from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by A. Conan Doyle (1892)
*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!
“The Man with the Twisted Lip”
This story is about the search for a man named Neville St. Clair. One of the things I really liked about this story was the way it started—Watson has just returned home to his wife after a long day at work when a woman knocks on his door. She entreats Watson to find her husband who has been missing for two days, and she suspects that he has spent the time in an opium den. Watson dutifully goes to find the man and send him home to his wife, and while in the opium den he encounters Sherlock Holmes, dressed in disguise. Holmes bids Watson to wait for him outside of the opium den, and when he appears, he asks Watson to accompany him to the home of Mr. and Mrs. St. Clair, the latter being his client. Mrs. St. Clair has told Holmes that she saw her husband in a room above the very same opium den where he and Watson ran into each other, and that she fears for her husband’s life. During the seven-mile journey to the St. Clair home, Holmes recounts the case to Watson (and thereby, the reader) and upon arriving puts several questions to Mrs. St. Clair. Holmes and Watson then retire to bed—well, Watson goes to bed. Holmes stays up all night smoking his pipe and puzzling out the case. At dawn he wakes Watson and says he has solved the puzzle. I’ll try not to spoil the ending, but one of the things that interests me about the revelation of the story is the way it demonstrates class privilege but also the way it explores how a man can make a more fruitful living by casting off the vestiges of his middle-class status and effecting a disguise of a man of a lower class. As in so many other Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle uses the art of disguise to demonstrate that what is on the surface is not always indicative of what lies beneath or an accurate measurement of an individual.
“The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”
This story opens in an interesting way. Watson makes a call on Holmes at Baker Street, and when he enters his gaze falls upon an old, beaten-up hat that is hanging on the back of a chair. As is Holmes’ way, he invites Watson to examine the hat and relay what it tells him about its owner. As is Watson’s way, he looks at the hat but can discern nothing. Holmes proceeds to tell Watson all kinds of things about the owner of the hat, and Watson, astounded, encourages Holmes to explain how he has deduced all that he has. I will say that I was particularly amused by the opening of the story.
The mystery comes when Peterson, the man who brought the hat as well as a goose to Holmes, returns to Baker Street to tell him that his wife discovered a blue carbuncle within the cavity of the goose as she was preparing to cook it for Christmas dinner. A carbuncle is a precious gem, and because blue carbuncles are rare (indeed, the note in the story says that a blue carbuncle has never been discovered and that carbuncles are usually red in color) Holmes recognizes it as the very blue carbuncle that has been reported stolen by an aristocrat. A man has already been arrested and held over for trial as the suspected thief, but with this new development Holmes begins to think that the man may indeed be innocent. So the game is on to trace the goose back to the actual thief.
I actually enjoyed this story. It was one of my favorites thus far in this collection. I also found two great lines spoken by Holmes: “I am somewhat of a foul fancier, and I have seldom seen a better goose” and “My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” I feel like both of these are just classic Sherlock Holmes lines and I can imagine Benedict Cumberbatch uttering them. The choice Holmes makes at the end about the fate of the actual thief is an interesting one in that it is Holmes obstructing justice for what he thinks is the greater good, and of course Watson’s agreement makes the reader think that what Holmes has done is ultimately the correct choice.
“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”
Something interesting happens in the first paragraph of this story – Watson says that, at the time he is writing this story, it has been eight years that he has known Sherlock Holmes and that together they have investigated over seventy cases together. He explains that the case he is going to relate occurred early in his association with Holmes, while they were both still bachelors living at 221B Baker Street. The client is one Helen Stoner. She comes to see Sherlock because she fears for her life. Her twin sister, Julia, died under somewhat mysterious circumstances two years before, just a couple of weeks before her marriage. Now Helen is engaged to be married, and little things that have been happening in her home have raised alarm bells in her mind. Miss Stoner explains to Sherlock that she lives with her stepfather, Dr. Grimesby Roylott (what a name!), and through Sherlock’s deductions it is revealed that Roylott is a cruel and abusive man. Indeed, no one in the neighborhood where they live actually like Dr. Roylott. Holmes agrees to take her case, and then he says something funny to Watson. As they prepare to make the journey out of London to Surrey, Holmes makes sure that Watson will be bringing along his revolver and tells him that the only other thing they will need is a toothbrush. A revolver and a toothbrush. Seriously?
One of the other things that I found interesting about this story is that (a) it delves a bit more deeply into motive—why does someone want Miss Stoner dead, and why would they have wanted her twin dead as well? This doesn’t usually come up so strongly in the Holmes stories; and (b) Watson repeats a couple of times that Holmes works for the love of his art rather than the acquirement of wealth. I think that that is such a wonderful statement to break down. Holmes was able to work for the love of his art because he was already independently wealthy, and there is nobility in doing exactly that; and yet, most of us have the business of daily living and at best we look for ways to combine doing what we love for a paycheck. Still, that sentiment recalls back to me the idyllic, and perhaps overly simplistic ideas about work and art. It also reminds us just how singular Sherlock was, and how all of his eccentricities and peculiarities served to set him apart from the typical man. I’ve noticed that a lot more now that I’m reading these stories a bit closer together (I’ve been reading before going to bed each night). Doyle is definitely putting in characteristics and qualities of Holmes that make him not only unusual, but one of a kind.
**The first five stories of this collection, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Red-headed League,” “A Case of Identity,” “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” and “The Five Orange Pips” have already been written about elsewhere, so they won’t appear here.