The Carnation Conundrum

Author’s note: I’m not sure where this fits into my timeline, or even if it does.  The reference to Watson’s ill-timed proposal could put it sometime after their advenures at Baskerville, or it could be any time since.  I didn’t set out to write fiction.  I was working on a post about Victorian Valentine’s traditions, and this happened instead.  

I don’t know why I decided Watson would be the recepient, or the POV character.  I do kind of like the idea of Charlotte planning all this.  Only she could make a romantic gesture so methodical.

Happy (belated) Valentine’s Day, everybody!



John Watson is used to waking up alone. Even on the nights he starts out in Charlotte’s bed, or she starts out in his, they always end up on their own before morning. It doesn’t matter that her aunt knows – or that he’s aware she knows, whether anyone knows he is or not – they go through the motions of pretending that they’re clever and getting one over on Mrs. Hudson all the same. Meanwhile, he pretends he didn’t offer Charlotte a solution to all this that would make the need for sneaking about and skullduggery unnecessary. It went so well the first time he suggested it that he hasn’t dared broach the topic of marriage since. Thus, Watson always wakes to a half-empty bed and a growing sense of dissatisfaction with that singular fact.This morning, though, he’s not entirely alone. When he turns his head to stare longingly at the empty stretch of bed next to him, he’s greeted by the sight of a single red carnation left on the pillow. There’s no note or visible context; just one perfect flower. He stares at it for whole minutes, as if doing so would either provoke explanation, or prove it a remnant of a fading dream. When it remains – and remains unexplained – he plucks it from its perch and climbs out of bed still perplexed.

He trims the stem with every intent of turning it into an impromptu boutonnière, but someone has beat him to the punch. When he pulls his jacket out of his wardrobe, there’s another carnation, just as red and perfect, already in place. Two more are tucked inside his shoes. He finds a fifth waiting in his shaving cup.

“Wasn’t aware I slept so soundly,” he mutters to himself as he sets them all aside so he can dress and shave.

Breakfast goes much the same. While he eats – alone, but that’s not entirely unusual with Charlotte’s hours – he finds another carnation tucked inside the newspaper, bookmarking the account of a recent cricket match he’d shown interest in. Another bloom somehow finds its way into his teacup; he finds it floating there only after he blindly pours the tea.

“Do you know what all this is about?” he asks the landlady when she brings in his plate.

“I couldn’t begin to guess,” Anne Hudson says, and there’s something in the way she glares at him that makes him question the statement.

His office is a floral scavenger hunt as well. He finds flowers tucked in drawers, hidden inside books, nestled in test tubes. When he accidentally mutters something about wondering what the mad woman’s up to during Mrs. Livingston’s appointment, she only laughs.

“Consider the question a bit longer, doctor,” she says, patting his shoulder in a very “there, there you silly thing,” sort of way. “Maybe an answer will come to you.”

When he has enough carnations to fill multiple bouquets and has had four different patients giggle at his cluelessness, he gives up and goes in search of their distributor, but she’s nowhere to be found. The sitting room is vacant. Her own is empty, too, save another carnation sitting in the middle of her bed, tucked inside a folded piece of paper. “Langham Hotel,” it reads in Holmes’ precise scrawl. “Six p.m.. Room 214. Bypass the front desk, please. –CH.”

He’s nervous as he enters the hotel, though he can’t pinpoint the exact cause. Most of the staff are busy herding guests so it’s not difficult for him to slip unseen across the lobby to the stairs. Things begin to click as he passes the entrance to the restaurant and the sign there, advertising their special Valentine’s Day service. He stops and curses himself as the giggles and glares his questions earned him all day begin to make perfect, mortifying sense.

And there he is, arriving empty-handed. Leave it to him to forget Valentine’s Day because he thought Holmes would find it useless. Leave it to him to forget, like everyone else, that she’s human, too.

He finds the room easily enough and knocks. After a moment, a quiet voice within bids him enter. As he steps inside, Charlotte is waiting in the middle of the room. Her hair is down. Her dress is new. In her hands is a single red carnation. It is shaking with the force of the tremble in those hands. Watson swears he’s never seen her look more unsure in all the time he’s known her.

“Does Fidelia know you’re borrowing her room?” One of her eyebrows lifts in silent question and he chuckles. “I do make house calls on occasion, Holmes. For certain patients.”

