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The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Arthur Conan Doyle [Dec. 28th, 2006|08:12 pm]
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[veggiesu]
For those who are still intending to read this short story, there's an excellent version on-line at Wikisource, complete with copies of the original Sidney Paget drawings.

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle was published in the January 1892 edition of the Strand Magazine; it's possibly the most light-hearted of the Holmes canon, a mystery involving no death or danger (except to geese), wrapped up in the space of a single day, and with the requisite happy ending. Sort of.


First up comes the usual Holmes opener - an object lesson for Watson in how to deduce information from a seemingly innocuous object. Holmes offers Watson a rather battered hat, and blithely states that it is awash with information. Watson is incredulous, and Holmes explains, as if to a slightly slow child, all the clues that he finds so tiresomely obvious. The whole scene sets us up for a comfortable Christmas story; both men reference each other as friends, there is humour and laughter on both sides.

And here's where I run into one of my problems with this story (and indeed much of the Holmes canon) - Holmes is always privy to information that the reader is not. We are not given the same clues that he is, so we cannot pit our wits against him. We are not Watson; we are even worse off than him. He is given the same clues as Holmes, and fails to read them correctly; we are given less than half the clues. For example, in this instance, we are not told about the hairs caught in the lining of the hat, nor the size of the hat, nor of its style (obviously a modern reader would not be able to interpret that clue anyway; but a contemporary reader might have). Those of you who read modern crime fiction, whether police procedurals, courtroom dramas or forensic investigations might well find this as frustrating as I do. Modern authors tend to take the opposite route - giving the reader all the information there is, and diverting them with red herrings, multiple motives and serial suspects (Christie, on the other hand, did both - there are always umpteen potential murderers, but Marple wins because she writes to Somerset House for copies of marriage and birth certificates which the reader never sees).

I'm guessing that Doyle did this for a couple of reasons; first, it's much easier to write a genius if your readers cannot outsmart him. Secondly, a contemporary audience would have expected to be entertained, to marvel and be impressed - they perhaps would not have sought to outwit their hero. A Victorian audience would have been used to having the wonders of the world brought to London and unveiled before them; they would have been used to marvels of engineering and technology being harnessed for the common good. But for the average man and woman reading the Strand Magazine, the wonder was in the seeing, not the understanding. At least, that's how it seems to me; what do you reckon?

Anyway, back to our Christmas tale of theft and deception. Doyle handles the initial exposition competently enough; Holmes recounts the story of the man with the hat and goose to Watson, in his typically arch style. The explanation of the provenance of the eponymous jewel, however, clunks like a clunky thing. This is a bit of a shame, really, and there's no need for it. Watson's exclamation that the jewel is "Not the Countess of Moncar's blue carbuncle!" is enough to have a modern reader stifling a giggle (or a sigh) before moving on. Especially when, only a few sentences later, Doyle offers us the wonderful imagery of Peterson "plumping down" into a chair in shock. I've heard it said that Doyle writes as if English was "his fourteenth language", and certainly his dialogue rarely sparkles. But I think it's a slightly unfair accusation. The language of the time would certainly have been formal, particularly among the upper classes where Holmes tends to spend his professional life, and Holmes manages a nice line in snark ("No, no; the real name. It is always awkward doing business with an alias"). Doyle's depiction of Ryder as a whiny, wheedling, cowardly little rat of a man is evocative enough. But his exposition dumps make me wince just a bit.

There follows a neat little tale of botched robbery and misplaced geese which, for reasons I can't entirely explain, always makes me smile quite a lot. Maybe the word "goose" is inherently funny? The ending is odd; the guilty man goes free, the innocent man is allowed to continue to languish in prison until such time as the case against him collapses, and Holmes and Watson prepare to tuck into a nice post-Christmas supper. As Holmes explains, "I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies". With apologies to those who haven't read any of the rest of the canon, this is Holmes at his most bare-faced; he normally revels in showing up clumsy and dull-witted police detectives. No, the reason is that which he gives moments later, "I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul... Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward". Holmes has been touched by the spirit of the season, and he is being generous for no other reason than because he can. It's a wonderfully understated moment of humanity from a usually cold and rational man; this is writ large through the whole story, which is laced with a lightness and humour that is rare in the Holmes canon. Which might just explain why it's one of my favourites.

So, what did you think?
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2006-12-29 12:18 am (UTC)

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A Victorian audience would have been used to having the wonders of the world brought to London and unveiled before them

Yeah. There's a great line in the story to the effect that strange things happen when you press 4 million people together in so small a space - there's something quintessentially Victorian about that sentence, and I do very much think that The Blue Carbuncle in particular is an example of that curiously nineteenth century revolted fascination with the urban poor. It's sort of an examination for the readers of the Strand magazine of a London Christmas, investigated by one of 'them' (Holmes, after all, is of a family of country squires). I think you're right that Doyle's is the literature of (cheap?) revelation more than of investigation - but that's very much part and parcel of the Strand's remit.

