Sherlock: Will You Miss Him?


“What effect do you think it will have upon his plans now that he knows you are here?”

“It may cause him to be more cautious, or it may drive him to desperate measures at once. Like most clever criminals, he may be too confident in his own cleverness and imagine that he has completely deceived us.”

Sherlock Holmes had disdain for the self-satisfied. Though he once remarked (in ‘The Creeping Man’) that, “I have never sought to inspire confidence in others – I have quite enough of my own”, many of his triumphs arose out of a knowledge that, eventually, his enemy would grow over-confident. “Pure swank!” he spits of the too-proud villain in ‘The Retired Colourman’. “He felt so clever and so sure of himself that he imagined no one could touch him. He could say to any suspicious neighbour, ‘Look at the steps I have taken. I have consulted not only the police but even Sherlock Holmes.’” To Sherlock Holmes, swank was a quality to avoid.

What, however, of Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’s Sherlock Holmes? From its first episode, Sherlock has tweaked the nose of expectation: many might have scoffed when they first heard the idea of transplanting Conan Doyle’s sleuth to the modern day, but it’s an idea with such currency that it hasn’t only been done since – it’s also been done before. Moffat and Gattis’s genius was to do so unapologetically, almost rudely: texts instead of telegraphs, blogs instead of a tin dispatch box. Sherlock has also been bold enough to reimagine the central characters themselves, almost from the very off: though ‘A Study in Pink’ introduced us to characters we at first recognised, by ‘The Great Game’, and with it the close of the show’s first season, it was clear both Sherlock and John were quite different to Holmes and Watson.

In the former’s case, however, it is arguable that the show’s vision of Sherlock as a “high-functioning sociopath”, as was declared at the close of its third series finale (aired last Sunday), is rather less layered than the original. Conan Doyle’s Holmes could certainly be obsessive and detached; but he could also be compassionate and connected. The confidence – perhaps the over-confidence – with which the show has chased this limited vision of its lead character has led it to make several odd mis-steps in the latest trilogy of episodes. Where Sherlock has always been a populist show written by Holmes nuts with irreverence and some pugnacity, in the latest run it has been given the room to follow its preferences at the expense of those concerns of structure, plot and pacing which once kept it – barely, but with often giddy results – in check.

That final episode, ‘His Last Vow’, was evidence enough of what Sherlock can do if it tries: superlative performances (in particular from Martin Freeman, of which more shortly), comforting and clever canon references (an east wind, a false marriage proposal, a chance meeting in an opium den), a vivid premise rolled out in surprising ways. But both ‘The Empty Hearse’ and ‘The Sign of Three’ were palpably over-interested in themselves, in pulling those shapes and popping that swagger: in both episodes, the central and peripheral mysteries alike were unworthy of the supposed intellect of the lead, and were subsumed beneath an over-riding interest in baiting or servicing the show’s fans, in aggrandising or undercutting its own mythologies, in the business of being a television programme.

I am not invested in an idea of what Sherlock should be, or in the idea that it should follow the same plot-heavy pattern of the original stories. I’m happy to countenance Moffat’s vision of his show, which is that, “it is not a detective show. It is a show about a detective.” But Moffat then went on to say: “It is a show that celebrates a clever man. So we make the show look complex.” There are a couple of problems with this. First, Sherlock doesn’t celebrate Sherlock: it suggests his high intellect is not so much a virtue as a mental illness; at its moment of crescendo, indeed, ‘His Last Vow’ allows no intellectual escape for its clever man, but instead asks him to fall back on the worst behaviours of his supposed condition.  Secondly, there’s that issue of appearance: why go to the effort of making a show look complex if it is complex already?

