So, as established yesterday, there’s much more scope in Watson than there is in Holmes. The obvious question then becomes: So what do you do with this?
Take the simple cosmetic changes out of the equation — the casting of Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson in the US series Elementary, for instance, easily one of the least disruptive changes it’s possible to get away with — and what you’re left with is the fact that Watson, being our entry into the Holmesiverse, is allowed to do anything that reflects the experience and perspective of the reader. As discussed yesterday, there are aspects of the character, the constants I referred to, that don’t become him — making him the proprietor of a burgeoning dog-walking business, or a respected scholar of nineteenth century Gothic poetry, or giving him a form of OCD which means he must always cross his legs in the opposite manner to Holmes unless it’s a Tuesday in which case…, etc — but let’s put this aside as given and look at the way certain authors have expanded on Watson without desecrating him beyond all recognition.
Lately I’ve read an unusually high concentration of Holmes pastiches — Caleb Carr’s The Italian Secretary (not good), Stephen King’s ‘A Doctor’s Case’ (not terrible), Colin Dexter’s ‘A Case of Mis-Identity’ (extremely good), Michael Kurland’s The Infernal Device (loadsa fun), Steve Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range (fabulous) and a superb piece of unpublished fan fiction sent to me via email — and it’s made me realise that while Watson, and specifically the Watsonian voice, is vital in undertaking Holmes, no-one can quite agree what Watson is, how he should be written, and this makes him far and away the more interesting of the two men when it comes to analysis.
It being the ever-approaching end of the academic year, I’ve tended to focus on short stories for these Tuesday Night Bloggers posts on poison because I simply haven’t had the time to read more than one book a week, and I need to keep those for my Thursday reviews. So this week I thought I’d take on one of Dorothy L. Sayers’ short stories featuring her other sleuth, the purveyor of fine wines that is Mr. Montague Egg. This is another one taken from The Big Ol’ Black Lizard Book of Wowsa That’s a Lot of Stories Massive Gigantic Compendium of Impossible Crimes But for Some Reason They’ve Included A Huge Section of Surely the Most Anthologised Stories of All Time, and so once again it has an impossible element. Yes, I am nothing if not fond of playing to type.
I’m guilty of sedition here: this isn’t technically part of the Tuesday Night Bloggers – they’re looking at travel in classic crime this month – but rather my own delayed TNB post on John Dickson Carr from March before I was sidelined. But, y’know how it is, it’s the second one looking at Carr’s Sherlock Holmes stories and so I feel I should probably post it on a Tuesday if only for internal consistency…my apologies for any confusion (though I suppose I cam writing about a Carr trip…). Just look upon this as my Never Say Never Again.
I talked about the origin of these stories in my first post on this topic, so let’s get straight on with it: this story is built on the reference to a case “of Colonel Warburton’s madness” made at the start of ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’ and so it’s appropriate that it begins in much the same way: someone in distress seeks out Watson (then for his doctoring, now seemingly because he knows Holmes) and is thus ushered into the Great Presence. It’s here that the story plays its most interesting card, as Holmes is rather short with the unfortunate Cora Murray who has just had a Colonel Warburton seemingly shoot himself and his wife while locked together in his study in the house where they all reside:
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 Problem of Thor Bridge’ gives us the classic impossible crime setup of a body that has been shot in the head but without any sign of a weapon to hand…and then manages to appear not at all impossible by finding the murder weapon hidden in the most likely suspect’s room, also throwing in a note from the suspected murderer arranging to meet the victim at the place of their demise and at around the time they are suspected of being having died. True, there are no footprints anywhere near the body, but – before you get too excited – “The ground was iron-hard, sir. There were no traces at all.” Oh, so that takes care of that, then.