She nods, one rebellious dark curl falling across her forehead with the movement. “She offered me the use of it for the night. Her tab with room service as well. Said it was her Valentine’s gift to the two most stubborn people she knows. She thought we might appreciate some actual time alone, where no one’s worried about rushing back to their own bed before daybreak.”

“And what will your aunt think of the both of us being gone overnight?”

“Nothing good, I’d wager. I don’t find I’m overly worried, though. Are you?”

He steps further into the room, locking the door behind him as he does. “Not really,” he says, nodding briefly to the flower she’s still holding. “And those?”

Dianthus caryophyllus,” she says in that matter-of-fact, you-should-already-know-this tone that he both loathes and adores. This time, though, that usually confident tone wavers and her eyes remain fixed on the flower in her unsteady hands. “Common carnation. Native to the Mediterranean, but its reach has spread considerably due to widespread introduction into various areas since the time of its initial discovery.”

He nods. A teasing smile tugs at one corner of his mouth. “I thought you didn’t have room in your mental library for botany beyond hemlock and henbane and digitalis.”

She looks up, then. Blinks. Frowns, too. “I make room for relevant things. Important ones. Things – people – that matter.”

His amusement falters. He takes a step forward, a hand outstretched. “Holmes…”

“I considered one of those silly cards, you know, with all the…the paper lace and overwrought sentiment. I couldn’t find one that didn’t make my teeth ache.” Her eyes roll and a smug grin tries to find purchase on her lips, but fails. “Then I thought, well, there are more meaningful ways of saying it. Less ridiculous ways.”

He gently takes the flower from her and tosses it at the bed. He misses his target entirely, and he doesn’t care. “To say what?” he prompts her gently, tipping her chin up until she has to look at him. “What is the small flower shop you’ve set up in 221B trying to tell me?”

“Well, traditionally, red carnations symbolize love and affection. Darker reds tend to imply a deeper degree of…”

He doesn’t let her finish the sentence. His lips find hers, kissing her with as much passion and emotion as delivery of half the city’s supply of red carnations had tried to impart to him. Her arms wind around his neck and he sweeps her up into his arms without interrupting that kiss, even for a moment. As they tumble onto the bed, he pulls away just long enough to whisper “I love you, too,” against her lips. It’s the first of many places he plans to leave the words.

And later, when they fall asleep tangled up with each other, it’s with the knowledge, that for once, neither of them will be waking up alone.

“And Peggy!”, or, “The Other 46 (Cops, That Is)”

Did you know that, over the course of 56 short stories and 4 novels, Arthur Conan Doyle introduced us to twenty-five Scotland Yard Inspectors, fourteen Constables, three French inspectors, two Pinkerton Agents, one German Inspector, one private detective, and one New York City cop in a pear tree?  That might seem hard to believe, considering most adaptions only focus on G Lestrade (he of the first initial and no canon given name) or Tobias Gregson, but there was an exhaustive cast of supportive Yardies and other law enforcement personnel bumping heads with and lending a hand to Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.  And they get forgotten way too often.  

A lot of what looks like favoritism or forgetfulness might be nothing more than quantity – Lestrade shows up in eleven of the Sherlock stories and two of the novels – the two more well-known and more frequently adapted, A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles.  The frequency of his appearance means we have far more time to get to know him and for Doyle to develop his character.  His continued antagonism of Holmes and his frequent disrespect of Holmes’ skills also makes him a popular friendly foil.  Gregson’s adaption popularity probably stems in part from his long-standing feud with Lestrade, and the fact Holmes considers him the smartest of the Yardies.  In fact, in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes refers to Gregson and Lestrade as “the pick of a bad lot.”  

Quick historical sidebar (I promise it’ll be quick) – Scotland Yard (aka the Metropolitan Police Force) was a fairly young institution at the time Doyle was creating the likes of Lestrade and Gregson.  Policing in any form close to what we’re used to didn’t come to exist in England until the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829.  Previously, London had been overseen by the Marine Police Force (created in 1798), the Bow Street Runners (1749), and the Bow Street Horse Patrol (1805).  None of these groups had extensive governmental oversight.  Previous experience with less than entirely moral and law abiding “cops”- both before the MPS was created and after – led to considerable distrust of the police.  When you take into account unofficial “thief-takers” who would extort victims in order to get the criminals that wronged them punished, the public just had more reason than ever to not trust the “official” versions blessed by the government.  It took time, and some good cops, for the general populous to begin seeing cops as anything but a public menace all their own.

