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.

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