‘The Empty Hearse’ archly refused to provide an official explanation of Sherlock’s escape from death at the close of the second series. That’s fine – in fact, it’s rather neat, resisting the urge to render Sherlock as some sort of magician, whose genius is besmirched when we understand the turn. Of course, withholding knowledge was not enough for Sherlock – providing three separate explanations is what a “clever” show would do. Likewise, in ‘The Sign of Three’, a full third of the entire third series is more or less devoted to a best man’s speech delivered by Sherlock at John’s wedding to Mary Morstan; a bizarre structural choice, certainly, but made complex and clever, or so the episode willed us to believe, by a series of mini-adventures imparted as component elements of the speech (that the monologue ends by connecting all its dots into a single mystery that needs solving immediately never quite follows from the baggy pace of all that preceded this most sudden of denouements). The directorial flair which has always been part of the show’s look, the snappy dialogue and self-aware comedy, is now so focused upon as to become its centre, almost its raison d’être, rather than the seasoning which made so strange and sometimes flawed a dish so confoundingly flavoursome.

In this way, ‘His Last Vow’, alone in this series, was quintessential Sherlock: fast-paced and funny, awkwardly structured and occasionally tone-deaf, all carried through by stellar performances and a pointed sort of wit. Freeman’s John in particular shined in the finale, with all the suppressed rage we were somewhat unconvincingly, given Freeman’s simultaneous total humanity, told was a sign that he, too, was a sociopath. In contrast, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock felt faintly under-powered. One wished for the Cumberbatch of Parade’s End, endlessly subtle and compelling, rather than the occasionally one-note actor he was forced by Sherlock‘s third season scripts to be. He was given, of course, his workshop moments: the memory palace scenes, his arrival at the restaurant in ‘The Empty Hearse’; but he was also asked to put his hands to his temples and squint a lot. I’ve previously praised the show for its characterisation of Sherlock, but this third series felt to me to be asleep at the wheel, its high-point coming too late to change direction. The trajectory of Sherlock is now not (if it ever were) from great to good man; it is from narrow to narrower, from the sorrowful, considered jump of ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ to the hemmed-in final, fatal action of ‘His Last Vow’.

Into the space vacated by its central character, Sherlock puts an often wonderful Mary Morstan (although this character, too, is whittled down somewhat during ‘His Last Vow’), or a developing but increasingly woobyish Mycroft; it gives us gloriously nasty villains (we should spare a mention for Lars Mikkelsen, who as Charles Augustus Magnussen is memorably horrible), and some lovely moments of misdirection (Major Sholto is no villain, the woman in the blackmailer’s office does not shoot him in the chest). But most of all the show is padded with a cleverness not so much celebrated as fetishised. For all of Sherlock‘s better moments (and for all of its ongoing blind spots, where in the case of gender at least there were some noisy attempts at mitigation), it was this series a show rather more guilty than not of … well, swank. And Sherlock Holmes should not be deceived by swank.


The Police Don’t Consult Amateurs

Sherlock and John.

During my long acquaintance with Mr. Sherlock Holmes, his communiques were never less than terse and to the point, lacking entirely any concession to the niceties of polite conversation. Constrained not just by their medium, but by their composer’s own natural efficiency of expression, they tended at times even towards the terse. Were it not for my intimate association with the world’s only consulting detective, I would often have considered his messages rude, even obstinate, and certainly not the product of a gentlemanly mind aware to the importance of decorum and manners. But my familiarity with my friend’s particular eccentricities of thought and behaviour led me to forgive him his fondness for the imperative. Sherlock Holmes prized above all information: clean, unencumbered, unmediated data. His preferred means of communicating that information, and his abiding preference for the laconic, were merely functions of his greater qualities.

It’s unlikely that John Watson would write in this way on his blog; but were he for some inexplicable reason to ape the precise prose of the Victorian adventure story, what would be striking is the way in which his description of his friend Sherlock Holmes’s enthusiasm for text messaging could be read, in a different context, as a reliance on the telegram. Plus ça change, you might say.

