“The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” or “Christmas in July”

WARNING: there may be spoilers below for various episodes of BBC’s “Sherlock.”  I tried to avoid them as best I could, but a few slipped in.  If you somehow haven’t seen the nine episodes and one special yet (to which I have to ask “WHY??  Get thee to Netflix now!”), you may want to just scroll on past.

I’m totally cheating this week.  I am finding an excuse to talk about an episode of “Sherlock” that is mostly unrelated to the story I read.  I mean, the story in question is mentioned, by title even, in the episode, but that’s as far as the reference goes.  But!  Since “The Blue Carbuncle” is kind of a Christmas story, and “The Abominable Bride” was meant as a Christmas special (whether it aired in January or not), I’m running with it.  If I’d started the blog a month sooner, I would’ve had a legitimate excuse.  Really, I’m just making up here for my own bad timing.

“The Blue Carbuncle’s” Christmas cred comes from the fact the story is set a few days after Christmas and involves a priceless gem fond in the gizzard of a Christmas goose.  Said gem was stolen three days before Christmas and a suspect in the theft is in custody, even if he’s strenuously insisting upon his innocence.  Holmes and Watson get involved because of a good Samaritan who came upon the goose while trying to protect a stranger being attacked on the street.  While it turns out the stranger didn’t have anything to do with the theft of the stone, he does inadvertently lead them to solution.  In the name of Christmas spirit – or just Holmes’ soft heart – the true criminal is left to go free with the promise that his criminal tendencies are well and truly finished.

God bless us, every one.

It’s really a very simple story that turns on a fairly simple mystery, one that the boys remark is another in a series of pretty harmless adventures:

“Amid the action and reaction of so dense a swarm of humanity, every possible combination of events may be expected to take place, and many a little problem may be striking and bizarre without being criminal.  We have already had experience of such.”

“So much so,” I remarked, “that of the last six cases which I have added to my notes, three have been entirely free of any legal crime.”

“Precisely. You allude to my attempt to recover the Irene Adler papers, to the singular case of Miss Mary Sutherland, and to the adventure of the man with the twisted lip.  Well, I have no doubt that this small matter will fall into the same innocent category.”

I question the categorization of potential blackmail (“Scandal In Bohemia”) and harmful fraud (“A Case of Identity”) as being “free of any legal crime,” or “innocent,” but we’ve already talked about how blatantly wrong Holmes’ approach to Mary Sutherland’s issue was in a previous post.  And that’s not the point, anyway.  “Blue Carbuncle” is one of those cute, relatively unexciting but entertaining nonetheless stories that comprises a good portion of Holmesian canon.  There’s a twisty puzzle that no one else in London can solve and Holmes mostly has it figured out before dinner.  He doesn’t even break a sweat.

At least nobody can say that Holmes only takes the cases that will get him attention or are “important.”  All he cares about is how interesting and potentially unique it is.

The story also ties to a scene in another “Sherlock” episode, namely the Holmes vs. Holmes deduction battle in “The Empty Hearse.”  In the story, Holmes asks Watson to tell him what information a top hat left behind by the aforementioned stranger (via the good samaritan) provides about its owner.  In “The Empty Hearse,” Sherlock goads Mycroft into a game of dueling observations, only one of which – the short hairs adhered to the inside by perspiration stains – comes from the story itself.  Of course, it’s a different kind of hat, so the things that tell Holmes the owner was once well-off and is now financially struggling are different than the things that tell Sherlock and Mycroft the hat belongs to a sentimental man with a nervous disposition and bad breath.

I could seriously watch Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Gatiss play “Dueling Deductions” for hours, as an FYI.  It’s a glorious thing.  Unrelated, but has to be said.

“The Abominable Bride’s” connection to Christmas is even more tenuous.  While it might have been touted as a Christmas Special, the only thing really seasonal about it is when it is initially set.  The beginning of the Bride’s crime spree takes place during the Christmas holiday and just after Watson publishes “The Blue Carbuncle” in The Strand.  The boys are just returning home after chasing down a case that sends them home with a head in a box.  You think the eponymous Bride is the veiled stranger waiting in the sitting room to engage Holmes and Watson, but that’s just Mary, trying to make a point about her gallivanting husband never being home and leaving her behind while he’s off having adventures.

(Amanda Abbington’s version of Mary is still the only one I’ve ever liked.  I’m one of those people that giggled when Robert Downey jr’s Holmes tossed the new Mrs. Watson out of a train car.  Yes, I know, I’m a horrible person.)

The real mystery starts later, when Lestrade calls upon the denizens of 221B to request their help on a case that has left the seasoned Inspector visibly shaken: how does a woman commit suicide in the afternoon, sneak out of the morgue, and kill her husband later that evening?  Of course the only logical explanation is she’s a zombie.  Or a vengeful ghost.  Or secret twins (“It’s never twins!”). Holmes finds the case a bit ridiculous and walks away from it until the same Bride starts popping up and killing other less than wonderful husbands around London and the wife of her presumed next victim comes to Holmes seeking help saving hers.

This is where things start to get interesting, in the River Song “you might want to find something to hold onto” definition of the word.

Moffat and Gatiss pulled a fast one in the Special.  After telling fans the Victorian-set special would exist outside the current continuity,they managed to tie the story to where “Sherlock” season three left off.  Which might seem weird or impossible or unlikely, and is definitely a little trippy, but they manage it well enough, in my opinion.  By the end of the episode, they manage to answer a question –  or at least propose a logical possibility of one – that has bugged “Sherlock” fandom since the end of season three: how in the hell can Moriarty be alive after blowing out the back of his own skull at the end of season two?  How do they do that with an episode that is primarily set over a hundred years before said brain-blowing-out ever happened?  Well, you have to watch the special to find that out.  I’m not going to spoil everything for you.

The other thing I found really well-done about the special were all the little hat-tips to the canon, the cases specifically.  While the episode itself isn’t strictly canon, it is highly referential.  The title harkens back to a case drop from “the Musgrave Ritual.”  Before going to see Mycroft, Holmes has to brush up on a astronomical concept known as “the obliquity of the ecliptic,” which is mentioned as one of the topics of conversation Watson and Holmes have over tea early on in “The Greek Interpreter.”  The opening scenes recreate the canonical first meeting of Holmes and Watson, with the doctor’s voiceover quoting the first few lines of A Study in Scarlet.  Watson receives a telegram from Holmes telling him to “Come at once if convenient.  If inconvenient, come all the same,” which is the exact same note from sent  him  in “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” and the texts Sherlock sends him in “A Study in Pink.”  The ill-fated Sir Eustace receives five orange pips in the mail, the omen of death previously utilized in “The Five Orange Pips.”

There’s also about a dozen other references to dialogue from the stories sprinkled through as well, but diving into those would make this a lot longer than it needs to be.

What the special does, for me, is serve as a reminder – in the midst of a very long and insufferable drought – of what makes “Sherlock” so absolutely wonderful: the reverence its writers have for the canon and the clever ways they find to include it without resorting to narrative regurgitation.  Moffat and Gatiss love these characters.  They love the stories.  And the know it all inside and out.  This allows them to twist it and tweak It and play with it to give us interesting, entertaining, and brilliant new angles on the Holmes and Watson we already know so well.  They bring a freshness and a modernity to what could otherwise come across as stale and dated to a modern audience.  They manage to do it with a lot of clever flash, too, that is seamless instead of “cool for cool’s sake.”  That they found a way to incorporate their trademark quirks so well into a period episode just further proves how brilliant they are.

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