I could make a comment about history repeating itself where public perceptions of law enforcement are concerned, but I try to keep this blog, at least, fairly politics-free.
If I wanted to really stretch this out, I’d go into the difference between the Metropolitan Police Force and the City of London Police, but that might lead into other tangents, and we all know what happens if I give in to too many of those. Chaos, that’s what.

So why am I talking about the other 46 (#hamilparaphrase) in regards to “Black Peter,” since that’s the story I’m supposed to be blogging about?  Because this story is the second time we get to spend a little fictional time with Inspector Stanley Hopkins, who we previously met in “The Golden Pince-Nez.”  (We’ll meet him again in “Abbey Grange” and he gets mentioned in “The Missing Three-Quarter.”)  Hopkins is something of a student of Holmes’methods, even if how he applies them is sometimes…well, wrong.  But hey, he’s only human.  It’s not his fault the evidence of a notebook at a crime scene pointed to a killer who couldn’t actually manage to commit the murder.   We’re all susceptible to falling for a red herring when it drops in our lap, right?  As was discussed back when I covered the “Boscombe Valley Mystery,” it’s super easy to take the, well, easy way out. 

Hopkins isn’t the only dutiful student among the Yardies: Alec MacDonald, which we met in The Valley of Fear, appears to be studying – and applying – Holmes’ methods.  Unlike other members of the force, MacDonald is willing to believe that Moriarty might not be all he says he is – remember, VOF is set in a time before Reichenbach, possibly to deal with the fact Doyle basically one-shotted the man who was supposed to be Holmes’ ultimate nemesis.  We know, from Watson, that MacDonald is big, brash, ginger, and from Glasgow, and that he and Holmes are close enough that Holmes has given him a cute nickname – Mr. Mack – which is something none of the others earn (unless ferret-faced is a term of endearment). 

Inspector Bradstreet, he of no first name or initial, appears in three stories, but we don’t know much about him at all, except he was a Bow Street Runner before he became a cop.  He doesn’t make much of an impression on Holmes – or not enough of one to have him say anything about him to/around Watson that gets conveyed to us.  He does get to carry the ball in one of the most iconic of Holmes stories – “The Blue Carbuncle” – and has been used as a fill-in for Lestrade in the Granada series in an episode where the actor playing Lestrade was unavailable.

Then there’s Inspector Baynes, who only shows up in the two-part story collected as “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge.”  Baynes is the only inspector ever shown to be even close to as good an investigator as Holmes, and that’s potentially because Holmes just didn’t care enough to really investigate (or was a ghost, or a doppleganger, or sick…see this post about “Wisteria Lodge.”). 

Of course, I’m as guilty of forgetting about the rest of the Yardies as anyone else.  When I started writing Charlotte – when I started outlining and world building and filling out the stick figures holding places for actual characters in my universe – I went straight to Lestrade.  Which is funny, since I still haven’t written the story where Charlotte and Lestrade first cross paths, though I’ve got a clear picture of it in my head.  I’ve dusted off Bradstreet – he even clocked Watson – but I’ve stayed entirely away from Lestrade so far.  That was an entirely unconscious decision that I find really interesting now.

(Confession: I played with Lestrade a bit in November.  But he was backup to my playing mostly with Inspector MacDonald.  I may have relocated him to Scotland.  I needed an excuse to romp about in the Highlands for a month.  Fictionally.)

So, my point is this – the bullpen at Scotland Yard is very deep and a lot of the relievers Doyle traded for don’t get the innings of work they should.  There is a very handy Wikipedia list of all the canon inspectors, constables, detectives, and agents that worked with or assisted Holmes.  If you’re writing pastiche or fanfiction and you need a handy Yardie or two, try looking into one of Lestrade and Gregson’s colleagues and give them the ball for a couple innings.  You might find something really fun.

Like a cheeky, kilt-wearing Glaswegian who tries his damnedest to take over your story.

We interrupt your regularly scheduled silence…

This blog isn’t dead.  It was just sort of…sleeping.