So, er, obviously the suspect denies having been anywhere near the scene of the crime, right, or has an unshakeable alibi proving they were elsewhere? Well, no, actually; they’re perfectly open about having been on the scene at the time given. Um, so they have no hands or are blind and couldn’t have written the damning note? Yeah, no, that’s not the case either. They admit writing the note, they are given a feasible (if not necessarily…the best word is probably ‘rock-solid’) motivation for wishing the deceased dead, they had every opportunity to have committed the murder. Even Holmes admits, “I must confess that the case would seem to me to be very black against [the accused] if it were not for one thing.”
So why, then, have I included this in my sweep of Holmes’ impossible crimes when it’s so patently not an impossible crime? Well, unfortunately for me, I can’t really tell you that – or, rather, I don’t want to, because it will ruin the fun. Look, think of Dame Agatha’s And Then There Were None; none of those murders are technically impossible – someone is shot, someone is poisoned, someone is pushed off a cliff, etc – but it still technically qualifies as an impossible crime novel. The same idea is in effect here: the murder itself isn’t impossible, but there is some aspect of it – the “one thing” that Holmes refers to above – which edges it into a sub-impossible crime, but you’re better off seeing it for yourself. It’s very clever – though how in the hell Holmes comes to the realisation he does is never going to be clear even on repeated readings. All of which makes a rather disappointing and somewhat trepid final foray into this examination of the canonical impossibilities. Hmmm, I should really have thought of that before I started.
A few interesting points that I can discuss do occur, though, the first of which being the fact that no-one appears to have heard the murderous gunshot, though Conan Doyle doesn’t appear to bothered about that (don’t worry, it’s not a repeat of ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’). The second is the mention of the “travel-worn and battered tin dispatch box…crammed with papers, nearly all of which are records of cases the illustrate the curious problems that Mr. Sherlock Holmes had at times to examine.” Not only is this a dangling carrot now that Conan Doyle definitely has the end of his great detective in sight, but following hard upon this revelation is a mention of the case “of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.” – notable here for being an impossible disappearance tale written up as the marvellous story ‘The Adventure of the Highgate Miracle’ by John Dickson Carr and Adrian Conan Doyle for the collection The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (which also contains the locked room murder ‘The Adventure of the Sealed Room’, itself drawn for a reference made by Conan Doyle in ‘The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb’…it all gets quite confusing quite quickly, doesn’t it?).
What I would like to bring to your attention, though, what I found very interesting indeed, is the story behind this story. In the article Thor Bridge: A Mystery Remains (The Universal Sherlock Holmes, September 1991, pp. 16-20) Patrick J. Leonard relates the story of a real-life death that took place in exactly the same manner as the one described in this story. Originally relayed by Dr. Hanz Gross, Professor of Criminology at the University of Graz, it concerns a man identified only as A.M. who, after a night spent drinking, was found shot in the head on a bridge in a manner not unlike (that is, exactly the same as) our victim herein. The same key clue is in evidence as in this story and the same resolution is also reached (perhaps explaining why Holmes doesn’t insist on a particular course of action here, for fear of simply rehashing everything about this case). There’s not really any controversy in this, the use of real life crimes was hardly a new thing by the time this was published in 1922, but it is quite compelling to see such an unvarnished repetition of the circumstances (Christie at least has the decency to mix things up a little bit…most of the time). Frankly, it’s positively mild given the accusations that apparently surround The Hound of the Baskervilles and that Jose Ignacio brought to my attention via his review over at A Crime is Afoot. It’s been quite a week for learning things about Holmes and Conan Doyle!
Also, one additional point of pedantry: following the death of Sidney Paget in 1908, it appears that a raft of different authors took up duties for illustrating the tales in the Strand, including younger Paget brother Walter; the sketches that adorn this post, however, are the work of Alfred Gilbert. All these beautiful illustrations have been taken from the superb online resource that is The Conan Doyle Encyclopedia – worth checking out if you’re a fan in any way (and, frankly, who isn’t?).
