Sherlock Holmes is often characterised – wrongly, in this reader’s opinion – as cold and distant, or aloof and disdainful, or sometimes explicitly sociopathic. But in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” which I read every Christmas Eve, we find all the evidence we need that he was in fact intensely social – or, at least, entirely embedded in the communities of his day. At Christmas more than most other times of the year, it’s worth noting Holmes’s reliance on, even fondness for, his fellow human beings.
When Watson arrives at 221B on the morning after Christmas to wish his friend the compliments of the season, the good doctor finds Holmes surrounded by newspapers. Later, when Holmes seeks to locate the erstwhile owner of the Christmas goose in whose crop a precious stone has been found, he rattles off without pause a long list of Victorian London’s many periodicals. He characterises the problem at hand, after all, as “one of those whimsical little incidents which will happen when you have four million human beings all jostling each other within the space of a few square miles” – that is, the sort of thing that happens in the sort of place Sherlock Holmes chooses to live, and without which he would be lost. The newspapers, of course, were the means to record the happenings of this gathering of humanity; they were the best way to keep track of everything – and everyone.
Later in the story, on the trail of the source of the goose – whose owner, Henry Baker, has been compensated handsomely for information about its origin – Holmes and Watson find themselves first at a pub and then at a market. Might we find two better symbols of London conviviality, or of human exchange? The pub in particular is a community which offers its members service as well as solace: the goose came from a Christmas club managed by its landlord, which offered subscribers of slim means the guarantee of a fine festive fowl in exchange for a few pence each week. There is, here, such a thing as society – and a good thing it is, too.
I’ve written before about the significance of the story’s crescendo, in which Holmes – having uncovered the villain of the piece – allows him to go free, commuting his probable sentence by fiat. It’s easy to suggest this is an individualistic move – the assumption of total authority by Holmes without reference to the checks and balances of wider society. But Holmes is clear that in fact he trusts the system rather less than that – that it will not help the villain but make him worse – and in this sense Holmes is seeking to improve society, one person at a time, rather than circumventing it.
But there is a final note of emphasis. The story ends not with a bang but with a dinner, with Holmes and Watson sharing a Christmas meal in a toast to the season and to the innocent man they’ve saved (as well, of course, as the guilty man to whom they believe themselves to have offered redemption). Conviviality is the closing tone of the story, as well as its opening mood.
Merry Christmas to you – and, indeed, to all of us together.