The BBC’s new Sherlock Holmes series, as surely everyone knows by now, is set in the modern day – a return to the approach of those ’40s Rathbone movies which dropped the great detective into the middle of World War II and left him to it. What saves the series, written by Doctor Who supremo Steven Moffat and co-created with Mark Gatiss, from the worst excesses of those patchy productions is its clever refiguring of the original stories. Like Guy Ritchie’s version late last year, this Sherlock at first appears to bear only superficial resemblance to the popular, let alone canonical, image of Holmes; but, like Ritchie’s, this Holmes is deep down the same character in skewed contexts.

Thus the text messaging. On one level, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a thoroughly modern SMS addict, firing off 160-character messages almost constantly; on another, his addiction teaches us something about his character, as well as his milieu – that he is distant and distanced, preferring communication at one remove and which has the additional benefit of forcing the elision of all but the most necessary information; but yet further, the SMS is a the modern telegram – priced by the space it takes up, delivered practically immediately, perfect for the issuing of diktats and summonses. This depth of reference makes Sherlock a complex and clever drama, aware of the power its source material bestows, rather than desperate to ditch it.

Martin Freeman’s Watson, too, gets similar treatment: like his Victorian forebear, he is recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. In a nod to Sherlockians who have puzzled for a century about the curious flight of the Jezail bullet which wounded him, this Watson has a phantom limp which resolves into his real wound – in the shoulder. These separate instances are dealt with lightly and deftly, making perfect, immediate sense to the initiate but also adding a wealth of reference, allusion and just plain smarts to what could have easily been a fairly brainless series. Only an over-done and unnecessary running ‘joke’ that Holmes and Watson had nothing to fear if they wanted to be big gay buddies (why the constant re-iteration?) rings a truly clumsy note.

None of which is to say that Sherlock is without its hiccups – though its casting, locations and wardrobe are all in the main superb, feeding on the characters’ heritage without compromising its contemporary relevance, all this grit and grain is at times flattened out by unsure execution. In particular, the central mystery felt stretched – perhaps deliberately, it was significantly less interesting or indeed complex than the character introductions, and much agonising was put on screen about a solution which Doyles’s Holmes would probably have arrived at before the opening sitting room scene was over. Furthermore, Mark Gatiss’s performance felt as if it had snuck in from a different series – camp and knowing, it seemed rather to betray the tone of the rest of the episode. Gatiss’s shtick is far more entertaining the less you’ve seen of it.

These are uncharitable gripes, however: Sherlock was a triumph, almost immediately dispelling preconceptions whilst also playing with them, making use of our storied knowledge of Holmes whilst also forbidding us to judge this new version on anything but his own terms. It is a fiendish balancing act to pull off, but the writer and his cast did so with aplomb. If a story about, in DI Lestrade’s words, a great man becoming a good man may not be the most revolutionary of concepts – and if Holmes-as-sociopath under-sells the compassion and decency which has been part of all the most successful versions of Holmes (Doyle’s not least among them, natch) – it’s far too soon to doubt an approach which, in the series’ first episode, worked by and large so impossibly well.

“It Suits My Purpose”: Doyle, Holmes, and Milverton

"Milverton had glided as quick as a rat to the site of the room..."

This blog enjoyed one of those periodic – but inexplicable – spikes yesterday, for the phrase ‘charles augustus milverton’. Milverton is, of course, the only Sherlock Holmes villain named in the title of the story in which he appears. When I read the story last year, what struck me was the seediness of the affair: the unctuous Milverton, his amoral blackmail racket, Holmes’s own descent into moral ambiguity. It’s a story very strong in characterisation – its villain is no rent-a-crook, and remains one of the most memorable of all Holmes’s nemeses. But Holmes and Watson, too, get some fine moments: when Watson insists he join Holmes in robbing Milverton’s home, the good doctor huffs at his conceited friend that, “Other people besides you have self-respect, and even reputations.” Rarely does Watson get lines like that.

