Sherlock Holmes: The Second Stain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Second Stain

Illustration for “The Secon Stain” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

This week’s story for the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge is “The Adventure of the Second Stain.” In this story, two high-ranking government officials, Prime Minister Lord Bellinger and Secretary of European Affairs Trelawney Hope, seek Holmes’s help in locating a letter the latter has noticed missing. The contents of the letter are so incendiary that the two men fear Britain will soon be at war in Europe unless the letter can be recovered before the contents are made known to the public. Watson is cagey on the details because he feels the matter remains delicate even at the time of publication. The situation is described Lord Bellenger:

The whole of Europe is an armed camp. There is a double league which makes a fair balance of military power. Great Britain holds the scales. If Britain were driven into war with one confederacy, it would assure the supremacy of the other confederacy, whether they joined the war or not.

After the two men leave, Holmes rattles off a short list of suspects who might be interested in the sort of intrigue captured in the letter and is shocked to learn that one of them, Eduardo Lucas, had been murdered the previous night. Meanwhile, Trelawney Hope’s wife Lady Hilda shows up at 221B Baker Street seeking information about the contents of the letter, which Holmes refuses to share. Lestrade calls Holmes in on an interesting development in the murder of Eduardo Lucas. Lestrade ordered the police officer on duty to monitor the crime scene and leave it undisturbed. However, Lestrade has noticed that the bloodstain from Lucas’s murder has gone right through the carpet, but has not spread to the floor underneath. Instead, there is a second stain in another part of the floor covered by the carpet. Someone has obviously disturbed the crime scene.

I found this story to be one of the more enjoyable ones I have read so far. I read that Arthur Conan Doyle himself ranked it among his favorites. It has a little bit of everything—international intrigue, a damsel in distress (yuck, how tired, but a trope of Victorian fiction), bumbling police officers, and politicians put in their place. I loved it when Holmes refused to help Bellinger and Hope until they confided in him. Many accounts say that the figure at the center of the letter was none other than Kaiser Wilhelm, who did indeed start war in Europe some time after the events of the story. As far as I could remember, no references to this story appeared in the BBC’s Sherlock series, with the possible exception of a general attitude Cumberbatch’s Holmes has toward both government officials and the police. He doesn’t mind helping either group, but he doesn’t feel beholden to share his methods or thinking with either group. The woman with something to hide is a well Conan Doyle goes back to time and again as well. Given that it was published about ten years before World War I, it’s also surprisingly prescient (or perhaps Conan Doyle was in the know?) and accurate regarding the climate of Europe.

Rating: ★★★★½

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the tenth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Naval Treaty.”

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Review: The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson, Rosanna Bruno

I ordered this book on a whim after coming across it in an article posted on Facebook (which is appropriate, given the subject matter of the book). The article, entitled “Why Moody Teenagers Love Emily Dickinson” (BBC), quotes the author of The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson, Rosanna Bruno:

“We were taught that she was this reclusive spinster who lived with her family, dressed all in white, and wrote in her room all day”, recalls artist Rosanna Bruno of her high school introduction to the poet in the 1980s. Even then, Bruno felt that the mythology of the poet didn’t really mesh with the poems. “It seemed so incongruous to what she wrote”, she says. “Have you ever heard Helen Mirren reading Wild Nights!? You really have to rethink Dickinson as a reclusive spinster after that rendition.”

Indeed, Bruno has hit on something here. Dickinson is one of those writers, like Poe or the Brontës, whose lives—or should I say whose “images”—come dangerously close to eclipsing their work. I, too, have been guilty of trying to sell Emily Dickinson to teenagers by telling them intrigues about her life. But as I have learned more about her, I have learned more about her humorous side, her playful side, her wicked side, for lack of a better word. And she is way more interesting than our portrait of her as the recluse in a white dress. Rosanna Bruno captures in cartoons what Emily Dickinson’s life might have been like with some of our twenty-first century concerns (and social media accounts). The result is a funny graphic novel that I think Emily Dickinson herself might have enjoyed.

