“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.)

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“The Empty House,” or, “What’d I miss (besides your left hook)?”

So, let’s play pretend for a second:

You have spent the past three years desperately mourning the loss of your best friend. The circumstances around his death were sudden and tragic; heroic, even. There was never a body recovered, so closure was always an iffy thing anyway, and what is closure, really? You’ve been doing SUCH a good job of dealing with his death that you’ve been obsessively following any and all even slightly interesting crimes reported in the paper and just recently found yourself hanging around outside a crime scene. Oh, and let’s not forget that during these three years, you’ve also lost your spouse, further eradicating what little support system you had even further.   
You’ve probably found yourself bargaining with God once or twice in the intervening time – “Please don’t let him really be dead.”  “I would do anything if he just isn’t dead.”  “There’s no body, that means he isn’t really dead, right?” But it’s been three years, and that’s a lot of time to hold out hope in the face of unsurmountable evidence. Part of you has probably just managed to accept the truth and started to maybe, finally, consider moving on. 

And then it happens: one night, you find yourself staring at the face of your old friend as he stands in the middle of your office. He looks a little thinner, a little paler, a little worse for wear than when you last saw him, but he’s just.right.there. He’s not even a hallucination.  He’s real.  Your prayers have been answered! He was never really dead to begin with, you see. It’s all been a complex ruse in order to draw out some enemies that would’ve made it impossible for him to live safely in London – and for anyone else to live safely around him. In that moment, when faced with the reality of the situation, do you: 

  1. Rush over and hug your friend, just relieved to have him back; 
  2. Faint, because the sight of him is so shocking it overwhelms you; or
  3. Punch him in his lying face and demand to know why the f**k he left you to suffer through the loss of him for THREE GODDAMNED YEARS without a word. 

If you picked option 2, you’re canon John Watson. If you picked option 3, you’re Martin Freeman’s version, as well as being a logical, rational human being properly reacting to someone putting you through hell. I don’t know who option 1 is. A far more forgiving person than me, that’s for sure. 
Yes, today we’re talking about “The Empty House,” and that means talking about the return of Sherlock Holmes and the absolutely insanely quick absolution Watson provides him for the whole Reichenbach deception. (Hey, that sounds like a really good title *files it away for later*) If “The Final Problem” was Doyle’s way of exorcising the Holmes Demon from his life, “Empty House” is the invitation to let Hell stroll right back in. Like most deals with the Devil, there was a monetary consideration behind Holmes’ resurrection; Sherlock Holmes always has been highly profitable, and Doyle found himself needing the financial boost his blasted creation brought. (The Hound of the Baskervilles was reportedly written because Doyle needed to put a bit more money into Undershaw, the home he was living in at the time.)   
Watson, and the reader, learn that Holmes realized how much easier it would be for him to bring down the rest of Moriarty’s lieutenants if they thought him  dead. Of course, he screwed up that plan almost as soon as he launched it – Colonel Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s most deadly compatriot, saw Holmes scale the falls and hide out in a little overhang and tried to flatten him with a few boulders. But that’s beside the point! Holmes still spent a few years hiding out in Tibet and roaming around while waiting for his chance to slip in and take Moran down, thus fully ending Moriarty’s scheming. When opportunity arises, he goes right to his good friend, his trusty biographer, his ever-patient partner, and Watson leaps right back into the game without a moment’s hesitation in order to catch Moran and save the day. 

And that’s my problem with this story. Watson forgives Holmes far too easily relative to the trauma caused. I mean, I get it – there is instant, endless relief in the realization that this person is alive and (one of) the worst moment(s) of his life is/are over. But when that passes, I can’t imagine just swallowing the anger and betrayal that would follow, especially considering that at some point in those three years, Watson also lost his wife. That is a hell of a one-two punch to a man who frequently, over the course of the stories, points out the fragile state his experience in the war left him in. I know I spent a portion of a post two weeks ago disagreeing with the “Watson lost his mind and started hallucinating Holmes was still with him” theory, but that’s not because I think it impossible that the doctor had some very rough times. Grief, as I can attest, messes you up. Grief compounded by a fresh wave of mourning when you’re still working through the first one? Can knock the ground from beneath your feet. That Watson didn’t lose his mind is probably a testament to his strength of character (or a writer uninterested in exploring how broken his character really could/should be). But Holmes is never really made, in the canon, to face the very real damage he did to their friendship.   
That bugs me.   

