I wanted to take a minute this week and discuss adaptations and Holmes canon. That’s because the story for this week, “The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips” has been adapted a few times, most recently making an appearance in the BBC “Sherlock” Christmas special “The Abominable Bride.” Also, I really wanted an excuse to watch some of the older movies and television series, and this seemed like a wholly justifiable cause. I recently discovered the availability of tons of Holmes-related things, including the Granada series starring Jeremy Brett and the old Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films on Hoopla. I highly recommend finding out if your library subscribes to this service, because it is a fantastic place to access movies, TV shows, audio books, eBooks, music, and comics. (Amongst my writer-friends, we call it “The Hoopla,” because it is definitely so singular in its awesomeness that it deserves the distinction.)
This topic also gave me a reason to rewatch the Christmas special, which I absolutely adored anyway, and to use a Battlestar Galactica quote in my title. What? It worked in my head, anyway.
So, the basic story of “The Five Orange Pips” is an intriguing one. There’s random, questionably “accidental” deaths, threatening letters coming in the mail, shadowy figures lingering in the dark, and a secret organization behind it all. It’s also, if you ask me, one of Holmes actual “failures” – he might figure out the puzzle at the end, but he still loses the client. Compared to “The Musgrave Ritual” and “The Yellow Face,” this seems to qualify much more for that label. Interestingly enough, though, Watson doesn’t apply it in his preamble.
John Openshaw arrives at 221B in a definite state of anxiety. Over the past few years, his uncle Elias and his father have died after receiving strange, anonymous letters in the mail. Well, letters may be a stretch – they received envelopes that included five orange pips – or seeds – and the letters “K.K.K.” scrawled on the envelope itself. Uncle Elias, who had spent some time in the States and fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, was found face down in a shallow pond almost 2 months after receiving his letter. John’s father supposedly tripped and shattered his skull while visiting friends 5 days after receiving his. Two days before he showed up on Holmes’ doorstep, John had received a letter of his own.
Some “features of interest” to note: Uncle Elias had a single room in his house that John, who had lived with his uncle since not long after Elias’ return to England, didn’t have access to. A box from this room was taken down and its contents burned not long after Elias received his letter. Elias had been fond of solitude since returning to England, with bouts of drunken rambling in his fields. The coroner ruled his death a suicide. When John’s father, who inherited the estate, received his letter, it included the addition of “put the papers on the sun dial” beneath the menacing acronym. The first letter was postmarked from Pondicherry, India; the second from Dundee; the third from London. All three locations are port cities, and that knowledge, combined with the length of time between the delivery of the warnings and the deaths, makes Holmes and Watson both assume the sender is traveling via ship. John found a single sheet of paper, likely from the collection Elias had burned, that appeared to be from a ledger; it listed dates, names of people, and things like “set the pips on” and “cleared.”
Holmes recommends that John go straight home, write a note explaining what happened to the papers, stick it in the box, and leave it on the sundial as instructed. When their client leaves, Holmes fills Watson in on the sordid history of the K.K.K. and its connection to the American South. They plan to visit John the next day, but discover in the morning that he had an unfortunate accident on his way to the train station the night before and is dead. Holmes immediately runs out to do what he can about the murderers, and though he solves the case, he doesn’t catch the bad guys, as I’m sure he’d prefer.
I think it’s obvious by now that I am very fond of all things Sherlock Holmes, and the adaptations are no exception. I saw the Rathbone/Bruce “Hound of the Baskervilles” in my high school junior English class; the same teacher brought in “Young Sherlock Holmes” for us to watch as well. (This is the same teacher who serenaded me with “Diana” by Paul Anka on a daily basis and paused the Robert Redford “Great Gatsby” to point out to the entire class that the approaching scene related directly to my essay topic, the 1919 Black Sox scandal. He also talked to his plastic palm tree. Good ol’ Mr. Macdonald…) I have 80% of the dialogue of the first Robert Downey, jr./Jude Law “Sherlock Holmes” committed to memory and have been known to slip quotes from it into daily speech, the “shall I list them alphabetically or chronologically” one especially. I even went to the midnight showing of “Game of Shadows.” I am all about a good Sherlock adaptation, and adaptations direct from the canon are especially awesome.
(Side note: by the time I added the title, this post had 1,919 words, which I found funny since I made unrelated reference to the 1919 World Series in the above paragraph. And then I ruined that synergy by adding this note. Blast!)
