Failure and the Consulting Detective

Failure is a highly personal and subjective concept.  We each define, for ourselves, the criteria that separate catastrophic failure from roaring success.  The difference between the two is usually no wider than a single hair.  It’s also about situation and impact; a slightly crooked Lego tower isn’t that big a deal and won’t adversely affect anyone significantly, while the Leaning Tower of Pisa is architecture’s most infamous (and, ironically, beloved) wrecks.  Failure also comes in degrees,  usually related to that impact issue above, even if the only thing it impacts is a person’s reputation.

In Sherlock Holmes’ world, failure can be as simple as a single erroneous deduction, even if it in no way affects or impedes the discovery of the truth.  For Holmes, a happy ending doesn’t constitute success; being right does.  Of course, these criteria are presented to us through our standard filter – Watson – so an argument can be made that the definition belongs more to the biographer than the subject, or is a shared definition between the two.  That distinction isn’t specifically made in “The Adventure of the Yellow Face,” but the case is definitely considered a failure by the definition none the less.

The story begins with an authorial note from Watson, serving as a warning and explanation of what we’re about to be given:

“In publishing these short sketches based upon the numerous cases in which my companion’s singular gifts have made us the listeners to, and eventually the actors in, some strange drama, it is only natural that I should dwell rather upon his successes than upon is failures.  And this is not so much for the sake of his reputation – for indeed, it was when he was at his wit’s end that his energy and versatility were most admirable – but because where he failed it happened too often that no one else succeeded, and that the tale was left forever without a conclusion.  Now and again, however, it chanced that even when he erred the truth was still discovered.  I have notes of some half-dozen cases of the kind; the adventure of the Musgrave Ritual and that which I am about to recount are the two which present the strongest features of interest.”

Here, we’re introduced to the hierarchy of Holmes (or Watson’s) personal failure paradigm: if no one else solves it either, it’s not really a failure; while, if Holmes deduces incorrectly, as he’s apparently done about six times, it is.  Watson is quick to point out that we’re not spared the stories of Holmes’ disasters to spare the Great Detective’s reputation, just in case we think pride keeps them out of our hands.  It’s just because an unfinished story isn’t a very good one by his estimation.  Only two of the six failures are named – this story and “The Musgrave Ritual” which we’ve already discussed – and only these because they’re the most interesting, per the author.

Considering Watson told us last week that he’s assisted Holmes with 70-odd cases in their association, 64 and 6 isn’t such a bad ratio.  If you’ll forgive the baseball metaphor, that’s a .914 batting average.  Most major leaguers would sell their mother, their soul, their favorite childhood pet, their first child, and probably a kidney to go 64 for 70 at the plate.

(Baseball season is a little over a month away.  My brain’s already switched into Opening Day mode.  Sorry.)

As an interesting aside, considering last week’s discussion of dangling threads, I should point out that this story was printed in The Strand in February, 1893, while “the Musgrave Ritual” appeared in May of the same year.  That makes this an instance of Doyle/Watson not holding out on the reader and actually following through on the promise of a teased case in a future story.  Just an interesting addendum to last week’s discussion.

Back to the story: Watson has somehow convinced his flatmate to go for a walk, thus causing them to miss the arrival (and, unfortunately, departure) of a potential client.  Not to worry though – their visitor left behind his pipe – which provides Holmes all the information he needs about their guest.  Their missed opportunity returns to reclaim his pipe and beg for a bit of Holmes’ advice.  It seems Mr. Grant Munro is at a bit of a loss.  His wife has started acting secretively and strangely and, horror of horrors, disobeyed her husband to boot.  Their entire marriage, and possibly Mr. Munro’s sanity, is on the line here.

The Munros have been married three years.  Mrs. Munro was previously married in America.  Her husband and child died of yellow fever, causing her to return to England.  The Munros’ marriage was a perfectly happy, loving affair until about month before he arrives on Holmes’ door.  At that point, Mrs. Munro asked her husband for one hundred pounds (of her own money, it should be said: she turned over her finances to her husband at her own request when they were married) and didn’t tell him why.  On top of that, over the last few weeks she’s been different.  More skittish and uneasy.  During this time, they gained an odd neighbor down the road who never left the house and stared menacingly out of his front window whenever the husband approached.  When Mr. Munro told his wife about their new neighbor, she snuck out in the middle of the night to go visit them.  Her response to her husband asking why?  “I can’t tell you yet, so please don’t ask again.”  He forbids her from going back, mostly because she’s keeping secrets from him, and she agrees, but the next time he leaves for town, she gets caught sneaking back from the cabin when he returns early, still refusing to answer a single question about the affair.  At his wit’s end (and, like most Victorian men, shocked by the fact a woman is capable of disobeying him, hello misogyny), Mr. Munro thusly seeks out the indomitable Sherlock Holmes.

Not looking forward to anymore two-hour walks in the Spring air for his health (Holmes is more the moonlit walks on the beach sort.  Kidding!), Holmes agrees to look into the issue.  Once their client leaves, our hero tells Watson his theory of the case.  It involves phony names, faked death certificates, the potential for bigamy, and blackmail.  If you look at the evidence as presented, it’s not really hard to see where the blackmail assumption comes from or why he latched onto it.  It was a popular criminal enterprise at the time and women were frequent targets of it.  In a society where reputation was all a woman really had to her advantage, a tarnished one was worth anything to avoid.  So it’s a perfectly logical conclusion to jump to.

Entirely wrong, as it turns out, but logical.

The actual solution doesn’t involve a crime at all.  In fact, it addresses an issue I want to save for a later discussion about a different couple stories where it plays a more prominent role.  It’s safe for now, though, to leave it at this: Sherlock Holmes was wrong, and everyone is actually happier for it.  Except maybe Holmes, that is.

So, here’s the question: is this really a failure?  Holmes is undoubtedly wrong – but made a perfectly logical deduction based on the information in front of him.  There’s no villain to best, no crime that’s committed, so it’s not as if evil triumphs with his mistake.  The end is an unequivocally happy one.  His client is pleased.  Has anyone actually failed at anything?  You can ask the same question about the other failed case Watson mentions in that note.  The butler was likely dead before Holmes was even engaged, or not long after.  The maid disappeared before Holmes ever visited the house.  Something that had been lost for generations was recovered.  What was Holmes’ failure there?  If there’s no actual failing in two of his most interesting failures, what does that say to us about Holmes’ definition of failure?  Or Watson’s?  Or Doyle’s?

