“The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” or “When I meet Thomas Jefferson Imma compel him to include women in the sequel.”

(WORK!)

(Sorry, it’s an involuntary reaction to hearing that lyric.)

It’s no surprise to anyone reading this, I’m assuming, that the Victorians had some weird thoughts and practices in regards to women, especially single women.  We were delicate flowers who couldn’t handle a slightly uncomfortable truth (“A Case of Identity“), were not expected to be as devious as our male counterparts or in any way their equal (“A Scandal in Bohemia“),were property whose worth was determined by our marriageability or our perceived purity (“The Noble Bachelor“), and were easy targets for blackmailers (“Charles Augustus Milverton“).  This was an era when women had to fight to own anything of their own, could be utterly destroyed by a poor marriage or a hint of scandal, and had nearly no one fighting for them.  I mean, married women didn’t even truly get the right to really own property in any real sense until The Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, for God’s sake.

The mystery at the heart of “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” revolves exactly around those antiquated ideas of a woman’s worth and autonomy, taking James Windibank’s plot to trap his step-daughter in a fictional engagement in “The Noble Bachelor” to keep his hands on her inheritance to an all new low.  What Mr. Carruthers and Mr. Woodley plan to do to Violet Smith is potentially the worst thing any Holmes villain has ever planned to do to another human being, and that includes the several of them responsible for murder.

Yes, there is something worse than murder.

Violet comes to Holmes and Watson not necessarily because of the odd business arrangement she’s found herself in – reminiscent of every odd business arrangement ever presented in a Holmes story, ever – but because someone has been following her on her weekly bike rides to the train station to spend her weekends back in London.   She doesn’t consider the job offer or its connection to a dead relative in South Africa to be strange enough to worry about, but the creepy cyclist is weird enough to engage Holmes and Watson over.  And, really, it is super weird and creepy, but so is the rest.

See, Carruthers and Woodley found Violet and her mother through an ad in the newspaper.  According to them, they had known Violet’s uncle, her father’s brother, who recently died penniless in South Africa.  His last dying wish had been for his friends to find his sister-in-law and niece and ensure they’re taken care of.  To this end, Carruthers offers Violet a job teaching his daughter piano – and basically being a live-in governess – for a hundred pounds a year.  That’s about double the going rate, by the way.  The arrangement includes the ability to spend weekends at home, which is why she heads off to the station every Saturday on her bike, and rides back to Carruthers’ home the same way every Monday.

And is followed each way by a creepy bearded dude on a bike.

While Carruthers is nothing short of a gentleman to Violet, his friend Woodley is not.  He is a bully and a prick who gets grabby with Violet and whose actions definitely imply he thinks he is within his rights to force himself upon her, either through just his company or physically.  People that know him freely call him a blackguard for good reason.  Carruthers disapproves of this behavior, so he throws his friend out of his house, and Woodley is smart enough to stay away, but that doesn’t mean Violet has any less reason to be concerned about what the bastard might be up to.

Holmes takes the whole affair pretty seriously (despite not wanting to be bothered early on), but Watson initially misses the seriousness of the scenario.  I’d love to say that his initial cavalier attitude towards a woman being stalked by a man is unheard of in the present day and just another Victorian point of view we left far behind, but we hear the opposite on the news too often to dismiss it as such.  Stalking is a highly under investigated crime, especially when the ones being stalked are women.  But that’s another rant for another time.  Holmes does at least eventually see the potential for danger and arranges to try to catch the creep in the act after Violet has to discontinue her working relationship with Mr. Carruthers.  (She found his marriage offer to be a little inappropriate, especially since she was already engaged to someone else.)  Unfortunately, Violet plans to leave on an earlier train and is already heading out – and caught by her pursuers – by the time Watson and Holmes arrive.