You might need to click on this for the full image to enjoy the effect, but anyone whose tried out writing up classic literature with emojis (that is a thing), will enjoy this:

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson

From The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson © Rosanna Bruno, used under fair use for the purpose of critique

I enjoyed the juxtaposition of one of my favorite books and my favorite poet:

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson

From The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson © Rosanna Bruno, used under fair use for the purpose of critique

But my favorite might be her OK Cupid profile, though the Yelp reviews were pretty awesome, too.

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson

From The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson © Rosanna Bruno, used under fair use for the purpose of critique

Bruno has clearly researched Dickinson’s life, and there are plenty of Easter eggs for those who know a lot about the poet’s life. The artistic renderings of Dickinson’s home and environment are done with a careful eye as well. What shines through most clearly is that Bruno is a fan of Emily Dickinson’s and she had a lot of fun with Dickinson’s poetry as she wrote this book.

Anyone who is a fan of Emily Dickinson’s will probably enjoy this book, and it also has an audience with folks who enjoy Roz Chast’s cartoons (both Chast and Alison Bechdel get fan shout-outs in this book).

Check out Bruno’s website for more images from the book.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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Sherlock Holmes: The Reigate Squires, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Reigate Squires

Illustration for “The Reigate Squires” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

“The Reigate Squires,” also known as “The Reigate Puzzle” or “The Reigate Squire,” was this week’s read for the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. In this short story, Holmes appears to be recovering from some illness, and he goes into the country with Watson and Watson’s army buddy Col. Hayter, ostensibly so he can rest and recover. However, he finds himself plopped in the middle of a mystery upon finding out that Col. Hayter’s neighbors, the Actons, are the victims of a burglary. One morning early in Holmes’s stay, another of Hayter’s neighbors, the Cunninghams, report that their butler has been killed in an attempted burglary. The local constabulary are keen to have Holmes’s help with the case, and he agrees to take it on—despite Watson’s admonition to rest—after finding the torn corner of a note crumpled in the hand of the deceased butler. Watson has misgivings about Holmes’s health, but knows it’s hopeless to argue when Holmes is on the scent of a trail.

I noticed a couple of interesting things in this story. First, I thought of the episode in the BBC series Sherlock episode “The Sign of Three” when Sherlock attends John and Mary’s wedding, and the guest of honor is Major Sholto, who was Watson’s commander in Afghanistan. Of course, I will look for more references in that episode when I read The Sign of the Four, but I thought perhaps Col. Hayter was a reference to Major Sholto, but I discovered that Major Sholto is actually a character in that book rather than this story, so the Hayter and Sholto are not the same. I know Sherlock’s predisposition to run himself ragged and even to make himself ill in working on a case has been shown on the series, but I can’t recall a specific episode. Also, I had a memory of Sherlock feigning illness in the course of a case, but again, I can’t figure out which episode it was. I may be remembering incorrectly. The only reference I could really find was an Easter egg reference to a Chinese restaurant in “Reigate Square” in the episode “The Six Thatchers.”

In any case, this was an enjoyable story. I liked it more for the relationship it shows between Holmes and Watson. For instance, in convincing Holmes to go to Col. Hayter’s house, he says, “A little diplomacy was needed.” He knew Holmes would not willingly go “rest” in the country. I also loved Holmes’s explanation that “[t]here were twenty-three other deductions which would be of more interest to experts than to you” in the course of revealing how he solved the case. Naturally there were! The relationship between Holmes and Watson was quite similar to what I have seen Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman enact on screen. I don’t know how it was established to take place at this point in the chronology, as I didn’t notice any helpful chronological clues as such.

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the ninth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Second Stain.”

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Review: The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel The Lowland, released in 2013 and a finalist for the National Book Award, begins in the neighborhood of Tollygunge in Calcutta (now Kolkata) with two brothers, Udayan and Subhash, born 15 months apart, sneaking into the Tolly Golf Club. Subhash is beaten by a police officer when the boys are caught, and the incident seems to change their personalities as they grow up. Subhash becomes cautious, careful. Udayan’s anger at the police officer blooms into an interest in the Indian communist Naxalite movement by the time he is in college. The boys drift apart as Subhash becomes increasingly concerned by Udayan’s politics. Subhash decides to go to graduate school in Rhode Island. His brother writes him letters about his activities, including his marriage to Gauri. When Udayan is killed, Subhash travels back to Calcutta and meets Gauri, living in his parents’ home. They ignore her, and he begins to feel sympathy for her, especially after learning she is carrying Udayan’s child. He offers to marry her, and she agrees, traveling with him to Rhode Island in an attempt to escape her past. However, the terrible secret she keeps, which is not revealed until near the novel’s end, and the specter of Udayan cast a pall over the marriage.