Here’s the real question to ponder: knowing that these are the stories that lead up to “The Final Problem” and the decade hiatus Doyle took from Holmes after it, and knowing his reason for doing so, is Doyle trying to paint the character he despised as imperfect in an attempt to make people love him less?  Was he so tired of his creation by the time he got to the stories collected in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes that he was desperate for people to see Holmes differently?  Or is it just Doyle trying to make sure we remember that, despite his brilliance, Holmes is just human, like the rest of us?  Even exceptionally clever detectives with an inhuman degree of deductive and inductive reasoning make mistakes.  Maybe he just wanted to make sure we understood that.


Charlotte spends a good bit of time in her first adventure contemplating failure, or what she sees as failure, anyway.  She has to come to terms with the limits of her own brilliance, her tendency to try to disconnect from her humanity, and the costs of focusing on one sometimes over the other.  But she started thinking about failure and her propensity towards it earlier than the case that defines her career.  Her first lesson in failure happened when she was eleven years old.

The Adventure of the Blank Face

It’s well past midnight and my eleven-year-old self should be sleeping.  Would be, if not for the book perched on my lap, stealing all my focus.  I’m hidden in the wardrobe in my bedroom, one of my father’s anatomy texts held open across my knees.  What light I have is provided by the stub of a candle stolen from the kitchen and nearly burned past all usefulness.  It casts a dim light over the pages; barely enough to read by, but more than enough to disturb Mycroft across the room or alert anyone walking past the door that one of the inhabitants is awake long past their bedtime.  This is why the wardrobe makes a perfect, though cramped, clandestine reading nook.  I just have to remember not to hold the candle so high that I set fire to the dresses hanging above me, and level enough not to drip hot, white wax on the pages.  If I also manage not to lean over so far that I catch a bit of my hair in the weak flame as well, all the better.  Burnt hair smells awful, I discovered quite by accident.  It all adds up to a balancing act I’ve carried out a hundred times before, which is a rough and rather conservative estimate, if I’m honest.

An anatomy text might sound like an odd choice for an eleven-year-old’s bedtime story, but it honestly fascinates me.  There are so many little bits and pieces inside of us that do so many miraculous things.  It’s like there’s a million tiny cities full of a million tiny people working all the cogs and switches that are part of the brilliant machines that make us blink and sniffle and giggle and yawn.  Father always gives me that look when he catches me flipping through the pages: that narrow-eyed, wrinkle-browed look that always accompanies a lecture.  “I don’t think that’s appropriate study for little girls,” he would say, but there’s always that twinkle in his eyes that softens the scolding, the faint hint of a smile on his lips that whispers (by my reckoning), “ignore me, child, and do as you will.”  Which is why I’m folded into my wardrobe, bent over a half-forbidden book, reading it by an ever-dimming light.

I’ll need to steal a new candle soon…

I smell the smoke, of course, but I mistake it as the wick burning too low.  I haven’t learned to differentiate all the various subtle differences in the qualities of smoke.  How burnt wood smells vaguely sweet and comforting, how burnt paper smells sharp and tobacco warm, if warm has a smell.  I’m also too engrossed in the pictures in front of me to wonder at the light haze growing around the dying flame, or that it’s coming through the crack in the double doors.  I don’t really register the sound of a muffled cough on the other side, either, though it’s there and I’m somehow ignorantly aware of it all the same.

The doors rip open.  Mycroft stands on the other side, the neck of his pajamas pulled up to cover his mouth.  The room behind him is full of smoke.  An orange, menacing glow flickers at the crack between the floor and the door.  “C’mon, Charlie, c’mon!”  He grabs my left arm at the elbow and yanks me from the wardrobe.  I don’t drop the book; the candle tumbles from my right hand, the impact with the wardrobe floor enough to kill the weak flame.

“What’s going on?”  As I ask, I’m scanning the room.  Gathering data.  Smoke.  Growing heat.  The flicker under the door.  “Is the house on fire?”

“Yes.  C’mon!”  He knocks the book from my hand and drags me to the door.  The second his hand touches the doorknob, he hisses and pulls it back.

“Use your sleeve!  Hurry up!  I want Daddy.”  Not a very grown up declaration from someone eleven years old, but considering the situation, I don’t worry about it.  Mycroft pulls his arm back in his sleeve enough to cover his hand, then grabs the knob again.  He still hisses, but he doesn’t pull his hand away now.  He twists the knob instead and yanks the door open.

We make it two steps into the hall before we see it: the stairs are ablaze, blocking all chance of escape.  The path between our door and the room next to us is blocked by a swath of burning carpet as well.  Through the flame and smoke, I see that door open and our mother step into the doorway.


“Charlotte!  Mycroft!”  Mother looks briefly relieved.  Then she looks at the hallway and I see the panic settle in.  “Oh no.  Charles!”

Our father appears in the doorway next.  My eleven-year-old brain finds something strange and amusing about the sight of my father in his dressing gown.  It finds something reassuring in just the simple act of his presence.  See, it tells me, he’ll know what to do.  I’m still naïve enough to think that my father can do and solve anything.  He takes one look at the scene before him, then turns to us.  “Mycroft!  You and your sister head for the window.  Aim for the bushes beneath it.  We’ll meet you at the oak by the road.  Go!”

Mycroft nods.  I begin to panic.  “Daddy!”

“Go with your brother, Charlotte!  We’ll see you outside!”

“Daddy!”  Mycroft still has hold of my elbow and pulls me back into our room. The smoke is getting thick now.  He shuts the door to shield us from some of it, then runs for the window, dragging me along.  I struggle the whole way, and when he lets go of my arm to open the window, I make a dash for the door.

“Charlie!  Father said…”

“But what about them?  I want Father, Mycroft…”

“Stop being a ninny.”  He grabs me again; drags me again.  The air coming through the window is cold, but it’s fresh, and I realize, after getting a breath of it, how smoky the room has become.  “It’s not that long a drop.  Aim for the bushes, as he said.”