And that is when we find out the evil scheme at the heart of this mystery.  We discover that Carruthers is the stalker (though he had pure intentions, he swears), that he and Woodley planned to coerce Violet into marrying one of them to get their hands on the money she inherited from her supposedly penniless uncle, and that Woodley “won” the right to be the bridegroom in a game of cards.  They also discover that Woodley’s taken up with a disgraced and defrocked vicar who helps him perform a shotgun wedding very much against Violet’s will.  I’m fairly sure the wedding night would have gone the exact same way if Holmes, Watson, and Carruthers hadn’t intervened.  It’s probably pretty true that Violet might not have survived much past the actual collection of said inheritance, actually, and that her life would have been pretty much hell until then, too.

Here’s the sad thing: the laws and philosophies of the era this story was written about?  Would have entirely allowed the overall concept of what Woodley and Carruthers planned.  Even if parliament gave women a right to own property in 1882 (but only in England, Wales, and Ireland; the law didn’t apply in Scotland and it only applied in Northern Ireland once the split happened), the easiest way to get your hands on an unsuspecting heiress’ money was tricking her into marrying you.  Lie your way to the altar.  Coerce someone into agreeing.  Or force her to do it if all else fails.  We can only assume someone tried the last option at least once for Doyle to come up with the idea for this plot.  I’m not saying he lacked the imagination to come up with the idea on his own, but reality does frequently inspire art, after all.  I mean, look at how many episodes of the various Law and Order franchises had disclaimers about their similarity to true events?  Hell, Dragnet started every episode with “These stories are true.  The names have been changed to protect the innocent.”  I’m just saying, there’s precedent for mysteries to be based on real events and for this slimy scheme to have at least been attempted.

Given his thoughts on women’s marriage rights (we’ll ignore his thoughts on suffrage for now), I can see why Doyle would choose to make these types of men his criminals.  Which isn’t to say he set out to deliver a message with this particular story, but it certainly touches on one of those issues he felt passionately enough about to lend his pen to publicly.  This was about six years before he published “Divorce Law Reform” after all, so maybe it was his way of decrying something fictionally he’d address otherwise later.  A dry run, if you will.

There are a lot of things I can get irate over and then, in the next breath, hand-wave off as “it’s how it was; it was horrible and stupid and inhumane, but historical hindsight is always 20/20.”  But Woodley (and Carruthers, whether he had a change of heart or not) did something that was inexcusable in any time.  No civilized society could find a reason to consider forcing a woman into matrimony at gunpoint with the help of a scuzzball vicar just to access a fortune she doesn’t know she has as acceptable.  The fact that doing so with false promises and no gun was less unacceptable is an unfortunate blemish on the Victorian legacy.

The good news is, Holmes and Watson stopped the unimaginable from happening, Violet married her betrothed, and inherited a nice chunk of change to boot.  So even stories with potential rapey undertones can eventually have a happy ending.

“The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez” or “When the who has nothing to do with the why.”

If you talk to a member of law enforcement and ask them which cases are the hardest to solve, you might be surprised by the answer.  It’s not likely going to be a specific class of crime that they bemoan – not your murders, robberies, cons, auto thefts, etc.  What they’ll probably tell you is that the most difficult cases to close are usually the seemingly random ones.  That’s because motive goes a long way toward implicating a criminal.

Sure, if you ask Gil Grissom of “CSI: Las Vegas” fame, he’ll tell you that the why isn’t important, but he’s speaking purely from a forensic investigator’s point of view.  Plus, you know, he’s fictional.  When the physical evidence is all you focus on, the why can be an afterthought.  But when you’re looking at a crime from a broader perspective, what motivates the criminal is always just as helpful for identifying the perpetrator as the how.  And that is what makes random crime such a pain in the investigator’s ass.

This is especially true in a world – like, say, the Victorian Era, for example – where DNA, extensive fiber analysis, and cellphone records and cell tower data don’t exist.

Holmes and Watson undertake a seemingly motive-less murder in “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez,” a story that revolves around the death of a mild-mannered personal secretary found dead in his employer’s study.  Willoughby Smith – which I think is a glorious name for a mild-mannered secretary – has no enemies, no hobbies worth mentioning (he apparently has his work and nothing else going for him), and not a single bad habit to his credit, unless you count his fondness for the same Egyptian cigarettes his employer, Professor Coram, chain-smokes.  Willoughby is, in fact, such a boring gentleman that when he wasn’t busily taking the professor’s dictation, he was pulling references for the next day’s work.  This is why Willoughby is cast, in my brain, as Rupert Giles from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”  But without the cool, irresponsible magic-using rebellious phase and tawdry affair with the computer sciences teacher.