This is all for the best, because the story itself is pretty weak, resolved as it is by the arrival of a character mentioned not at all until her very moment of entrance. Though Milverton crosses swords with Holmes on the subject of one of the latter’s aristocratic clients, his undoing – entirely without any input or influence from our hero – is a quite separate tale, and engineered by a wronged woman who remains, thanks to good old circumspect Watson, nameless. The only satisfaction we have is the story’s atmosphere.

This is set early on when Holmes, far from a man uncharmed by criminal competency (he praised Moriarty, remember, with the remarkable sobriquet ‘the Napoleon of crime’), calls Milverton, plainly and without adornment, “The worst man in London.” Though he admits that “the fellow is a genius in his way, and would have made his mark in some more savoury trade”, Holmes’s disdain is clear for the manner in which the blackmailer preys on the private indiscretions of those unfortunate enough to possess an acquaintance willing to sell secrets for cash. Milverton “methodically and at his leisure tortures the soul and wrings the nerves in order to add to his already swollen money-bags.” Rarely, Watson notes, has Holmes spoken with such intensity.

That intensity may have been Conan Doyle’s: published in 1904, the story was written whilst his first wife, Louisa, became increasingly ill with tuberculosis; for consolation, Conan Doyle turned to Jean Leckie, whom he married a year after Louisa’s death in 1906. The passionate denunciation of those who would profit from the painful complications of a gentleman’s private affairs may therefore be unsurprising, particularly given that Milverton is based on Charles Augustus Howell, a real life blackmailer who died in mysterious circumstances in 1890. Milverton is a potent mix of true life study and darkest fears made flesh. It is he who makes this otherwise akward story dance – thus, one assumes, the searches.

Rathbone’s ‘Hound’ and ‘Adventures’

"Oh, Watson - the needle!"

As threatened, I’ve been watching some of the old Basil Rathbone movies. Conveniently, I received the complete set of his Sherlock Holmes pictures as a gift at Christmas. So far, I’ve seen only the first two, made at Twentieth Century Fox in 1939 and the only entries in the series which take place in the Victorian period. The later films, set contemporaneously during World War II and made by Universal, are spoken of as variable in quality and tone, and, though at times inspired by canonical stories, are also wildly free with them. (This should give some Sherlockians, who often prefer Rathbone even to Brett, some pause for thought before they trash Guy Ritchie.)

These first two films, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, were actually unusual in the history of Holmes cinema up to that point – they were the first deliberately to evoke the authentic period. Those later Universal ‘travesties’ were in fact a sort of reversion to form – prior to 1939, most Holmes films had simply been set whenever the films were set. (Of course, this became more and more difficult to sustain the further that film makers found themselves from the nineteenth century.) The Hound of the Baskervilles is indeed a fairly faithful adaptation – it makes cuts to fit its brutally short running time of just eighty minutes, but even Nigel Bruce’s Watson – later infamously a bumbling comic foil – is allowed to inhabit the competent role Conan Doyle gave him. At the end of the story, Holmes insists he must retire for the evening – and calls Watson to bring him his needle. This is a quite astounding fidelity to the text for 1939.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is less faithful. Though it features Professor Moriarty, and closes with the villain falling from a great height, there is no Reichenbach and there is nothing approaching a plot similar to any of those in the collection which shares the film’s title. Instead, a rather good George Zucco has his Moriarty plan what Conan Doyle’s Holmes would have found a quite trifling crime, in order to distract from his grander scheme to, erm, steal the Crown Jewels. This Moriarty more resembles Rattigan from the infinitely more entertaining Basil The Great Mouse Detective. There are some excellent moments early on which do as much as anything in The Final Problem to establish the curious mix of rapport and revulsion that exists between Holmes and his nemesis, but otherwise the plot proceeds very plainly. Also, Rathbone dresses up as a music hall singer and performs ‘I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’. For reals.

