Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Adventure of the Reigate Squire

Also known, in the Project Gutenberg edition, as "The Reigate Puzzle."

Sherlock Holmes has definitely not made it into popular memory as a fragile man, but that's almost the image Watson paints in the opening paragraph:
"It was some time before the health of my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes recovered from the strain caused by his immense exertions in the spring of '87."
But of course Watson can't actually tell us what those exertions were, because they're "too intimately concerned with politics and finance to be fitting subjects for this series of sketches."

Besides the Conan Doyle's ongoing "everything you see here is real" conceit, with all the dashed-out names and "oh, I couldn't possibly tell you but I know you'd recognize the reference if I did" moments, these digressions from the narrator make the Holmes universe that much bigger. It's not just fifty-some little stories, it's so many adventures Watson couldn't possibly manage to write them all down, even if he were allowed to.

Anyway. On April 14, 1887 (Watson specifies), Holmes is suffering from "nervous prostration" after the conclusion of a particularly grueling case. It takes some cajoling, but Watson manages to drag him off to a friend's country house.

Tell me, does this sound like the kind of houseguest you want?
"A little diplomacy was needed, but when Holmes understood that the establishment was a bachelor one, and that he would be allowed the fullest freedom, he fell in with my plans"
After he's had some time to mope around, Holmes perks up when he hears that there's been a burglary in the area, with unusual results:
"The thieves ransacked the library and got very little for their pains. The whole place was turned upside down, drawers burst open, and presses ransacked, with the result that an odd volume of Pope's 'Homer,' two plated candlesticks, an ivory letter-weight, a small oak barometer, and a ball of twine are all that have vanished."
Which gives us a chance to watch our two protagonists in opposition. Holmes, as always, zeroes in on an oddity that makes perfect sense to him, while Watson has no idea what he's talking about and dismisses the whole thing -- in this case, by reminding Holmes that detecting isn't much help in a rest cure.

You can just hear the long-sufferingness in Watson's narration when Holmes inevitably gets involved in the case:
"It was destined, however, that all my professional caution should be wasted, for next morning the problem obtruded itself upon us in such a way that it was impossible to ignore it, and our country visit took a turn which neither of us could have anticipated."
The burglars, it turns out, have now taken in a second estate, adding murder to their rap sheet. And it just happens that the two targeted houses happen to belong to landowners with a persistent grudge between them.

Of note: Holmes' experiences with the police have resulted in an amusingly low level of expectations of their competence:
"I have made inquiries," said the Inspector. "William received a letter by the afternoon post yesterday. The envelope was destroyed by him."

"Excellent!" cried Holmes, clapping the Inspector on the back. "You've seen the postman. It is a pleasure to work with you..."
Recourse to Google: Watson observes that the house "bears the date of Malplaquet upon the lintel of the door." For those of us who lack his grounding in English history, that would be the 1709 Battle of Malplaquet, part of the Wars of Spanish Succession.

And a lesson: Whenever Watson thinks that Holmes is losing his touch, you can be pretty sure a major clue has just been unearthed. This story's example:
"I was pained at the mistake, for I knew how keenly Holmes would feel any slip of the kind. It was his specialty to be accurate as to fact, but his recent illness had shaken him, and this one little incident was enough to show me that he was still far from being himself. He was obviously embarrassed for an instant, while the Inspector raised his eyebrows, and Alec Cunningham burst into a laugh. The old gentleman corrected the mistake, however, and handed the paper back to Holmes."
Also, this week in the insights of Sherlock Holmes:
"It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which vital. Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated."

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