What I’m saying here is, nobody had a reason to want Willoughby dead.  He’s not interesting enough for anyone to want dead.

(I kind of want a story where Willoughby is only playing at the mild-mannered secretary thing because he’s really a spy.  Maybe even a foreign spy.  And definitely played by Anthony Stewart Head utilizing portions of his Rupert Giles wardrobe/aesthetic.  Especially the glasses.  Sorry, I think I may have gone slightly off track there.  Also, I don’t know why I say “I kind of want” when what I should be doing is making notes for something in the Charlotte-verse.  Anyway.)

(Have I apologized yet for these random tangents that tend to pop up?  I really feel like I should.  Sorry.)

Also not helping make the case all that clear or simple is the paucity of helpful physical evidence.  There is only one set of incoming tracks coming into the house.  The hallways are floored in such a way that they don’t really take footprints well.  The killer seemingly leaves nothing of themselves behind at all except for a pair of glasses found in the victim’s hand, and his dying declaration – “The professor – it was she.”  The glasses in question here are the aforementioned golden pince-nez.  (If you’re unfamiliar with the term, those are glasses that do not have sturdy earpieces but are held in place by a nose clip and may have ear hooks attached to the frames by a chain.)  Holmes spends about five minutes with the glasses and provides a pretty specific description of the wearer – female, well-dressed, of good bearing, with a wide nose and close-set eyes who has probably been to the optometrist twice in the last year and bears a few physical signs of someone with poor eyesight and a strong eyeglass prescription.

If Inspector Hopkins were left to figure this case out alone, it would probably still be unsolved 122 years later because the lack of motive actively stymied the Inspector’s processing of the information.  Holmes of course sees things others don’t and, through his usual combination of attention to detail and ability to logically analyze all possible explanations for a thing, manages to suss out the location of the killer.  Which, by the way, is tucked in behind the bookshelf in the professor’s own bedroom.  Before you ask: no, the professor wasn’t involved.  It was just in is best interests not to let the cops find the killer.

Can I just say, secret compartments and rooms in houses seem to be really popular things in Victorian England.  That’s the second story in a row where someone’s had a hidden cubby hole to hide themselves or someone else, and I’m kind of jealous.

Once the killer, the mysterious Anna, is revealed, along with the professor’s secret Russian origins and Nihilist Party background, the why of the crime becomes clear.  But without the presence of displaced cigarette ashes, a pair of abandoned glasses, a sickly man’s increased appetite, and the identical nature of two hallways, there would be nothing that could ever point to this one Russian woman as the wielder of the sealing-wax knife that killed poor, dead Willoughby.  Not even Holmes saw anything suspicious enough about the Professor to make him curious as to his background, after all.

I realize this case pretty much supports Grissom’s previously mentioned credo.  But!  It takes the exceptional brain of Sherlock Holmes in order for that to happen.  The, unfortunately, fictional exceptional brain.  Which isn’t to say that brilliant investigators don’t exist, or that other, real-life investigators couldn’t have potentially discovered the hidden compartment behind the bookshelf and found poor Anna.  What I am saying, though, is that the case likely wouldn’t have been solved so quickly or so easily without the involvement of Sherlock Holmes, super sleuth.

Honestly, where else but a Sherlock Holmes story would a Russian discontent accidentally murder someone not at all involved with Russia, communism, or espionage, and hide in her husband’s bedroom to wait out the cops?  Poor Willoughby.  He could’ve been a spy…

 

I’m going to tattle on myself for a second here: I really thought, based on Willoughby’s dying declaration and the description of the glasses, that the Professor was going to be revealed as a woman hiding in an elaborate disguise.  My pet theory dissolved entirely, though, when Watson described Professor Coram’s face as “aquiline.”  I liked my theory, damn it…

