Saturday, January 2, 2010

"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" - A Review

Note: It's in the last hour of the first day of a new decade and, frankly, I'm still in my New Year's daze. I ain't got nothing new right now. However, since I'm still in a Sherlock Holmes mood and I have a column to prepare, I am going to post here a little blog I wrote in December 2008 about "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" with minor edits. I have a word or two about the Jeremy Brett episode at the end.

Personal note: I'd like to thank all the readers for this group blog. It's an ongoing experiment and one that continues to entertain me. I hope you continue to be entertained in 2010.

Congrats to fellow DSDer Steve Weddle. His story, "Missed Flight," is the first weekly story of the year at Beat to a Pulp. I've read it once. I'm going to read it again.

Now, my take on The Blue Carbuncle from December 2008.

Of all the Sherlock Holmes stories, I have read three over and over. The novel The Hounds of the Baskervilles continues to entertain me. “A Scandal in Bohemia” is unique because Holmes is outwitted by a woman. But it is the sole Christmas story, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” that I have read more than any other Holmes story.

I re-read it again this Christmas season, as I do most years, and enjoyed it as much as I always have. This time, however, I read it as a writer. I am no Sherlockian scholar by any means but I did observe a couple of interesting tidbits. I assume you’ve all read the story so there will be spoilers throughout.

The most obvious facet of the story is so obvious, it can be missed: the structure. Arthur Conan Doyle always gives the reader, in the form of Watson, all the facts of the case. Two days after Christmas, Watson stops by Baker Street “with the intention of wishing [Holmes] the compliments of the season.” The detective has been examining a hat and, after retelling how the hat came into his possession, beckons Watson to play detective. “Here is my lens. You know my methods. What can you gather yourself as to the individuality of the man who has worn this article?” I think Doyle puts this scene at the front of the story not only to propel the case forward but also to offer his readers more insight into the world first consulting detective. “Blue Carbuncle” was the seventh short story published and there might have been a few folks who were not attuned to Holmes’ ways.

The hat wasn’t the only thing brought to Baker Street. It also came with a goose. Holmes released the goose to the policeman who found both items but the story really gets moving when that same policeman returns to 221B with the blue carbuncle in his hand, the very same gem recently stolen from the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Now, Holmes’s little mental exercise pays dividends as he and Watson now must find the owner and trace the path of the carbuncle and exonerate an innocent man.

It is the path that I noted in this re-reading. Holmes and Watson follow the trail of the gemstone: from goose to the club from which it was given to Henry Baker (the hat’s owner) to the reseller to the lady who fattens geese for sale. What fascinated me was the logical progression. Nothing was coincidence, something I struggle with in my own writing. Oh, I think, I need Guy and Girl to meet so they’ll rob a bank together. I’ll just have them talking aloud at a street corner, they’ll hear each other, and then… Yeah. Not believable. Even train of thought and action in “Blue Carbuncle” is consistent and rational.

Doyle’s word choices in this story are also of note. They’re subtle but say a good deal about how Doyle sees his creation. On the first page, Doyle writes, “…he [Holmes] jerked his thumb in the direction of the hat…” It’s the word “jerked” that striking. Not motioned or pointed but jerked. Doyle’s showing us Holmes brain had already moved on past the problem of the hat—something that probably took seconds for him—until Watson arrived. Once he has an audience, Holmes frankly, shows off. I think he needs to demonstrate his prowess. How else can you explain all the times when he doesn’t even let Watson in on his plans?

I also appreciated how Doyle’s word choices allowed the readers to fill in the blanks. With space limited in a short story, Doyle didn’t have time to go on and on describing things. Watson noticing the ice crystals forming on the windows of 221B Baker Street allows the readers to create their own mental picture of what Victorian London at Christmas time. Undoubtedly, we almost all think of Dickens and Scrooge and you probably wouldn’t be far off. A little later, Doyle writes “…and the breath of the passers-by flew out into smoke like so many pistol shots.” Now, if that isn’t a great way to describe seeing people’s breath on a cold night, I don’t know what is. And then there is the use of the word “ejaculated” to describe a vocal utterance. Never understood that one.

As I turn my own writing attention to short stories, it is nice to return to a familiar and loved tale and dig deeper into what makes it a great story. It’s Holmes and Watson to be sure as well as the Victorian setting. The story itself, however, is the key. It’s a page-turner with few pages. The action propels you forward until you reach the end and Holmes’ Christmas pardon to the culprit. Doyle may have grown to dislike his creation but the man can still tell a good story.


Back in 2010 now. Last week, I watched the Jeremy Brett version of "The Blue Carbuncle" filmed in the late 80s. Interestingly, the robbery of the jewel was the first thing we viewers saw. It wasn't until five or so minutes into the episode that Holmes and Watson show up on screen as they examine the hat. I have to say that some of the mystery evaporates when we see the actual robbery. One of the greatest pleasures in reading Holmes's tales is his reconstruction of the crime. Having seen the crime played out (albeit without all the actors on the stage), it took something away from this story. This is, of course, an ironic thing for me to say for it makes me appear to be a traditionalist. I am the same guy who loves the new film for all of its non-traditional elements. Go figure.


Dana King said...

Doyle is often underrated as a writer. Chandler was somewhat dismissive of him in THE SIMPLE ART OF MURDER. It's true some of the observations wouldn't stand up if someone leaned on them too hard today. Still, he was first (Poe's stories were too distant, and he didn't keep after them), and the writing shows an elegance that places the reader squarely in the period. There's some social commentary, and few have been better at defining characters through their actions than Doyle.

Too often we just say "Sherlock Holmes" like that says everything about Doyle's contribution to crime fiction, but a lot more went into making those stories memorable than the average person thinks of.

David Cranmer said...


Thanks for the link. I hope everyone drops over and leaves Steve a comment on this sharp piece of writing.