I don’t jump.  I’m pushed out the window, landing awkwardly in the bushes growing along the side of the house.  I feel something snap on impact and don’t know if it’s the branches or my arm, but something definitely hurts.  At least I have the good sense to roll free before I’m crushed beneath my brother’s descent.   Once he joins me, he takes me by the arm – the one that isn’t now cradled to my body – and drags me towards the large oak.  It’s not until I look back at the house that I can see just what it is we’ve escaped.  The entire structure is ablaze.

Margot, the housekeeper, who sleeps on the ground floor, is already out of the house and runs to us when she spots us.  We huddle with her beneath the tree, waiting for our parents to join us.  With each second that ticks by, the fire consumes more of the house.

“Where are they?” I ask, staring up at our parents’ window.  “They said they’d be right behind.”

“Maybe they’re trying a different exit.  Be patient, Charlie.”

“Patient!  The house is burning dow-“

A great lurching snap comes from the structure.  We watch as the roof right above our parents’ room collapses and a towering flame erupts from its place.  I scream.  I lunge forward.  Mycroft catches me around the waist and stops me before I can run back into the inferno.  He holds on even as I flail and scream and kick at him.  He’s still holding on when I sag against his shoulder and begin to cry.

Margot tells us to stay where we are; she’s going to run to the neighbor’s and get help.  It won’t be a short run, considering we’re a good ten minutes from anyone in any direction.  Mycroft and I don’t say a word.  Help isn’t going to be very helpful at this point.

“They’re gone,” I whisper as I cling, one-armed, to his robe.

“We don’t know that for sure.”  Poor Mycroft.  Always such an ineffectual liar.  His voice gives away his doubt in his own words.

“We should have stayed with them.  Made sure they came with us.  Got out together.  We shouldn’t have left them behind.”

Mycroft looks down.  I can barely see his tear and soot-stained cheeks in the glow of the fire.  “Charlie…you know we couldn’t.”

I turn away.  I don’t know that.  I refuse to know that.  Over my brother’s shoulder, something catches my eye.  Up by the road, I see a shadowed figure standing by, watching us.  Even though the fire provides some light, it casts nothing but shadows over the figure.  It’s little more than a blank, person-shaped smudge on the landscape.

“Mycroft, look.”  I tug on his sleeve to get my brother’s attention.

“Look at what?  There’s nothing there, Charlie.”  I look again.  I only turned away for a second, but in that brief lapse, the figure has disappeared.

The Case of the Opal Tiara

Watson has been laughing for ten solid minutes, after doing his best to resist the urge for the ten directly previous to them.  I know this because I’ve been counting.  Every time I think he may be finished – every time he lifts his glass to take a sip of the brandy he poured upon returning to 221B; every time the rim approaches the pink fullness of his bottom lip, not that I am at all fixated on the sight of it – another cackle or titter or snicker overtakes him, and my desperate desire to throttle him increases once more.  I’ve also been counting the number of times I consider belting him with my shoe.  Forty-seven, for the record.

“It’s not that funny,” I say into my teacup, shaking as it does with the tremble still present in my hands.  A persistent chill lingers through my every inch, not at all aided by the still-damp quality of my hair.  It hangs in sodden, mottled strands around my face, dripping murky water onto my blanket and the floor.  My coat hangs by the fire, drying.  My dress is already among Anne’s pile of washing for the week.  My modesty, barely still existent at this point, is maintained by the aforementioned blanket wrapped around me tight enough to suffocate me.  My aunt was the source of this woolen mummification process.  That I manage to extricate my hands enough to grip the teacup is a miracle.

“Really?  Because I think it’s bloody hilarious.”  Watson, in comparison, is dry as the deserts he fought in not so long ago.  Bloody Watson looks as dapper and put together as he did when we left the house that morning.  As dapper, in fact, as he always looks, something I am reluctant to admit noticing.  His state of dress is a too frequent preoccupation of mine that I cannot excuse with curiosity or an attempted study of the man any longer.  His state of everything, in fact, has become just such a distraction.  I’ve memorized every subtle twitch and flex of his facial muscles to the point that I see them, sometimes, in my dreams.  It’s a distracting habit I need to cure myself of.

Right now, though, I want to slap the current configuration of said muscles right off his face, with or without my shoe.

“We’ll see how hilarious any of it is when you’re treating me for pneumonia.”

“Don’t be so melodramatic, Charlotte,” Anne says as she breezes through the study door, a towel draped over her arm.  She stops beside my chair and urges my head down so she can wrap it around my hair.  “You’re hardly going to catch pneumonia.  However did you end up in the Thames to begin with?  No one’s bothered to tell me.”

“Because it’s a story not worth recounting.”  I glare at Watson through a tangle of damp, cold hair.  It’s meant as warning.

“Of course it is, Holmes!  It’s a brilliant story.”

“Watson…”  He’s missing the warning, or ignoring it altogether.  Likely the latter.  The resulting doom will be his own fault.

He stands, taking a moment to drain his glass before delving into his tale.  “We left, of course, to explore a theory of your niece’s about the location of Mrs. Farintosh’s missing tiara.  You know, the priceless family heirloom dotted in opals that she simply had to find?”  Anne nods; I feel the gesture through a minute shake in her shoulders as she twists my hair up into the towel.  “Was a serviceable theory, too.  The nephew was, as she concluded, the one who’d made off with it.”  Watson stops and turns to look at me, an almost tender expression edging out his blatant amusement.  “It was brilliant, how you worked that all out based on the mud on the sitting room rug, the height of the crack in the plaster over the stand, and the uneven footprints outside the window, Charlotte.”

I blush at the compliment; it’s more a reaction to the soft way he says my given name.  “It was just a bit of simple deduction, really.  Nothing all that…well, no, was a bit brilliant, actually.  Neither Gregson or Lestrade noticed any of it, and they’re supposed professionals.”

“A fact they both grumbled about pitifully, by the way.  Quite a sight, too, two grown men having a small tantrum over being bested by a woman.”

“Back to the Thames?”  Anne gives the towel a good bit of wringing, a hint of some sort of wariness lingering in her tone and the tension of the twist.

