from the memoirs of sherlock holmes – part two

The “Gloria Scott” (1893)

In my opinion, “The ‘Gloria Scott’” is a must read story within the Holmes canon.  Several things make this story remarkable.  First, it is a framed narrative that contains another framed narrative.  If you have read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, you’ll be familiar with that narrative structure.  The primary, or first frame, is Sherlock’s narrative that recounts the case that convinced him that he could make a living as a consulting detective and that his powers of deduction and observation could be used for something more than a hobby.  The story that Sherlock tells reveals several personal details about him–that he spent only two years in college, and that even then he did not make friends easily, thus demonstrating him to be isolated and existing on the fringes and margins even as a young man.  The one friend that he does make is Victor Trevor, and during the winter holidays, Sherlock joins Trevor at this father’s country estate.  One day, Trevor explains to his father that Sherlock can deduce things about people that no one else can.  Of course, Trevor Sr. asks for a demonstration and Sherlock obliges his host.  One of the things he says is that Trevor Sr. had a close association with someone referred to as J. A. but that he had wished to erase all memories of that association at some point in his life.  This startles Trevor Sr. so badly that he faints, and though he minimizes the episode, he remains uncomfortable around Sherlock for the remainder of his stay at the estate.  Another incident happens while Sherlock is visiting the Trevors.  A man named Hudson comes to visit Trevor Sr. on the night before Sherlock is scheduled to leave.  Trevor Sr. is quick to invite Hudson to stay with him and promises to find him a job, but it’s clear he makes the elder Trevor uncomfortable.

About seven weeks after Sherlock leaves the country, his friend comes to his door and implores him to return to the country to solve a puzzle–Trevor Sr. is dying and the younger man believes that Hudson’s appearance and presence at the estate is the cause.  Trevor tells Sherlock on their way back to the estate that his father had received a short note that seems to carry no threat or hint of malice and yet upon reading it he suffers a stroke.  When they arrive at the estate, they find that Trevor Sr. has died, and that his last words to the doctor was to communicate to his son the location of the letter he had written a few months before, when Trevor had pressed him to explain why he tolerated Hudson’s presence on the estate.  Trevor finds the letter and asks Sherlock to read it.  Sherlock agrees, and this begins the second framed narrative.  Thus, “The ‘Gloria Scott’” is a narrative within a framed narrative.

Trevor Sr.’s letter unwinds the mystery, explaining why Hudson had come to see him and why he took pains to keep him happy and satisfied.  It also explains why the note that Trevor Sr. received shocked him so badly that he suffered a stroke even though on the surface it seemed nonsensical and random.

After he finishes reading the letter to Watson, which he still has along with the note, he hands both documents to his friend and tells him that he can use them in his writings of their cases if he so chooses.  Obviously, Watson does choose to do so because we have this story, which in many ways is Sherlock’s origin story.

“The ‘Gloria Scott’” is a fascinating read and one I definitely recommend.

“The Musgrave Ritual” (1893)

This is another story that is a must read within the canon. It begins with Watson commenting on the paradox between Sherlock’s well-ordered mind and his disordered style of keeping house.  The beginning is also interesting in that, if you have watched the BBC’s Sherlock, it will call to mind the scene where Sherlock is firing off a gun at the living room wall in the flat that he and Watson share, the scene where he leaves a note for Watson by affixing it to the mantle with a knife, and the scene where Watson is looking in the refrigerator and finds a human head.  Little easter eggs that the show has pulled from the stories themselves.

It is because the flat has become such a mess that Watson encourages Sherlock to do some cleaning, particularly putting away some of his papers that seem to overflow the space.  Obliging him, Sherlock retrieves a box from his bedroom that holds papers regarding old papers.  He pulls out one particular set and explains to Watson that they refer to the third case he investigated, which he refers to as the adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.  Intrigued and more than willing to hear Holmes recount one of his earliest cases (with Watson commenting that he regretted he had no notes regarding Sherlock’s early work), Watson gives Holmes a free pass when it comes to tidying their flat if he’ll tell the story.  What follows is Sherlock’s rendition of the case.  One of his old college-mates comes to Sherlock for assistance, explaining that he had had cause to dismiss the butler who had been with his family for nearly twenty years after finding him going through some old family documents to which he had not been given free access.  One of the documents included the Musgrave Ritual, a catechism of questions and answers that each Musgrave son had been put through for over three hundred years.  Sherlock at once recognizes the words as a kind of riddle that point to something that has been hidden.  He sets about finding the exact place referred to in the Ritual, and in doing so begins to unravel the mystery of the missing butler.

I would love for this story to be one that is made into an episode of BBC’s Sherlock.  Part of the ritual has to do with the history of the British monarchy that I appreciate because I have taught that moment in history to a group of students, and that’s probably another reason that the story appeals to me.  I definitely recommend reading this one.  Don’t skip it!

