Saturday, July 18, 2020

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes


Opening Passage: From "A Scandal in Bohemia", which opens The Adventures:

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.

From "Silver Blaze", the first story in the The Memoirs:

I am afraid, Watson, that I shall have to go,” said Holmes, as we sat down together to our breakfast one morning.

“Go! Where to?”

“To Dartmoor; to King’s Pyland.”

Summary: The Adventures contains twelve stories:

(1) "A Scandal in Bohemia"
(2) "The Red-Headed League"
(3) "A Case of Identity"
(4) "The Boscombe Valley Mystery"
(5) "The Five Orange Pips"
(6) "The Man with the Twisted Lip"
(7) "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle"
(8) "The Adventure of the Speckled Band"
(9) "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb"
(10) "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor"
(11) "The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet"
(12) "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"

Of these, "A Scandal in Bohemia", "The Red-Headed League", "The Man with the Twisted Lip", "The Blue Carbuncle", and "The Speckled Band" consistently make favorites lists, with "The Red-Headed League" and "The Speckled Band" usually competing for the top spot. In his own list of twelve favorites, Doyle listed "The Speckled Band" and "The Red-Headed League" as #1 and #2, respectively, and also put on the list "A Scandal in Bohemia" (#5) and "The Five Orange Pips" (#7). Thus it seems fairly conclusive, between readers and the author, that the best of these are "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" and "The Red-Headed League". I think this makes considerable sense, because they are easily the most memorable. I've read all of these before, although it has been some years, and these were the two I remembered most, and whose details came back to me most quickly as I read.

"The Adventure of the Speckled Band" is one of the great locked room mysteries of all time. Helen Stoner fears that her life is in danger from her stepfather, Grimsby Roylott, a doctor who had practiced in Calcutta who already has a record of violence. Helen's twin sister had died a couple of years earlier in a locked bedroom just before she was to be wed; Helen had heard her last words: "The speckled band!" Helen is now engaged to be married herself, and there is enough suspiciousness about to make her worry that she may be subject to the same fate, particularly as it has been arranged for Helen to move into the bedroom in which her sister died.

In "The Red-Headed League", Jabez Wilson, a pawnbroker with vividly red hair, comes to Holmes with a puzzle: his assistant had urged him to answer an advertisement for The Red-Headed League, which offered pay for easy work for men with red hair. Wilson gets the job, but finds that it primarily consists of copying the Encyclopedia Britannica, beginning with A, supposedly because it was just a matter of nominal compliance with the conditions of a will, but suddenly one day he shows up and finds a sign on the door: "THE RED-HEADED LEAGUE IS DISSOLVED—Oct. 9, 1890."

The Memoirs continue The Adventures directly, being just more Adventures that needed another name for their collection; in most later editions, there are eleven stories:

(1) "The Adventure of Silver Blaze"
(2) "The Adventure of the Yellow Face"
(3) "The Adventure of the Stockbroker's Clerk"
(4) "The Adventure of the Gloria Scott"
(5) "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual"
(6) "The Adventure of the Reigate Squires"
(7) "The Adventure of the Crooked Man"
(8) "The Adventure of the Resident Patient"
(9) "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter"
(10) "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty"
(11) "The Final Problem"

Of these, "Silver Blaze" is easily the fan favorite, with "The Musgrave Ritual" (my personal favorite) and "The Final Problem" also regularly making favorites lists. Doyle put the "The Final Problem" (#4), "The Musgrave Ritual" (#11), and "The Reigate Squires" (#12) on his list of twelve.

"The Adventure of Silver Blaze" is an interesting enough story, of course, as Holmes looks into the theft of the thoroughbred horse and the death of its trainer, but I suspect one of things in its favor is that it contains one of the most famous passages in all of detective fiction, one completely perfect passage beyond all peer that sums up all of the charm and joy of detective fiction:

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

It is the Holy Grail of detective fiction gimmicks, the obvious bit of evidence, but somehow easily missed, that changes the nature of all the other evidence, and here put into a form that cannot but be remembered.