And so ends Sherlock/Holmes week-and-a-bit on my blog. Might have to do something like this again, I think. In the meantime, be sure to come back tomorrow for the impossible-crime fest that this The Bishop’s Sword by Norman Berrow…
In an attempt to broaden my approach to this blogging lark, I thought I’d turn my hand to some linguistic analysis. This presents a problem in the form of my being a qualified mathematician and therefore acutely aware of how easy it is to skew any set of data based on the interpretation it’s given, and thus how pointless it becomes to really bother. Nevertheless, I shall sally forth into the Sherlock Holmes canon with a quick sweep over some of the main points, and I can always come back to it later if I feel it warrants further investigation.
All numbers come from a combination of internet-based textual analysis tool Voyant and the texts of Conan Doyle’s Holmes canon as provided at The Complete Sherlock Holmes website. Some numbers have been slightly simplified for reasons that are too dull to go into here, but feel free to pull me up on my maths in the comments if any of it seems ridiculously suspicious.
The entire canon is some 670,000 words composed of around 25,000 unique terms – or, to put it another way, you can write a list of every word ever used by Conan Doyle in writing the canon and it would only be 25,000 items long. All told this is a fairly prodigious vocabulary: famed Elizabethan wordsmith Wm. Shakespeare (putting all authorship contentions aside for the time being) is credited with around 884,000 words – practically a third as much again as Conan Doyle – yet only has around 28,000 distinct words, or around one eighth more. Now, of course, here we stumble upon our first statistical problem: there were fewer words in the English language back then (there’s quite a broad disagreement as to how many…), but then equally Shakespeare invented a great many words (‘eyeball’ for one) and so wouldn’t be restricted in quite the same way as his contemporaries. To put Conan Doyle’s written expression into another context, there are around 250,000 recognised (in use and defunct) words in the English language today; so around 100 years ago he was already using 10% of the modern version of the language. Consider the number of words that have been added in that time – robot, computer, internet, unleaded, twerking – and the rate at which English has expanded and that’s a pretty impressive sweep.
Nevertheless, the stories were and have remained hugely popular and so must be accessible. This means that Conan Doyle’s prose must have been easy to read and must have contained ideas that are easy to understand even over a century later. Here are cirrus displays produced by Voyant of the most popular words in each of the Holmes novels or collections, filtered to remove the most common conjunctions (and, it, of, the, to, etc.), around fifty common words (if, is, with, etc.) and all numbers. I have also included (without these exclusions) the approximate total words for each book and the percentage of unique words in each book; to put this in context, a 100-word story with 10% of the words being unique would effectively be composed of the same ten words repeated ten times each:
A Study in Scarlet (1887)
44,000 words; 14% unique
The Sign of Four (1890)
44,000 words; 14% unique
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
106,000 words; 9% unique
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893)
88,000 words; 9% unique
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902)
60,000 words; 10% unique
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905)
114,000 words; 8% unique
The Valley of Fear (1914-1915)
58,000 words; 11% unique
His Last Bow (1917)
69,000 words; 11% unique
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927)
84,000 words; 10% unique
Mainly they’re nice images, but even a quick glance through them shows the same words coming up time and again in larger font and hence being more frequent in each text. ‘Holmes’ is perhaps unsurprising; it is never any lower than the fourth most popular word (given the aforementioned exclusions) in any text, and only as low as fourth once, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, which he’s barely in anyway. Perhaps also unsurprising is the preponderance of ‘man’ – always in the top three most frequent, with ‘woman’ and its synonyms always a good few places lower (I’m afraid I didn’t carry out a rigorous check on this point) though becoming more popular as the stories go on – you may draw your own conclusions. And ‘said’ is unquestionably Conan Doyle’s speech attribution verb of choice – yes, people have been known to ‘ejaculate’ in the Holmes stories, but most of the time he appears to have followed the advice of William Strunk, Jr. and kept to simple forms as it’s always one of the top two most frequently used words.