While I can’t exactly say that I struggled through the first half of this novel, I will say it didn’t truly grab me until the second half. I’m glad I didn’t give up on it. Early in my reading, I might put it down for days at a time before picking it up again. I managed to pick up and finish two other books in the course of reading The Lowland. However, after Gauri became interested in education and started attending philosophy classes, I found myself fully engaged. Gauri emerged as the most fascinating character for me. I was actually surprised in the end when her secret was revealed, and the two most moving parts of the book for me were her final confrontation with both her daughter, Bela, and her trip back to Kolkata to see the Lowland where Udayan was killed. Gauri emerged for me as a fully realized character, a real person with a great deal of depth. I know that whenever Gauri was on the page, I sat up straight and pulled the book a little closer. Michiko Kakutani feels that Lahiri did not give Gauri enough psychological complexity for the reader to understand why she left the way she did, but I disagree. I feel that her actions are difficult to understand until she reveals her truth. In some way, Gauri feels like a bomb, I think, and removing herself from those who love her is her way of saving them and protecting them in the way she could not save two men who died—who she feels she plays some part in killing. What Gauri has done, both in Calcutta and after she arrives in America, is unforgivable. However, I think it was also very human. If one character doesn’t emerge as fully realized for me, it’s the adult Bela.To me, it’s her adult choices and actions that don’t make sense.

By the time Subhash and Gauri settled in Rhode Island and Bela was born, I found this book captivating and difficult to put down. Lahiri is at her best when she is describing the ways immigrant families navigate living in the United States, which is what made The Namesake such a success. This book is described as more ambitious than her earlier work, and it is perhaps that ambition that makes the novel a bit unwieldy. Michael Cunningham says in “First Love,” an essay he writes about discovering the novel Mrs. Dalloway, that “Woolf understood that every character, no matter how minor in a novel she wrote was visiting the novel, from a novel of his or her own.” Where this novel struggles, if it does, is that it tries to be the novel for all the characters—Udayan, Subhash, Gauri, Bela, and even Udayan and Subhash’s mother. Would it have been more even if Lahiri focused on one character? Maybe. But the result is a rich tapestry of a beautiful and moving book.

Rating: ★★★★½

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I can’t remember how long ago I put this on my to-read list, but it was a long time ago, and I have had the book for a while as well, so I am counting it as my second book for the Backlist Reader Challenge. Though this novel begins in the 1950’s, I am not counting it for the Historical Fiction Challenge because it does go to the present and is not completely set in the past.

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Sherlock Holmes: The Resident Patient, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Resident Patient

Illustration for “The Resident Patient” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

This week’s story in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge is “The Resident Patient,” which was published in The Strand in 1893 and collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes and Watson go for a walk, and upon returning, they discover they have a client, Dr. Percy Trevelyan. He has a most unusual story to tell about his benefactor and resident patient, Mr. Blessington. Blessington invested in Dr. Trevelyan’s practice in return for a large percentage of the earnings Dr. Trevelyan made. Dr. Trevelyan is visited by a new patient, a Russian count with a form of catalepsy and brought to see Dr. Trevelyan by his son. The patient and son mysteriously disappear in the middle of their consultation when Dr. Trevelyan leaves the room for a moment, and Blessington insists someone has been in his rooms. The two men seek the help of Sherlock Holmes, who insists, upon hearing Blessington’s story, that the man is not being truthful. He leaves. Early the next morning, he and Watson are called and informed Blessington has committed suicide. A cursory investigation of the matter reveals that Blessington was murdered.