I also agree that the atypical ending is what makes this story so Christmassy a tale - it's not that it's set during Yuletide, but that it is infused with its spirit, that gives the story its warm glow. From the cosy pub to the emptying Covent Garden, the story builds its imagery up to the point of that forgiving climax, and so Ryder's freedom feels earned and contextualised. This is what lets Holmes off his rather lackadaisical approach to justice. (Of course, justice is not actually Holmes's over-riding motive.)

Nevertheless, the clumsiness of the tale almost scuppers it. It seems distinctly clumsier, in fact, than many other Holmes tales - as if its status as a Christmas story is meant to allow it some measure of readerly indulgence. As I say above, to some extent it does - the tale's raggedy, but also touching. But at some level Doyle relies a little too much on the tools he uses more sparingly in other stories - Holmes's sardonic set-up, Watson's earnest mediocrity, the criminal's contrite admissions. There's precious little action - which is a pity, because the Covent Garden scenes are good fun. As a lesson in narrative construction, it falls a bit flat.

It's also a little dodgy in terms of its depictions of class - from the market holder Holmes manipulates because he can spot a corrupted gambler a mile off to Henry Baker himself, there is a condescension not entirely Holmes's in the tale. This isn't without Victorian precedent - there was a long tradition (Jack London's 'The People of the Abyss' springs to mind) of treating the urban poor as a separate species to be explored like some neighbourly dark continent. But then there is Holmes's sympathy to Baker and friendliness towards Petersen, so things are blessedly not as simple as all that (though Baker is indulged and Petersen co-opted, of course).

Does anyone read Holmes stories for the structure and the social commentary, though? I suspect not. We read them for Holmes and, naturally, Watson. And your first paragraph sums this up - 'The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle' shows us both characters at their best: friendly, funny, perceptive, generous. The Jeremy Brett production of this story spun the 'a man with so large a head must have something in it!' line as a joke, and whilst I suspect it was a reference a little more based in serious phrenology for Doyle, I think it was an interpretation that got to the heart of this homely, humorous, flawed little tale. I read it every Christmas, and I read it to start Christmas. What more can I say for it?

Thanks for nominating and reviewing it!
[User Picture]From: veggiesu
2006-12-30 01:16 am (UTC)

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I do very much think that The Blue Carbuncle in particular is an example of that curiously nineteenth century revolted fascination with the urban poor... It's also a little dodgy in terms of its depictions of class

Well, since I know you're familiar with the canon... this is a running theme, isn't it? As you mention, there's a level of objectification of the urban poor, and a distinct stereotyping, that I'm sure was comforting to the readers of The Strand. It's a typically Victorian attitude as well, I think - objects of curiosity on display, close enough to observe, but distant enough to require little in the way of empathy. And the stereotyping serves to distinguish the "deserving" from the "undeserving". But Doyle does this all the time - poor and working class people are usually little more than caricatures, either doughty and honest, or wheedling and cheating (sometimes, as with the stall-holder, aggressive and cunning). Holmes' frequent forays into disguise as a working-class man only ever serve to highlight that Doyle couldn't write "beneath himself" to save his life :-)

But then there is Holmes's sympathy to Baker and friendliness towards Petersen, so things are blessedly not as simple as all that (though Baker is indulged and Petersen co-opted, of course).

Indeed; but you're right that Baker - regarded perhaps more as a fallen comrade than inherently inferior - is lightly patronised and (sympathetically) judged and mildly mocked. Petersen is treated like a servant - he's a commissionaire, and Holmes doesn't give a moments thought to sending him to run errands.

Does anyone read Holmes stories for the structure and the social commentary, though? I suspect not. We read them for Holmes and, naturally, Watson.

And as I have explained off-line, the difficulty with discussing a single story is that they are part of a whole, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. How do you explain the warmth in this story, except by comparison with the canon? How to put the morally dubious ending in context, except by knowing how ruthless and disinterested Holmes can be? And you're absolutely right, of course, we read the stories for this wonderfully complex individual, whose character we learn through a series of stories, and not from one alone. "The Blue Carbuncle" stands out from its peers; Holmes is different here (although his wonderfully snarky attitude to Ryder is characteristic enough :-p)
[User Picture]From: veggiesu
2006-12-30 01:53 pm (UTC)

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Thanks for nominating and reviewing it!

You're welcome :-)