 Between NaNoWriMo (oh hi, November, you were super short) and a few life-related incidents, things…sort of fell by the wayside.  But that ends next Monday.

And I still plan to finish the canon by my original deadline.  Which, yeah, means some doubling up, but it’s doable, right?  Right.

And this is still going to be home to all sorts of random Holmesian/Victorian goodness, and replete with Charlotte’s…unique world view.  She just got to have her third novel-length adventure last month and she’s all kinds of chatty.  (So is Mycroft.  I know one person in my life is really happy about that.)

So!  Next week, same bat-time, same bat-channel.  And hey!  Isn’t there a new season of “Sherlock” starting soon or something?

“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…

Of Points of View and Untidy Flatmates

musgrave ritual sp

A Sidney Paget illustration from “The Musgrave Ritual,” borrowed from VictorianWeb.org.

Of the fifty-six short stories that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Sherlock Holmes, a whopping fifty of them are told in the first person point of view of Dr. Watson. All four novels are also told, for the most part, by Watson (not counting the third-person side trips, as previously seen in A Study in Scarlet). The remaining six stories are divided equally between three categories: those stories told from Sherlock in the third-person (“The Mazarin Stone” and “His Last Bow”), from Sherlock in the first-person (“The Lions Mane” and “The Blanched Soldier”) or related mostly in Sherlock’s first-person through Watson’s dictation of the story his friend tells him (“The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual”). Those six stories are the only real chances we are ever given to have Holmes tell his story himself, even if the last two are still filtered through Watson’s retelling of the narrative dictated to him.

“The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual” are also interesting in that they are tales of cases that Holmes took on before he met and befriended Watson. These are his earliest forays into the world that would become his primary occupation: these are the events that led him to style himself into the world’s first (and only, he would remind you) consulting detective. Here are Holmes’ first steps; the first practical applications of his notorious method to solve true mysteries.  Well, “solving” and “real mysteries” might be defined a little loosely here.

In “The Gloria Scott,” the boys are having a quiet winter evening at 221B, in between cases by all appearances, and Holmes presents Watson with “the message which struck Justice of the Peace Trevor dead with horror.” While still an aimless university student, young Holmes befriends Victor Trevor (the how involves Victor’s dog deciding Holmes’ ankle looks tasty and mauling it, as all budding friendships do) and is invited to spend the summer holiday with his new pal and his father at their estate in Norfolk. Mr. Trevor is friendly enough, until Holmes makes a few typically Holmesian observations and sets his host on edge. After that, Mr. Trevor spends the rest of Holmes’ visit deeply suspicious of his son’s guest, enough so that Holmes decides to cut his trip short.

His last day at the estate, an old associate of Mr. Trevor’s shows up unannounced, asking after another acquaintance and requesting a little hospitality. By the old man’s reaction, it’s not a happy reunion, but Holmes sets out the next day for London without spending too much time on the how’s and why’s of his host’s behavior. Fast forward to two months later, and Holmes receives an urgent request from Victor to return to Norfolk. Mr. Trevor is dying, and the cause is the strange, benign message shown to Watson at the beginning of the story. Holmes decodes the message and it becomes clear that the uninvited visitor – Hudson, no relation – knew something about Mr. Trevor’s past that he planned to reveal to the world. The shame and fear of everyone finding out his greatest secret kills him.

I said that “solving” and “real mysteries” were loosely defined above, and that mostly relates to this story.  Holmes only really cracks the coded message.  The mystery of why it did Mr. Trevor in is solved by the old man himself, via a handwritten confession he leaves for his son.  Holmes doesn’t do a whole lot of the deducing in the story, really, which is almost a let-down.

The telling of “The Musgrave Ritual” is less an attempt to avoid boredom and more an attempt for Holmes to avoid cleaning up after himself. Watson just wants Holmes to put his papers away and maybe stop leaving criminal relics – I really, really want more detail about that, by the way, because my imagination defines “criminal relics” pretty broadly in this case – strewn about the place and, apparently, in the butter dish. Yes, Doyle did just confirm that Holmes and Watson are Oscar and Felix from “The Odd Couple.” Anyway, Holmes is not in the mood to tidy the flat, so he decides to distract Watson instead by pulling out the box he keeps all the bits and pieces of his pre-Watson investigations in. Under the auspices of wanting Watson to put the case to paper, he tells his friend/biographer all about “the adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.”