This was a good story, and it also stands out as one of more well-written Sherlock Holmes stories I’ve read so far. I liked Holmes’s insistence on the truth and refusal to help until he got it. It was a nice bit of characterization on Doyle’s part. As a side note, crooks are really stupid to leave behind any of their smoking evidence when Holmes is in London. He knows way too much about all forms of cigars, ash, and smoking ephemera. He also knows everything, it would seem, about footprints. At any rate, the story is satisfying with a deduction that is somewhat difficult, but that a reader can still follow and not feel cheated by a left-field leap of logic. I believe there is a tenuous connection between this story and the Sherlock series (SPOILER ALERT) in that Blessington is an informant for a gang of thieves, and once the gang is released from prison, they hunt him down and murder him. In the series, Mary Morstan Watson had been a member of a group of assassins called AGRA, after the group members’ initials. They are surprised and betrayed on one of their missions. Two of the members die, leaving Mary (aka Rosamund) and AJ left. Mary escapes, but AJ is captured. Mary believes him dead. AJ is tortured and imprisoned, and when he is released, he hunts down Mary with the goal of killing her for what he perceives as her betrayal. It’s a fairly loose connection, but it’s the closest one I noticed in the story. Also, Blessington uses an assumed name just as Mary did after the incident that broke up each of their “gangs.” A nice little Easter egg: one of the characters is named Moffat, like the writer and producer of Sherlock.

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the eighth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Reigate Squires.”

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Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Beryl Coronet

Illustration for “The Beryl Coronet” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

This week’s story in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge is “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet,” which was published in The Strand in 1892, and collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Banker Alexander Holder seeks Holmes’s help in finding a missing beryl coronet, offered to him as security for a loan to a high-ranking government official. Holder suspects his son of taking the coronet, as his son has had some problems with money and has been borrowing from his father. Holmes, on the other hand, isn’t so sure that young Arthur Holder is the guilty party.

This story contains Holmes’s famous statement: “It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Other than that, I didn’t find too much to like about it, to be honest. It was an easy mystery. There were not too many people who could be guilty, and Doyle seemed to be rather leading the reader away from suspecting Arthur from the outset. The line, “I knew my man, however, and I clapped a pistol to his head before he could strike. Then he became a little more reasonable” struck me as funny in the way of many of the best lines Holmes delivers in the series Sherlock are funny. We also have Holmes in disguise in this story. Ultimately, however, it didn’t satisfy as a mystery, and I didn’t find the client and his family all that interesting or likable. This one gets a “meh” from me.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the seventh story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Resident Patient.”

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Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Red Circle, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Brock Red Circle

Illustration by H. M. Brock for The Strand

This week’s story in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge is “The Adventure of the Red Circle,” which is one of many stories that seems to follow a similar patter for Doyle: a mysterious “foreigner” shows up in London bringing intrigue from their country of origin with them, and Holmes must get to the bottom of it. In the case of this mystery, Holmes is initially uninterested, but he is moved to investigate by the pleas of a landlady, Mrs. Warren, who is increasingly suspicious of her new boarder. In spite of himself, Holmes finds himself interested Mrs. Warren’s story and agrees to help.

Holmes and Watson discover several suspicious anomalies as they begin investigating the case: first, the lodger’s notes are printed rather than written in cursive, and Holmes can somehow tell from the cigarette butts the lodger leaves behind that he does not have a mustache, while Mrs. Warren insisted he did have one. Holmes discovers that the landlady has no contact with the lodger aside from these written requests and a ringing bell for meals, which she leaves outside the lodger’s rooms. Breakfast includes copy of the The Daily Gazette. Holmes begins searching the Daily Gazette‘s extracts for messages and believes he is onto something when he finds a series of messages signed “G.”

This one didn’t grab me, though I did enjoy the fact that Holmes didn’t figure out all the pieces of the mystery before everyone else did. Gregson from Scotland Yard was a bit ahead of him on who the mysterious occupant boarding with Mrs. Warren is connected to, and he has a Pinkerton agent with him who is after the same man. I enjoyed Holmes’s comment to Watson, who questions why he is taking on this case when there doesn’t seem to be much substance to it: “Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons with the greatest for the last.” That said, it was long on exposition at the end when the mysterious lodger is revealed, and Holmes doesn’t play much of a role in his deduction, except for a few wild leaps that don’t make as much sense (to me) as his deductions typically do, as well as some substantial lack of resolution in the end. If you want to know what the Red Circle is all about, you’ll be disappointed. The villain is easily dispatched, given he is such a threat, and the man who obtained the lodgings from Mrs. Warren disappears, his fate unknown, though Doyle alludes to an escape.

