“My Dear Holmes”: A Christmas Recollection

Every Christmas Eve I read “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”, Sherlock Holmes’ only festive adventure. This year, I offer a little marginalia from what I surmise to be the still-unpublished diaries of Holmes’s amanuensis, Dr John Watson. The entry seems to have been written towards the end of the Great Hiatus, with Holmes still believed to be dead. I’ve transcribed it below, as my response to this year’s re-reading of BLUE.

May you all have a peaceful Christmas.

It has been my habit of the last three years to visit, on the second morning after Christmas, the area around Baker Street, from where in earlier days I enjoyed a number of memorable adventures with my good and unusual friend, Mr Sherlock Holmes. 

Some of these adventures I have compiled into small stories as well as my talent allows, and these have gathered around themselves a small readership who seemed enthusiastic for them – and of course most especially for the great detective who sat at their heart. Indeed, it may be not so bold as to say that for many readers these curious – sometimes macabre – tales became a part of their routine, an aspect of their everyday ritual that has, in its absence from their lives, created something of a cavity.

It is undeniable that I, too, have experienced a sense of loss in the years since the disappearance over the waters at Reichenbach of my erstwhile companion. There he fell in mortal combat with a foe whose demise – won entirely through the sacrifice of that former inhabitant of Marylebone’s most storied address – brought England and Europe more peace than they might otherwise possibly have hoped. Somehow, I regret to admit, even this posthumous victory cannot, on a personal level at least, make up for the withdrawal from my own life that his death occasioned. I am, as are perhaps we all, the poorer for Sherlock Holmes’s passing from this world.

It is on the second morning after Christmas, then, that I choose to pay my seasonal respects to this most irreplaceable of figures. It was at Baker Street upon this day in the year 1887, now six years ago, that I witnessed Sherlock Holmes show Christian mercy to a villain of rare duplicity. It has been said of my friend in the years since his death that he was cold, uncaring, perhaps inhuman; in his sitting room at 221B during that Christmas, he proved this partial understanding of his singular nature quite wrong. He let free a thief, and hoped in so doing to avoid a role in the forging of a fiend. I have scoured the newspapers internationally in the years since for further mention of the scoundrel that stole the Countess of Morcar’s blue carbuncle and sought to blame an innocent man for the act; I have found none. Sherlock Holmes, it seems, indeed that day saved a soul.

Would that he were still here to do so. As I perambulate down first Thayer Street then Paddington Street, and finally turn onto Baker Street, I am filled with the stirrings not just of nostalgia but what I believe I am not over-hasty in terming grief – a yawning sense within myself of an irretrievable lacuna which cannot be filled. Mary tells me that this is normal and to be expected, but when I imagine the widows of the men with whom I fought in Afghanistan, or the children of the murdered parents whose killers Holmes would so often and ingeniously uncover, I feel somehow unworthy of the emotion they would apply to their own predicament: am I not happily married, comfortable in my station and ensconced in successful practice? Is my material wealth, and physical health, not the best it has ever been? On what basis should I complain or mourn?

As I pass by Mrs Hudson’s door, too shy to call in unannounced on this unusually emotional of days, the pangs that I seek to suppress are at their strongest. There are children in the streets, proudly holding aloft the toy brought to them by Father Christmas only a few days before; courting couples take a stroll and exchange news of their respective family Christmases; old men pause by shop windows, filling their time in idle consideration of the wares on offer in Baring-Gould Books or Gattis’s butchershop. Families promenade; hansoms clatter. Doors sport beleagured wreaths, placed upon their persons in some betokening of the Yuletide.

The spirit of the season, in other words, hangs heavy in the air, and returns me to those events of six years ago in manners both pleasant and painful. Yet reminiscence, perhaps – a paying of tribute to the happier times of yesteryear, and the people with us then who, though here no longer, contributed their jollity and character so definitively to the agreeableness of the day – is the keener sensation. Therefore the pleasure of recollection must and will over-ride the sadness of loss, and perhaps create a space for yet further improvement. It is Christmas, after all, and a time for hope – if also, in each of our own ways, for reflection.

Let us raise a glass on this curious Christmas, then, to perhaps a better year to come – though, most of all and abidingly, to absent friends.

—Dr John Watson, Christmas 1893

On Peace at Christmas

“I seated myself in his armchair and warmed my hands before his crackling fire.”
Christmas is a time of tradition, of course, and long-term readers will know that one of my few festive habits is to read ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’. The only explicitly Yule-ish Sherlock Holmes story, the ‘Blue Carbuncle’ focuses on forgiveness and food – it feels to me, in large part because of repetition, to embody Christmas. Reading the story gives me the same feeling some will get from their favourite seasonal song, or from a particular drink or location.

To what end, however, do we indulge in the Christmas spirit? Why do we have these traditions, these triggers, to slip us into the right gear when otherwise we might roll into the holiday period feeling just as we do for the rest of the year? What’s Christmas for, precisely?

For many, the answer is family – the excuse, as the Petersons do in the story, to gather together and enjoy time without interruption (except, of course, for the sudden appearance of a precious stone at the dinner table). For others, and curiously none of these appear in the Holmes story, Christmas is for children. For Watson, Christmas is a time to visit old friends – at the time of ‘Blue Carbuncle’, he no longer lives at 221B Baker Street, yet he makes a visit on the second morning after Christmas.

