Monday, July 23, 2012

Holmes Project: The Adventure of Silver Blaze

LinkLet's start with the opening line.
"'I am afraid, Watson, that I shall have to go,' said Holmes, as we sat down together to our breakfast one morning."
On the one hand, we're getting a picture of a happy domestic scene here -- it's not hard to imagine Holmes and Watson calmly decapitating eggs and tucking in to the early edition of the paper. But "Silver Blaze" was published after the Holmes stories had started to take off, so anyone familiar with the characters was likely to understand that "I shall have to go" is the prelude to Holmes taking on a case.

But before getting into the details, Holmes and Watson get themselves onto a train for points southwest, and then Holmes calculates their speed by how quickly the train passes telegraph posts. And then we start into the framing for the backstory -- not the history of the case itself, yet, but the context in which Holmes is going to tell Watson all about it.

First, we have some theoretical context:
"It is one of those cases where the art of the reasoner should be used rather for the sifting of details than for the acquiring of fresh evidence."
Which is, I suppose, a bit of a red herring, as the reasoner does in fact do some evidence-collecting later on.

And then a disclaimer:
"Because I made a blunder, my dear Watson -- which is, I am afraid, a more common occurrence than anyone would think who only knew me through your memoirs."
Disclaimer with a side of "hey, we're fictional characters discussing the works in which we appear."

And finally we get the lead-in to the actual story:
"At least I have got a grip on the essential facts of the case. I shall enumerate them to you, for nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person, and I can hardly expect your co-operation if I do not show you the position from which we start."
So we've got Holmes' own justification for a chunk of exposition that's necessary for the reader to know where things are going. A horse has gone missing, just before a race in which he's the favorite, and his trainer was found dead. Several people have been observed doing suspicious things, but none of them really make sense.

In the course of Holmes' monologue, one character is described as "doing a little quiet and genteel book-making in the sporting clubs of London." Isn't that an elegant way to depict a bookie?

There's another eye-catching line when it comes to describing the area they're headed to: "the little town of Tavistock, which lies, like the boss of a shield, in the middle of the huge circle of Dartmoor." (I consider this an appropriate point to insert a plug for Laurie R. King's The Moor. But as much as I love the Mary Russell books, I'm trying to stick with looking at Conan Doyle's writing here.)

Once Holmes and Watson arrive on the scene, we get one of the "Holmes is clearly up to something but we don't yet know what" moments:

"'Excuse me,' said he, turning to Colonel Ross, who had looked at him in some surprise. 'I was day-dreaming.' There was a gleam in his eyes and a suppressed excitement in his manner which convinced me, used as I was to his ways, that his hand was upon a clue, though I could not imagine where he had found it."
There's a lot of concrete detail among the clues, some of which probably had more resonance with Conan Doyle's original audience than it does today. I can't say I've met anyone who smokes "long-cut Cavendish," for instance, and it takes a bit of calculating to translate "Twenty-two guineas is rather heavy for a single costume" into real money. (Decimalization may have eliminated some fun terms for standard amounts of money, but it does make the currency far easier to comprehend.)

Conan Doyle takes a moment here to throw in a lovely descriptive line that fits nicely into the story, even though it has nothing to do with the case itself:
"The sun was beginning to sink behind the stable of Mapleton, and the long, sloping plain in front of us was tinged with gold, deepening into rich, ruddy browns where the faded ferns and brambles caught the evening light. But the glories of the landscape were all wasted upon my companion, who was sunk in the deepest thought."
Holmes is rather more focused on hypotheses, and Conan Doyle gives him another opportunity to explain how detection works:
"We imagined what might have happened, acted upon the supposition, and find ourselves justified."
Oh, and also:
"I follow my own methods, and tell as much or as little as I choose. That is the advantage of being unofficial."
It's also a good plan for a writer, no?

So even though Holmes has everything sorted out, Conan Doyle isn't going to let the reader know what he's thinking. And he gives Holmes a chance to show off, telling Colonel Ross that his missing horse will run in the upcoming race as expected, but the Colonel's just going to have to wait for it.
"'Yes, I have his assurance,' said the Colonel, with a shrug of his shoulders. 'I should prefer to have the horse.'"
And then, as Holmes is about to take his leave without providing any answers, Conan Doyle gives us one of his most famous passages:
"'Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?'
'To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.'
'The dog did nothing in the night-time.'
'That was the curious incident,' remarked Sherlock Holmes."
And... scene. Always leave your audience wanting more.

We finally get the explanation four days later, when Holmes and Watson go to see the missing horse run its race. And it does run, even though it looks completely different from the last time it was seen.

And Conan Doyle allows Holmes, in a very arch way, to draw out the resolution of the story even more:
"But there goes the bell, and as I stand to win a little on this next race, I shall defer a lengthy explanation until a more fitting time."
Which he does, very neatly, accounting for lame sheep, dress purchases, and an illicit dye job, as well as the murderer -- who, he explains, was merely acting in self-defense.

(Full text)

No comments: