Friday, August 24, 2012

Meet Stompy (and other links)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Holmes Project: The Adventure of the Dancing Men

This time we're opening with a bit of authorial soliloquizing on Watson's part:
"Holmes had been seated for some hours in silence with his long, thin back curved over a chemical vessel in which he was brewing a particularly malodorous product. His head was sunk upon his breast, and he looked from my point of view like a strange, lank bird, with dull gray plumage and a black top-knot."
And then the strange, lank bird proceeds to explain to Watson how it's totally obvious he's not going to be investing in South African securities -- which, by the way, seem to be a favorite choice of Conan Doyle's investment-minded characters.

By the time his little game is over, the latest client has arrived, a Mr. Hilton Cubbitt, "a tall, ruddy, clean-shaven gentleman, whose clear eyes and florid cheeks told of a life led far from the fogs of Baker Street."

Holmes sets up the framing this time: "You gave me a few particulars in your letter, Mr. Hilton Cubitt, but I should be very much obliged if you would kindly go over it all again for the benefit of my friend, Dr. Watson." And so Cubbitt gets to tell his own story, although he begins by denigrating his own narrative abilities. Always fake confidence, Hilton. It's the secret of success.

But actually, he starts off by giving us a clue. It doesn't seem that way at first, just an example of the traditional emphasis on family connections, but in this case it turns out to matter.
"I'll begin at the time of my marriage last year, but I want to say first of all that, though I'm not a rich man, my people have been at Riding Thorpe for a matter of five centuries, and there is no better known family in the County of Norfolk... You'll think it very mad, Mr. Holmes, that a man of a good old family should marry a wife in this fashion, knowing nothing of her past or of her people, but if you saw her and knew her, it would help you to understand."
Just in case you don't understand straight off that one of the themes of the story is the value of maintaining family pride -- and Englishness -- Conan Doyle keeps hammering the point.
"He was a fine creature, this man of the old English soil—simple, straight, and gentle, with his great, earnest blue eyes and broad, comely face. His love for his wife and his trust in her shone in his features."

"She has spoken about my old family, and our reputation in the county, and our pride in our unsullied honour"

"Dear, dear, one of the oldest families in the county of Norfolk, and one of the most honoured."
Also of note: Mrs. Hudson makes an appearance here only in a most indirect fashion:
"Ah! here is our expected cablegram. One moment, Mrs. Hudson, there may be an answer."
We're back in the Austen zone of servants who spend most of the story invisible.

The actual mystery here is of less interest to me than the sociological aspect. Short version, Holmes cracks a murder case by solving a substitution cipher that involves the dancing men of the title -- not too difficult for someone who's written "a trifling monograph upon the subject."

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Holmes Project: The Adventure of the Norwood Builder

Holmes gets to speak first in this story. What does he do with his opener? He bemoans the lack of criminal masterminds since he got rid of Moriarty.
"With that man in the field, one's morning paper presented infinite possibilities. Often it was only the smallest trace, Watson, the faintest indication, and yet it was enough to tell me that the great malignant brain was there, as the gentlest tremors of the edges of the web remind one of the foul spider which lurks in the centre. Petty thefts, wanton assaults, purposeless outrage—to the man who held the clue all could be worked into one connected whole. To the scientific student of the higher criminal world, no capital in Europe offered the advantages which London then possessed."
When he puts it like that, he's almost got a point, you know?

Before the substance begins, Watson tosses in another reminder that in this version of London, all the stuff that he writes about really happened:
"His cold and proud nature was always averse, however, from anything in the shape of public applause, and he bound me in the most stringent terms to say no further word of himself, his methods, or his successes—a prohibition which, as I have explained, has only now been removed."
And then the client arrives, introducing himself as "the very unhappy John Hector McFarlane."

To which Holmes replies with both a put-down and a demonstration of his own abilities: "You mentioned your name, as if I should recognize it, but I assure you that, beyond the obvious facts that you are a bachelor, a solicitor, a Freemason, and an asthmatic, I know nothing whatever about you."

You can't beat the English when it comes to putting a person in his place.

What Holmes' itinerary doesn't include is that McFarlane is also accused of murder, which is of course the bit that appeals here: "This is really most grati-- most interesting."

Conan Doyle chooses the form of a newspaper article to convey the salient details, but McFarlane is the one reading the paper aloud, so in a way he's telling his own story, in headline format. Watson gets to read the actual text of the article. It's very long, so here's the short version: Jonas Oldacre is missing, presumed dead, and McFarlane, his last known visitor, is the leading suspect.

Inspector Lestrade arrives before we return to McFarlane's story, this time in his own words. Because there's one other crucial detail here: Oldacre hired McFarlane, out of the blue, to prepare a will in which he leaves all his possessions to McFarlane, despite the fact that they had never met.

Lestrade is ready to wrap up the case right there, but Holmes delivers another verbal smackdown:
"'It strikes me, my good Lestrade, as being just a trifle too obvious,' said Holmes. 'You do not add imagination to your other great qualities, but if you could for one moment put yourself in the place of this young man, would you choose the very night after the will had been made to commit your crime? Would it not seem dangerous to you to make so very close a relation between the two incidents? Again, would you choose an occasion when you are known to be in the house, when a servant has let you in? And, finally, would you take the great pains to conceal the body, and yet leave your own stick as a sign that you were the criminal? Confess, Lestrade, that all this is very unlikely.'"
Lestrade, of course, has an answer for all of those points, even if it means leaving Occam's Razor on the shelf.

Holmes dashes out for a spot of investigating, and though he isn't pleased by anything he's turned up, we do learn that McFarlane's mother was once engaged to Oldacre, but gave up on him when she realized that cruelty to animals was not an attribute she wanted in a husband.

Also, we get this gem of a description of Oldacre's close-mouthed housekeeper: "But she was as close as wax."

In conveying the housekeeper's words through Holmes' retelling of his investigations, Conan Doyle turns to a technique called free indirect speech. (Hat tip to David Shapard and his annotated Jane Austen series for introducing me to the term.) Holmes doesn't quote the housekeeper directly, but he essentially repeats her words, shifted from first person to third person:
"Yes, she had let Mr. McFarlane in at half-past nine. She wished her hand had withered before she had done so. She had gone to bed at half-past ten. Her room was at the other end of the house, and she could hear nothing of what had passed. Mr. McFarlane had left his hat, and to the best of her belief his stick, in the hall. She had been awakened by the alarm of fire. Her poor, dear master had certainly been murdered. Had he any enemies? Well, every man had enemies, but Mr. Oldacre kept himself very much to himself, and only met people in the way of business. She had seen the buttons, and was sure that they belonged to the clothes which he had worn last night. The wood-pile was very dry, for it had not rained for a month. It burned like tinder, and by the time she reached the spot, nothing could be seen but flames. She and all the firemen smelled the burned flesh from inside it. She knew nothing of the papers, nor of Mr. Oldacre's private affairs. "
Is it cheating to have your character reuse a technique that's worked for him in the past? Because that's what Conan Doyle does here, doing the same "pretend there's a fire and flush out what the criminal loves most" trick he pulled in "A Scandal in Bohemia," with the difference that in this case the flushed out object was the criminal himself, the not-murdered Jonas Oldacre.

And then, in the closing paragraph, Holmes gets one more chance to remind us that he's going to be a character in a story someday: "By the way, what was it you put into the wood-pile besides your old trousers? A dead dog, or rabbits, or what? You won't tell? Dear me, how very unkind of you! Well, well, I daresay that a couple of rabbits would account both for the blood and for the charred ashes. If ever you write an account, Watson, you can make rabbits serve your turn."

If? Hah.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Holmes Project: The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual

Conan Doyle allows Watson to open this story in a bit of a snit -- after all, to Watson, Holmes is not just the subject of well-received stories, he's a roommate, and one with more than a few irritating habits.
"although in his methods of thought he was the neatest and most methodical of mankind, and although also he affected a certain quiet primness of dress, he was none the less in his personal habits one of the most untidy men that ever drove a fellow-lodger to distraction"
"Untidy" in this case extends to a general disregard for furnishings, even if there is something almost noble about "proceed[ing] to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V. R. done in bullet-pocks."

But the untidiness provides the framing for today's tale, because among the debris muddling up the Holmes-Watson household are piles and piles of notes from Sherlock Holmes' pre-Watson cases. When he realizes what they are, Watson is interested at once.
"'These are the records of your early work, then?' I asked. 'I have often wished that I had notes of those cases.'"
For Holmes, the inquiry is both an opportunity to brag about what he did "done prematurely before my biographer had come to glorify me," and also an excuse to delay the tidying even more. But mostly to show off.
"A collection of my trifling achievements would certainly be incomplete which contained no account of this very singular business."
The business is brought to young Holmes by one of his university classmates, "a man of an exceedingly aristocratic type." There's a brief overview of his aristocratic connections, and then a line that's only significant when you know what follows:
"Something of his birth place seemed to cling to the man, and I never looked at his pale, keen face or the poise of his head without associating him with gray archways and mullioned windows and all the venerable wreckage of a feudal keep."
Conan Doyle sets Reginald Musgrave up as one of the less objectionable varieties of English aristocrat -- sure, there's a touch of arrogance, but he's not ruining himself at the track or running with the Marlborough House set. He's been staying at home, keeping up the traditions of the Musgraves reaching back to antiquity: "I have of course had the Hurlstone estates to manage, and as I am member for my district as well, my life has been a busy one."

