The Final Problem by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1893 Continue reading
The Adventure Of The Solitary Cyclist by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1903 Continue reading
The Five Orange Pips by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1891 Continue reading
The Red-Headed League by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1891 Continue reading
A Scandal In Bohemia by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1891 Continue reading
The Adventure Of The Blue Carbuncle by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1892
The magic trick:
Portraying the light, playful side of Sherlock’s character
Sherlock Holmes on Christmas? Heck yeah! This is one I read every year at this time, so it seemed like a fitting choice to close our advent calendar. It really is such a great story. Oddly enough, not so much a great mystery. How can that be? you ask. Let’s get into it.
If you have not read this story, please jump now to the link below, as the following sentence will likely ruin the plot for the unfamiliar among us.
Now then, as I said, the mystery here is slight. Basically, a man steals a prized gem and stuffs it down a goose’s throat for safe-keeping. Because nothing could possibly go wrong with that plan, right? Well, sure enough, the goose runs off, the thief loses track of the be-jeweled goose among the gaggle, and the gem turns up in the crop of someone’s Christmas dinner shortly thereafter. Pretty silly, really.
The key magic trick at work is the way Sherlock Holmes is portrayed. Doyle really is having a ton of holiday fun. He has his detective in the best of spirits, ripping all over London, manipulating people into telling him just what he wants to know. He even drops his classic superhero line: “My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” First, Sherlock stages a quiz of sorts to determine how much Mr. Baker knows. He then adopts an attitude of awe and respect with the club owner in order to reveal the next link of the chain leading back to the magic goose. When the goose dealer takes offense at the pointed questioning, Sherlock puts on his best performance yet, inventing a wager and purposely losing in hopes of arousing the dealer’s stubborn, competitive spirit. For his final trick, Sherlock wins James Ryder’s confidence only to expose him as the thief.
If that sounds like an awful lot of manipulation, you’re right. But lest you think it’s mean-spirited, worry not; it is all great fun. Doyle keeps the tone light. Even the ending has a bit of cheer befitting the Christmas season. Never do we get Sherlock’s standard warning about being up against “a foe more devilish than any I have ever known.” We never get the ominous suggestion from Sherlock that Watson bring his revolver with him tonight. The whole thing feels like a romp. Sherlock is a fairly dark and complex character, but in this story at least, he seems to embrace his genius and the thrill of the chase, leaving the drug-addled depression at home. A perfect tone for a Christmas mystery. And that’s quite a trick on Doyle’s part.
“When you see a man with whiskers of that cut and the ‘Pink ‘un’ protruding out of his pocket, you can always draw him by a bet,” said he. “I daresay that if I had put 100 pounds down in front of him, that man would not have given me such complete information as was drawn from him by the idea that he was doing me on a wager. Well, Watson, we are, I fancy, nearing the end of our quest, and the only point which remains to be determined is whether we should go on to this Mrs. Oakshott to-night, or whether we should reserve it for to-morrow. It is clear from what that surly fellow said that there are others besides ourselves who are anxious about the matter, and I should –”
Markheim by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1885
The magic trick:
Filling the story with absurdly ornate sentences
Leave it to R.L. Stevenson to spoil a perfectly good Christmas premise by going on and on about the dual nature of man’s being. That is kind of his pet topic after all.
In “Markheim” we meet a murderer who has assured himself of spiritual approval but lives in terror of earthly judgment. He knows his acts are vile but trusts in the goodness of his soul within. Some kind of Christmas ghost (his conscience perhaps? the devil?) visits him and straightens him out.
The philosophical questions raised are interesting, and the man’s journey toward what is, surprisingly, a happy ending is fascinating. Those are not maybe the most original of ideas, though. No, what makes this story stand out – and what often draws me to Stevenson’s writing – is the remarkable quality of the prose. Stevenson writes with a certain elegant complication that I just love. One could accuse him of over-writing. The sentences often are so ornate as to be overbearing. But I love it. Certain paragraphs here could be excised from the story to exist as standalone poems. The writing is that lush. And that’s quite a trick on Stevenson’s part.
The faint, foggy daylight glimmered dimly on the bare floor and stairs; on the bright suit of armor posted, halbert in hand, upon the landing; and on the dark wood carvings and framed pictures that hung against the yellow panels of the wainscot. So loud was the beating of the rain through all the house that, in Markheim’s ears, it began to be distinguished into many different sounds. Footsteps and sighs, the tread of regiments marching in the distance, the chink of money in the counting, and the creaking of doors held stealthily ajar, appeared to mingle with the patter of the drops upon the cupola and the gushing of the water in the pipes. The sense that he was not alone grew upon him to the verge of madness. On every side he was haunted and begirt by presences.
The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1884
The magic trick:
The introductory section sends the reader’s imagination running into thoughts possibly even scarier than the story that follows
The framing device Stevenson uses here is quite common to British literature of the 19th century. A group of people gather for a normal night somewhere – in the case of “The Body Snatcher” that somewhere is local parlor – and a member of the group invariably winds up telling an old tale from his past. That old tale, in essence, is the short story.
Sometimes such a story-before-the-story seems cumbersome. It merely delays the plot for no good reason. Most times, of course, the author has a master plan in mind and thus the outer story does something special to cast the inner story in a new light.
In “The Body Snatcher,” Stevenson uses the outer story to generate an ominous tone and plenty of suspense before the inner story even begins. The reader sees, with the other men in the parlor, the effect the doctor’s mere name has on Fettes, and instantly starts to imagine a set of terrifying possibilities to explain the mystery. Stevenson has made his job infinitely easier. The inner story doesn’t have to any work; the reader has already scared himself with his own concocted backstories about Fettes and the doctor. With the tone set, the inner story need only supply the details. And that’s quite a trick on Stevenson’s part.
“What is his name?”
“Doctor Macfarlane,” said the landlord.
Fettes was far through his third tumbler, stupidly fuddled, now nodding over, now staring mazily around him; but at the last word he seemed to awaken, and repeated the name “Macfarlane” twice, quietly enough the first time, but with sudden emotion at the second.
“Yes,” said the landlord, “that’s his name, Doctor Wolfe Macfarlane.”
Fettes became instantly sober; his eyes awoke, his voice became clear, loud, and steady, his language forcible and earnest. We were all startled by the transformation, as if a man had risen from the dead.