“Oh.  Right.”  Watson stops at the fireplace, bending to relight the ruined end of a match, which he then uses to ignite the tobacco in his pipe.  It reminds me that the last of our supply of matches had been in the pocket of my coat before I went into the water.  Useless now.  “We caught up to Mr. Wallace at the docks, preparing to bribe his way onto a steamer bound for America.  When confronted, he denied the entire thing, of course, which might have been more believable if he hadn’t been desperately clutching a case to his chest.  He shouldn’t ever play poker, that one.  Nothing made it clearer he was in possession of something suspicious than that.  I attempted to relieve him of it, and in the struggle, the case was thrown free and landed in the water.  Holmes, being unengaged at the moment, dove in to retrieve it.”

I swat Anne’s hands from the towel and twist it up into a serviceable turban to keep it all in place until it’s dried.  “See, Anne?  A perfectly heroic incident that in no way requires amusement or further discussion.  If anything, it’s proof that medical study, combined with military training, thoroughly damages a man’s sanity and sense of humor.  So, if we’re through…”

“It was for a dog.”  Watson barely manages to hold back a laugh.  “Mrs. Farintosh forgot to mention, at the time she hired us, that the priceless family heirloom in question belonged to her poodle.  A fact made blatantly clear when Holmes removed it, with a triumphant flourish, from the case as proof of the nephew’s complicity.”  The chortle rolls up from Watson’s midsection and explodes outwards with bombastic amusement.

Anne suppresses a giggle of her own.  “An opal tiara?  For a dog?”

“The opals were arranged in the shape of a bone!”

Watson is very lucky that the teacup I throw at his head is empty and that his reflexes are sharp enough to avoid the impact.

Poisonous Snakes and Dangling Breadcrumbs

speckled band SP

A Sidney Paget illustration from “The Speckled Band,” borrowed from

I don’t like snakes. I don’t hate them. I’m not irrationally afraid of them. I just don’t like them, that’s all. On the topic of our scaly, slithering, cold-blooded neighbors, I tend to agree with Indiana Jones. There’s something innately sinister about a creature that can kill you without you knowing it’s even in the room. Snakes are the ninjas of the animal kingdom (much like cats are the sociopaths of it), and while they may be unfairly pigeon-holed in the villain category and might be perfectly sweet and lovable if you take the time to get to know them, I feel justified in avoiding them at all costs all the same. The fact they shed their entire body’s worth of skin in one go and leave it behind like a second, decoy snake is also kind of creepy.

I only mention any of this because it’s vaguely tangential to the story for this week. Spoiler alert – this is the one with the trained killer snake in it.

“The Adventure of the Speckled Band” is one of those stories listed by many a Holmesian aficionado as their favorite. It’s not hard to see why people love it: the risk of imminent danger, the puzzling circumstances of the case, the bombastic villain that proclaims himself untouchable the first time he meets the hero. Watson goes out of his way to help make it a memorable tale with his setup in the first paragraph – “Of all these varied cases, however, I cannot recall any which presented more singular features than that which was associated with the well-known Surrey family of the Roylotts of Stoke Moran.” Boom. Right from the beginning, our narrator is making sure that we know that, of the “seventy-odd” cases he’s worked with Holmes, this one is unique and interesting. That’s the sort of build-up a story had better live up to, and “The Speckled Band” does.

The puzzling death of Julia Stoner and the potential impending doom of her twin, Helen, lie at the heart of the mystery Holmes and Watson are employed to solve. The Stoner siblings have been living with their stepfather since the death of their mother, and he controls the purse-strings on their (for the period) substantial inheritance. Not long after becoming engaged, Julia begins hearing strange noises at night in her room, which happens to be next door to her stepfather, a source of enough unease on its own – Dr. Roylott not exactly being Mr. Brady, you might say – without the inclusion of his pet baboon and cheetah that roam the estate. One night, while locked in her room with the windows securely fastened and shuttered and no one else with her, Julia wakes the house screaming in terror. Helen rushes to her sister’s aide. Julia makes it as far as the hallway before collapsing, muttering something about a speckled band, and dying. The official cause of death, according to the authorities in Surrey? Fright. Helen is skeptical, though. So were the officials in Surrey, by the way, but they hadn’t been able to find any hint of proof to backup anything but their official cause of death, no matter how much they might want to.

In the time since Julia’s death, Helen Stoner has managed to fall in love with a neighboring young man, and her own nuptials are forthcoming. Sudden and unnecessary construction to the wall outside her room has caused Helen to move into her sister’s former quarters, and now Helen is the one hearing strange whistling and rustling in the dark. This odd turn is how she finds herself at Baker Street, begging Holmes and Watson for assistance. As if the circumstances themselves aren’t enough to draw Holmes’ interest, Dr. Roylott lends a hand in further whetting the Great Detective’s appetite for the puzzle by stopping by to threaten him to stay out of Roylott family business if he knows what’s good for him. He even bends the fireplace poker to drive home the point that messing with him is bad news. Too bad he doesn’t stick around to see Holmes bend it back to shape, though. He might’ve realized he’d met his match.

Holmes and Watson dispatch themselves to Stokes Moran to see what the house might tell them about what’s going on. Holmes takes one look at the bedroom in question and notices a few odd things: a bell rope that isn’t connected to any bell, a vent that opens between Miss Stoner’s room and her step-father’s, both of which were added not too long before Julia began hearing the odd whistling. Poking about in Dr. Roylott’s room, they discover a saucer of milk on top of an old safe, a dog leash with a small loop tied in one end, and a chair poised near the vent that connects the two rooms. Holmes immediately puts together a plan that will end with him and Watson sitting vigil in the middle room while Helen sleeps safely in her own.

The night ends with Holmes beating the tar out of a poisonous snake that escapes, via the bell rope, back to its owner’s room, where it does more than bite that hand that’s been feeding it. Actually, where on his body Dr. Roylott gets bitten is inconsequential; the speckled yellow snake – the source of the “speckled band” of Julia’s last words and the title – is poisonous enough it kills the doctor within 10 seconds of biting him and curls up around his head for a little snooze. It’s not exactly hard for Holmes to figure out why Roylott did any of it. If the girls get married, he loses access to their inheritance. If they die, he gets it all. He prefers the latter scenario and hatches a scheme to see it happen. Talk about his greed coming back to bite him, huh?

