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.
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.