Books, sherlock holmes

“The Devil’s Pet Baits”

We’re excited to announce that, in the year of the publication by Anthony Horowitz of a large section of Professor Moriarty’s long-lost personal papers, this blog has been granted access to a much shorter, and much earlier, passage from the Napoleon of Crime’s private journals. It is dated December 27th, 1887, and begins in what appears to be the form of a letter. There is no record of it ever being delivered.

Pd_Moriarty_by_Sidney_PagetSir,

Your insouciance is intolerable. As twin poles in the invisible tug of war at the heart of London’s seething underworld, here we have both been, engaged in an absurd chase across the metropolis in search of some poultry. I have followed you, and you have stalked me; we have competed for the crop of a goose, and it is you that have taken home the game. Yet the manner – the arrogance! – of your victory seems calculated to insult, to claim a kind of superiority you may feel but certainly have not won in so trifling a moment. I cannot abide such theatrics. They are the weakest mark of your often admirable character.

For instance, I find your capacity for manipulation remarkable. I confess to a regard for the extent to which you are able to feign unconcern, particularly to even your closest friend. I saw the under-informed chronicler of your exploits enter your rooms on the second morning after Christmas, and I saw him leave; not a trace was there upon his countenance of the grave concern he should have felt. From my cab I had seen that infernal commissionaire rush into Baker Street. I knew what he had in his pockets – my own agents had narrowly missed him at home (the reward he may still share with you will barely pay for the damage to his belongings effected by my men as they searched fruitlessly for the Countess of Morcar’s stone).

You also knew – yes, Moran had seen you near the Hotel Cosmopolitan on the day of the theft -that my network was bent upon liberating the blue carbuncle from that venal aristocrat; you knew, like me, that her possession of it was the result of only the latest in the long line of misdeeds which have characterised the passage of its value between human hands. And you knew, but have shared with no one, that my possession of the stone would have funded many more of my activities – which you so doggedly attempt to frustrate. This contest between you and I which you so thoroughly keep from your literary doctor remains secret to both our advantages – but rarely have you caused me more bother than in this, one of my potentially most lucrative single affairs. Your pace, perhaps, picks up.

Your newspaper advertisement in search of the man who had originally intended to eat the goose in which your commissionaire had found that stone was a wonderful ruse, and of course it occurred to me that, in order to be led to the source of that goose, all I need do was follow you. The bird had disappeared from my own view, too. I should not, in hindsight, have entrusted any moment of the carbuncle’s existence to that fool Ryder. His role in the operation should have remained within the confines of the Countess’s  hotel. My mistake was to assign him the role of carrying the stone from the Cosmopolitan to an agent in Twickenham the following day. His fear of me was so great that he did not reveal my role even when you bullied him so mercilessly in your rooms; I thought it would also be so great to ensure his competence. His bizarre decision to place that stone in a goose is proof enough that even my intellect can at times slip from grace.

I stalked you, then, through Covent Garden market during your search for the source of Ryder’s goose. You – and therefore we – were so close, and at any time I might have successfully overtaken you, fatally for you or otherwise, and skipped ahead a step to the stone … but how might I have accounted for the absurd coincidence of your almost bumping into the rat-faced Ryder himself? Even then, I waited outside your rooms, sure you would call Lestrade or some other of Scotland Yard’s useful idiots, and assumed that the stone, once in the police’s possession, would soon again be mine – a constable on duty is easily paid to be in dereliction of it. Of course, you guessed this. Ryder fled your rooms a free man, the terror which propelled him more of me than of the gallows, and I understand he is already bound for Australia; the stone, meanwhile, remained in your rooms, and in your strong-box. The Countess will reclaim it tomorrow directly from you, and be more vigilant of me than ever (as so she should – for the last time we clashed she almost paid with her life).

There will be no weak link in your chain this time, no chink in the armour of another of your neat solutions. I am, in our shared adventure of the blue carbuncle, undone – and you may pose as the noble fount of festive charity, rather than the sly, deceitful nemesis of an adversary you seek to thwart with every move.

Perhaps one day you will have to admit the truth. Until then, there is only one thing left for me to say.

Merry Christmas, Mr Sherlock Holmes.