Part of the draw of this story, I think, is the “locked room mystery” aspect of it. There’s nothing as intriguing as trying to figure out how something could happen in a room with only one viable entrance and exit that’s locked up tight. I think the impending doom is a big seller, too. Greater risk always leads to greater reward. And the fact that the step-father is, by all accounts, a complete and utter loony bastard who is taking advantage of his sweet, defenseless nieces hits a lot of trope buttons, too, and would have especially for the Victorian reader. All in all, it’s a good, solid, stock-standard Sherlock Holmes story.

Chronologically, this is one of Holmes and Watson’s early cases. We know this because Watson mentions that it was “in the early days of my association with Holmes, when we were sharing rooms as bachelors in Baker Street,” placing it after their meeting in A Study in Scarlet but before Watson is smitten by Mary Morstan in The Sign of the Four. It’s found in the first volume of collected stories, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1892. Last week’s two pre-Watson cases, by comparison, are found in the second volume, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1894. Doyle liked to jump around in his own chronology, which led to some interesting continuity issues as he went on. How much his growing dislike of his own character played a part in some of that is up for some debate. But Doyle didn’t have the benefit of a continuity editor, or the convenience of to help him keep track of 60 different stories and what happened in every single one of them, so perfect continuity might be a bit much to expect. So far, though, moving chronologically through the stories, I haven’t stumbled upon any glaring continuity issues. Of course, I’m only one book and three stories in.

One thing I did definitely notice, though, was the sheer number of hints to other, unseen cases and throwaway mentions of mysterious happenings Doyle peppers through his fiction. If you remember “The Musgrave Ritual,” we never find out what happened to the missing maid. In “The Gloria Scott,” Holmes only guesses at what might have become of the blackmailer and his other potential victim. In “The Speckled Band,” we’re left to wonder if there was some unpleasant cause to Helen Stoner’s untimely death – Watson’s words – and only teased with the existence of the case of Mrs. Farintosh’s opal tiara. These are hardly the only unfulfilled promises lurking in Holmesian canon. They’re everywhere. Watson namedrops cases like a B-movie extra bragging about the A-listers they’ve shared five seconds of screen time with. There’s a reason so much casefic pastiche – stories written about specific cases within the canon – gets written in the Holmesian Universe: Doyle left us so many potential, unexplored cases to choose from. All these random breadcrumbs compelled me to start compiling a list of them (an on-going thing that can be found here and got me thinking as well.

Why did Doyle do it?

Here’s the thing about writers: we can be highly susceptible creatures when it comes to picking up random story ideas from the oddest (or simplest) places. Leaving all these nice, juicy tidbits out in plain sight, as Doyle did, is like dangling a loose string of yarn in front of a kitten. We can’t actually resist swatting at it. Doyle, likely suffering from the same all-too-common affliction, would have known the effect all his teases would have on his peers. His contemporaries took the bait, too. J.M. Barrie, Doyle’s good friend and author of the beloved Peter Pan wrote and published three Holmes stories. Mark Twain gave us “A Double-Barreled Mystery,” a novella wherein Holmes travels to the American West. Doyle made it obvious he didn’t have too many cares about what others did with his detective, in fact; when stage actor William Gillette, in the midst of writing a play about Holmes, asked Doyle if he could marry Holmes off, Doyle infamously replied “You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him.” So, did he leave behind all these baited hooks specifically to get other people to write the character, maybe sparing him from having to do so again?

It could have been something much simpler, though. Did he fully intend, one day, to go back to fill in the pieces, and those references were meant as bookmarks for himself? Perhaps he had the story of Mr. Ricoletti of the club-foot and his abominable wife half-formed in his head, but it never got fully realized or put to paper. Maybe he scattered all these clues as half-hidden Easter eggs for his faithful readers to pick out and horde like dragon’s treasure, their place in the hierarchy of the Holmesian universe determined by how many of them they found. Or maybe, just maybe, it was all just bits of clever world building from a master of the art, meant to do nothing more than provide depth and realism to the universe he was creating. Watson only ever shared a sliver of the adventures he and his dear friend had. You knew there had to be others, maybe less exciting, maybe classified, maybe simply buried in his journals, forgotten in favor of another that caught the biographer’s attention, but occurring behind the scenes all the same. It’s entirely possible Doyle meant to do nothing more conniving than use the unknown to help paint in the highlights, shadows, and contours of 221B.

This week, I’m going to dabble in one of those shadows myself. Forgive me fudging with the timeline a little, since Holmes tells us himself that the Farintosh case happened before Watson’s time. It worked better, for my purposes, if Watson was there to witness the, er, event. Forgive me for the ridiculousness, too. Sometimes, even the world’s greatest detective has to play comic relief.

The story is over here in a separate blog post, because I rambled on too long in this one already. Sorry?

Of Points of View and Untidy Flatmates

musgrave ritual sp

A Sidney Paget illustration from “The Musgrave Ritual,” borrowed from

Of the fifty-six short stories that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Sherlock Holmes, a whopping fifty of them are told in the first person point of view of Dr. Watson. All four novels are also told, for the most part, by Watson (not counting the third-person side trips, as previously seen in A Study in Scarlet). The remaining six stories are divided equally between three categories: those stories told from Sherlock in the third-person (“The Mazarin Stone” and “His Last Bow”), from Sherlock in the first-person (“The Lions Mane” and “The Blanched Soldier”) or related mostly in Sherlock’s first-person through Watson’s dictation of the story his friend tells him (“The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual”). Those six stories are the only real chances we are ever given to have Holmes tell his story himself, even if the last two are still filtered through Watson’s retelling of the narrative dictated to him.

“The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual” are also interesting in that they are tales of cases that Holmes took on before he met and befriended Watson. These are his earliest forays into the world that would become his primary occupation: these are the events that led him to style himself into the world’s first (and only, he would remind you) consulting detective. Here are Holmes’ first steps; the first practical applications of his notorious method to solve true mysteries.  Well, “solving” and “real mysteries” might be defined a little loosely here.

In “The Gloria Scott,” the boys are having a quiet winter evening at 221B, in between cases by all appearances, and Holmes presents Watson with “the message which struck Justice of the Peace Trevor dead with horror.” While still an aimless university student, young Holmes befriends Victor Trevor (the how involves Victor’s dog deciding Holmes’ ankle looks tasty and mauling it, as all budding friendships do) and is invited to spend the summer holiday with his new pal and his father at their estate in Norfolk. Mr. Trevor is friendly enough, until Holmes makes a few typically Holmesian observations and sets his host on edge. After that, Mr. Trevor spends the rest of Holmes’ visit deeply suspicious of his son’s guest, enough so that Holmes decides to cut his trip short.