"The Musgrave Ritual" is unusual in that, while the tale is told by Watson, the story in the tale is narrated by Holmes, with Watson only providing the frame. The young Sherlock, only just starting out his career, is visited by an acquaintance from university, Reginald Musgrave, from a very old family, who is worried about the disappearance of two members of his domestic staff, the butler and a maid, after Musgrave dismissed the butler for snooping around the family papers, in which he had been reading the question-and-answer ritual that had been passed down from father to son in the Musgrave family since the seventeenth century. The tale gives us a treasure-trove of things that make a detective story interesting: old traditions in scenic context, a riddle, disappearances, an actual treasure. It is some of Doyle's most enjoyable work, I think, an adventure-story in miniature that works on its own terms.

And, of course, "The Final Problem" gives us the end of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes has collected all the evidence required to take down the organization of his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. (In this story, his first name is never given, although it is mentioned that his brother is Colonel James Moriarty. This is one of the famous puzzles of Sherlockiana and the Great Game, because in "The Adventure of the Empty House", Watson tells us that Professor Moriarty's name is James. In a later stage play based on the Holmes stories, Doyle gives his name as Robert.) Naturally, Holmes is now in danger of his life. He and Watson speed out of the country in an attempt to shake a vengeful and pursuing Moriarty, and come to Reichenback Falls in Switzerland, where, of course, the Adventures and the adventure of Sherlock Holmes meets its end. I was particularly struck by how well Moriarty, easily one of the most memorable figures in the Sherlockian canon, was handled. Except for brief mentions in "The Empty House" and The Valley of Fear, this is the only time we really encounter him, and we only encounter him through Holmes himself -- Holmes tells the story of his brief conversation with Moriarty, which gives us almost all of what we know about Moriarty's personality, and Watson never meets him -- the closest he ever comes is seeing in the distance a man who, it turns out, may have been Moriarty. Knowing him only by glimpses is immensely effective; we get just enough to know that he is every bit as dangerous as Holmes thinks and only enough to keep him shrouded in mystery. (I was also struck in this reading by the fact, perhaps an accident but nice nonetheless, that the story pairs well with the tale that comes before it in The Memoirs, "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty". "The Naval Treaty" gives us the Holmesian sense of the goodness of the world, which prepares us very well for Holmes's fight with evil in "The Final Problem". I wonder, though, if it's deliberate, and that Holmes's discourse on the rose is Doyle's way of preparing him for his fate.)

One thing that is easy to catch when reading all the tales together is that Holmes's role in each tale is immensely variable. Watson even notes this explicitly in "The Resident Patient":

In glancing over the somewhat incoherent series of memoirs with which I have endeavoured to illustrate a few of the mental peculiarities of my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I have been struck by the difficulty which I have experienced in picking out examples which shall in every way answer my purpose. For in those cases in which Holmes has performed some tour-de-force of analytical reasoning, and has demonstrated the value of his peculiar methods of investigation, the facts themselves have often been so slight or so commonplace that I could not feel justified in laying them before the public. On the other hand, it has frequently happened that he has been concerned in some research where the facts have been of the most remarkable and dramatic character, but where the share which he has himself taken in determining their causes has been less pronounced than I, as his biographer, could wish. The small matter which I have chronicled under the heading of “A Study in Scarlet,” and that other later one connected with the loss of the Gloria Scott, may serve as examples of this Scylla and Charybdis which are forever threatening the historian.

However, I think the variability gives a patina of realism to Holmes that many other cleverly written fictional detectives lack; the stories do not settle into a single pattern. Holmes is not always able to tie everything up in a neat package; the extent of his involvement differs from story to story; the way in which he solves the mystery varies; even Watson's contribution differs quite a bit from case to case.