I fully realize I’ve expressed that sentiment, or a similar one, two posts in a row now.  It’s not my fault Holmes keeps finding himself on my shit list.   

This is (partly) why I love the BBC Sherlock episode “The Empty Hearse.”  Freeman’s Watson doesn’t let Sherlock off the hook. He Option 3’s him at least three times in the first 20 minutes of the episode. Deservedly! Sherlock is forced to accept that there are actual consequences to his actions, and one of those is the loss of trust and devotion from Watson. He has to work at regaining that. I’m really looking forward to seeing how Jude Law’s Watson reacts in the new Guy Ritchie-verse “Holmes”, whenever it is we finally get that. I will be highly disappointed if there isn’t at least one punch thrown. It’s not as if that relationship isn’t already fraught with random, deserved violence.   

Just as an aside – I’m not a naturally violent person. I’ve never thrown a real punch myself, even if I am frequently heard saying that “so-and-so needs a punch in the nose.” I’m also often offering to kick someone for someone else, but I’ve never actually followed through. I can just see that certain actions are probably worthy of mildly violent response. Like faking your death and not telling the person closest to you in the world and leaving them to mourn you, horribly, for THREE FREAKING YEARS. That? Punch-worthy. 

Do you know what else I always think about whenever I read “The Empty House”? What could Watson have done with himself if Holmes had really been dead? What kind of adventures could a Watson, packed full of Holmesian knowledge and left adrift by a pair of horrible losses, find for himself? Maybe I’ll give that a go this week, instead of dabbling in the Charlotte-verse… 

“The Adventure of the Three Gables,” or the Legal System Will Never Be Satisfied

This week’s delay is brought to you by August still being the new worst month of the year and Lisa of the Prolific Trek, who decided it would be a good idea to infect me with Deep Space Nine appreciation.  I’ve been binge-watching since Sunday; I just started season three Wednesday night.  (I’m up to episode 13 at the time of posting)  I…may have fallen into a Star Trek hole I’ll never crawl out of.  But, hey, it may lead to a lovely post about the Sherlock archetype in other media at some point, thanks to Odo.

So, I didn’t have the same problem with this story that the folks at Sherlock Peoria’s Chronology Corner did, meaning I wasn’t left entirely feeling like Holmes was a pod person or an imposter of some sort.  He didn’t come across as somehow not himself, at least to me.  And, unlike “Wisteria Lodge,” Holmes didn’t feel asleep at the wheel, either.  The case was even a fairly interesting one – I mean, who asks a widow to buy their house and every last thing in it, allowing her to take pretty much nothing with her?  That’s a new twist for the Great Detective, right?

What’s not so new, though, is Holmes allowing the bad guy to get off scot-free yet again.  This wasn’t a case of Holmes being outwitted, or circumstances preventing the crook getting what’s coming to him/her, or the motive being so altruistic or understandable that even the reader wants them to get away with it.  It’s not even (to me) a case of there being nothing to prosecute or prove.  A criminal did a bad thing, and the story ends without them having to pay for it.

For the record – no one dies.  No one is even mildly injured.  A house is burgaled, an older woman is upset and left a little – rightfully – terrified, but no one is physically harmed.  So maybe it’s not so bad that the person behind it all just gets a stern warning from Holmes and has to foot the bill for an old lady’s trip around the world.   But let’s look at what lengths the villain of this story – Isadora Klein, widow, fashion plate, and “the celebrated beauty” – is willing to go to for the sake of protecting her upcoming marriage to a duke:

  • She gets in bed with members of the London criminal underworld;
  • She uses them as a means to try to talk an old woman out of her house and all her belongings;
  • She is behind the burglary of said house when the old woman refuses to sell;
  • She is inadvertently behind an “enforcer” trying to threaten/intimidate Sherlock Holmes into staying off a case.

All of this, by the way?  Is to get her hands on the sole remaining copy of a tell-all book a former lover wrote after she broke his heart.