A few surprises crop up – ‘little’ is one of the ten most frequent words in five of the books, as is ‘time’ in seven of them – but mainly things follow a fairly clear pattern. If you exclude character names and story-specific pronouns (Baskerville, Dartmoor, etc.), the ten most popular words from each of the nine books when collated is actually a list of only 23 words. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be too surprising – ‘the’ is the most common word in English and any meaningful subsection thereof, making up around 6% of everything written – but remember that I’ve excluded the most common standard words (I’ll save you the process of how) to focus on the words specific to Conan Doyle’s writing. And in a series that ran for 40 years – while not continuously – he maintained the same focus on the basics of language to get his points across.
As to the percentages: in a paper published in 2005 concerning the word density of texts for younger readers, E.H. Hiebert reported that the optimal density for new words of reader at Grade 2 in the U.S. system (so around age 8 for the rest of us) is between 8 and 11 percent, increasing gradually as the students age. With the exception of the first two Holmes novellas – which, being shorter, would have offered less chance for repetition anyway – Conan Doyle’s writing falls exactly within these bounds. So he’s using a density of repeated terms that is optimal for the average 8 year-old reader…a point in favour of the accessibility of these texts if ever there was one (though, yes, there are naturally several refutations on this point).
Now, we’ll obviously shy away from the correlation/causation argument, but it would be hard to deny that at least a part of the enduring appeal of these stories is their clear-sighted ability to put their points across in accessible language. Yes, the content plays an arguably greater part, but if you can’t understand what’s going on when you read something then you’re unlikely to care how revolutionary it is (I have this exact problem with Wuthering Heights).
I could go on – I feel like I’m only just getting started – but my blog-writing box informs me that I’ve just stepped over 1000 words for the first time in a post and I’ve doubtless already tried the patience of anyone hardy enough to get this far (I at least know that Puzzle Doctor will have wanted to keep an eye on my numbers…). What have we learned? Well, if we’re honest, nothing really. You know that the Holmes stories are written in a direct an accessible style, you know this is part of their appeal; hopefully this reinforces that in some small way. I can already feel the itch to do some contextual analysis of Conan Doyle’s other works and the work of his contemporaries to put this in its appropriate place, but its doubtless a dissertation on the internet somewhere, and I lack the time.
On Tuesday: the final hurrah of Sherlock week with the final impossible crime ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge’. The main problem in this context being that it’s not an impossible crime, but more on that in a couple of days…
I did accidentaly post this the other morning, so I have no idea whether this means you’ve already read it or not, but here goes…¹
Undoubtedly one of the most anticipated and most scrutinised short stories of all time, Arthur Conan Doyle’s gracious bowing to public pressure following a ten-year hiatus of Sherlock Holmes is a bumper fun edition of impossible crimes (well, considering its brevity and the other factors it must include). Not only do you get the return of a man from the dead – “But the tracks!…I saw, with my own eyes, that two went down the path and none returned.” – you also get the murder of Ronald Adair, who is found dead in his bolted study with his head “horribly mutilated by an expanding revolver bullet, but no weapon of any sort was to be found in the room.”
Taking them in order of the solutions presented in the story itself, Holmes’ explanation and reversal of his certain death is actually very neat. There is no reason why Watson should have been accurate in his observations given his emotional state at his friend’s death in ‘The Final Problem’, and although continuity errors abound regarding Holmes’ absence (only three years in story time, significantly shorter than in real time), and while some may consider this a bit of a cheat I actually enjoy it as one of the more human examples of the canon. No-one ever claimed Watson was an infallible narrator – Holmes himself has chastised Watson over this exact foible, in fact – and, while you wouldn’t accept it at the end of a 300 page novel, this kind of oversight is a more than adequate explanation to justify the reappearance of the great detective.
The real meat, though, is reserved for Ronald Adair’s murder. A more classical example of a locked room you could not hope for: door fastened on the inside, with an open window outside of which “the drop was at least twenty feet…and a bed of crocuses in full bloom lay beneath.” There are no marks in the flower bed, no marks on the grass outside the house, and the window is “entirely inaccessible, since there was no water pipe or anything which could help the most active man to climb to it.” And, to top it all off, no shot was heard from the busy street outside, nor anywhere inside, the house and any marksman wishing to undertake such an execution would anyway “indeed be a remarkable shot who could with a revolver inflict so deadly a wound.”