“The Reigate Puzzle” (1893)

This story finds Sherlock Holmes recovering from an illness, an interesting state for Sherlock because one, Watson so frequently characterizes him as a man of energy when he is investigating a case but who is also given to bouts of lethargy when there is nothing for his mind to concentrate upon; and two, because Sherlock as a patient gives Watson yet another reason to keenly observe his friend but for a whole different reason.  Not only is Watson’s biographical gaze upon Sherlock in this story, but also the medical gaze of a doctor.  What Doyle does in this story that is brilliant is put those two gazes in conflict with each other–where the man who has been Sherlock’s biographer cannot be fully separated from the man who has been his doctor.

In order to further Sherlock’s recovery, Watson recommends spending some time in the country at a friend’s house.  They leave London, and Sherlock remains sunk in the restful peace of the country and absence of anything to really arouse his intellect.  Then comes news of a murder at a neighboring estate, and though Watson recommends that Sherlock remain uninvolved, an Inspector arrives and pulls Sherlock into the case.  As the case unfolds, Sherlock’s usual vigor and energy returns in full force, almost to the point that it appears to be manic and frenzied.  Perhaps it is, but by the end of the story, Sherlock feels entirely like himself again and is ready to return to London the next morning. In this way, Doyle enacts the critical “change” in his character by bringing him from the weak and ill man we find at the beginning of the story–someone very much unlike the Sherlock we think we know–to a man who relishes the next mystery and awaits it with fervor and energy.  Doyle does this to the extent that the mystery itself–who killed William Kirwan–is only the B plot. It is Sherlock who is the focal point and the A plot is getting him back on his feet.

“The Crooked Man” (1893)

If the note in my edition of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is correct, this story is the only one in which Holmes says the phrase “Elementary”.  It’s not even “Elementary, my dear Watson.”  Just “Elementary”. I love these little tidbits.  Sort of like the fact that in Casablanca, the phrase Rick utters isn’t “Play it again, Sam” and yet it’s one of the famous phrases associated with the film.

“The Crooked Man” is perhaps the most suspenseful story in the volume thus far. Sherlock arrives at Watson’s home late one night and recounts the details of a case he is currently working.  It is the story of Colonel Barclay, who is found dead in a locked room with his wife, who is passed out at the time of discovery.  It’s not entirely a locked room mystery, though, because one of the French doors is open and Sherlock believes that a third man was there.  Several details still confound the Great Detective, though, and it is only upon finding the third man on the following day, with Watson accompanying him as a witness, that he learns the full details of what happened in that locked room and the mystery surrounding Colonel Barclay’s death is unraveled.

The thing that interests me most about the story is the depiction of the Indian Mutiny (or, the Indian Rebellion).  Doyle shows what side of the imperial narrative he stands on, characterizing the Indian fighters as enemies and rebels to the authority of the Crown, and he does this through the story the third man tells regarding his time in India.  What cannot be overlooked is that the third man tells of a betrayal done to him by a fellow British army soldier, and though that betrayal is not absolved at the end of the story, it is also not framed as being as dastardly as the events of the Mutiny.  The point I’m trying to make here is that as part of my literary studies, this era of British history and literature was one of my focuses, and reading these stories further impresses upon me just how much events that occurred within the 19th century were integrated into the popular imagination and remained of great importance, and that stories like this one can be viewed as reinforcing rather than challenging Empire.  Doyle lends a historical dimension to the Holmes stories and in doing so demonstrates how certain historical events continued to be important to Britons in the late 19th century and influenced the making and sustaining of the British identity.

Like “The ‘Gloria Scott'” I think “The Crooked Man” is a must read in this volume.

from the memoirs of sherlock holmes – part one

*Note: These are just brief sketches of the short stories so that I can remember what each story is about and what I thought of it.  Beware: here may be spoilers!

“Silver Blaze” (1892)

I don’t know if the order is the same for all editions of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, but in my edition, the first story is “Silver Blaze”.  In this story, Holmes is involved in a case of a missing horse whose name provides the title of the story and the murder of the horse’s trainer, John Straker.

The stories of Sherlock Holmes are told through the first-person narrative of Dr. John Watson.  From the start of the story, it occurred to me how important this detail is.  I love watching the BBC’s Sherlock, but if you haven’t read any of the stories, it’s hard to understand that everything we know about Sherlock is filtered through Watson’s perspective of him.  It is Watson’s perspective of the way Sherlock uses logic and observation to solve crimes.  We see him the way Watson sees him, and that may or may not be indicative of who he truly is.  There is a moment in the story where Sherlock admits that he made a blunder, and he tells Watson that contrary to what he writes in his memoirs–which is interesting in itself, because it invites you to ask the question: Whose memoirs are these? Sherlock’s or Watson’s?–he does actually make mistakes.  Watson, as he spends more time with Sherlock, demonstrates that more and more he, too, is becoming an astute observer.  His powers of logic, inference, and observation, in his own opinion, are not as powerful as his companion’s, but they do still exist.   In turn, while Sherlock uses these skills to solve crimes, is it not possible that Watson uses those same skills to provide revelations about his friend to his readers? While Sherlock studies and solves crimes, it’s as though Sherlock is the mystery that Watson is studying and trying to solve.