Now, let me back up: I know I’ve already talked about  – recently, even – blackmail and how delicate a woman’s reputation could be in the Victorian era.  The wrong word said to the wrong person, a mislaid letter that falls into the wrong hands, a glove left in the wrong carriage…it all could spell disaster for someone.  But, I kind of don’t feel as sympathetic for the widow Klein as I did for Holmes’ client – or the mysterious gunwoman – in “Charles Augustus Milverton,” and here’s why.  Isadora Klein has it made.  She inherited a pretty sum for her dead husband, she’s already rumored to have been involved in countless romantic entanglements, and any man that isn’t a complete fool likely already knows what he’s getting into with her.  The story of how she shattered Douglas Maberley’s heart isn’t going to undo Mrs. Klein.  It just might upset her future mother-in-law and potentially put a kink in her wedding plans.  Isadora Klein isn’t going to suffer if the truth gets out.  She just doesn’t want all her dirty laundry taking up permanent residence on anyone’s bookshelf, that’s all.

So yes, it bugs me that she gets left to continue living out her happy, unfettered existence without paying a single real price for what she’s done.  Sure, Mrs. Maberley gets to travel the world on her dead son’s ex-lover’s dime – Douglas caught pneumonia in Rome; I would’ve gone with consumption, personally, given the climate,  but what do I know?  Doyle was the doctor – but justice, in my opinion, doesn’t get served at all.  And that bugs me.  My sense of morality is apparently offended, just a little, by Holmes’ nonchalance with letting this criminal go free.  There is absolutely no reason to give her a pass.  She’s not already dying (like the murderer in “Boscombe Valley”); she’s not justified (Milverton’s murderess, to name the most recent); she doesn’t just avoid capture (“Five Orange Pips,” “The Greek Interpreter”) or not actually commit anything actionable (“A Case of Identity”).  Holmes just…lets her get away with it:

“Well, well,” he said, “I suppose I shall have to compound a felony as usual…”

Seriously, Holmes?  Seriously?  You’ve made it such a habit to let crooks go that compounding a felony is as regular and accepted as that?  Really?  For the second time in this project, I am compelled to shake a fictional character so hard his brain resets like an Etch-a-Sketch.  That should never be the sort of statement that ends with “as usual!”

God, I hate that!

The story ends with Holmes (presumably successfully) extorting five thousand pounds from Mrs. Klein to send Mrs. Maberley around the world in first-class style.  (We won’t talk about how that almost makes him a blackmailer, and how much he detests blackmailers, because I’m not up for Holmesian hypocrisy today.)  As a parting swipe, Holmes imparts a little advice to the widow about some of her life choices:

“Meantime, lady” – he wagged a cautionary forefinger – “have a care!  Have a care!  You can’t play with edged tools forever without cutting those dainty hands.”

Yup.  That’ll teach her, Holmes.  Nobody can continue a downhill slide in the face of a cautionary finger wag.

“Wisteria Lodge,” or “The Case of the Potentially Disembodied Detective”

So, I had a terrible realization when I got to the end of “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge:” I had no idea what to say about the story.  It’s not that the story’s uninteresting – it’s got disappearing people and foreign nationals and hidden organized crime bosses, after all; hard to be dull with all that on board – it just didn’t leave much of an impression.  I can’t even really tell you why it didn’t.  I could blame the fact I’ve been at this for almost seven months and have burned through most – but not all – of my favorite stories.  Or it’s just August and all the baggage that goes with the month now.  Or, maybe it’s a post-“Final Problem”/pre-“Empty House” malaise.  Who knows?

No, wait.  I know exactly what it is.  It’s something eluded to in Sherlock Peoria’s Chronology Corner’s defense of where they placed “Wisteria Lodge” in their timeline.  In case you haven’t gone there to check recently (like I haven’t, since I decided awhile back to ignore continuity, since Doyle already had), this story and “The Adventure of the Three Gables” are tucked in during the time when Holmes is presumed dead and is roaming Asia in search of enlightenment/the rest of Moriarty’s crime syndicate.  His theory?  Watson’s gone a little mad in the wake of his friend’s death, compounded by his wife’s potential ill health and the fact 221B is being kept up precisely as Holmes left it.  So, he’s running about, trying to continue Holmes’ good work, and maybe imagining that his dear comrade is still with him, participating in the investigations.  The chronologist’s logic?

Watson cracked. In Watson’s mind, Holmes was with him during the investigation of “Wisteria Lodge.” (And a couple of Chronology Corners from now, we’ll see that Holmes wasn’t the only person in the story whose presence was a Watsonian delusion.) It explains why [Inspector] Baynes seems to be doing all the work in this case, and Holmes’s peculiar distance from it … he was, in fact, very, very distant from it altogether. (For those of you who hate to see poor Watson gone temporarily insane, call it an astral projection from the real Holmes who was meditating in Tibet. That works, too.)

Before you start typing out your three-page response about why Watson is not insane or delusional – I know.  I’m not flying a flag for team “Watson’s Gone Mad” here.  I’m also not discounting that grief can mess a person up enough to do all sorts of uncharacteristic and outwardly insane things.  But what our chronologist sees as potential proof of his theory is exactly why this story is so blah to me – Holmes isn’t really Holmes in it.  At all.

Sure, he’s still there, making deductions, solving the puzzle, etc., but it’s a very nebulous sort of involvement from someone who is usually anything but.  It’s like his heart isn’t really in it.  He’s seriously phoning it in here.  Baynes, who is described as a fairly competent Yardie, sure, manages to figure out the solution largely on his own – and even comes to a couple of the conclusions before Holmes does.  Yes, I bolded AND underlined that statement because when does that ever happen?  This story (and the one following it, but we’ll get there when we get there), that’s when.

Listen – I think we’re pretty clear at this point that I am a John Watson fangirl to my core, but when I’m reading a Sherlock Holmes story, I’m doing so to experience the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes, filtered through the fond and forgiving eyes of his trusted sidekick partner though it may be.  “Wisteria Lodge” feels more like Holmes is one of the “also starring’s”, not the main attraction.  And while I’m sure Baynes is a lovely fellow and spends his spare time saving kittens from trees and helping old ladies across the street, he isn’t the marquee name here.  He’s sure doing the star’s share of the work, though.

If we’re discounting Watsonian delirium (and following a more traditional Baring-Gould timetable), what else causes Holmes to play passenger for this three-hour cruise? Well, here are a few possibilities, in no particular order and with no assurance of plausibility:

  • Possible Explanation for Holmesian Disinterest #1: He could be sick.  He’s essentially self-employed and this is the era before the NHS was established, so he can’t exactly always afford to pass on a case just for a sick day.  (Watson can’t just keep providing him free medical care, either.  Doctors have to make a living, too, plus he’s got a wife and household staff of his own to take care of now.)  Maybe Mrs. Hudson raised the rent because he’s being shooting holes in the plaster again.  Watson picked a bad batch of ponies.  For whatever reason, a paying client is more important than spending a few days on the couch recovering from the croup.
  • Possible Explanation for Holmesian Disinterest #2: We know he takes on more than one case at a time, right?  Takes them on back-to-back without a lot of rest in between?  At this point in his career, he’s being invited to consult on international matters and traveling all over Europe to do it.  Maybe the poor guy is just exhausted.  I’m exhausted just thinking about how busy that man potentially is.  At some point, you know his brain just says “Yeah, see, we’re done.  We’re just going to sit back and watch somebody else figure this all out for a while, thanks.”
  • Possible Explanation for Holmesian Disinterest #3: He’s just bored.  Sherlock Holmes has gotten to the point where dead bodies and disappearing servants just don’t blow up his skirt anymore.  Might be a sign he needs a vacation.  Take a few months off, Holmes; maybe death and mayhem will excite you like it used to again.
  • Possible Explanation for Holmesian Disinterest #4: It’s an imposter!  Holmes has been briefly replaced by a doppleganger and his performance in this case is what allows Watson to figure it out and rescue the real Holmes from whatever dark corner in which his replacement stored him.  See also, potential (but impossible) secret twin. Why impossible, you say?
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Thank you, Internet, for not failing me in the gif department.

 

  • Possible Explanation for Holmesian Disinterest #5: Possibly the most far-fetched one (because dopplegangers and secret twins is highly plausible, of course), but my imagination won’t let me leave it off – Holmes is a ghost.  The only one who can see him is Watson, who is then relaying the observations to the others.  Others who just accept that Holmes is really there in a non-corporeal form and it’s not just Watson being insane.
  • Possible Explanation for Holmesian Disinterest #6: It’s only fair to follow the most far-fetched possibility with the most likely one – the writer was bored/sick/exhausted (but probably not a ghost or a pod person/secret twin).  Doyle may have been having an off day – or week, or month – and it came out in his work.  We already know he wasn’t overly fond of his creation; Frankenstein may have had more care for his monster than Doyle did at various points in his career, lets be honest.  But, there are still bills to pay and the primary way for a writer to pay those bills then, as is still true now, is to write.