The lovely thing about this is that Conan Doyle casually throws in a very key piece of misdirection without striking a jarring note and quietly works away at building further misdirection on top of it without you realising what he’s doing – truly an invisible event if ever I’ve seen one, and arguably an under-appreciated facet of his writing (which, to be fair, he didn’t necessarily indulge in all that frequently). Modern audiences will, of course, start to twig to the nature of how the murder was worked, and it doesn’t really qualify as fair play unless you…well, no, it doesn’t qualify as fair play, and indeed the very first time I read this – as a callow youth, need I remind you – I was somewhat irritated at the simplicity of the answer. But, then, that’s arguably the idea. A lovely flourish has this particular crime and this particular solution as deciding factors in Holmes’ return, and in fact the whole enterprise is concoted and executed with more skill than was necessary given its guaranteed rapturous reception.
Away from the impossible crime, a certain amount of fun is to be had imagining what Watson had in mind as explanations for this crime, especially when he tells of joining a crowd around a man in the street forwarding his own theories which “seemed to me to be absurd, so I withdrew again in some disgust” – steady on, John! It might possibly be from here that Robert Ryan took his motivation for his novel Dead Man’s Land, which sees Watson putting Holmes’ methods to use in solving a murder in the trenches of the First World War, but I veer off topic. It’s also interesting to reflect how this story echoes down the years: both problems recall John Dickson Carr novels (She Died a Lady has footprints disappearing over an abyss, and…well, something else – let’s say one of his more successful minor books – has a very similar solution to Adair’s murder) and have returned again and again in various, and variously successful, forms. All told, a minor triumph, and a very influential one to boot.
* * *
As a complete aside, was anyone else as disappointed as I was with the version of this story filmed under thew wonderful title of ‘The Empty Hearse’ for the BBC’s Sherlock? I couldn’t give a hoot about fidelity to the source story, more that the two impossibilities they had – Holmes’ survival and, especially, the man disappearing from a London tube between stations – were so phenomenally daft (in the first instance) and lazy (in the second). The tube disappearance surely sets a new low for miraculous explanations – a mystery for all of eight seconds, and then happily resolved with a minimum of thought or effort hardly requiring Sherlockian intellect and insight. It was like something out of the most recent series of Jonathan Creek, for pity’s sake. Still, at least we didn’t have to wait 10 years for it.
It is difficult to believe that Arthur Conan Doyle ever intended for his Sherlock Holmes stories to be as influential as they have proven to be. Not only are we still churning out variations on his characters in print and on radio, television and film but such is the fascination with his detective that something published before Conan Doyle even put pen to paper can achieve retrospective interest because of the similarities between the two. And so Locked Room International published this translation of Henry Cauvin’s debut novel The Killing Needle, wherein a skeleton-thin genius master of disguise who shuns social norms, declares “In my case, the brain dominates everything and is continually boiling over. This fire is eating me up and doesn’t leave a moment’s peace. The mind! The mind is a vulture that’s eating me alive” and takes opium (though in this case “to help me get some much-needed sleep”) has his adventures in crime-solving related by a doctor who becomes his confidant after being introduced by a mutual friend …yeah, okay, that’s a lot of overlap right there.
Unfortunately, once these similarities have been pointed out – and translator John Pugmire does a superbly even-handed job of this in his introduction – you can’t really take this story on its own terms. Maximilien Heller – for ’tis he who bears the brunt of these comparisons – is an expert in chemistry, has some previous experience with the criminal classes that proves crucial in untangling the skein he’s confronted with here, and even has the slightly less catchy “I follow the facts and nothing but the facts…I assemble them, no matter how contradictory they may appear to be, and at some point, the light shines” as something approaching Holmes’ “When you have eliminated the impossible…”. It’s like trying to read Gerald Verner’s Lattimer Shrive stories: you can’t do it without superimposing Holmes over every action and event. Verner has no excuse, coming after Conan Doyle as he did, but Cauvin should at least be given his own two feet to stand on, because he does some very good work.