Except there's trouble. It's servant trouble, essentially, courtesy of a now-dismissed butler who had been flirting with the maids and snooping into the family papers, where he was reading up on "the singular old observance called the Musgrave Ritual." And then the butler disappeared. And a couple days later, so did one of the maids.

It takes Holmes about two seconds to figure out that the Musgrave Ritual is in fact a verbal map, and that the butler had figured it out and gone looking for whatever was hidden.

Holmes' conversation with Musgrave as they explore Hurlstone brings up an extremely fortunate coincidence: one of the trees given as an indicator in the Musgrave Ritual has been gone for years, but Musgrave just happens to remember its precise height, because back in the day his tutor made him practice trigonometry al fresco, by calculating heights all over the estate. Which is so creative I'm almost willing to give Conan Doyle a pass on his use of coincidence here.

And with a touch of trigonometry himself, Holmes manages to solve the Musgrave Ritual and locate the missing butler, rather too late to do the man any good, but he still pulls it off.
"'You know my methods in such cases, Watson. I put myself in the man's place and, having first gauged his intelligence, I try to imagine how I should myself have proceeded under the same circumstances."

Monday, August 20, 2012

A little learning is a good thing

Can we triangulate Elizabeth George Speare's take on education from her writing? It may just be possible.

As Exhibit A, we have Nat, the winning male in The Witch of Blackbird Pond's love triangle:
"It's these Puritans," Kit sighed. "I'll never understand them. Why do they want life to be so solemn? I believe they actually enjoy it that way."

Nat stretched flat on his back on the thatch. "If you ask me, it's all that schooling. It takes the fun out of life, being cooped up like that day after day. And the Latin they cram down your throat! Do you realize, Kit, that there are twenty-five different kinds of nouns alone in the Accidence? I couldn't stomach it.Link
"Mind you," he went on, "it's not that I don't favor an education. A boy has to learn his numbers, but the only proper use for them is to find your latitude with a cross-staff. Books, now, that's different. There's nothing like a book to keep you company on a long voyage."
Exhibit B stars Pierre, the loser in one of the two love triangles in Calico Captive:
Pierre bristled. "What do you take me for, a monk who spends his life with his head in a book? I told you, when I was ten years old my grandfather took me out of school to go into the trade. I can read well enough to tally up my year's accounts, never fear."
What she's telling us, I suppose, is go to school but not too much, and don't you dare start dissing reading.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Holmes Project: The Adventure of the Stockbroker's Clerk

The phrasing used to open this story is not exactly familiar to a modern US reader. (Have not consulted with any Brits on this; anyone want to tell me if "connection" is still used in this context?)

Watson announces that shortly after his marriage, he "bought a connection in the Paddington district." The rest of the paragraph reveals that he's talking about a medical practice. Which is by way of distancing him from Holmes' detective work, right before Conan Doyle turns around and brings them back together.

They meet up, Holmes shows off a bit ("'I am afraid that I rather give myself away when I explain,' said he. 'Results without causes are much more impressive.'"), and he brings Watson along with him on a case.

The client of the moment is
"a smart young City man, of the class who have been labelled cockneys, but who give us our crack volunteer regiments and who turn out more fine athletes and sportsmen than any body of men in these islands"
Let's pause a moment to look at the language here. First, look how the use of "but" sets up cockney as a pejorative term -- clearly Conan Doyle is not going for the "person born within earshot of Bow Bells" definition. And second, "these islands?" Ireland was solidly part of the Empire.

This time Conan Doyle has Holmes have the client tell his story to Watson -- with a caveat that feels like an authorial wink:
"I'm not very good at telling a story, Dr. Watson, but it is like this with me"

(Incidentally, Pycroft? Was it really necessary to give a client a name just one letter different from Holmes' brother? Did Conan Doyle have as much trouble remembering which letter to type?)

Anyway. Pycroft is a stockbroker's clerk who was lured away from a respectable-enough new job with promises of a much bigger salary elsewhere. But elsewhere turned out to be rather sketchy, so he asked Holmes to look into things.