Whatever explanation you decide to claim for you head canon – I kind of like the ghost one, for the record, and might store that away for later mischief – hang on to it, because you might want to dust it off again for next week.

Charles Augustus Milverton and The Final Problem, or “The Villain(s) in Your History”

Before we get started – yes, I do plan to find as many ways as I can to incorporate “Hamilton” quotes into my titles from here on out.  Consider that adequate warning.

There’s a great Clive Barker quote that I try to keep in mind during the character creation process.  He said, “I firmly believe that a story is only as good as the villain.”  (He also wrote, “Every body is a book of blood; wherever we’re opened, we’re red,” but I keep that quote around more as the credo of one of my villains than writing advice.)  Taken one step further, a hero is also only as good as his antagonists.  If you don’t give the main character something worthy to fight – be it a personal or thing or a more internally focused struggle – there’s no real conflict, or risk, or reason to care.  Batman is just a crazy dude in Kevlar and latex without his Rogues’ Gallery.  Princess Aurora is just another dull royal without Maleficent and her curse.  Likewise, Sherlock Holmes is just any other (albeit very clever) detective without some very bad men to stop.  And in Doyle’s London, there are no two worse men than Charles Augustus Milverton and Professor James Moriarty.

(Quick sidebar, based on a completely unrelated conversation that I still managed to make about Sherlock in the end – do you ever think Moriarty’s parents or school chums called him Jamie?  Unimportant, but food for (perfectly frivolous) thought.)

The Worst Men in London

So, who are Milverton and Moriarty?  According to Sherlock Holmes, they represent the most villainous men in London, if not the world.  Of Milverton, he says:

“Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation, Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the Zoo, and see the slithery, gliding, venomous creatures, with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that’s how Milverton impresses me. I’ve had to do with fifty murderers in my career, but the worst of them never gave me the repulsion which I have for this fellow.”

Moriarty, on the other hand, brings to a mind a different, though oftentimes also venomous, creature:

“He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them….But the man had hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers.”

Holmes definitely talks about Milverton in much less flattering verbage than he does Moriarty.  Milverton gets words like “creeping,” “venomous,” “wicked,” and “repulsion.”  Professor Moriarty, on the other hand, is “a genius” and “abstract thinker” with a top-notch brain of the first order and “extraordinary mental powers.”  That’s probably in part because Holmes has no love for blackmailers, which is exactly what Milverton is.  In the hierarchy of crime, blackmail is far more unsavory than even murder in Holmes’ view.  Moriarty, on the other hand, just facilitates criminal enterprise. Well, I say just.  He facilitates it all so brilliantly that Holmes considers him “an antagonist who was my intellectual equal.”  High praise from Holmes.  He doesn’t have such nice things to say about Milverton at all.

Another likely reason?  Moriarty’s the one Doyle is trying to set up as Holmes’ arch nemesis – not Milverton – so Moriarty has to be the equal, while Milverton is just the worst.

History Break – Truth in Fiction

Both men are based at least loosely on real-life people. Art dealer Charles Augustus Howell was rumored to be a blackmailer – rumors his biographer, Helen Rossetti Angeli, never found hard evidence to support.  Howell was a charming, charismatic man, questionably of Portuguese royal blood, with a reputation for stretching the truth now and then.  There were plenty of questionable circumstances that  contributed to his villainous reputation, though. His association with the man who attempted to assassinate Napoleon III and his well-timed decision to leave Britain just prior had some wondering if he wasn’t somehow connected to the plot.  Dante Gabriel Rossetti reportedly suspected Howell of selling forgeries of his paintings.  There were also accusations of embezzlement and general manipulative villainy that those who got to know Howell didn’t have too much trouble believing, apparently.