In truth, though, Cauvin’s writing – and Pugmire can be trusted as an accurate and fair translator – brings to mind that of Maurice Leblanc and Edgar Wallace, which is perhaps surprising given how he predates both of them, too (was this man the most influential person ever in the history of crime fiction?!). Leblanc certainly shares Cauvin’s obsession with every tiny narrative detail – the extended epilogue here, for example – and his broadly gothic framing of a second half that takes place in a spooky and creaky isolated old mansion with a black bear occasionally let loose in the grounds (see ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’, too…). In fact, this almost works better as a tonal companion piece to Leblanc’s The Eight Strokes of the Clock, but once again there I go not giving Cauvin his due on his own terms. Right, come on, focus. Here we go…
The impossible crime here involves a man found dead in his bed with tell-tale traces of arsenic in the cup containing the nightcap that his servant brought him. Of slightly more interest, and resolved disappointingly quickly, is how one (trustworthy) doctor finds no evidence of arsenic in the dead man’s system and yet another (a well-established quack), performing his test in front of several witnesses, finds an abundance of the stuff. It’s a very nice little trick, perhaps a little transparent on account of how it’s written, but it shows a lovely degree of invention and interpretation in the exceptionally early days of the form. You could see it being repeated in a more celebrated book and garnering plenty of praise, and it’s a shame that it is cast aside so quickly here. Elsewhere, there’s a nice surprise whose form I shall not give away (though its revelation depends on – shock horror – Cauvin actually recycling someone else’s idea from what I shall simply call a famous book published three years earlier) that at least establishes a different pattern to and motivation for the crime than the one you may reasonably have been expecting.
The murder method is resolved before the halfway stage, and the resolution of the mechanics is discussed at the end in a manner that I personally think is fine given the information that you, the reader, has. You’re not present at the discovery of the body and so there’s only so much to be intuited, and while it is a little brief I’d say that it’s perfectly acceptable. Interestingly, it’s not the focus of the book at all, which leaves it floundering a little a to exactly what the focus is. The guilty party is deliberately clear from practically first appearance (did all 19th century villains really behave in such obvious ways?) and the adventures of Heller are strewn with him being confined to bed with fevers and various other maladies, perhaps to heighten his own determination to see this through but instead making him come across as a slightly uneven central presence. Possibly that would be the idea, were the ghost of Holmes’ driven determination not chasing him down the corridors and standing by gently chiding him as he passes out from fright or allows himself to get sick again. It’s all a bit odd: given a lack of definite focus, Holmes inevitably creeps in. Were it not for Holmes this would probably fare better, but if it fared better then Holmes probably wouldn’t enter your head to begin with. And thus you become stuck and it becomes difficult to ether dismiss it out of hand or recommend it unreservedly.
Overall, though, there is enough here to recommend it. If you share my interest in the roots of the genre then you should give this a go, and the couple of nice little tricks that it plays on you are worth seeing. If you have your doubts, it’s probably not quite for you. But do bear it in mind. It will fill a rainy afternoon, and should give you some decent material next time someone starts holding forth on Conan Doyle’s creation. Joseph Bell, you say? Ahem, I think you’ll find…
Coming on Friday: Conan Doyle’s grudging triumphant return of Sherlock Holmes in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ …
Since I can’t quite go the Full Sherlock – he’s out of my era, after all – I thought I could at least have a look at the three Arthur Conan Doyle-penned short stories that comprise the (official) entirety of his impossible crimes: ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’, ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’, and ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge’ (I’m excluding novella The Valley of Fear because it’s not technically an impossible crime, and remains a mystery for all of about six lines). It’s also a lovely excuse to get some of Sidney Paget’s gorgeous illustrations out for airing, too, and I don’t think anyone is going to mind that. So, first up going chronologically, is my least favourite of these three: nonsense-fest ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’.