Professor James Moriarty

 

 

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Books, sherlock holmes

“We Will Begin Another Investigation”: A Storied Christmas for Sherlock Holmes

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I read ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ every Christmas Eve, and in that way it has become less a story to me and more a collection of familiar jokes, quirks and reminders. The cubic capacity of Henry Baker’s skull, the ill-tempered smugness of a Covent Garden fowl merchant, the Christmas dinner in which a bird will feature heavily: all of them are present and correct, in the best ways of tradition, when called upon.

But what actually happens in this story? What does it look like? In some ways, it is rather ugly: its very first sentence includes that higgledy-piggledy word ‘upon’ twice within the space of six words. Like Holmes and Watson’s wander through the frosty streets of the capital in search of the breeder of Baker’s gem-laden goose, the story dots and weaves rather abruptly through a number of brief episodes, to the extent that the detective’s insistence to the piece’s villain, James Ryder, that he has “all the proofs which I could possibly need” seems even bolder an assertion than usual. It has a wonderful atmosphere, but an ungainly shape.

On the other hand, it’s an excellent example of what Michael Chabon has called the Holmesian canon’s tendency to produce ‘story engines’, little perfectly-tuned motors of narrative which contain a cascade of plot and incident that helps propel the apparently meagre foregrounded story with considerably more impetus than it might otherwise have. ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, slight and swift as it seems, in fact contains a whole series of other tales, a sense of happening which fits a story that rests on the conceit that it is “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”.

Even as Watson arrives at Holmes’s rooms – usually the start of a Sherlockian escapade – events are in motion. The good doctor finds his friend deep in contemplation – Peterson, the commissionaire, has already brought a beaten old hat and a goose to Holmes for inspection, and along with them a vignette of a boozy Yuletide evening in which high spirits became a violent altercation from which a man fled without his Christmas goose. That man, we discover, is Mr Henry Baker – whose story Holmes draws from the details of his cracked felt hat (“his wife has ceased to love him”). When Baker answers Holmes’s message – printed in those repositories of narrative, the newspapers – we discover yet more about him, including that he is party to a two dozen-strong goose club. (This latter fact gives us twenty-three other Victorian Christmases to ponder.)

We know by now, of course, that Baker’s goose contained the famed blue carbuncle, a priceless gem belonging to the Countess of Morcar which, Holmes tells Watson, “is a nucleus and focus of crime” – in short, a body around which countless stories orbit. We might wonder, too, how the Countess came upon this storied artifact, about the relationship between Lady Morcar and her lady-in-waiting, whose tip-off to the upper-attendant of the hotel in which her mistress was resident gave rise to this latest theft; we read of a previous conviction for robbery of John Horner, the man framed by Ryder for the carbuncle’s disappearance, and reassess Holmes’s later insistence upon the plumber’s total innocence; and, of course, we wonder what poor old Inspector Bradstreet, quoted in the press as to his certitude of Horner’s guilt, makes of Holmes’s involvement.

These are a lot of jumping-off points for a story so short, and help explain why there is so much space to explore within its apparently slight constraints. Holmes’s final act of festive forgiveness, allowing Ryder to flee, leaves open yet more possibilities: “there is the making of a very pretty villain in you,” the detective tells the villain, and his escape at the story’s close leaves his future career a matter for speculation.

But that, perhaps, is a story for the New Year. In the meantime, readers: merry Christmas to you, whatever your story.

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“You know my methods. What can you gather yourself?”

Jeremy Brett oin 'The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle'.

“Here is my lens.”

Christmas Eve, in case you hadn’t noticed, is when I re-read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of Blue Carbuncle’. When I took down my bound volume of the relevant year’s Strand magazines (itself a very kind Christmas gift), I noticed the date embossed on its spine: 1892. This was a reminder, if one were needed, that this story is now one hundred and twenty years old. (In fact, the story was originally published in January, so it is almost one year older than that.)

Inevitably, the story creaks in the ways that your great-grandfather’s popular fiction will: all those interjections – “My dear Holmes!” – and all that reporting of action via direct speech – “Pray take the basket-chair. I will just put on my slippers before we settle this little matter of yours. Now, then!” But there are also moments which signify its age in a less grating fashion. Take Holmes’s answer to the question of which newspapers should carry his message to the owner of an abandoned Christmas goose, for example: “Oh, in the Globe, Star, Pall Mall, St. James’s, Evening News, Standard, Echo, and any others that occur to you.” Would that today’s press were so vibrant and varied!