Now out of school, Holmes is lodging in London and lending his talents to small mysterious matters that get directed his way, usually from former classmates that had seen how his remarkable brain worked. One of those  was Reginald Musgrave, a vague acquaintance whose butler had been acting funny and then nanaged to disappear without a trace – or his belongings – just before he was supposed to quit. If that wasn’t odd enough, one of the estate maids – who was “involved” with the butler – had been acting strangely right before walking off from the house and tossing a mysterious bag into the pond on the property and disappearing herself. Holmes is engaged to find out what happened and where the missing persons might have gotten to.

In his typical brilliant fashion, Holmes uncovers the truth about an old rite of passage the Musgrave family has carried on for several generations and how it directly ties into the butler’s unfortunate fate. He also figures out the real worth of the objects in the mysterious bag at the bottom of the pond – apparently, Henry VII’s crown wasn’t destroyed, just hidden by some supporters of Charles I until his true successor could retrieve it – but he’s left stymied by the fate of the maid, who is never found.

Do you know what’s also probably never found? Any of the furniture buried under Holmes’ endless stacks of paper. The story never spells it out, but I imagine Holmes finishes the story and Watson sets off to scribble it down in his journals while Holmes goes back to his chemistry set or his violin.  I imagine this Holmes, now free of Watson’s nagging for the rest of the evening, looks supremely smug about how easy it was.

This is why I’m always surprised Watson doesn’t mention punching Holmes on a frequent basis throughout the length of their friendship.

The mysteries in both of these stories are more puzzles than cases. No one is really brought to justice in either of them, and you could argue that the deaths that happen in both are caused by the actions of the deceased more than an outside source. Trevor’s own fear of scandal and a weakened disposition did him in; Brunton the butler might not have gotten left behind in the hidden vault if he hadn’t been a greedy, philandering SOB. The central questions in both cases is more “why did this happen?” than “who is responsible for it happening and how can we bring them to justice?” But then, Holmes is just dipping his toes in the ocean at this point in his career. He won’t really dive in head-first until much later. This is Holmes still wearing his floaties, in a sense. The deep end is still to come.

**

The first draft of The Mad Strangler, written in a caffeine and Twizzler-fueled National Novel Writing Month frenzy, was a third-person narrative from Charlotte’s point of view, broken up by first-person vignettes from the villain. I didn’t want inside Watson’s head. We’re always inside Watson’s head. I wanted inside Holmes’; he’s always been the more intriguing character to me. I also wanted to fill in some of those blanks of who Holmes is and why he is the way he is that canon denied me, which is easier to do when you aren’t filtering the story through a second-hand account. The book remained a third-person narrative until I’d finished the first round of edits – the perfunctory “let’s check for spelling and grammar errors and make sure character names and attributes didn’t change halfway through and, oh yeah, remove any instances of ‘RESEARCHPLEASE!’ tossed in during word wars when I didn’t have time to pause and Google” edit.

Round two started with me deciding – and by me, I mean the character, in my head, who refuses to shut up, ever – that it really needed to be told in first person instead. In Charlotte’s first-person point of view. I don’t ever recommend rewriting 70,000 words in a different point of view if you value your sanity, by the way. I admit, removed from the process by a year and a half, that the story does work better that way. I like letting Charlotte tell her story. I like seeing the world through her eyes. Yes, it makes it more difficult, too, and involves having to try to sound far smarter than I am and work out the deductions and the process of reaching them a lot more minutely. But it’s worth it, I think, in the end. The biographer’s bias is removed. We lose that filter.

Which doesn’t make Charlotte any more a reliable narrator than Watson, by the way. We all lie better to ourselves than we do to others, most of the time. That just makes the lying worse.

But let’s focus on a different one of Charlotte’s faults for now, while also investigating one of her firsts.

The Baker Street Ritual

“CHARLOTTE ELIZABETH HOLMES!” Anne’s voice radiates through the brownstone like a clap of ominous thunder and drags me, flailing, from my light doze on the couch. As I tumble to the floor in a tangle of limbs and opened books, I topple a haphazard stack of papers set on the floor beside me.

“I could have cracked my head open on the floor, Anne,” I say with an indignant huff.