His last day at the estate, an old associate of Mr. Trevor’s shows up unannounced, asking after another acquaintance and requesting a little hospitality. By the old man’s reaction, it’s not a happy reunion, but Holmes sets out the next day for London without spending too much time on the how’s and why’s of his host’s behavior. Fast forward to two months later, and Holmes receives an urgent request from Victor to return to Norfolk. Mr. Trevor is dying, and the cause is the strange, benign message shown to Watson at the beginning of the story. Holmes decodes the message and it becomes clear that the uninvited visitor – Hudson, no relation – knew something about Mr. Trevor’s past that he planned to reveal to the world. The shame and fear of everyone finding out his greatest secret kills him.

I said that “solving” and “real mysteries” were loosely defined above, and that mostly relates to this story.  Holmes only really cracks the coded message.  The mystery of why it did Mr. Trevor in is solved by the old man himself, via a handwritten confession he leaves for his son.  Holmes doesn’t do a whole lot of the deducing in the story, really, which is almost a let-down.

The telling of “The Musgrave Ritual” is less an attempt to avoid boredom and more an attempt for Holmes to avoid cleaning up after himself. Watson just wants Holmes to put his papers away and maybe stop leaving criminal relics – I really, really want more detail about that, by the way, because my imagination defines “criminal relics” pretty broadly in this case – strewn about the place and, apparently, in the butter dish. Yes, Doyle did just confirm that Holmes and Watson are Oscar and Felix from “The Odd Couple.” Anyway, Holmes is not in the mood to tidy the flat, so he decides to distract Watson instead by pulling out the box he keeps all the bits and pieces of his pre-Watson investigations in. Under the auspices of wanting Watson to put the case to paper, he tells his friend/biographer all about “the adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.”

Now out of school, Holmes is lodging in London and lending his talents to small mysterious matters that get directed his way, usually from former classmates that had seen how his remarkable brain worked. One of those  was Reginald Musgrave, a vague acquaintance whose butler had been acting funny and then nanaged to disappear without a trace – or his belongings – just before he was supposed to quit. If that wasn’t odd enough, one of the estate maids – who was “involved” with the butler – had been acting strangely right before walking off from the house and tossing a mysterious bag into the pond on the property and disappearing herself. Holmes is engaged to find out what happened and where the missing persons might have gotten to.

In his typical brilliant fashion, Holmes uncovers the truth about an old rite of passage the Musgrave family has carried on for several generations and how it directly ties into the butler’s unfortunate fate. He also figures out the real worth of the objects in the mysterious bag at the bottom of the pond – apparently, Henry VII’s crown wasn’t destroyed, just hidden by some supporters of Charles I until his true successor could retrieve it – but he’s left stymied by the fate of the maid, who is never found.

Do you know what’s also probably never found? Any of the furniture buried under Holmes’ endless stacks of paper. The story never spells it out, but I imagine Holmes finishes the story and Watson sets off to scribble it down in his journals while Holmes goes back to his chemistry set or his violin.  I imagine this Holmes, now free of Watson’s nagging for the rest of the evening, looks supremely smug about how easy it was.

This is why I’m always surprised Watson doesn’t mention punching Holmes on a frequent basis throughout the length of their friendship.

The mysteries in both of these stories are more puzzles than cases. No one is really brought to justice in either of them, and you could argue that the deaths that happen in both are caused by the actions of the deceased more than an outside source. Trevor’s own fear of scandal and a weakened disposition did him in; Brunton the butler might not have gotten left behind in the hidden vault if he hadn’t been a greedy, philandering SOB. The central questions in both cases is more “why did this happen?” than “who is responsible for it happening and how can we bring them to justice?” But then, Holmes is just dipping his toes in the ocean at this point in his career. He won’t really dive in head-first until much later. This is Holmes still wearing his floaties, in a sense. The deep end is still to come.


The first draft of The Mad Strangler, written in a caffeine and Twizzler-fueled National Novel Writing Month frenzy, was a third-person narrative from Charlotte’s point of view, broken up by first-person vignettes from the villain. I didn’t want inside Watson’s head. We’re always inside Watson’s head. I wanted inside Holmes’; he’s always been the more intriguing character to me. I also wanted to fill in some of those blanks of who Holmes is and why he is the way he is that canon denied me, which is easier to do when you aren’t filtering the story through a second-hand account. The book remained a third-person narrative until I’d finished the first round of edits – the perfunctory “let’s check for spelling and grammar errors and make sure character names and attributes didn’t change halfway through and, oh yeah, remove any instances of ‘RESEARCHPLEASE!’ tossed in during word wars when I didn’t have time to pause and Google” edit.

Round two started with me deciding – and by me, I mean the character, in my head, who refuses to shut up, ever – that it really needed to be told in first person instead. In Charlotte’s first-person point of view. I don’t ever recommend rewriting 70,000 words in a different point of view if you value your sanity, by the way. I admit, removed from the process by a year and a half, that the story does work better that way. I like letting Charlotte tell her story. I like seeing the world through her eyes. Yes, it makes it more difficult, too, and involves having to try to sound far smarter than I am and work out the deductions and the process of reaching them a lot more minutely. But it’s worth it, I think, in the end. The biographer’s bias is removed. We lose that filter.

Which doesn’t make Charlotte any more a reliable narrator than Watson, by the way. We all lie better to ourselves than we do to others, most of the time. That just makes the lying worse.

But let’s focus on a different one of Charlotte’s faults for now, while also investigating one of her firsts.

The Baker Street Ritual

“CHARLOTTE ELIZABETH HOLMES!” Anne’s voice radiates through the brownstone like a clap of ominous thunder and drags me, flailing, from my light doze on the couch. As I tumble to the floor in a tangle of limbs and opened books, I topple a haphazard stack of papers set on the floor beside me.

“I could have cracked my head open on the floor, Anne,” I say with an indignant huff.

“Your endless mess would have clearly broken your fall.” My aunt stands over me. Her hands rest on her hips, leaving smudges of flour on her black apron. “You’ve been home a week and you’ve already turned the study into a litter heap!”