(Note: I am not inclined to include racial slurs here even when they're someone else's words. But I will say that Conan Doyle throws in an utterly gratuitous one here. And the context makes it worse. Go to the story, do a Ctrl + F for "with a touch of the", and you can see for yourself.)

Suffice it to say this wasn't one of my favorites.

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."

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Links for the week

A new take on the long-tail aspect of bookselling
There are mini Mini Coopers running around the Olympic fields
A multi-source "buy this book" widget
Coverage of the recent Keplers2020 event: from Ron Charles (1, 2, 3) and Peter Turner (1, 2)
It's Kidlitcon time again
Excuses, valid and otherwise, to watch animal cams
Background on the Olympics-related use of animated GIFs

Monday, August 6, 2012

Holmes Project: The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton

Conan Doyle opens this story with one of his efforts to make it look like this is something that really happened. To wit:
"The reader will excuse me if I conceal the date or any other fact by which he might trace the actual occurrence."
Duly noted, Dr. Watson.

"Charles Augustus Milverton" is unusual in that there's not much of a mystery to solve here. It's more about Holmes' ethical system, and the crimes which he considers beyond the pale.

Holmes is not a fan of the title character, as he makes abundantly clear early on:
"Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation, Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the Zoo, and see the slithering, gliding, venomous creatures, with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that's how Milverton impresses me."
Yeah, ugh.

Milverton, it turns out, is "the king of all blackmailers," and the only reason Holmes is bothering to notice him at all is that he's been hired to recover some potentially embarrassing letters ("imprudent, Watson, nothing worse") on behalf of the woman who wrote them.

When the gentleman in question turns up at Baker Street, Watson gives the reader a rundown of his appearance, and it's not a flattering portrait:
"There was something of Mr. Pickwick's benevolence in his appearance, marred only by the insincerity of the fixed smile and by the hard glitter of those restless and penetrating eyes."
He's pretty much a caricature of a villain, but let's overlook that a bit, because Conan Doyle gives him some rather good lines. Like this one, suggesting that the woman's friends come up with his ransom as a wedding present:
"this little bundle of letters would give more joy than all the candelabra and butter-dishes in London"
This, of course, doesn't sit well with Holmes, who gives up on negotiations and tries to just take the letters back by force. Milverton points out that this is somewhat ineffective since he's not actually carrying the letters -- he has foresight, this one. And then he leaves.

So Holmes has failed in the negotiations he was hired for, but because he has such an antipathy against blackmailers, he's not giving up. Also, it's an excuse for him to trot out one of his disguises.
"Then, with the gesture of a man who has taken his decision, he sprang to his feet and passed into his bedroom. A little later a rakish young workman, with a goatee beard and a swagger, lit his clay pipe at the lamp before descending into the street."
His plan, as it turns out, is to cajole the necessary information from Milverton's housemaid and then steal the letters from the safe. He's not concerned about things going wrong, but Watson is:
"As a flash of lightning in the night shows up in an instant every detail of a wild landscape, so at one glance I seemed to see every possible result of such an action -- the detection, the capture, the honored career ended in irreparable failure and disgrace, my friend himself lying at the mercy of the odious Milverton."
But after a brief discussion, Watson comes to the conclusion Holmes has already reached:
"it is morally justifiable so long as our object is to take no articles save those which are used for an illegal purpose"
And besides that, it's kind of fun:
"The high object of our mission, the consciousness that it was unselfish and chivalrous, the villainous character of our opponent, all added to the sporting interest of the endeavour."
Well, that settles it.

So Holmes and Watson set off to break into Milverton's safe, but they have to duck into hiding when it turns out Milverton's still up, waiting for an appointment. And then this is where things turn either sublime or absurd, depending on your response to lines like "'It is I,' she said, 'the woman whose life you have ruined.'"

This, of course, is the problem all blackmailers face, though most don't have Holmes and Watson watching from behind a curtain when they're shot by past victims. Holmes figures justice is being served, so he hangs back until the woman's done, burns all the letters in Milverton's safe, and skips off back to Baker Street.

And when the police come around the next morning to get his opinion on recent events, he's not all that inclined to help out:
"'Dear me!' said Holmes. 'What was that?'
He has some fun with the fact that he and Watson managed to leave behind a few traces of their presence, and makes it clear that he's not going to offer any material support to the investigation.

But there's one minor mystery left to clear up in the story, and Holmes spends the last paragraph taking care of that one: Among the portraits of "professional beauties" in a photographer's window, he locates the one of the woman at Milverton's house. Her identity, of course, is never revealed.