The interesting thing about the film and television adaptations of “The Five Orange Pips” is that they mostly tend to pick the same specific bits from the original story to bring in, and the same ones to leave out. “Sherlock” has played with the story twice, technically: Moriarty used electronic “pips” to announce his calls in the Series One finale “The Great Game,” long before Sir Eustace Carmichael received his warnings of impending death in “The Abominable Bride.” The orange pips make an appearance in their traditional sense in the special, an omen that indicates, along with two appearances from the aforementioned Bride, that death is coming soon for their recipient. It’s a death that Holmes fails to prevent, much like in the original story, and there is a callback to the American angle in the form of Sherlock identifying the orange pips as a warning method utilized in the colonies. By the end of the episode, we know who Sir Eustace’s murderer is; like the story, though, said murderer isn’t brought to justice. (Unlike the story, the murder itself is being solved inside Sherlock’s drug-addled brain.)
In 1945, Basil Rathbone’s Holmes and Nigel Bruce’s Watson tackled a pip-sending murderer in the contemporary mystery “The House of Fear.” This case deals with seven bachelors who have left London to live in a Scottish estate – and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting dead in “Real World: Scottish Highlands Edition.” (I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry.) Actually, it’s never really explained why these people – who include a sea captain, a doctor who was tried and acquitted for his wife’s brutal murder, and the owner of the estate they all live in, to name a few – decided to move in together and form a little club. Weirder than that, though, was the decision to all alter their insurance policies, making their fellow club members their sole beneficiaries. But none of that seems weird enough to involve the police with until one of the members receives an envelope with seven orange pips inside it at dinner, and then winds up dead the next day. It’s the second death (via similar odd circumstances and anonymous message) that leads someone from the insurance company to Baker Street to solicit Holmes and Watson’s help. Like the story and “The Abominable Bride,” orange pips are used to mark their recipient for death; also like both, Holmes seemingly fails to prevent each successive murder. That’s actually the only real connection to the original story, and why the movie is considered to be “loosely based” on it.
There was also an episode in season three of “Elementary” that takes on the story (in the show’s usual way of taking on canon), but I haven’t started that season yet, so I haven’t watched that one. From what I can tell from the summary, it sticks to the same basic rote of the other two adaptations, meaning that it utilizes the pips (called “Pipz” in this instance) and them being sent to people before they’re murdered, but leaving the rest of the basics alone. The Granada series, staring Jeremy Brett as Holmes, never got around to giving us their take on the story, because Brett died before they finished the canon.
So, why do all these existing adaptions make use only of the narrative device – the pips – and their basic premise – harbingers of impending death – and leave the rest of the twists alone? It’s probably an easy question to answer for “Sherlock” – Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss never take the canon word for word or step for step in their approach. They always find a way to twist it, and usually a way to twist bits of multiple stories together – like taking “Richoletti of the club-foot and his abominable wife” from “The Musgrave Ritual” and adding the character of Sir Eustace (the title and first name of a character in “Abbey Grange”) to the broad strokes of “The Five Orange Pips.” “House of Fear,” though, goes way off script, and neither of them touch the connection to the Ku Klux Klan at all. There are probably a couple of reasons for this. It’s an aspect very weighted, culturally, particularly for American audiences that have grown up with either the history of the organization or direct exposure to it. Doyle also spouts some sketchy history about the Klan – he gets the dates of creation and the first-wave dissolution right, but the meaning behind the name horribly wrong – that adaptors might not want to have to deal with. Of course, he’s separated from the subject matter by an ocean and a couple decades at the time he’s writing the story, so it might be forgivable that his facts weren’t exactly straight.
Maybe the easiest answer, though, is that the pips themselves, more than the source of their terror, is what intrigues people. They can be utilized by whomever, wherever, for whatever reason. They are an utterly innocuous item that, without context, on first glance, holds no malicious meaning. It’s not until the first recipient bites it that the next starts to think there’s something up. That makes those dried out little seeds very handy vessels. Plus, let’s be honest: you can get them anywhere. They’re a very cheap device, and they come in such a yummy packaging, too. Death threat and afternoon snack all in one.
