“You Know My Methods”: Habit, Tradition, and Sherlock Holmes

The Strand, 1892“Don’t you get a bit sick of it?” This was the entirely understandable question posed to me by Anna’s brother, Joe, this Christmas Eve when conversation turned to my tradition of reading the same short story each and every year on this date. ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, as I’ve written in previous years, is not without its faults; even if it is also one of the tightest and cleanest of the Sherlock Holmes canon, an annual reading of any tale this slight might understandably shade familiarity into contempt.

But Christmas is about tradition, and another word for tradition is ‘habit’. Good, bad, or indifferent, habits all share the characteristic of being immune to fatigue and, indeed, to good sense: one follows a tradition, and indulges a habit, because it’s what one does. Often, a habit is a nervous tic; other times, it’s simply something that makes you feel comfortable (the two kinds are of course related). For me, ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ is a habit – and one whose virtue is almost multiplied by over-exposure. Why does it make me feel Christmassy? Because I always read it at Christmas. Such is the power – and the attraction- of a tradition.

Not coincidentally, this story being a festive one and Arthur Conan Doyle not being quite the amateur he is sometimes made out to be, ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, a story in which a priceless gem is found in the crop of a seasonal goose, revolves around the theme of habit. When Watson calls upon Sherlock Holmes on the second morning after Christmas, he finds the great detective ensconced in his rooms in the way we might often imagine him: “lounging upon the sofa in a purple dressing-gown, a pipe-rack within his reach upon the right, and a pile of crumpled papers, evidently newly studied, near at hand.” Holmes himself is a creature of his own patterns – indeed, his understanding of, in some ways his enslavement to, systems is the means by which he makes the deductions which solve his cases.

Inevitably, the same is true here: Holmes deduces so much about Henry Baker, the man who loses his Christmas goose with such consequence, because the man’s hat gives away such a wealth of information about his habits (and part of the degradation that has led Baker to rely on a pub’s Christmas club is the result of another habit that Holmes infers – drink). In thus managing to make contact with Baker, Holmes proceeds to the marketstall from which the goose hailed. The poultry vendor is at first reluctant to provide further information; Holmes tricks him out of his story by playing on the gambling addiction from which the detective infers the retailer suffers. Habit smooths down the intricacies of human behaviour to predictable patterns – it makes the detective’s job easier.

When Holmes commutes his own sentence on the thief of the piece at the story’s close, he does so because to “send him to gaol now [… would be to] make him a gaol-bird for life” (that is, crime, too, can become a habit). But he also does so because the most important of Christmas traditions is forgiveness. In this way, traditions – habits – enable us to access the spirit of annual festivities. For those of us without the fate of would-be criminals in our Victorian hands, they provide the frameworks which remind us to relax, or the structures which provide us the opportunities – the excuses – to see old friends and family. They offer punctuation. And that, I suppose, is why I am as yet still not sick of this well-worn old story.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

 

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