These films do atmosphere well – both develop a murky Victorian dread which works well for the stories, and the music in Adventures in particular is properly eery. Rathbone, of course, is acerbic, urbane and thoughtful as Holmes – though also, perhaps, a little too healthy and level-headed. Was Conan Doyle’s Holmes really so robust? Still, if it’s not quite what you might want from your Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles in particular is a decent 80 minutes of easy entertainment – and isn’t that at the very least a large part of what we should expect of the great detective?

Making Bricks With Clay: Sherlock Holmes [2009]

Which of the above is psychologically disturbed?

My review of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes appears at Strange Horizons today. Ritchie’s timing, of course, couldn’t have been better. I would always have been interested in his film, and all too willing to compare it to the stories and to screen Holmeses past, too; but in the wake of last year’s project his movie was, and here I say it, a delicious little dessert. If by this you infer I mean that it wasn’t exactly nutritious but suited my tastes, you wouldn’t be so far from the truth.

On Strange Horizons I focus on the influence of SF on the film, which is undeniable – steampunk and the gothic are constant, if subtle, presences in a story which pits the technocratic rationalism of Robert Downey Jr’s bohemian Holmes (who admittedly doesn’t much look like the received image of the detective) against the severe, forbidding mysticism of Mark Strong’s Lord Blackwood. This makes it, as foregrounded by the prominence of the unfinished London Bridge, a story about science and construction. As religious maniacs scream and secret societies chant mumbo jumbo, Holmes’s logic seeks to make order from chaos – it seeks, in fact, to make people free, where Blackwood’s magic derives its power from the paralysing fear it produces.

Which is all well and good for a publisher of the literature of science fiction. But is Sherlock Holmes a good, well, Sherlock Holmes film? It shouldn’t be forgotten that Ritchie chose to make Holmes eponymous – this is a Sherlock Holmes film, about Sherlock Holmes, and it is so in a series of rather shrewd ways. Yes, there is sex and violence, but even that has just enough justification for all but the most rigid of Sherlockians to let pass. So Holmes’s relationship with Irene Adler, though clearly sexually charged, is ambiguous – and it is always Adler who initiates its racier physical side. Likewise, the violence is matched to character: Watson is clinical and bold, fitting with the ex-soldier he is strongly (and satisfyingly) emphasised to be; Holmes’s mind works in such a way that he plans his blows artfully in the seconds before he delivers them. Both are, perhaps, severe extensions upon their justifications within the original stories (“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman”; “I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling”), but they are treated in such a way that the extensions do not lack support.

The role of Holmes’s logic, too, makes Sherlock Holmes a movie which understands the lineage of its principal character. His arrangement of facts and thesis is correct, and he sees things because he is looking for them. The rigour of his scientific view of the world is clear, if playfully presented, and he is depicted as a hero precisely because of that refusal to bow to less clear-sighted modes of thought. True, Watson exclaims at one point, “You’re not human!”. But this, too, is merely part of the film’s fidelity to the source text – “This mustn’t register on an emotional level,” Downey’s Holmes reminds himself. This Holmes’s detachment, his sense of theatre and over-weening pride, are all straight out of the stories. If Downey is unshaven and his Holmes dresses in a way which would have had him hounded out of polite Victorian society, all other aspects of his portrayal, if again at times shaped and molded for the new millennium, feel right. It is, perhaps, a reboot – but no travesty.

There are inevitably bumps in the road. Watson’s accent seems at times a tad too Crown & Anchor (yet Law is wonderfully warm and responsive, and his limp was a thing of childish glee for a follower of the Jezail bullet); Irene Adler has been shaped into an unVictorian international woman of mystery (yet she is referred to as an “adventuress” in A Scandal in Bohemia); the plot, it is true, follows noirish conventions in its final over-complexity (yet follows in its strangeness and outlandishness several of Conan Doyle’s own grotesques). These awkward additions nevertheless feel, with those just-enough fidelities, like gentle grafts rather than brutal transplants. The ‘bromance’ between Watson and Holmes may be the element of the film most difficult to reconcile with the stories, and indeed with previous screen outings or Victorian England itself, but it is done with such wit – the script is often very sharp – and chemisty between the leads that it feels like an acceptable twist of a relationship which, even in Conan Doyle, was often waspish and tense. Again, where Ritchie’s film adds it does so on such solid foundations that the structure does not crumble.