Then there’s his death in 1890: Howell was found outside a pub in Chelsea with a slit throat and a coin in his mouth, the latter sometimes used to identify the corpse as a slanderer.  There’s all sorts of inconsistency surrounding his death, though.  Some say he was found dead in that alley; others say he died in the hospital later.  The official cause of death was listed as pneumonic phthsis – aka, Tuberculosis – with the slit to his throat dismissed as having happened post-mortem.  The police apparently never actually investigated it and no coroner’s inquest was held.  If none of that specifically screams blackmailer to you, you’re not alone.  Most of that reputation came from the fact they found a collection of meticulously filed letters from very important Londoners in his rooms after his death.

It probably didn’t help his reputation that he was responsible for the  exhumation of Rossetti’s wife so the painter/poet could dig out the poems he’d buried with her.

Moriarty’s generally accepted inspiration, on the other hand, had a long, proven history of law-breaking. Doyle borrowed the criminal adventures of American Adam Worth when he created his own “Napoleon of Crime.”  Worth started out as a bounty jumper in the Civil War; he was declared killed in battle and took advantage of that fact by going around enlisting with various regiments under assumed names long enough to collect the enlistment bounty, then going AWOL.  This led to a career in pickpocketing, which developed into running a gang of thieves, which then led to bank robbery.  One of his heists, the 1869 robbery of the Boylston National Bank of Boston, involved tunneling into the bank’s vault from a store next door, likely the inspiration for the bank job in “The Redheaded League.”

Worth and his associate, safe cracker Charley Bullard, headed for Europe after the Boylston job to avoid getting pinched by the Pinkertons.  This is where Worth’s reputation really takes off.  What started off as pawn shop thefts in Liverpool became an illegal, cleverly hidden gambling house in Paris; when William Pinkerton helped the Paris police turn up the heat, the pair relocated to London, where Worth’s legacy was formed.  He built a virtually impenetrable web of criminality, a network of nogoodniks that pulled off major heists at his whim, but without ever knowing the name of the man in charge.  Worth’s organization flummoxed  Scotland Yard; they knew it existed, but proving it and finding the mastermind proved impossible.

In the end, it was trusting a couple untested partners during a last-minute robbery in Liege that got Worth nicked.  After serving his time and finding his former life lost, Worth looked up his old pal Pinkerton and told him the whole sordid story.  Which is probably how Doyle learned all about him.

I said “generally accepted inspiration” up above because we really only have the word of a Dr. Gray C. Briggs, who told a Chicago columnist that Doyle once told him Worth was Moriarty’s inspiration.  Like most second-or-third-hand information, take it for what it’s worth.  No pun intended.

What Makes a (Good) Villain?

So, why are these two men, Milverton and Moriarty, considered by Holmes (and readers/academics) to be the greatest foes Holmes ever tackles?  Well, in Moriarty’s case, it helps that he’s the weapon used to take our hero out in what was intended as his swansong.  But it’s more than that.  We’re shown, in the case of both, that these are wickedly clever men whose devious intellects nearly match – or, in Moriarty’s case, do match – Holmes’.  Why is Moriarty so successful and so difficult to outsmart?  Because he thinks just as Holmes does.  For every move that Holmes makes, Moriarty has a perfect counterpoint.  Why does it take Holmes seducing one of Milverton’s maids and then breaking into his house to foil his evil plot?  Because, while Milverton may be a scumbag, he is a very clever, careful, and paranoid scumbag.

Doyle takes great pains to set up these men as the epitome of evil.  It’s not just how Holmes describes them.  We meet both men and are given a chance to see their ruthlessness for ourselves.  Moriarty makes it clear to Holmes that his continued meddling in the affairs of dragons criminal masterminds will not end well, with “not end well” left purposefully vague and menacing.  The fact Holmes is stalked, assaulted, has his home set (briefly) on fire, and is then followed halfway across Europe (with Watson’s safety presumably also called into question) seems to support just how menacing that end will be.  Milverton never threatens Holmes directly, just the client that has hired him to retrieve certain incriminating documents.  Sure, the threat is only to interfere in a woman’s marriage, but in a world where reputation is everything and a woman’s social and financial situations are so precarious anyway, that’s the same as threatening her life.

So, the villain has to be a good match for the hero, capable of throwing him curves that prevent his success, and he has to represent real peril, however that word is defined in the context of the story.  It also helps, though, if it feels like maybe the villain exists as more than just evil for evil’s sake.  Culturally, we’ve moved past the days of Snidely Whiplash cackling menacingly as he ties damsels to train tracks, all while twisting the end of his fine mustache.  A little depth in a villain is a good thing.  Audiences like some gray mixed into all that usual black and white.  The bad guy should have just as much motivation to act as the hero, and “because he’s the bad guy” isn’t really enough.  What does he want?  Why does he want it?  What’s his problem with the hero, anyway?