Visiting Holmes and Watson early one morning, Helen Stoner tells of her sister’s mysterious death when locked in her own bedroom – their step-father keeps a baboon and a cheetah loose in the grounds, au naturel – and how before dying she gasped out the cryptic message “Oh my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!” (see also: ‘The Lion’s Mane’, ‘The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger’). Banishing all thoughts of a wedding act in questionable attire, Holmes and Watson head straight for the old ancestral house at Stoke Moran (no relation to Colonel Sebastian Moran) to find out what the deuce is going on.
The solution is bonkers, and is taken apart in quite ruthlessly entertaining fashion in Soji Shimda’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders which I reviewed last week. Nevertheless, the story presents some interesting points beyond simply the answer to its riddles, and so I thought it might be worth looking at those. Firstly don’t forget to consider that the impossible crime story was still a very callow baby when this was published in 1892 – Gaston Leroux’s liberating masterpiece The Mystery of the Yellow Room was still some 15 years away, and instead these tales relied on poisons ‘unknown to man or science’ (read: desperate authorly invention, and used in a very famous example of the form also published in the same year as ‘…Speckled Band’), hidden passages or, in one particularly irritating case, a magic gas that made everyone instantaneously lose their memory for about three minutes without realising it had happened (no, seriously; for some reason I’d hate to spoil it for anyone, but it’s genuinely the solution to a story published in the Strand).
Conan Doyle’s solution is akin to the ‘poison with miraculous effects’ (an explanation I seem to remember him using on one occasion), but crucially a shade removed: it gives something that, while utter nonsense, at least edges towards practicality. I have no desire to spoil it if you’ve not read this one, but there is arguably a set of circumstances that could – with some rather key changes – possibly be just about workable. As a step in the genre, this is of paramount importance. It would (and always will) remain central to the explanations of these sorts of stories that a certain suspension of disbelief be required – some comments on exactly this topic were exchanged recently in the wake of my review of John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge – and so penalising Conan Doyle for making a stretch seems a little harsh, because many authors in the 123 years since have done exactly that to resolve this type of conundrum. He also took a key step in establishing the hermetically-sealedness of the room in which the unfortunate lady perished: “…the flooring and walls are sound…the door, windows and chimney are impassable…her sister must have undoubtedly been alone when she met her mysterious end”. There is one slight lie in there, as you’ll be aware if you’ve read it, but the fundamental reasoning is the same (and has been reused many times, cf. Anthony Boucher’s Nine Times Time, which occurs to me purely because it’s on a shelf at eye-level). Conan Doyle can be trusted not to throw a surprise tunnel in your face after stating something this baldly.
He then goes one better, and has Holmes and Watson examine the room in person, citing the impassability of the windows (“Holmes…endeavoured in every way to force the shutter open, but without success. There was no slit through which a knife could be passed to raise the bar.”) and also drops in a clue amidst his exploration that is reasonably well-hidden and later, following all manner of other pointers that don’t count because the solution is so preposterous, shows that this was even the second time that this was mentioned – surely only Christianna Brand delighted in giving the same hint in so many different ways! But again a precedent is being established that is preserved to this day: the stage is set, the room cannot be entered, the victim nevertheless died without sign of violence or trace of poison, settle down for the denouement…
Well. The less said about the denouement, the better. It struck me as ridiculous when I read it aged 15, and many years and many, many locked room mysteries since make it no less ridiculous now. Nevertheless, rereading this story for the purposes of this post, I was heartened to see so many signs of the nascent genre I have come to know, love, and spend so much time and money on. He certainly didn’t invent the locked room story, but by beginning to nudge it in a sensible direction Conan Doyle was at least starting to acknowledge the rules it would play by.
Only two things remain: the first is to commend Leslie S. Klinger’s stupendously authoritative The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, wherein he tabulates no fewer than 11 possibilities for the murder method at the end of this story, and the second is to remind you to come back on Wednesday for a Holmes-adjacent review (SPOILERS: it’s the book at the top right of this webpage).