As I noted, there are far too many adaptations to go through even a fraction of them. But with older works, it is nice to look at adaptations, because sometimes doing so draws out something in the story that you might not otherwise have noticed. What I decided to do was pick a tale that I don't particularly find memorable but that has often been adapted, and look at several adaptations of it, so that I'd get the tale in a new light. The story I picked was "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches". Holmes is a bit down (and for the moment a bit down on Watson's being his Watson) because it has made him popular for all the wrong reasons, with the low point being a young woman asking to call on him to get his advice on whether she should take a job as a governess. As it happens, though, the young woman, Violet Hunter, has an interesting case. She was offered a job by Jephro Rucastle, for extremely good pay but with several very strange conditions, which of course, suggest that there is more going on, and indeed there is. I looked at three adaptations of this work.

The first was the 1912 silent movie, with Georges Tréville as Holmes. Doyle had personally supervised a series of eight silent films based on Holmes stories, and this is the only one to survive in complete form. The connection with Doyle obviously makes it interesting in its own right, but it also makes some interesting narrative choices. It does not give us the same narrative order as the short story, starting with Violet Hunter bringing her problem to Holmes, but goes through the story from the beginning, with the result that Holmes doesn't show up until halfway through. They changed everyone's motivations a bit. And even more startlingly, there is no Watson.

(One thing that somewhat surprised me -- perhaps it's just because I have not watched many silent films -- was that the characters at several points punctuate the narrative by talking directly to the camera, despite the fact that we can't hear what they are saying. The movie plays more naturally, incidentally, if you set the playback speed to 0.75.) I also listened to the 1940 radio adaptation in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, with Basil Rathbone as Holmes, which I think was well acted but mostly unmemorable, and watched the 1985 television adaptation in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, with Jeremy Brett as Holmes. I didn't gain any huge insights from these, I think, but it did underscore two things about the story.

The first is that a lot hinges on Hunter and Rucastle. One of the very great strengths of the TV episode was Natasha Richardson's Violet Hunter, who came across at once and throughout as a very charming and sympathetic character in whose situation the viewer could be immediately invested. Rucastle was played by the great Joss Ackland, who makes a very good villain; his Rucastle was a very creepy Rucastle -- definitely creepy enough that it's clear why Violet's alarm bells are ringing, but almost so creepy that it's difficult to explain why she took the job even given the need for money. The Rucastle from the radio adaptation seemed more odd than creepy, but this also weakened him somewhat as a villain.

The second is that there are parts of the story that greatly benefit from visual presentation and parts that really work better on the page. Almost everything Holmes actually does in the story is more interesting and exciting if seen, whether it's in the symbolic and hyperbolic action of the silent film or the attempt at realism in the television episode. (The attempt at realism mostly works, although they apparently had the considerable difficulty that the mastiff was actually a very friendly dog who was puzzled at why he was supposed to be pretending to be mean when he would rather play with everyone. They do an OK job working around this, but it's pretty clear that the mastiff was supposed to be a more exciting element than it turned out to be.) On the other hand, Violet sitting in front of the window works much better on the page than when seen; on the page it sounds like an odd thing, but when seen it seems not only odd but extraordinarily implausible.

Favorite Passage: From "The Musgrave Ritual", in The Memoirs:

An anomaly which often struck me in the character of my friend Sherlock Holmes was that, although in his methods of thought he was the neatest and most methodical of mankind, and although also he affected a certain quiet primness of dress, he was none the less in his personal habits one of the most untidy men that ever drove a fellow-lodger to distraction. Not that I am in the least conventional in that respect myself. The rough-and-tumble work in Afghanistan, coming on the top of a natural Bohemianism of disposition, has made me rather more lax than befits a medical man. But with me there is a limit, and when I find a man who keeps his cigars in the coal-scuttle, his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper, and his unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jack-knife into the very centre of his wooden mantelpiece, then I begin to give myself virtuous airs. I have always held, too, that pistol practice should be distinctly an open-air pastime; and when Holmes, in one of his queer humours, would sit in an armchair with his hair-trigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges, and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V. R. done in bullet-pocks, I felt strongly that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of our room was improved by it.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.