#79: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Sherlockian Impossibilities of John Dickson Carr – I: ‘The Adventure of the Highgate Miracle’ (1953)

TNBs JDC

In the early 1950s, John Dickson Carr collaborated with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s youngest son Adrian on six stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. These were published in various magazines before being collected together and published as either The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (as my edition – featured below – is, also containing six stories solely from the pen of Conan Doyle, Jr.) or The Further Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, separate from Conan Doyle, Jr.’s stories which were themselves published as The Exploits. Are you keeping up?

The motivation behind them – and let’s look past the grubby pecuniary considerations – was to fill in the references so casually thrown out by Watson throughout the canonical cases and thus provide a tangible link to those original stories. And while some of these references are vague in the extreme, frankly who better than Carr to embellish such tempters as the case of James Philimore who “stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world”? Perhaps unsurprisingly, four of the tales co-written by Carr centre on impossibilities – ‘The Adventure of the Gold Hunter’, ‘The Adventure of the Highgate Miracle’, ‘The Adventure of the Black Baronet’, and ‘The Adventure of the Sealed Room’ – and while an element of interference can be felt in the first and third of these, I’d argue that ‘Highgate Miracle’ and ‘Sealed Room’ are surely the work of Carr and Carr alone (someone will now cite chapter and verse disproving this, I’m sure…).

‘Highgate Miracle’ concerns the aforementioned Mr. Philimore and his umbrella, and could not be more full of Carrian flourishes if it tried. At a fundamental level, four witnesses including Holmes and Watson see a man who always carries his umbrella everywhere leave his house one morning without it, rush back inside to collect it…and never emerge.   Nor when the house is flooded with police officers at the command of Lestrade – yes, he’s on the spot, for reasons I will elaborate – is he found anywhere within (and, please, nothing so crude as a hidden passage; remember who you’re dealing with). But the prelude to this setup – hinting at mysterious trips abroad, a late night meeting with a co-conspirator, the possibility of jewel thievery (hence Lestrade and his men), the unfortuitous presence of the local milkman, and that vital but worthless umbrella – is woven into a tapestry that only the clear-sighted doyen of this kind of tale could manage. Holmes even makes an actual joke for pity’s sake, and one that wouldn’t be out of place falling from the lips of that grand old curmudgeon Sir Henry Merrivale.

Exploits SHThe solution is possibly not completely surprising given the brevity of this form, but shows a deft hand in that Carrian touch of what you have been encouraged to think versus what actually happened and why. The wider game at work, the situation beyond what you’ve been explicitly shown (and the reasoning for your not being shown anything beyond this), is a very Carrian device, too, and one used very successfully both elsewhere and here. And there’s even space for a pleasing false solution that picks up on a thread casually dropped earlier, plus a moment for Holmes’ more human side to shine through in the unexpected reversal of the closing discussion. Yes, the motivation is a touch weak, but it’s fair to say that Doyle Sr. would have been delighted with this one.

If my debut for the Tuesday Night Bloggers last week was a celebration of Carr’s authorly voice, this week I really must commend his mimesis in adopting the ‘dialogue-and-things’ approach of Arthur Conan Doyle so completely. When the early morning ambience is described as directly as ‘there was enough grey light so that we could see the outlines of our surroundings’ and left at that you know Carr is restraining himself greatly. Of the house at the core of the story we’re told ‘Though the entry lay in darkness, two windows glowed yellow on the floor above’ – note the lack of adjective or metaphor on those glowing windows, please, and this from the man who wrote in his debut novel ‘Surprising how a match-flame can blind one against a darkness moving and breaking like whorls of foam on water!’, so we know Carr has the necessary eye for a striking description.

The realisation of Holmes in both milieu and conduct is therefore very loyal here, and there’s a very good line in the deductions made from the telegram received from his client which rings appropriately true to the setting (although the key linguistic clue would not, I‘d venture, hold such import now!). Both the novice and the accustomed Holmes reader will be able to glean much of the camaraderie between Holmes and Watson, too, as it is captured extremely well, particularly in vignettes like Mrs. Gloria Cabpleasure’s insistence that Holmes be in place at a particular time “promptly and in a sober condition”, or Holmes’ uncharacteristic excitement at the tread upon the stair of the crucial person in the case immediately prior to their final revelatory epistle.

It’s also interesting (to me at least) that Watson, and so Carr, places the tale at the end of December 1896, saying that he wasn’t living in Baker Street at the time and had called on Holmes to discuss some personal matter. I was wondering if this might be a reference to the fatal illness of his first wife, but by my reckoning she died a few years previously and Watson had moved in with Holmes upon the detective’s return to London in 1894…but then I don’t have much of a fix on Watson for this period, so I’m likely wrong. I shall therefore gracelessly concede that Carr probably knew what he was talking about. And he earns extra kudos for not being an apologist about the less than brilliant cases Doyle senior had devised for his detective at this time – saying that the thoroughly pedestrian ‘The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger’ “afforded little scope for my friend’s great powers” must surely go down as one of the larger understatements in Holmes history.

Next week – ooo, look at me, all planning a week ahead and everything – we’ll take a look at ‘The Adventure of the Sealed Room’, and consider these stories in the wider context of Carr’s career. That’s the plan, anyway…

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12 thoughts on “#79: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Sherlockian Impossibilities of John Dickson Carr – I: ‘The Adventure of the Highgate Miracle’ (1953)

  1. I’ve added your link to the FB group page, so no doubt people will be swarming here to read your latest thoughts as we speak. I didn’t realise Carr did any SH stories so thanks for bringing this to my attention. This one does sound good especially, though elements of this do remind me of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories.

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    • Many thanks, Kate, much appreciated. The Carr Holmes tales are a little variable, but these two offer plenty to enjoy – and with more substance than Cheterton to boot!

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  2. Not only had I forgotten that Carr had written these stories, but you have reminded me to put my umbrella in the car. (It looks like rain here.) Thanks, JJ!

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  3. “….by my reckoning she died a few years previously and Watson had moved in with Holmes upon the detective’s return to London in 1894…”
    You are correct. Watson stayed with Holmes till 1902 when he remarried.

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  4. Unless you have pre-written a series of posts, I recommend never planning more than one post ahead. Otherwise, it never seems to pan out.

    Anyhow, I have a love/hate relationship with this collection of stories, because I hate pastiches in general. Pastiches seldom measure up to the original, rarely stand on equal footing and almost never take the source material to the next level, but Carr and Doyle sure came close in doing exactly that.

    Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were kept fairly close to their original incarnations, but were given cleverly plotted, fairly clued Golden Age-type of cases to investigate, which put The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes en route to becoming a potential classic of its kind. What prevented this from happening was Carr bowing-out of the project and Doyle rehashing his father’s plots for the last half dozen stories.

    The best tales are (IMHO) The Adventure of the Sealed Room (of course!) and The Adventure of the Wax Gamblers, which could have easily been a Merrivale story.

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    • Given Carr’s affinity with Holmes, is it known why he backed out of the second half? A decent pastiche is hard to do, and I’m with you that this falls down horribly in Adrian Conan Doyle’s sole stories…I’m guessing that he was no-one’s choice if one of them had to stay…!

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  5. Pingback: The Tuesday Night Bloggers: John Dickson Carr (Week 2) | Noah's Archives

  6. Pingback: #84: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Sherlockian Impossibilities of John Dickson Carr – II: ‘The Adventure of the Sealed Room’ (1953) | The Invisible Event

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