He, by the way, doesn’t have to be a “he” either.  Just ask Maleficent.

And maybe that’s why I find Moriarty so much more interesting in the adaptations than in the canon, and why Milverton makes more of an impression.  We never get the build up we deserve with the Professor.  Never get to understand why he’s the villain, or what he wants, or why it’s so damned important Holmes doesn’t get in his way.  Doyle created the ultimate villain, an archetype that has become part of our cultural lexicon, but he left him unfinished.  Of course, he only built him in the first place to use him as a weapon.  Even when he revisited Moriarty in The Valley of Fear, the character still feels like little more than a prop to rest the real plot against.  With Moriarty, Doyle kept loading the pistol, but never quite managed to pull the trigger.
Wow. I just realized that, as of “The Final Problem,” I have also finished The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. That means two collections and four novels down, only three collections left. I’m also technically at the half-way point. That just means I can see the downhill half of this journey finally.  Isn’t it fortuitous that I start down the cliff just as Sherlock falls over it?  Sad thing?  I didn’t even plan it that way, it.just.happened.

Yes, there are Charlotte adventures due. They’re coming, I promise. No, she’s not falling off a cliff this week to her doom, leaving poor Watson heartbroken. Actually, now that I mention it…

No, wait. Never mind.

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The Boscombe Valley Mystery, or, The Problem With Obvious Facts

As often happens, I was catching up on my podcasts while working on my notes for this week’s post.  I’d just finished Pod4Ham’s dissection of “Cabinet Battle #1” (from the second act of “Hamilton,” because earlier posts this week made my obsession there clear) when this week’s episode of Undisclosed started.  For those unaware, Undisclosed is a podcast featuring Rabia Chaudry, Colin Miller, and Susan Simpson that spent its first season looking into the Adnan Syed case and has moved on in season two to discuss the murder conviction of Joey Watkins.  This week’s episode, which focused on how the crime scene was handled the night of the murder, opened with Colin talking about “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” which is the story up for discussion this week.  The mention includes a quote delivered by Sherlock Holmes when he finally gets his first chance to look at the scene of the story’s eponymous mystery:

“Oh how simple it would have all been had I been here before they came like a herd of buffalo and wallowed all over it.”

That’s sort of the heart of the story, that quote.  While on the surface it’s just another murder mystery perfectly crafted for the sole purpose of letting Holmes show off for the reader, what it also is is a treatise on the importance of looking deeper than the first blush.  It epitomizes the Holmesian thesis – that investigation without careful observation and a scientific approach to the evidence is only ever half an investigation.  That old saying – that when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me – holds a lot of truth, and the local police of the sleepy little hamlet of Boscombe Valley make a lot of assumptions – erroneous ones at that – while investigating the death of Charles McCarthy.

Mr. McCarthy is found dead near the Boscombe Pool one afternoon by his son, James.  Cause of death?  Blunt force trauma to the back of his skull.  Police discover early on in their investigation that Mr. McCarthy had gone out to the pool to meet someone he had an appointment with at three.  They also find a witness that says they saw the deceased heading into the woods, and his son following not far behind a few minutes later with a gun in hand.  Another witness, a young girl who was wandering the woods that afternoon as well, tells police that she saw father and son arguing and that James raised his hand like he was preparing to strike him before the girl ran away.  She is also the person James ran into later when he came running out of the woods in search of help.  He had blood on his hand and sleeve.

The police immediately arrest James.  Their theory is that the two McCarthy’s fought and that, in a rage, James struck his father with the barrel of his gun, killing him (even though the witness saw him raise an empty hand, not his gun).  James’ gun being found next to his father’s body seems to support this theory.  Just as quickly as he is arrested, James is bound for trial by the finding of the coroner’s inquest.  He will be tried for his father’s murder.  He, of course, swears he’s innocent.

