting, lightness and warmth. On my last reading of this story, I resolved to read all the others; returning to it twelve months later, it remains amongst the strongest. A tradition justified, then.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Have a wonderful Yuletide.

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One thought on “The Compliments of the Season

  1. The Blue Carbuncle is also among my favorites of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writings — it is a finely paced story, but also gives an insight as to what exactly a man with the brains of Sherlock Holmes is doing spending his time running down the worst men of his city and country — from the small greedy men like the trader all the way to the master criminals like Professor Moriarty. For it is clear that there would have been many ways for a man like Holmes to satisfy any greedy impulses of his own without putting himself in harm’s way. He often joked to Watson that he would have made a highly efficient criminal — one might add that he would have also made a truly terrifying multinational CEO even then (Mr. Rockefeller, eat your heart out and get out of the way), a bring-the-house-down concert violinist, a scientist of rare ability — in other words, any number of highly paid jobs that do not require getting knocked around and (almost) killed.

    But that was not for Sherlock Holmes. In a world of greed from the least to the greatest, he is a character who condescends to lay all his powers to help those who otherwise could not find help, justice . . . or mercy. And thus in miniature, Holmes represents a little bit of the eternal story of Christmas itself . . . perhaps in that lies his enduring appeal, particularly at this time of year.

    Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

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