“Your endless mess would have clearly broken your fall.” My aunt stands over me. Her hands rest on her hips, leaving smudges of flour on her black apron. “You’ve been home a week and you’ve already turned the study into a litter heap!”

I lift my head from the floor and peer about the room in question. Admittedly, the room is a bit of a shambles. Since arriving home from Girtons for the summer break, a collection of random miscellany had accumulated around me: hungrily read newspapers – a means of catching up on all I might have missed while I was gone; correspondence in need of reply (mostly from Mycroft, who at least understands my tendency to lose track of such things while focused on my studies and not hold the silence against me); and a dozen or so books in various stages of perusal. To me, such a sight feels welcoming. I am, if nothing else, a creature that thinks best in some degree of chaos.

“Calling it a litter heap insinuates a lack of order.” I pull myself to my feet and reclaim my original seat. “While it may look a bit unkempt…”

Anne scoffs. “A bit unkempt? You’re the queen of understatement, niece.”

“…it is, in fact, a highly systematic organizing of materials. I know the contents of every pile, and could find any singular item if needed from amongst them.”

“Which should make it that much simpler for you to gather it all up and put it away, shouldn’t it?” Anne picks up a stack of books teetering on the edge of the mantle and drops them in my lap. “The ladies from the knitting club are arriving at four. I’d like to make use of the study, so we’re not cramped around the kitchen table.”

I drop my head back against the cushions and groan. “Not the knitting ninnies again!”

“Charlotte!” Anne steps behind the couch and tugs my left ear. “Don’t be rude.”

“I can’t help it. They’re all so…short-sighted! Always nattering on wondering when I’m going to be sensible and give up ‘this foolish education nonsense and find a good husband.’ It’s none of their business. And it makes for asinine conversation.”

“Something you’re well versed in?” I glare up at Anne from my position. She smiles smugly back at me. “Rant all you like on the topic, but you still need to make sense of this room.”

I lift my head and glance at the books situated in my lap. The topmost, a well-worn copy of Dante’s Inferno, lights the spark of potential distraction. As Anne turns to leave, I pluck it up and shove the rest onto the couch.

“Did I tell you about Agatha Moore? What happened to her this past term, that is?” I spin about so that I’m kneeling on the couch and hanging nearly over the back of it. “It was quite an interesting bit of scandal.”

“Unless it’s the scandal of how she plans to get this room cleaned, I’m not interested.”

“Far more interesting, in fact. You see, Agatha was halfway interested in this young man back home. They’d been out together at several rather formal occasions over the last two summers. She expected a proposal any day. I suppose some women find excitement in that sort of thing. Personally, I’ve little interest, but…” Anne picks up my coat from the floor beneath the hook and tosses it at me. I duck to allow it to land on the couch instead. “Unimportant detail. Really, all of it is entirely pointless except the letter she noticed one of our classmates received, in the young man’s handwriting, which held the absolute strangest message. It made little sense at all, until I realized that the letter was actually a fairly simplistic cipher that…”

Anne strides over and plucks the book from my hand. “Let me guess. When decoded, it indicated that the classmate and the young man were secretly having a sordid affair right under his intended’s nose. Sounds like a thrilling story. What sounds more thrilling, however, is you doing as I asked and tidying up this mess.”

“But don’t you want to hear how I cracked it? It really was a masterful bit of…”

“No!” Anne leaves the room in a swirl of flour-dusted wool, slamming the door behind her. A heartbeat later, the door opens and she pokes just her head back through the crack. “By four o’clock, Charlotte, or you can cook your own dinner tonight.”

Sighing, I slide from the couch and begin gathering the detritus, muttering to myself. “Someday, someone’s going to find all this interesting. Just you wait.”

A Word About Order

So, for the purposes of this undertaking, I started at the beginning, with the first Holmes story Doyle penned. It made the most sense to start there.  The introduction of the project should start with the introduction of the characters.  Going forward, though, I’m going to take it a little off-road.

The obvious thing to do would be to go through the stories in the order they were published.  But wouldn’t it be interesting to see how they all fit together when you place them in order of established chronology?  How does the continuity hold together when you take the stories and analyze them that way?  (I promise this has nothing to do with not wanting to dive into another novel-length story the second week in.)