“The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” or A Study in Justice

So, two things happened to inspire the topic of this week’s post.  First off, I found I had absolutely nothing to say about the story.  There’s nothing wrong with it.  It’s a perfectly great story.  It just didn’t spark any immediate topics for discussion in my brain.  Secondly, I finally gave in to my desperate need to find an excuse to discuss the character of Odo from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”  Those two mostly unrelated things collided, thankfully in a way that at least gave me a way to bash out a thousand or so words.  I’ll still likely expound in a deeper and more meaningful way on why I think Odo is so very clearly a futuristic alien version of Sherlock Holmes (and not so much the small town sheriff trying to hold this crazy wild west cattle town together, which is the metaphor the writers were going for), but that will be later.  Today, I want to talk about how justice and innocence are addressed in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” and the DS9 episode “Things Past.”

“Norwood Builder” isn’t the first time Holmes and Watson have to disprove the guilt of someone Lestrade (or some other Yardie) is certain committed a crime.  It is, though, the first time Holmes himself questions the innocence of his client.  The evidence is stacked impressively against young John MacFarlane – he was the last person to see the deceased alive according to a witness, his walking stick is the apparent murder weapon, and there are no additional footprints in or out of the crime scene.  There’s no evidence of another person ever entering the room where it happened.  Oh, and there’s the small matter of the victim having signed a will leaving all he possessed to Mr. MacFarlane the night he died.  Means, motive, and opportunity, when added to the physical evidence, just screams “slam dunk conviction,” really.  Even Holmes and his keen eye and methodical brain can’t manage to find any speck to contradict the official theory, either, unlike in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.”  For the first time, Holmes is forced to consider that he may be working for a criminal – or at least someone he can’t prove innocent of the crime.

“Unless we succeed in establishing an alternative theory, this man is lost.  You can hardly find flaw in the case which can now be presented against him, and all further investigation has served to strengthen it…I fear, my dear fellow, that our case will end ingloriously by Lestrade hanging our client, which will certainly be a triumph for Scotland Yard.”

– Sherlock Holmes, “Adventure of the Norwood Builder”

And yet, there are aspects of the case that bug Holmes enough to convince him there’s something more going on.  Things that bug him enough that he’s not willing to give up the investigation or merely accept MacFarlane’s guilt.  That’s because Holmes doesn’t stop at the easy conclusion – he digs back farther, looks deeper, and considers aspects and avenues that men like Lestrade never consider relevant or worthy of further inspection.  That doesn’t make Lestrade a bad cop; it just makes him a lousy investigator.  Not his fault, though.  Holmes’ technique is very much a rarity in Victorian-era police work.

“Things Past” comes at a point when DS9 is well into the Dominion War arc, but the majority of this episode’s narrative takes place several years earlier, during the Cardassian occupation of Bajor.  Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), Elim Garak (Andrew Robinson), Odo (Rene Auberjonois), and Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) wind up transported into the bodies of four Bajoran workers on the at-the-time Cardassian-controlled space station Terok Nor (later Deep Space Nine).  The three men are revealed to be living out the final days of individuals soon to be tried and convicted for attempting to assassinate the station’s commander, Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo).  “Tried and convicted” here is a pretty questionable term, as the Cardassian legal system doesn’t exactly believe in the concept of innocence or a defendant’s right to dispute the charges or, really, anything we would recognize as a legal system.  If you’re arrested by the Cardassians, odds are you’re going to also be executed by them.

Unless you’re Miles O’Brien, but that’s a different story for an earlier episode.

Through the course of the episode, we discover that Odo knows an awful lot about a case that happened (we’re told) before he became the station’s constable.  He explains that away as his having access to the security logs, and his seemingly doomed compatriots initially believe that.  Eventually, though, we find out that it wasn’t his predecessor, Thrax, responsible for the shoddy investigation and the resulting executions, but Odo himself.  While evidence enough existed to convict the men (as in the story above), they were innocent, something Odo discovered later and could have found out sooner, if he’d dug a little deeper.  Three men died because Odo hadn’t learned the difference between law and justice.

I was too busy, too concerned with maintaining order and the rule of law.  I thought of myself as the outsider, a shapeshifter that cared for nothing but justice.  It never occurred to me that I could fail.  But I did.  And I never wanted anyone to know the truth…that seven years ago, I allowed three innocent men to die.

– Odo, “Things Past,” Season 5, Episode 8

And that may be the most basic difference between Odo and Holmes in these two examples.  Odo hasn’t learned the lesson that Holmes has instinctively known since the beginning: that there is no real justice without the truth.  Holmes doesn’t serve the law.  He doesn’t even really serve justice.  He serves the truth, and that’s what he searches for in every case he takes on.  That is what keeps him digging despite the mountain of evidence about to bury his client, and ultimately allows him to discount the most damning of it when it’s found.

“And yet, it may be premature to abandon the case.  After all, important fresh evidence is a two-edged thing, and may possibly cut in a very different direction to that which Lestrade imagines.”

– Sherlock Holmes, “Adventure of the Norwood Builder”

He knows, despite all of it, that MacFarlane is innocent and he refuses to let an innocent man hang for a crime he didn’t commit; or, in this case, that was never committed in the first place.

Odo learns all that in time, but his early interactions with justice are clumsy at best.  He is a natural observer, which makes him (eventually) a damned good investigator.  But he has the same problem Dr. Pulaski attributes to Data in the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode “Elementary, Dear Data”: he can’t draw real conclusions from the assembled facts (yet) because he’s lacking the instinct and human(oid) experience required to make real use of the information.  It’s seven years later that he looks at himself (disguised in his mind as Thrax) and can say, “Your job is to find the truth, not obtain convictions.”  His past self didn’t understand there is a difference.

And, honestly, in the Cardassian courts, there isn’t much of one, anyway.

We live in a time where wrongful convictions are the meet food that feed nightly newscasts and dozens of podcasts.  Now, more than ever, we are keenly interested in and aware of how much it truly costs to send innocent men and women away for things they did not do.  The justice system in this country is being scrutinized like never before and no matter what side you fall on in regards to any of the big-name cases currently sharing the spotlight, I think it’s safe to say that we’d all rather truth and justice prevailed over convictions any day.

Maybe we still have a few things to learn from Sherlock Holmes after all.

“The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,” or, “Who Tells Your Story?”

(Yes, I fully realize I used that in part for a previous entry, but that one wasn’t Sherlock-related so it doesn’t count.  Plus?  It fits.)

Back in week two, I covered point of view (POV) while talking about “The Musgrave Ritual” and “The Gloria Scott.”  POV is a pretty important thing when you’re talking about a series told by a specific first-person narrator for 90% of its run.  That’s the kind of detail that starts to feel like an expectation.  When you read the Sherlock Holmes stories, you expect to hear them told in John Watson’s voice.  To suss out the story threaded through Watson’s perceptions and recollections.

So it’s weird and maybe a little bit jarring, then, to open a story and see the following staring up at you from the top of the page:

It was pleasant to Dr. Watson to find himself once more in the untidy room of the first floor in Baker Street which had been the starting-point of so many remarkable adventures.

It’s not even the slightly awkward sentence structure that’s so jarring.  Watson should never be a “he;” we’ve been conditioned by three short story collections and four novels up to this point to expect him as the “I” at the beginning of every tale.  By the time we reach “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,” we can’t really believe any other possible way exists.

And then we’re proven wrong.

Point of view is one of the most important decisions a writer makes when beginning a project.  Who tells the story sets the tone for absolutely everything and provides a lot of the rules and boundaries your story will fit within from the first letter to the last.  (I say this should be decided at the beginning because deciding it at the end and having to rewrite the whole thing in a new POV is a bitch that I’m pretty sure I’ve already whined about.  More than once.  To everyone who knows me.  For the record?  I still found third-person pronouns hiding in my 4th round of edits.). The choice of narrator also determines a lot about the style and delivery of the piece.

It’s also why “Mazarin Stone” bugs me so much.

(Yes, I realize a lot of things have bugged me lately.  I’m a woman of many moods, most of them irritated, obviously.)

