Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Holmes Project: The Adventure of the Yellow Face

This time, Conan Doyle starts us off with an author's note. (Or, I suppose, a narrator's note, since it's very much in Watson's voice.)
"[In publishing these short sketches based upon the numerous cases in which my companion's singular gifts have made us the listeners to, and eventually the actors in, some strange drama, it is only natural that I should dwell rather upon his successes than upon his failures. And this not so much for the sake of his reputation—for, indeed, it was when he was at his wits' end that his energy and his versatility were most admirable—but because where he failed it happened too often that no one else succeeded, and that the tale was left forever without a conclusion. Now and again, however, it chanced that even when he erred, the truth was still discovered. I have noted of some half-dozen cases of the kind; the Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual and that which I am about to recount are the two which present the strongest features of interest.]"
With that framing device, we're set loose with Holmes and Watson experiencing a bit of nature, urban version, otherwise known as taking a walk. Watson goes to lengths to point out how unusual this whole exercise thing is for Holmes, but on one level, it's very much of a piece with their day-to-day life:
"For two hours we rambled about together, in silence for the most part, as befits two men who know each other intimately."
And then of course a client enters the scene. He appears indirectly at first; he's been waiting for Holmes, gone off in frustration, and left his pipe behind. Holmes, of course, knows all manner of things about the man after a quick glance at the abandoned pipe. (Incidentally, when the man himself puts in an appearance, Watson notes that he's holding a "wide-awake" hat. For those who are as baffled by the term as I was, there are pictures.)

The client, Grant Munro, gets in a pretty good line before things get much further:
"It seems dreadful to discuss the conduct of one's wife with two men whom I have never seen before."
Tell me, how did Oscar Wilde never steal that for an epigraph?

But gradually -- after a fair bit of nagging on Holmes' part -- he tells the story of the trouble with his wife, with what seems to me an overly-precise description of the financial aspects of his marriage.
"that she had a capital of about four thousand five hundred pounds, which had been so well invested by him that it returned an average of seven per cent"

"I have an income of seven or eight hundred"

"a nice eighty-pound-a-year villa at Norbury"
Naturally, the mystery involves what follows his wife's request for money, but Munro's close attention to sums never draws any particular scrutiny. That's a little surprising, since I'd though we'd reached the point in Anglo history when it became gauche to discuss money with mere acquaintances, but whatever.

So his wife's using money for something she won't tell him, and then strangers turn up in the neighborhood. And at least one of them sounds like something out of Buffy:
"It was of a livid chalky white, and with something set and rigid about it which was shockingly unnatural."
And then his wife sneaks out and lies about it. So let's recap the layers here. We've got:
  • the wife's false story
  • inside the husband's version of events
  • inside the narrative as recounted by Watson
  • inside the text written by Arthur Conan Doyle
Not too shabby.

There's a nice long bit of Q & A without dialogue tags, which is always fun (and it is a long bit, so click through to read it; I'm not going to fill the page here), and Holmes sends Munro off with assurances that he'll stop by the next day.

Then he lays out his theory for Watson: the wife is hiding her first husband down the road from her current one. He admits that it's not conclusive, "But at least it covers all the facts."

The next day, we learn that it doesn't.

Hiding behind the mask is, in fact, a "coal-black negress," Mrs. Munro's child from her first marriage. This is the big secret she's been keeping from her husband, with about the weakest excuse a mother ever had for child abandonment. (Semi-abandonment. She left her daughter with a nurse in the US "because her health was weak." And then she made her wear a mask.)

Mrs. Munro spends some time trying to justify herself, or perhaps to elicit sympathy:
"I had to choose between you, and in my weakness I turned away from my own little girl."
And when her husband has a chance to process the fact that he's now a stepfather, Conan Doyle rewards him with another great line.
"I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think that I am a better one than you have given me credit for being."

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