So, I tracked down this list, which sets the stories in chronological order based on the fan’s investigation of the text.  I’ll base the order of my journey through the canon on this list from here out.  Next Monday, it’ll be “The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual.”  There won’t be two stories every week, of course, but with 52 weeks and 60 stories, there will be some doubling up.  

See you next week, for Sherlock’s first cases, and a ficlet about when Charlotte got bitten by the investigative bug.

Is That The One With The Mormon Bit?

It might be hard to believe now (or not, depending on your thoughts on the story in question) that the first Sherlock Holmes book wasn’t exactly successful. Neither, by the way, was the second. A Study in Scarlet was the first, but not last, example of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s struggle with the character of Sherlock Holmes in long-form fiction. As set up by Doyle, Holmes is a character that looks at a scene, at a set of facts, at the available evidence, and seems to have the answer before the rest of the people in the room have even fully formed the question. That’s a hard conceit to sustain over 300 pages. You either have to stump him, keep throwing things at him to distract him, send him out of town for part of the narrative, or – as in A Study in Scarlet – interrupt the narrative with a prolonged and involved flashback and hope you don’t lose the reader entirely in the process.  

But what makes the first Holmes book so wonderful and so extraordinary and so necessary is that it gives us the meeting of Sherlock Holmes and his biographer, Dr. John Watson, and sets the stage for one of the single-most enduring partnerships in Western fiction.

The case at the center of this first novel is a fairly simple revenge killing, cloaked in an atypical means utilizing a popular Victorian method – poison. At its basics, it’s a story of boy meets girl, girl is part of a slightly fanatical community, girl wants to marry boy but other boys want her (or, more directly, her adopted father’s land and fortune) for themselves and decide one of them is going to get her no matter what, first boy loses girl, girl dies after being forced into marriage, and first boy methodically plans revenge. There are disguises, red herrings (that fool the police, but not Holmes), and a mostly satisfying conclusion. Along the way, Holmes gets to chide the inspectors of Scotland Yard, show off for his new friend Watson, and prove he’s the smartest man in the room. Watson, our narrator, gets to spend the majority of the direct narrative being utterly mystified, impressed, and occasionally doubtful of his new roommate’s professed skill. It’s the beginning of a several decades-long fascination both for Watson and the reader.

It’s a story that could have easily been five chapters shorter, if not for a middle section that, though well-written and informative, seems out of place. Those who’ve read the book might know this narrative side trip as “the Mormon section,” or “the Mormon bit.” We’re taken out of the first-person observations of our new doctor friend and tossed into an extended flashback to a man and a young girl’s near-death experience, introduction to Mormonism, and ultimately their failed attempt at leaving it. Along the way we also meet the girl’s ill-fated suitor, the aforementioned boy in our “boy meets girl” scenario and our eventual revenge-seeker. While the story in these chapters is directly related to our main narrative – it informs it entirely, in fact – it’s explained well enough in the murderer’s confession later in the book. The Mormon chapters exist almost entirely as filler to beef up the story to novel length: Holmes has it solved and the culprit in hand before we ever get this story.  

So the question you can ask, based on that information, is this: is Holmes’ character, and the traits that make him the brilliant creature that he is, make him a poor choice for long fiction? That might be a question better answered after all four of the novel-length stories are consumed, but my initial thought is, as Doyle wrote him, maybe?  

But as I said above, the mystery is mostly secondary to the world and character building that Doyle provides us in small, calculated strokes. Scarlet is less important as a mystery than it is as an origin story, and that’s the biggest takeaway from this novel. The murders are oftentimes consequential; the legend of Sherlock Holmes that begins with their solution is essential.  

**

I chose not to start my own take on Holmes and Watson with their first meeting for a couple reasons. To start, I’m not always a fan of origin stories. They’ve become such an overused trope anymore, so formulaic and predictable to become, on occasion, almost boring. (I mostly blame the comic book industry and the movies they’ve spawned for this.). It’s almost simple algebra by now: Character A will meet Character B; Character C, the villain, will come along and cause Character A a Very Traumatic Event that changes A’s life forever (and B’s, by association) and causes the two new pals to team up to defeat Character C and save the day (as well as the universe, potentially). The end. Sometimes, Character B is the agent of the aforementioned chaos instead of the new sidekick, just to shake things up (Peter Parker and Harry Osborn, anyone?)

More importantly, to me, the start of my Holmes’ story isn’t when she meets Watson. Charlotte’s story starts with a case, one like she’s never had before, that turns her life entirely upside down, professionally and personally. She’s already a fully-realized, if unappreciated, person when her story begins. That doesn’t limit the opportunity for future growth; it means that it’s how she chooses to live her life, not who she randomly crosses paths with and befriends, that defines her strength. As a slightly atypical Victorian Woman whose life is highly atypical to her peers, it’s important that her story very much starts out about her, not her partner.

That doesn’t mean that the details of Holmes and Watson’s first meeting never crossed my mind. I know exactly how it went. Someday, I might delve deeper into those circumstances, though I have a feeling the surrounding events are a lot less exciting than those of their canon counterparts. For now, we have this:


A Study in Smoke

I burst through the door in a cloud of acrid smoke, coughing and blind.  My hands are outstretched to keep from tumbling over the railing of the stairs, which I know are directly in front of me.  It’s something else – someone else – that I stumble into instead.  Both I and the obstacle are knocked to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs and the remnants of a now shattered tea cup. 

When we come to a stop, when the smoke clears enough, I look down to see who it is I’ve tumbled into, since I’m certain, by shape and smell alone, it isn’t my aunt.  The gentleman in the question is gaunt and pale and unceremoniously pinned beneath me, but there is a warmth in his eyes, as well as an amusement that shouldn’t be there, given he has a strange, unknown young woman in his lap. 

“I am to assume you are Mrs. Hudson’s mad niece?” he says without moving an inch.

“I admit to being her niece,” I reply, placing a hand on either side of his head to hold myself above him.  “I make no admissions to madness, however.”

“All evidence to the contrary not withstanding, of course.” 

“I would posit that you have more evidence to a clumsy nature than madness.” I take a quick perusal of the gentleman, noting the weathered rim of his hat (now beside his head), the nutty brown coloration of his face and the waxy pallor that lies beneath it, the gauntness of the frame trapped beneath me, and the cane lying just out of his reach. Above the band of his glove and the cuff of his coat, I note a line of paler skin.  


“And the smoke?” He nods his head toward the door and the gray cloud still pouring through it. “More proof of clumsiness?”

“More a slightly ill-advised experiment. I’m still trying to get the proportions right.” Shifting my weight to just my left hand, I extend the right to him. “Charlotte Holmes. I answer just to Holmes often enough, if it’s more convenient.”

My new acquaintance looked at my hand for a few confused moments, then caught it in his own. “John Watson. It’s very nice to-“


“Charlotte!” The screech comes from halfway down the stairs, where Aunt Anne stands with a market basket of fruit hanging on her arm, struck frozen and glaring. “Get up off Dr. Watson this minute! I swear, girl, your manners…” She rushes up the remaining steps and drops her basket so that she might yank me to my feet with both hands at one of my elbows. “I apologize, Doctor, if…”


“I assure you, Anne, he wasn’t bothered. Men newly returned from Afghanistan rarely find anything as trifling as a wayward young woman stumbling into them so very scandalizing.” I bend to retrieve Watson’s cane, then offer him my hand again, this time for assistance instead of greeting. He accepts it again, as confused as before, and together we get him onto his feet. “Men such as those have seen worse things than all that.”


“How did you know…”


I offer out the cane and he takes it, leaning heavily upon it. “By your complexion, both the darker of your face and the paler of your wrist, you have been somewhere tropical. Anne referred to you as Doctor, though your hat is quite old and possibly came to you second-hand, indicating a certain lack of economic station indicative of your title. Your coat is your own, though it seems ill-fitting, perhaps indicating a recent illness, confirmed by the overall gauntness of your being. The wound to your leg is relatively recent and severe. The latter two, pieced with the directly former, indicates perhaps you were a medic in Her Majesty’s military, where you were injured and took ill. Where would one currently have the chance of that occurring, for that reason, in a tropical climate? Afghanistan, of course.” I pluck an apple from Anne’s discarded basket and polish it against my shoulder. “All very simple, really.”


Anne grabs the apple before I can take a bite and gives me a stern look. “Stop showing off. And go make the sitting room presentable so I can serve tea.” Turning to Watson, who stands there staring at me in abject wonder, she smiles. It’s the slightest bit exasperated. “Come along then, Doctor. I’ll show you to your room.”