I liked Brad Keefauver’s comment that the film is “Sherlock Holmes done at the pace Sherlock Holmes himself moves.” This seems just right – perhaps because the movie is ultimately hokum, and routinely particularly bonkers hokum, it moves very quickly. Right from the first scene, in which Holmes runs ahead of a hansom cab carrying Watson and Lestrade, the film plays out at a dash. Holmes has always run ahead of us. Quite contrary to my expectations, those who said in pre-release interviews that the film had great respect for the books weren’t lying. It also has a healthy dose of irreverence, and perhaps this is not to the taste of some – but it can’t be argued that that irreverence isn’t also intelligent, entertaining and not a little careful.

You surprise me, Mr Ritchie.

It’s Sherlock Holmes done at the pace Sherlock Holmes himself moves.

“Cut Out The Poetry, Watson”

Sherlock Holmes was in a melancholy and philosophic mood that morning.

"The man sprang to his feet with a hoarse scream."

The Retired Colourman is in a way an anticlimactic end to a year’s worth of reading (and some thoughts on the project taken as a whole will no doubt follow). At the Guardian books blog, Darragh McManus has put the boot into Doyle by arguing that all his Holmes stories have the same hackneyed plot, closing with: “Holmes briskly outlines to an open-mouthed Watson the three pieces of evidence that cracked the case. The end.” The Retired Colourman features no fewer than two slack-jawed students – Watson and an Inspector MacKinnon – and Holmes spends much of the story hiding crucial pieces of information, disappearing into the London fog, and arranging mysterious appointments.

But McManus deserves the fileting he’s receiving in his comments, because, as by-the-number as it is structurally, The Retired Colourman also features the wit for which Conan Doyle is too often uncredited. In MacKinnon’s upbraiding of an arrogant Holmes, in the playful characterisation of Holmes’s client, and in the great detective’s own sharp mood – advising Watson, for instance, to ingratiate himself with a worker woman as Holmes himself did in that very first storyThe Retired Colourman, with its memorable central mystery, is also redolent of all the things that make the Holmes stories pleasurable and surprising. McManus’s dismissal is simplistic and therefore wrong-headed.

“But is not all life pathetic and futile? Is not his story a microcosm of the whole? We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow – misery.” Holmes is not in a sprightly mood here, and the foregoing – one of his most memorable orations, alongside his ode to the rose in The Naval Treaty – lends the whole story a fitting air of retirement and fatigue. In a way, it’s a sad quirk of the publication of the collections that The Retired Colourman displaces Shoscombe Old Place as the last entry in the canon, but in another it isn’t: Holmes’s career is perhaps stuttering to an end, and new, younger men – efficient police inspectors, or private detectives inspired by Holmes, like Barker – have arrived to replace him. “You can file it in our archives, Watson,” Holmes says at story’s close. The reader, despite those creaks of bitter old age that echo throughout this final story, might be forgiven for being as morose as Holmes to be at the end of them.

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.

“My Business Is That Of Every Other Good Citizen”

Sherlock Holmes had been bending for a long time over a low-power microscope.

"... a steep stair led down into the crypt..."
"... a steep stair led down into the crypt..."

The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place was the last Holmes story Arthur Conan Doyle wrote (in a twist of the curious collection process, the final story in many editions of the Casebook is the Retired Colourman – which we come to next week). It’s nice to think that its first line is a sort of nod to that, but whether Conan Doyle knew this story would be his last is impossible to tell. Certainly, it is a sort of cover version, a late-period revival of a great hit of the past: Silver Blaze, written thirty-five years prior to Shoscombe Old Place, is also a story about a racehorse, a trainer, an owner, and a helpful dog.

Shoscombe Old Place is a far more gruesome tale, however, possessed of a hint of the gothic in the scenes set in an ancient crypt: “It was just the head and a few bones of a mummy,” Holmes’s client, the trainer John Mason says of the human remains he finds there. “It may have been a thousand years old.” When Holmes himself explores the crypt, he discovers “a body swathed in a sheet from head to foot, with dreadful, witch-like features.” This is a dark reflection of that earlier mystery, murky in the way of many of the later cases – the age of Victorian propriety has long since past.

Still, there are similarities between the two cases, too. In Silver Blaze, Holmes explained to Watson, “We imagined what might have happened, acted upon the supposition, and find ourselves justified.” Here, he proceeds along a similar path: Holmes makes “a scandalous supposition, a hypothesis put forward for argument’s sake,” that Mason’s master, Sir Robert Norberton, has murdered his sister (who holds their country house as a life interest from her dead husband’s brother). The reaction of the story’s dog – again as in Silver Blaze – is the key to confirming the supposition. Ultimately, Holmes isn’t quite right on the detail (again, matters are more complex than they might once have been), but his method remains always the same.

The final lines of Shoscombe Old Place refer to Norberton, who is guilty of irregular if not illegal behaviour; but one feels they might also refer to Holmes: “the lucky owner [of the horse Shoscombe Prince] go away scatheless from this strange incident in a career which has now outlived its shadows and promises to end in an honoured old age.” Holmes, of course, is retired with his bees on the South Downs as Watson writes this tale, all thought – perhaps – of the criminal fogs of London put to one side in favour of his work on apiarism. 1902, the year in which Baring-Gould argued this story was set, feels grubbier that Silver Blaze’s 1888; perhaps the master, too, is best off out of it.

As an aside, the Granada adaptation of this story featured none other than Jude Law, who of course appears as Watson in Guy Ritchie’s new Sherlock Holmes movie, out Boxing Day. One might hope he does Edward Hardwicke proud…

“Keeping Beasts In A Cage”

When one considers that Mr. Sherlock Holmes was in active practice for twenty-three years, and that during seventeen of these I was allowed to cooperate with him and to keep notes of his doings, it will be clear that I have a mass of material at my command.

"There was something in the woman’s voice which arrested Holmes’s attention."

The Veiled Lodger begs the question of Watson: why, then, choose this piece to publish? There is no mystery to solve – this is the story of a woman talking to Holmes and clearing up some minor questions he had about a newspaper report some years before. That woman, furthermore, exhibits idiosyncratic behaviour in her choice of Holmes as a confidante in the first place. “I do not promise,” he tells her, “that when you have spoken I may not myself think it my duty to refer the case to the police.” Ever the free agent, Holmes’s refusal of client confidentiality somewhat undoes the woman’s desire simply to unburden her heart.

The woman is a lodger of a Mrs. Merrilow, who appreciates the good and timely rent she is paid but, after months of seclusion – shades of The Red Circle there – has seen the face of her guest, and thus knows she must have a terrible secret: “you would hardly say it was a face at all,” she tells Holmes, and then imparts that the woman wishes to meet him. “If he won’t come,” the scarred lodger insists, “tell him I am the wife of Ronder’s wild beast show.” This is enough: Holmes remembers the case of Ronder and his wife, two circus performers apparently attacked by a lion, he killed, she disfigured. “It was so deucedly difficult to reconstruct the whole affair,” Holmes remembers, and his interview with the woman routinely fills in the gaps.

“The most terrible human tragedies were often involved in those cases which brought him the fewest personal opportunities, and it is one of these which I now desire to record,” Watson writes at the start of the story, and the woman’s tale is to be sure gruesome and sad. Ultimately, though, any story – however tragic – must have narrative momentum. Here, Conan Doyle simply writes a story in which a woman tells Holmes a story.

In his essay on Sherlock Holmes published in two February 2005 issues of The New York Review of Books, and collected in his 2008 collection, Maps and Legends (which I’ve been reading), Michael Chabon remarks that Holmes stories are “storytelling engines, steam-driven, brass-fitted, but among the most efficient narrative apparatuses the world has ever seen.” This is usually true – Conan Doyle’s stories are a series of nested narratives, each interlocking and each with extraneous, vital, life of their own – but here the engine is low indeed on fuel, and the story one of the shortest in the canon. This veiled lodger’s story is memorable in its own way, but somehow, without all that surrounding framework, it isn’t made to matter.

“Can You, With All Your World-wide Reputation, Do Nothing For Us?”

It is a most singular thing that a problem which was certainly as abstruse and unusual as any which I have faced in my long professional career should have come to me after my retirement, and be brought, as it were, to my very door.

"Stackhurst and I rushed forward..."

The Lion’s Mane will convince no one that the young Sherlock Holmes, in choosing the profession of detective over that of writer, missed his calling. As befits the man whom Watson has depicted as routinely disdainful of his own style as an author, Holmes’s voice is pernickety and long-winded, lacking in both passion and poetry. That is not to say he does not betray his flare for the dramatic, leaving the reader on tenterhooks even as he puts his moment of revelation to paper: “Yes, it was indeed a far-fetched and unlikely proposition, and yet I could not be at rest until I had made sure if it might, indeed, be so. It was late when I retired, with my mind eagerly awaiting the work of the morrow.” Rather, Holmes’s more complex sentence structures and focus on physical, rather than emotional, description produce a different – and colder – air than that created by Watson.

All of which is to say, to leave behind the Sherlockian game of pretending fiction to be reality, that Conan Doyle is, as I’ve noted many times by now, singularly skilled in the matter of characterisation. Here, he risks making his great creation too commonplace by over-exposure: as in The Blanched Soldier, Holmes must show us his working more than Watson might. But by capturing what our many hours with Holmes have taught us about him, and distilling this into a means of imparting a narrative, Conan Doyle succeeds in bringing Holmes closer to us whilst maintaining the great detective’s distance. “I was forced to shake my head,” Holmes tells us of his reaction to some conspicious compliment. “To accept such praise was to lower one’s own standards.” This aloofness is key to Holmes – and his creator is wise to retain it at the cost of penning a frosty tale.

Indeed, other than the voice the story has little to recommend it. The fourth of the Casebook quartet to be dismissed as drivel by Meyer’s Watson, The Lion’s Mane perhaps deserves it more than some of its peers (I presented the defense case for The Creeping Man, for one, last week); it feels like a parade of identikit country suspects – pale imitations of the denizens of The Boscombe Valley Mystery or The Priory School – before, as in The Stockbroker’s Clerk or The Second Stain, we watch Holmes solve the case by, well, reading something. Had Watson penned the case, perhaps Holmes would have disappeared for a day and returned energised by secret knowledge. Reading directly about him puttering in his library for a bit and then being coy with his reader about the exact tome in question is a bit of a let-down, as is the final reveal. (“‘Cyanea! Cyanea! Behold the Lion’s Mane!'”)

The Lion’s Mane, then, is far from a classic. It is, though, pleasant for the Sherlockian in its opening paragraphs: “My villa is situated upon the southern slope of the downs, commanding a great view of the Channel. At this point the coast-line is entirely of chalk cliffs, which can only be descended by a single, long, tortuous path, which is steep and slippery.” The story is set in 1907; in another seven years Holmes will look across the Channel more darkly – and engagingly. Here, his pedantic voice is both burden as much as boon. “You certainly do things thoroughly, Mr. Holmes,” a constable breathes in wonder at one point. “I should hardly be what I am if I did not,” Holmes sniffs in reply. Quite so, sir. Quite so.