I lift my head from the floor and peer about the room in question. Admittedly, the room is a bit of a shambles. Since arriving home from Girtons for the summer break, a collection of random miscellany had accumulated around me: hungrily read newspapers – a means of catching up on all I might have missed while I was gone; correspondence in need of reply (mostly from Mycroft, who at least understands my tendency to lose track of such things while focused on my studies and not hold the silence against me); and a dozen or so books in various stages of perusal. To me, such a sight feels welcoming. I am, if nothing else, a creature that thinks best in some degree of chaos.

“Calling it a litter heap insinuates a lack of order.” I pull myself to my feet and reclaim my original seat. “While it may look a bit unkempt…”

Anne scoffs. “A bit unkempt? You’re the queen of understatement, niece.”

“…it is, in fact, a highly systematic organizing of materials. I know the contents of every pile, and could find any singular item if needed from amongst them.”

“Which should make it that much simpler for you to gather it all up and put it away, shouldn’t it?” Anne picks up a stack of books teetering on the edge of the mantle and drops them in my lap. “The ladies from the knitting club are arriving at four. I’d like to make use of the study, so we’re not cramped around the kitchen table.”

I drop my head back against the cushions and groan. “Not the knitting ninnies again!”

“Charlotte!” Anne steps behind the couch and tugs my left ear. “Don’t be rude.”

“I can’t help it. They’re all so…short-sighted! Always nattering on wondering when I’m going to be sensible and give up ‘this foolish education nonsense and find a good husband.’ It’s none of their business. And it makes for asinine conversation.”

“Something you’re well versed in?” I glare up at Anne from my position. She smiles smugly back at me. “Rant all you like on the topic, but you still need to make sense of this room.”

I lift my head and glance at the books situated in my lap. The topmost, a well-worn copy of Dante’s Inferno, lights the spark of potential distraction. As Anne turns to leave, I pluck it up and shove the rest onto the couch.

“Did I tell you about Agatha Moore? What happened to her this past term, that is?” I spin about so that I’m kneeling on the couch and hanging nearly over the back of it. “It was quite an interesting bit of scandal.”

“Unless it’s the scandal of how she plans to get this room cleaned, I’m not interested.”

“Far more interesting, in fact. You see, Agatha was halfway interested in this young man back home. They’d been out together at several rather formal occasions over the last two summers. She expected a proposal any day. I suppose some women find excitement in that sort of thing. Personally, I’ve little interest, but…” Anne picks up my coat from the floor beneath the hook and tosses it at me. I duck to allow it to land on the couch instead. “Unimportant detail. Really, all of it is entirely pointless except the letter she noticed one of our classmates received, in the young man’s handwriting, which held the absolute strangest message. It made little sense at all, until I realized that the letter was actually a fairly simplistic cipher that…”

Anne strides over and plucks the book from my hand. “Let me guess. When decoded, it indicated that the classmate and the young man were secretly having a sordid affair right under his intended’s nose. Sounds like a thrilling story. What sounds more thrilling, however, is you doing as I asked and tidying up this mess.”

“But don’t you want to hear how I cracked it? It really was a masterful bit of…”

“No!” Anne leaves the room in a swirl of flour-dusted wool, slamming the door behind her. A heartbeat later, the door opens and she pokes just her head back through the crack. “By four o’clock, Charlotte, or you can cook your own dinner tonight.”

Sighing, I slide from the couch and begin gathering the detritus, muttering to myself. “Someday, someone’s going to find all this interesting. Just you wait.”

A Word About Order

So, for the purposes of this undertaking, I started at the beginning, with the first Holmes story Doyle penned. It made the most sense to start there.  The introduction of the project should start with the introduction of the characters.  Going forward, though, I’m going to take it a little off-road.

The obvious thing to do would be to go through the stories in the order they were published.  But wouldn’t it be interesting to see how they all fit together when you place them in order of established chronology?  How does the continuity hold together when you take the stories and analyze them that way?  (I promise this has nothing to do with not wanting to dive into another novel-length story the second week in.)

So, I tracked down this list, which sets the stories in chronological order based on the fan’s investigation of the text.  I’ll base the order of my journey through the canon on this list from here out.  Next Monday, it’ll be “The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual.”  There won’t be two stories every week, of course, but with 52 weeks and 60 stories, there will be some doubling up.  

See you next week, for Sherlock’s first cases, and a ficlet about when Charlotte got bitten by the investigative bug.

Is That The One With The Mormon Bit?

It might be hard to believe now (or not, depending on your thoughts on the story in question) that the first Sherlock Holmes book wasn’t exactly successful. Neither, by the way, was the second. A Study in Scarlet was the first, but not last, example of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s struggle with the character of Sherlock Holmes in long-form fiction. As set up by Doyle, Holmes is a character that looks at a scene, at a set of facts, at the available evidence, and seems to have the answer before the rest of the people in the room have even fully formed the question. That’s a hard conceit to sustain over 300 pages. You either have to stump him, keep throwing things at him to distract him, send him out of town for part of the narrative, or – as in A Study in Scarlet – interrupt the narrative with a prolonged and involved flashback and hope you don’t lose the reader entirely in the process.  

But what makes the first Holmes book so wonderful and so extraordinary and so necessary is that it gives us the meeting of Sherlock Holmes and his biographer, Dr. John Watson, and sets the stage for one of the single-most enduring partnerships in Western fiction.

The case at the center of this first novel is a fairly simple revenge killing, cloaked in an atypical means utilizing a popular Victorian method – poison. At its basics, it’s a story of boy meets girl, girl is part of a slightly fanatical community, girl wants to marry boy but other boys want her (or, more directly, her adopted father’s land and fortune) for themselves and decide one of them is going to get her no matter what, first boy loses girl, girl dies after being forced into marriage, and first boy methodically plans revenge. There are disguises, red herrings (that fool the police, but not Holmes), and a mostly satisfying conclusion. Along the way, Holmes gets to chide the inspectors of Scotland Yard, show off for his new friend Watson, and prove he’s the smartest man in the room. Watson, our narrator, gets to spend the majority of the direct narrative being utterly mystified, impressed, and occasionally doubtful of his new roommate’s professed skill. It’s the beginning of a several decades-long fascination both for Watson and the reader.

