|The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Arthur Conan Doyle
||[Dec. 28th, 2006|08:12 pm]
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?