Holmes becomes involved with the case through Inspector Lestrade, who is contacted by a family friend who believes James didn’t do it.  Miss Turner, the daughter of Charles McCarthy’s oldest friend, reaches out to the inspector after having little luck getting through to the local authorities.  Despite thinking the case is a slam dunk, Lestrade engages Holmes and Dr. Watson, who of course leave London on the first available train.  Watson listens to Holmes’ recitation of the evidence while they’re in transit an is absolutely sure that James McCarthy is guilty.  Holmes, in one of his more famous quotes, disagrees:

“I am afraid,” I said, “that the facts are so obvious that you will find little credit to be gained out of the case.”

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact,” he said, laughing.

Of course, James doesn’t do much to help his own cause, in the eyes of the court, Lestrade, or Watson.  When arrested, he makes a statement the officers consider a confession – “that he was not surprised to hear [that he was being arrested] and that it was no more than his deserts.”  He also follows that up by swearing that he’s innocent, so it’s a pretty confusing confession.  Then, during the inquest, he refuses to answer any of the coroner’s questions about what he and his father were fighting about in the woods that afternoon.  The case is stacked well and truly against him by the time Holmes and Watson arrive.

Holmes takes the time to talk to Miss Turner and visit with his erstwhile client to get some much needed background on the situation.  He learns what the McCarthy’s argued about – Charles wishing for his son to marry Miss  Turner despite her father’s and James’ objections.  He also learns that James is in love with Miss Turner and other circumstances are the cause of his objection.  But it is the crime scene, not the witnesses, that provides Holmes the true answer to the events, even given the quote above about the state of the scene.

Half the solution comes from what Holmes knows of human behavior, but without the evidence he finds at the scene, he’d have no framework to hamg that knowledge on.

In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes tells Watson “You see, but you do not observe.  The distinction is clear.”  That statement is the heart of the issue.  An investigator needs to do more than just see a body lying on the ground with a gun near by and immediately assume the two are connected.  Jumping to conclusions too soon inevitably leads to championing the wrong conclusion.  Also in “Scandal,” Holmes infamously tells us “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.  Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”  The witnesses provided the basis for a theory and the investigators twisted the available facts to suit it.

Of course, it’s the 1890s and scientific observation of a crime scene was an anomaly – and it is fiction – so maybe it’s understandable why the Boscombe Valley authorities didn’t dig deeper.  Modern investigators don’t have that excuse.  No one has it, really,  in Sherlock Holmes’ opinion.

(Here’s my unrelated-to-the-above observable fact based on this story and others I’ve read so far: the countryside is dangerous.  To be fair, I was half-led to this theory by “Torchwood” back in season one (and possibly had it reinforced recently driving  between dark cornfields during a GPS malfunction-fueled road trip detour).  Doyle never populated his version with psychotic, tourist-snatching cannibals, of course – though in an early story he apparently did inhabit a small Montana town with a man-eating plant, as I learned this week.. He preferred insanity, a little murder, and ghoulish hounds that want to eat your face.  The country he shows us is where all creepy yellow faces peer out of windows and phantom hounds with a taste for noble blood haunt the moors; suspicious burglary-homicides rock quiet, far-flung communities and men have their brains bashed in beside quiet pools in the middle of the day.  Maybe people in Doyle’s small towns have more to worry about than just an unobservant local constabulary.)

Owen Harper: I hate the countryside.  It’s dirt, it’s unhygenic.  And what’s that smell?

Gwen Cooper: That would be grass.

Owen: It’s disgusting.

-Torchwood, “Countrycide” Season One, Episode Six

“Can We Get Back to Politics Now?”

No, we’re not getting into politics.  If you’re not familiar with the musical “Hamilton,” the title comes from a line by Thomas Jefferson after some very unhappy and dark things happen in the second act.  It seemed appropriate to borrow it for this post for two reasons – the post this morning, and the content of this one.

I’ve mentioned a passing interest in the musical before, right?  Well, I may have spent part of my day filking part of it.  Filking, for the unaware, is the act of taking an existing song and rewriting it to make it about something else, usually a science fiction or fantasy property.  That’s where filking got its start, anyway.  I first played around with filking in my previously mentioned Highlander fandom days.  I may have tried to filk the entire “A Kind of Magic” album.  I made it three songs in, I think.  Thankfully, those efforts are well-hidden in a defunct forum and a more defunct Tripod-hosted website.

Given the theme of this blog,you can guess what the subject matter of my parody is, right?

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