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.