As expected, Sherlock not only solves the mystery of the missing horse as well as the murder of the trainer.  He lays out the details and facts of the case to Watson as they travel to the scene of the crime, and he uses logic, inference and deduction to lead him to the solution of the case.  While I was able to deduce the murderer with the clues given in the story, I still didn’t have the full picture, and so the conventional scene in a detective story where the great detective explains how the crime was committed and how he found out the culprit filled in the details for me.  Overall, this was a good story and one that I would recommend reading if you are looking for a way to spend a spare hour.

One other noteworthy thing about this story that I was not expecting.  There is a line in the story that reads: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”  I recognized the words as the title of a book, and sure enough when I looked it up, it’s a mystery where the protagonist uses Holmesian logic and inference to solve said mystery.  Now I want to read that book because my interest has been peaked, and I’m often willing to give fiction inspired by Sherlock Holmes a try.

“The Yellow Face” (1893)

This story is preceded by a note, if you will, from Watson, where he explains that if may seem to his readers that he only presents Sherlock’s successes rather than his failures.  He goes on to say that the reason he doesn’t write about the failures is in part due to the fact that where Sherlock has failed, so has everyone else failed to solve the mystery.  He says this by way of letting us know that in the story that follows, he will relate a case in which Sherlock was wrong.

In this story, the facts of the case are related to us by Grant Munro, a man who has come to Sherlock for help in solving a mystery that involves his wife’s strange behavior.  He wants Sherlock’s help as a consulting detective but also as a judicious man who can tell him what to do.  The story is an interesting read for a 21st century reader, in that it reveals the prejudices and racialized thinking of the late Victorian era.  It also exposes gender politics and male privilege, in that Munro comes to Sherlock because his wife is keeping a secret from him and refuses to reveal the truth behind her recently odd behavior.  In this sense, there’s the underlying presumption that as her husband, he has a right to know everything and anything about her, and all he need do is demand that she tell him what he wants to know.  Her continued refusal to reveal her secret is what drives Munro to Sherlock, and mistaking what is really going in in this case, Holmes and Watson accompany Munro as he sets about revealing his wife’s secret by force.

Because of the insight it gives to race and gender relations in late 19th century England and because it shows us that Sherlock is, indeed, infallible, “The Yellow Face” is worth the read, but it’s not the best of the stories in the collection.

“The Stock-Broker’s Clerk” (1893)

I happen to work in the financial services industry, and so reading “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk” is an interesting look into what the industry looked like over a century ago.

The beginning of this story provides some insight into Watson’s life and current circumstances.  He is married and has recently purchased a medical practice, and it’s been some months since he last saw Sherlock or worked a case with him.  This story takes place after The Sign of Four, which Sherlock makes a direct reference to while inquiring about the health of Mrs. Watson.  When Sherlock explains he’s there to invite Watson to join him on a case in Birmingham, Watson jumps at the opportunity.  The two join Sherlock’s newest client, Mr. Hall Pycroft, who is waiting in the carriage outside of Watson’s door, and on the journey to Birmingham Pycroft recounts the details of the case that have caused him to enlist the services of Sherlock Holmes.  Pycroft had been, in today’s terms, laid off from his previous job, and after a few months of searching for a new position and running through his savings (a plight 21st century readers can relate to) he finally got a new job at a prestigious financial firm that was known for managing large sums of money.  While the salary was less than what he had been making in the past, Pycroft agreed to take the position because he had no other options.  Until, that is, a man appears at his door and offers him a position that will pay at least twice what he would make at his new firm.  After several questions, Pycroft decides to take the offer, but at the request of the headhunter, to use a modern term, Pycroft does not write to his new employer to officially resign his position.

Pycroft becomes suspicious that something is not right with his new employer when he arrives at the corporate offices and there are no other workers and only a chair and two empty chairs for furniture.  After a week, he appeals to Sherlock to determine if his employer is legitimate or if he has fallen into some sort of scam.  It does not take much time for Sherlock to solve the case, and it’s charming that an article in the newspaper is what helps him put all of the pieces of the puzzle together.  It demonstrates just how important newspapers were at the time as a source of information.

The thing about this story is its relatability to 21st century life.  Here is a man who has lost his job, spent several months looking for a new job and depleted his small savings, and when he does find a new job, he gets a “better offer” and ultimately ends up being caught in a scam.  If the story was a cautionary tale at the time it was published, it can be viewed in the same way to modern readers.