This story originally appeared in His Last Bow and was 44th in composition. Those who have ordered the stories chronologically must have their reasons for ordering this story number 6, but I’m not sure how they figured it out, as there did not seem to me to be any timeline indicators, but I admit I’m not a Sherlock Holmes scholar. I didn’t notice any connections to the Sherlock TV series, possibly because as Sherlock Holmes stories go, this is not one of the more memorable.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the sixth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Beryl Coronet.”

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Review: Vietnamerica, GB Tran

As I mentioned in my review of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, I am interested in the Vietnam War for very personal reasons. My dad was in Vietnam when I was born and missed the first six months of my life. I can’t remember that, of course, but I can remember the looming presence that war had on my childhood. In the last couple of years, I have been wanting to learn as much about it as I can. I think one reason is that I became very close to a few of my students from Vietnam.

GB Tran’s graphic memoir Vietnamerica caught my attention through a post on Literary Hub about Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American literature. The list was compiled by Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose book The Sympathizer made such a splash in literary circles last year. I found the cover arresting, and I am trying to read more graphic novels, mainly because my students like them, and I want to be able to recommend good ones to them. Tran’s memoir is about his family, who left Vietnam five days before the fall of Saigon. He was born the following year. He felt, in many ways, separated entirely from his Vietnamese heritage and culture, and this book explores that feeling of being the first generation American in a family of immigrants. Tran initially has no interest in his family’s history, but as he notes in the book, quoting Confucius, “A man without history is a tree without roots.” This book is Tran’s journey of discovering his family’s history. As he says in his afterword, “Making this book broke my heart.”

VietnamericaTran’s artwork is captivating. He captures the chaotic scenes of Saigon and the evacuation of refugees particularly well. His use of color is deliberate and thoughtful. Scenes in the past are often muted shades of sepia and gray, while the present is generally drawn in brighter colors. I found it a little hard to keep track of the cast of characters at first, but by the end of the book, I had it figured out. Tran also captures well the feeling of the first generation American in a family of immigrants who have different histories, cultural ideals, and personal beliefs. I liked, for instance, his motif of his family’s celebration of Tet, a small way he shows the cultural gap he feels between his parents and himself.

Vietnamerica

One interesting thing I learned from this book, and it is something I have wondered about for many years, is why America (and before America, France and Japan) did not achieve their goals in Vietnam. Tran’s answer, given through his family members, makes a great deal of sense to me. I won’t spoil it for you if you want to read it, too, but it underscores the importance of being exposed to multiple narratives. As Chimimanda Ngoze Adichie says, the problem with stereotypes is not that they are “wrong” but that they are “incomplete,” and when we are only only exposed to a single story about an event—and war often lends itself to “right sides” and “wrong sides” when reality is more complicated—we naturally have a limited understanding of the event.

Vietnamerica

Vietnamerica is not so much a personal memoir as a memoir of a family and Tran’s journey to learning who his parents and grandparents were. It is not a linear story, and it took me a little while to figure out the storylines, but it was worth it. If you enjoyed Art Spiegelman’s Maus, you would probably like Vietnamerica.

Vietnamerica

Rating: ★★★★★

Images © GB Tran and used for the purposes of criticism.

Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge 2017I am counting Vietnamerica as my first book for the Wild Goose Chase Challenge as my “book with an exotic or far-flung location in the title.”

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Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Yellow Face, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Yellow Face

Sidney Paget illustration for “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” in The Strand

This week’s story in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge is one I don’t remember reading about 20 years ago, though I must have because I did read all the stories. It’s interesting that I don’t recall it because of the stories I have read so far, I probably enjoyed it the most. A man named Grant Munro shows up to obtain Sherlock Holmes’s services to solve a mystery concerning his wife. Holmes makes a series of impressive deductions about the man’s background and money situation based on the man’s pipe. Munro relates that new neighbors appear to have moved into the cottage across the street from where he lives in Norbury, and he has seen a ghastly face looking out the window. Upon searching the house, he discovers a mysterious portrait of his wife. Further, his wife sneaks out in the middle of the night, and Munro deduces she is visiting the house. Holmes concludes that the occupant of the house must be none other than Mrs. Munro’s first husband, and he must be blackmailing Mrs. Munro. However, once Holmes travels to Norbury at Grant Munro’s request to help Mr. Munro uncover the truth, Holmes discovers he was wrong—the woman is not hiding a first husband at all. The remainder of the review is a tiny bit spoilery.