I, however, have some sympathy for Holmes himself. As the story begins, he has spent Christmas in meditation. Watson arrives to a lecture on the inferences to be made from a battered felt hat that has been the subject of seasonal inspection; Holmes is surrounded by newspapers and has been interrupted only by the arrival of Peterson and Henry Baker’s goose:

He was lounging upon the sofa in a purple dressing-gown, a pipe-rack within his reach upon the right, and a pile of crumpled morning papers, evidently newly studied, near at hand.

He closes the story by inviting Watson to eat a Christmas supper with him. Holmes, in other words, sees Christmas as caesura: he shuts the doors and, barring people who come to him, he spends it in quiet contemplation. In my case, festive cues help me similarly switch off, and consider, like Holmes, a smaller – but no less important – set of problems.

Perhaps not coincidentally, my introduction to Sherlock Holmes was as a result of Quiet Time. This was the name given to an hour of afternoon’s silent private study that was introduced to the class of final-year infants students to which I belonged by a wonderful American exchange teacher. Her encouragement of individuality and creativity was a huge influence on me – and I still daily enjoy its benefits.

My choice of activity during Quiet Time? Holmesiana: reading adapted stories, drawing pictures, writing what we’d now call fanfiction. Quiet Time gave me the opportunity to explore not just a passion, but the storytelling principles behind the tales I was beginning to love. It wasn’t an opportunity I’d have been given without that stateside innovation, since in place of Miss Ingram’s gentle private contemplation would have been a prescribed hour of … something I would now be unlikely, in all probability, to remember. In other words, a period of peace was infinitely more productive than the alternative.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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


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.

“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.

“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.)

“Your Beer Should be Excellent If It Is As Good As Your Geese.”

In a quarter of an hour we were in Bloomsbury at the Alpha Inn, which is a small public-house at the corner of one of the streets which runs down into Holborn. Holmes pushed open the door of the private bar and ordered two glasses of beer from the ruddy-faced, white-aproned landlord.

"As he reached the corner of Goodge Street..."

Few festive tipples can be as Sherlockian as a pint of best ale from the Alpha Inn. It features in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, my regular Christmas Eve read, and is home to the goose club which proves so fateful to all involved. We know well that both Watson and his literary agent, Arthur Conan-Doyle, sought to hide real people and places behind pseudonyms and thin veneers. If we wished to find the Alpha, then, where would we start?

In Finding Sherlock’s London, Thomas Wheeler suggests the most likely candidate is the Museum Tavern, at 49 Great Russell Street. This has the twin benefit of being both of the right period and immediately adjacent to Alpha patron Henry Baker’s place of work, the British Museum.

In the story, however, Baker says the Alpha is “near” the Museum, not directly outside it. And Watson gives us a clear route to the locality of the Alpha from Holmes’s Baker Street rooms: through the doctor’s quarter, down Wimpole and Harley Streets, onto Wigmore Street and from there down Oxford Street. Watson does not mention bearing onto Great Russell Street – we might assume because he and Holmes did not, but rather continued down onto New Oxford Street and turned right towads Holborn.

There’s broad agreement on the year in which The Blue Carbuncle was set, with both Brad Keefauver and Chris Miller agreeing on 1889. In this, these modern Sherlockians differ slightly from past master Baring-Gould, who placed the story in 1887. Key to our investigation, however, is that each of these dates falls after the 1886 completion of Vulliamy and Bazalgette’s Shaftesbury Avenue. Part of the point of this grand project had been to clear some of the St Giles slums, replacing them with a broad Parisian-style boulevard. In this, the architects were ultimately successful, and we are thus left with the suggestion of an eastern limitation for the area in which our down-at-heel public house might be found.

One of the best sources for discovering in this way who lived where in late Victorian London is Charles Booth’s poverty map of the city, completed in 1898-99. Alas, this is ten years following the events surrounding the theft of the blue carbuncle, but we might expect to see some vestigial traces of the income distribution patterns Holmes would have known. We know that, upon leaving the Alpha Inn, he and Watson proceeded across Holborn, onto Endell Street and thus towards the fowl stall at Covent Garden market. We can thus assume that the Alpha is not just west of Shaftesbury Avenue, but south of New Oxford Street and north of Holborn. Peeking at Booth’s map for this area reveals a square, bound on the west by what is now Earnshaw Street, which consists of the pink and purple hues designating the liminal middle classes of which Henry Baker was a part – and which might benefit from a goose club orchestrated by a kindly publican such as the Alpha’s Windigate.

This area of London now includes Bucknall Street and Dyott Street, both of which are unrecognisable from what looks to be their tight-packed Victorian forebears (Booth’s Arthur Street, meanwhile, appears to be no more). This is an area which until the slum clearance programme was home to an infamous rookery. But by the late nineteenth century it had become marginally more genteel, and Baker’s route home from the Alpha to the “the labyrinth of small streets which lie at the back of Tottenham Court Road” is both direct enough from the Museum to suggest a post-work drink requiring only a small diversion well worth the cosiness, and in addition is on Booth’s map lined with the same pink and purple squares denoting families for whom “shillings have not been so plentiful […] as they once were.” Bloomsbury is a rather grand drinking hole for a man such as Henry Baker; the border streets of St Giles hit the spot much better.

We have, perhaps, found the streets on which the Alpha was truly located. Fortunately for us, the London Post Office Directory of 1899 listed pubs for the benefit of the thirsty, and there is only one quite clearly within the remit we have set ourselves. Raise a glass, then, to Edward Woodley (and is Woodley not rather close to Watson’s Windigate?) and his Two Brewers public house. Gone perhaps – but, I think, not quite forgotten.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Have a very happy one.

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.