It’s a story that could have easily been five chapters shorter, if not for a middle section that, though well-written and informative, seems out of place. Those who’ve read the book might know this narrative side trip as “the Mormon section,” or “the Mormon bit.” We’re taken out of the first-person observations of our new doctor friend and tossed into an extended flashback to a man and a young girl’s near-death experience, introduction to Mormonism, and ultimately their failed attempt at leaving it. Along the way we also meet the girl’s ill-fated suitor, the aforementioned boy in our “boy meets girl” scenario and our eventual revenge-seeker. While the story in these chapters is directly related to our main narrative – it informs it entirely, in fact – it’s explained well enough in the murderer’s confession later in the book. The Mormon chapters exist almost entirely as filler to beef up the story to novel length: Holmes has it solved and the culprit in hand before we ever get this story.  

So the question you can ask, based on that information, is this: is Holmes’ character, and the traits that make him the brilliant creature that he is, make him a poor choice for long fiction? That might be a question better answered after all four of the novel-length stories are consumed, but my initial thought is, as Doyle wrote him, maybe?  

But as I said above, the mystery is mostly secondary to the world and character building that Doyle provides us in small, calculated strokes. Scarlet is less important as a mystery than it is as an origin story, and that’s the biggest takeaway from this novel. The murders are oftentimes consequential; the legend of Sherlock Holmes that begins with their solution is essential.  


I chose not to start my own take on Holmes and Watson with their first meeting for a couple reasons. To start, I’m not always a fan of origin stories. They’ve become such an overused trope anymore, so formulaic and predictable to become, on occasion, almost boring. (I mostly blame the comic book industry and the movies they’ve spawned for this.). It’s almost simple algebra by now: Character A will meet Character B; Character C, the villain, will come along and cause Character A a Very Traumatic Event that changes A’s life forever (and B’s, by association) and causes the two new pals to team up to defeat Character C and save the day (as well as the universe, potentially). The end. Sometimes, Character B is the agent of the aforementioned chaos instead of the new sidekick, just to shake things up (Peter Parker and Harry Osborn, anyone?)

More importantly, to me, the start of my Holmes’ story isn’t when she meets Watson. Charlotte’s story starts with a case, one like she’s never had before, that turns her life entirely upside down, professionally and personally. She’s already a fully-realized, if unappreciated, person when her story begins. That doesn’t limit the opportunity for future growth; it means that it’s how she chooses to live her life, not who she randomly crosses paths with and befriends, that defines her strength. As a slightly atypical Victorian Woman whose life is highly atypical to her peers, it’s important that her story very much starts out about her, not her partner.

That doesn’t mean that the details of Holmes and Watson’s first meeting never crossed my mind. I know exactly how it went. Someday, I might delve deeper into those circumstances, though I have a feeling the surrounding events are a lot less exciting than those of their canon counterparts. For now, we have this:

A Study in Smoke

I burst through the door in a cloud of acrid smoke, coughing and blind.  My hands are outstretched to keep from tumbling over the railing of the stairs, which I know are directly in front of me.  It’s something else – someone else – that I stumble into instead.  Both I and the obstacle are knocked to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs and the remnants of a now shattered tea cup. 

When we come to a stop, when the smoke clears enough, I look down to see who it is I’ve tumbled into, since I’m certain, by shape and smell alone, it isn’t my aunt.  The gentleman in the question is gaunt and pale and unceremoniously pinned beneath me, but there is a warmth in his eyes, as well as an amusement that shouldn’t be there, given he has a strange, unknown young woman in his lap. 

“I am to assume you are Mrs. Hudson’s mad niece?” he says without moving an inch.

“I admit to being her niece,” I reply, placing a hand on either side of his head to hold myself above him.  “I make no admissions to madness, however.”

“All evidence to the contrary not withstanding, of course.” 

“I would posit that you have more evidence to a clumsy nature than madness.” I take a quick perusal of the gentleman, noting the weathered rim of his hat (now beside his head), the nutty brown coloration of his face and the waxy pallor that lies beneath it, the gauntness of the frame trapped beneath me, and the cane lying just out of his reach. Above the band of his glove and the cuff of his coat, I note a line of paler skin.  

“And the smoke?” He nods his head toward the door and the gray cloud still pouring through it. “More proof of clumsiness?”

“More a slightly ill-advised experiment. I’m still trying to get the proportions right.” Shifting my weight to just my left hand, I extend the right to him. “Charlotte Holmes. I answer just to Holmes often enough, if it’s more convenient.”

My new acquaintance looked at my hand for a few confused moments, then caught it in his own. “John Watson. It’s very nice to-“

“Charlotte!” The screech comes from halfway down the stairs, where Aunt Anne stands with a market basket of fruit hanging on her arm, struck frozen and glaring. “Get up off Dr. Watson this minute! I swear, girl, your manners…” She rushes up the remaining steps and drops her basket so that she might yank me to my feet with both hands at one of my elbows. “I apologize, Doctor, if…”

“I assure you, Anne, he wasn’t bothered. Men newly returned from Afghanistan rarely find anything as trifling as a wayward young woman stumbling into them so very scandalizing.” I bend to retrieve Watson’s cane, then offer him my hand again, this time for assistance instead of greeting. He accepts it again, as confused as before, and together we get him onto his feet. “Men such as those have seen worse things than all that.”

“How did you know…”

I offer out the cane and he takes it, leaning heavily upon it. “By your complexion, both the darker of your face and the paler of your wrist, you have been somewhere tropical. Anne referred to you as Doctor, though your hat is quite old and possibly came to you second-hand, indicating a certain lack of economic station indicative of your title. Your coat is your own, though it seems ill-fitting, perhaps indicating a recent illness, confirmed by the overall gauntness of your being. The wound to your leg is relatively recent and severe. The latter two, pieced with the directly former, indicates perhaps you were a medic in Her Majesty’s military, where you were injured and took ill. Where would one currently have the chance of that occurring, for that reason, in a tropical climate? Afghanistan, of course.” I pluck an apple from Anne’s discarded basket and polish it against my shoulder. “All very simple, really.”

Anne grabs the apple before I can take a bite and gives me a stern look. “Stop showing off. And go make the sitting room presentable so I can serve tea.” Turning to Watson, who stands there staring at me in abject wonder, she smiles. It’s the slightest bit exasperated. “Come along then, Doctor. I’ll show you to your room.”