It’s a good story, don’t get me wrong.  Reading it right after “Empty House” was kind of amusing, since it makes it seem like having a wax dummy set up in the bow window to tempt air gun-toting snipers is just a “thing” around Baker Street.  To borrow the joke from season six of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” – “Someone’s trying to shoot Holmes with an air gun.  It must be Tuesday.”  The plot revolves less around the threat of imminent death than the recovery of yet another one of the crown jewels.  I think we’ve watched Holmes find and return about three of those by now – the Beryl Coronet, the Blue Carbuncle, and now the Mazarin Stone.  It makes you wonder how good the security is around the Royal Family and their related holdings if precious stones, salacious letters from foreign rulers, and important treaties go missing so often.  But, if they didn’t, I guess Holmes and Watson wouldn’t have anything to do.  (Watson apparently already has nothing to do, but I’ll get to that later.)

The thieves this time around are a cold-blooded count with a penchant for big game hunting (Holmes potentially fitting that description, apparently) and his boxer right-hand man.  I’m getting the impression, between this story and “The Three Gables” that professional boxers in England did a lot of side business as ruffians-for-hire.  Sam Merton, the one in this story, is a far less sympathetic creature than Steve Dixie, but it still makes you wonder if this was standard secondary employment for pugilists of the era.  Neither Mr. Merton or Count Sylvius appreciate Holmes’ interference in their little enterprise, thus the current threats against his life.  Both, of course, end up outwitted by the wily detective.  This is a Sherlock Holmes story – he always outwits (nearly) everyone.

Here’s the part that bugs me:  remember back in the discussion of “The Three Gables,” when I basically said we were missing all the “Sherlock” in our Sherlock Holmes?  Somehow, in taking the pen out of Watson’s hand in “Mazarin Stone,” Doyle essentially removed the good doctor from the story.  We see him in the beginning long enough for Holmes to unload all the usual exposition, then at the end when he needs an excuse to show off.  For the rest of the story, though, Watson is dismissed to play fetch the cops while Holmes plays cat and mouse with the crooks.  This feels like an absolutely horrible use of Watson, who has always before been more of a partner to Holmes.  Here, he’s relegated to little more than a valet.  It’s almost as if Doyle didn’t know what to do with his narrator when he wasn’t actually narrating.

This dismissal of Watson, the treatment of him as an unnecessary tag-a-long who plays little part in Holmes’ actual success, is something early stage and movie adaptations ran amuck with.  He was often left out entirely – leaving Holmes to solve everything brilliantly on his own – or made into a bumbling buffoon of a sidekick only existing to make Holmes look smarter or give the audience something to laugh at.  Seeing his creator shove him aside this way just reminds me of that poor treatment, and makes me even more grateful for the more modern representations of our beloved doctor.

I’ve already come out as a Watsonite.  The annoyance there should be no surprise at all by now.

So, why would Doyle decide to use third person suddenly?  This is the second time he does.  (The first instance, in “His Last Bow” is…well, kind of necessary.  Spoilers.). Maybe he enjoyed the narrative distance her achieved with It in the previous story and felt like doing so again.  Maybe by the time he got to The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes he’d gotten kind of bored with Watson and sick of his voice and needed a break.  Or maybe he did it on a dare.  Who knows.  I mean, I once wrote 4,000 words about Rory Williams meeting Jack Harkness during Rory’s time as a Roman Nestene duplicate just because of a Facebook meme and a dare from a friend.  Writers write things for all sorts of reasons.  Even if sometimes they’re wrong.

Not like this is the first time I’ve disagreed with one of Doyle’s choices.  Probably not the last either.  We’ve still got plenty of canon to get through, after all.

Speaking of writing things on a dare…I may have just dared myself to write a Charlotte-verse story for this week from a previously unseen POV.  I’d tell you which, but where would be the fun in that?

John Watson, The World’s Second Consulting Detective

(Author’s Note: This is a silly little story that took a week and a half to write, because I got halfway through before realizing it was depressing as hell and not at all the story I wanted to tell. So, I scrapped it all and started over.   

Watson would not give up and wither just because Holmes died. Because John Watson is a survivor, damn it. Just ask the bullet in his shoulder. Or leg. Or wherever Doyle put it this week.)

Continue reading