In his The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey makes a good deal of Holmes’s reliance upon and love of the press. For Carey (though alas he doesn’t cite any one story as evidence for his assertions), this addiction to news is in a roundabout way of a piece with the redemptive message at the festive heart of ‘The Blue Carbuncle’:

“[The] contempt among [modernist] intellectuals for newspapers is not, we should note, shared by the great fictional intellectual of the period, Sherlock Holmes. While the intellectuals were busy inventing alarming versions of the masses for other intellectuals to read, Conan Doyle created, in Holmes, a comforting version of the intellectual for mass consumption […] Holmes’s redemptive genius as a detective lies in rescuing individuals from the mass […] by giving an accurate account, before they have spoken a word, of their jobs, their habits and their individual interests. The appeal of this Holmesian magic and the reassurance it brings to readers are, I would suggest, residually religious, akin to the singling-out of the individual soul, redeemed from the mass, that Christianity promises.” [pp. 8-9]

By this logic, ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ is the quintessential Holmes story: the great detective explicitly cites the case 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”; yet even before meeting him he deduces in exacting detail the shape of the life lived by the man who lost his Christmas goose (“it is extremely improbable that he has gas laid on in his house”). From there, Holmes follows the trail through to a villain whom he sets free with the justification of “saving a soul”. Given ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ is set during the Christian festival which most celebrates the potential for salvation, it’s remarkable that Carey uses that word ‘redemptive’; and, if we were to use Holmes’s methods upon an unreferenced passage which also discusses newspaper personal columns, we might be forced to deduce that Carey had on his mind as he wrote precisely Holmes’s little Christmas miracle.

Elsewhere, Carey argues that Conan Doyle’s Holmes practiced a weird kind of anti-intellectualism in his adventures: all those disparaged clerks and, for instance in ‘The Naval Treaty’, a defence of the intellectuals’ hated Board Schools as “lighthouses”. It seems to me, however, that the redemptive power of Holmes’s method – if we are to join Carey in his vision of Holmes as a saviour of the individual against the mass, which on Christmas 2012 as much as on Christmas 1892 it is almost possible not to do –  lies precisely in his intellect. Sherlock Holmes is not an impossible shaman – “Your reasoning is certainly plausible,” says Watson – but an improbable savant. And when one has eliminated the impossible, whatever remains – however improbable – must be the truth.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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Books, sherlock holmes

“A Man With So Large A Head Must Have Something In It”

The usual tradition: this year, the festive joy starts a minute in. Merry Christmas, gentle reader.

(Of course, and not for the first time, Holmes’s initial, and here gloriously playful, instincts are shown to be erroneous – there is indeed a dark story attached to Henry Baker’s hat. The season’s gift to him, then, is a crime – and he is, indeed, like a child at Christmas.)

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Christmas 2010

2010’s been a year of high highs and low lows for us, and Christmas has served as a welcome caesura: a time to pause for breath, relax, and make sense of it all. The good news is that the lows are on the up whilst the highs maintain their trajectory. The build-up to Christmas, all snowy Cotswold stone and cosy meals in the new home, was just right. And the festivities themselves have left left us feeling very much refreshed.

So, all in all, a pretty positive Yuletide. Hope you all had a great Christmas, too!

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Simply Having …

Nothing says Christmas like being extremely cold. This weekend, contrary to our expectations when it began, has put us properly in the Christmas spirit. We returned to Birmingham on Friday evening for a stroll around the Frankfurt Christmas Market with Anna’s brother, followed by a very peaceful meal (was everyone outside eating stollen?); we spent Saturday afternoon browsing Christmas decorations and gratefully drinking hot tea and coffee at the similarly seasonally silent Ashwood Nurseries; and Dan spent Sunday lunchtime at Rhubarb Radio cursing the inneffectiveness of not one but two electric heaters – and resisting (for the last week) playing a Christmas song.

The frost was so thick this morning that it seemed like snow. Best of the season to you.

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Last Chance for Christmas…

A final Christmas-y post, before it’s time to take decorations down and start trying to keep to New Year resolutions!

It’s been a lovely Christmas, with time to relax, to eat, listen to music, dance and spend time with family and friends.  Putting up decorations and lighting candles at Whinfell Forest, wandering through the German Market in Birmingham to have a Japanese lunch with friends, walking in the snow on Christmas Eve and making Christmas dinner treats with our families.  Thank you to all our friends and family for such happy celebrations…

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