I have to say, this story surprised me for several reasons. First, it’s refreshing to see Holmes make an incorrect deduction. His deduction makes perfect sense, but he, like many others in the Victorian era, couldn’t have imagined the truth. In addition to the revelation of Holmes’s failure, the ending is a surprise given the times in which the story was written. I would imagine quite a few readers found it shocking, and I know the readers in America would have found it so. I’m not sure if it matters or not, but Mrs. Munro’s first marriage would not have been legal in America in the time at which the story is set (or at least not legal in Georgia, where she lived). Mrs. Munro would not have had an easy time being married to an African-American man at that time. It was not accepted, and Mrs. Munro’s fear regarding the exposure of the truth about her first marriage is quite realistic, though perhaps Mr. Munro’s reaction is less so—it’s the reaction we would want him to have, with our more modern sensibilities, and Watson definitely approves, but it is not the reaction most men in that era would have had.

I see a few references to “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” in the BBC’s Sherlock. First, Mary Morstan’s secretiveness through the series as she hides her past as a hired assassin mirrors Mrs. Munro’s secretiveness about her past. Mary’s behavior is not that different from that of Mrs. Munro’s, and both women seem to expect their new marriages will crumble if their husbands find out about their pasts. There is also a yellow happy face painted on the wall in Sherlock’s apartment. In addition, when Mary is killed by Vivian Norbury, Lady Smallwood’s secretary, Sherlock echoes the request made at the end of this story:

“Watson,” said he, “if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.”

In the series, Sherlock makes the request not of Watson (who wasn’t in any shape to listen to it), but of Mrs. Hudson:

Sherlock Holmes: If you ever think I’m becoming full of myself, overconfident or cocky, would you just say the word “Norbury” to me, would you?

Mrs. Hudson: Norbury?

Sherlock Holmes: Just that. I’d be very grateful.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the fifth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Red Circle.”

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Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventure of the Speckled Band

Sidney Paget illustration for “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” in The Strand

This week’s story in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge is one of the most famous in the Holmes canon, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” A mysterious woman in black arrives early in the morning to ask for Sherlock Holmes’s help. She is terrified because her twin sister died under mysterious circumstances a few years prior, and she now finds hints that history is about to repeat itself. Holmes agrees to take on her case. The woman’s stepfather shows up shortly after she leaves to threaten Holmes, who is not in the least perturbed, and Holmes and Watson travel to the estate where the young woman lives with her stepfather. After investigating the room where the woman sleeps and her stepfather’s room, Holmes believes he may know what is happening, but he and Watson keep a vigil in the woman’s room that night to be sure.

I actually remembered most of the details of this story, though I hadn’t read it in over 20 years, which I think is a testament to the story’s strength. If I have one quibble, it is once again we see a British prejudice about the tropics being a breeding ground for a passionate temper. It’s probably too much to expect a Victorian writer not to display the prejudices of his era, though, and it’s not as bad as A Study in Scarlet‘s portrayal of Mormons. Also, it seems that Doyle was making up fictional snake breeds, but that doesn’t surprise me much. He is a storyteller, and it’s not like he had Google at his disposal. The swamp adder doesn’t jump out as a particularly false note, but it is true that even herpetologists have been stumped as to which snake Doyle might mean. On the other hand, this is one the stories in which the reader has all the details needed to solve the crime and can deduce alongside Holmes, if the reader is paying attention. I do feel some Holmes stories are a bit of a cheat in that we don’t have the information Holmes does, but in this case, we can put the probable scenario together in our heads, for the most part, as Holmes himself solves the mystery, and it may be for that reason that this story is so popular. The BBC series Sherlock chose not to adapt this story, but it is alluded to in the episode “A Scandal in Belgravia” as “The Speckled Blonde.”

Rating: ★★★★½

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the fourth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Yellow Face.”

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