(That comment is by no means a recommendation; no one is condoning sending orange seeds to your enemies for any purpose at all, especially not as a threat of murder. I do recommend oranges as a tasty, healthy snack option, however. – Mgmt)
This week’s fiction installment features the Holmes siblings, because I really do enjoy them, and because I’ve spent so little time actually having them interact directly on the page. Mycroft is an unseen specter in the first book, really – he’s mentioned in passing, usually sending telegrams to his sister from afar – and a bit combative in the second (he has his reasons, of course). They have their little sibling moments, but nowhere near enough. Plus, I’m just very fond of Charlotte’s mysterious (slightly) older brother.
The Orange Conundrum
“I think,” Mycroft says as he sips from a steaming cup of coffee, “that I have a puzzle that may prove to stump you.” He sits across from me, my brother; fresh from the train and buried three deep in plates heaped upon him by Anne. I can barely see the top of the kitchen table for the food she’s set out. He’s been back in London just an hour; at his appointed seat all of half that. His journey has left him as rumpled as his suit. His hair sticks up in random tufts designed by his head’s placement on the back of his seat. A day’s worth of beard mottles his cheeks and chin. Weariness lingers in his expression like a gauzy curtain – the warmth of his eyes has been replaced by a tepid dullness remniscient of weak tea. I’ve lost count of the number of times his eyes have drooped or he’s jerked in his chair as if waking himself from a doze.
I doubt the coffee will do much in regards to any of it. Only a good night’s rest in a stationary, horizontal bed will fix this.
I laugh and steal a biscuit from the desert plate nearest to me. “Not on your best day, brother-mine,” I say, the challenge ending in a yelp as Anne raps my knuckles. “Well, you’re not giving me any of my own. All I have left to me is to steal from his or starve!”
“You haven’t been without a decent warm meal these last six months. I swear he’s lost half himself.” As Anne says it, she whisks away an empty plate and sets another, this one full of thinly sliced roast with gravy and potatoes, in its place. “Eat up, dear boy, before you fall asleep in your plate.”
“Yes. Be kind to me, Charlotte. I’m fragile, you see. I’ve been away.”
“On extended holiday. That’s hardly war service.” The moment Anne’s back is turned, I pluck a piece of meat from Mycroft’s plate and take a smug bite of it. “So, tell me about this impossible puzzle of yours.”
“Ah, yes, the puzzle.” He picks up his fork and spears a slice of beef himself, then nods at it with both eyebrows raised. This is a fork, the look says. It is used by civilized people to eat with, being the unspoken implication of it. “A man is found dead without any apparent outward hallmarks to suggest the cause. How, then, is an orange responsible for his condition, with the understanding that choking, poisioning, and an easily offended constitution are not involved?”
I chew at the beef, and at the question, in silence. A man found dead with no visible indication of means, and the method somehow involving an orange, though the consumption of it is unrelated. “Was he somehow struck with it at such high velocity that it caused a massive internal injury?”
“No. I believe that would have left some outward manifestation noticed by the officials on the scene.”
“Did the orange cause an accident of some sort?” I pick up a roll from the basket, using the round piece of bread as a stand-in. “Rolled in ftont of his carriage and threw off a wheel? Or made his horse lurch? Send him tripping down some stairs? Oh! Did he trip over it and fall into a river and drown?”
Anne clucks her tongue as she rinses off a dish. “I wish you wouldn’t encourage her so. It’s obscene.”
Mycroft shakes his head. His chuckle momentarily interferes with his ability to chew. “All quite good guesses, but still far from the mark.” After a good swallow of coffee, he sets his fork aside and pushes back from the table. “I think I may have to delay the rest of this feast to a later time, Aunt. If I don’t sleep soon, I might trip into this gravy and drown there.”
“I’m sure your sister and Doctor Watson will appreciate any of the leftovers likely to go bad before you’ve time to finish them,” Anne says, coming around the table to kiss Mycroft’s cheek. “Find your razor when you’re rested, hmm? You look a shambles when you’re scraggly.”
“No, wait,” I say, rising myself as Mycroft does. “You can’t run off yet. We’re not done with the puzzle. How does an orange kill a man if none of those possibilities are right?”
“I’ll let you off the hook this time,” he says. He stoops by his satchel and pulls a book from among a collection of half-crinkled papers. As he hands it to me with one hand, his other makes a quick muss of my hair.”Read up on your American secret societies in that, paying particular notice to the use of orange pips. And then read recent studies on fear’s role in apoplexy. That might provide an answer. Enjoy your present!”
Anne sighs. “He really shouldn’t encourage you,” she says, looking at the mess strewn over her kitchen, then the book in my hands. “At least it’s more useful than the tobacco you asked for.”