The Adventure of the Cardboard Box

Of all the kinds of murder mysteries, I think that the murder for revenge is the least fun. The basic problem with them, if it can be called that, is that they necessarily leave justice improperly served. That’s not quite entirely true, as it is possible for the death to be a justified killing, as in Murder on the Orient Express. In that case, though, the killer must not be convicted for murder. If that happens, justice has been served but in figuring out what happened the detective is mostly only satisfying his own curiosity. That can be an interesting story, but it lacks the satisfaction of the detective using reason to put right what was put wrong through a misuse of reason.

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box is very much a tale of revenge. If you haven’t read it, the short version is that Holmes is called in to a case where a respectable woman was sent a box filled with salt and in the salt were two severed human ears. Holmes does some detection and realizes that the ears are those of the youngest sister of the woman and the man with whom she was adulterating her marriage; her (now former) husband was the killer. It turned out that the package was not meant for the oldest sister, however, but for the middle sister. The middle sister, who had been in love with her sister’s husband, tried to seduce him, and failing this, had turned her sister against her husband and then introduced her sister to a captivating man she fell in love with. Holmes directs Lestrade where to find the husband, who is a sailor. Lestrade was, at first, worried because the husband was a large man, but he was haunted by what he had done and had given up living. He went in and gave a full confession, which Lestrade sent a copy of to Holmes, and fills in many of the details.

The story ends with some thoughts on the story by Holmes:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box was originally published in Strand magazine in 1893, which places it among the first Holmes stories published and among those short stories which made Sherlock Holmes so famous and popular. Its contents were so shocking, however, that for a time it was removed from publication and was not collected in the collection of short stories called The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. When it was removed, an initial section in which Holmes mind-reads Watson (in imitation of Edgar Allen Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin) was transferred to The Adventure of the Resident Patient.

It is, perhaps, a commentary on the great principles and sensitivity of our forebears that it was later published in the 1917 collection of Holmes stories, His Last Bow, in America, and added to later additions of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (first published in late 1893, where the rest of the Holmes short stories published in 1893 were collected). It took twenty one years to conclude that people were now so bad that they would not be corrupted by contemplating the sins described in the story.

It is a rather strange story, all things considered. It is pathetic, in the original sense of the word—creating pathos. It involves a certain amount of detection, but overall not a very great amount. In fact, Holmes says so himself:

Holmes scribbled a few words upon the back of one of his visiting cards and threw it over to Lestrade.

“That is the name,” he said. “You cannot effect an arrest until to-morrow night at the earliest. I should prefer that you do not mention my name at all in connection with the case, as I choose to be only associated with those crimes which present some difficulty in their solution.

Holmes solved it more quickly than the police did, of course, but it is likely they would have eventually found the solution, too. When Mary was reported as missing, they would have gone to look for her husband. He had given up on living, and confessed as soon as he was able. When they went to ask him about his wife, it is doubtful that he would not have confessed then. Alternatively, Sarah would at some time have come out of her “brain fever” and, since she was motivated by hate for her brother in law after he spurned her, she would in all probability have gone to the police and accused him.

In any event, finding out that a husband killed his wife in a fit of rage for her adultery is… a story without any twists. About the only twist in the entire story is that the box was only addressed by the initial, S, which both the older and middle sister shared, and since the middle sister had quit the premises recently, it was assumed that it was meant for the older sister when it was, in fact, meant for the middle sister.

It’s not a bad story, all told, though I do actually agree with the people who decided not to republish it that it is not really a story that people need to read. There are two types of good stories: the celebration of virtue and the lament of vice. This story does qualify as the second, but not in a useful way. It may, perhaps, be of some use as a warning to women who fall in love with their sisters’ husbands that nothing good will come of turning their sister against their husband then luring her into adultery with another man, but I’m not sure this is a warning many people need.

And the story has some real flaws in it. For example, the husband who committed the murders describes the three sisters, “There were three sisters altogether. The old one was just a good woman, the second was a devil, and the third was an angel.” Angels are not so easily manipulated into being unfaithful to their husbands.

Granted, the characterization is given by a broken man who has not been shown to have great judgment, but at the same time this is towards the beginning of a long explanation and is never challenged. Worse, the pathos of the story depends, to some degree, on the wife being angelic and innocent in spite of her obviously culpable sins. Framed properly, the story really offers no insight into human nature past the observation that if everyone is bad, the results will be bad. It’s not wrong, precisely. It’s just that I don’t see what good wallowing in it does. We already know that the evil man brings evil out of the evil stored in his heart. That the bad tree goes not produce good fruit.

And so we come again to Sherlock Holmes’ question at the end of the story.

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

There is an element of hope here, but not much of one. This non-answer could really have been improved upon a great deal; if nothing else he could have quoted the parable of the wheat and the tares. Even if the answer was not accepted, merely entertaining it would have been an improvement over this blank mystification.


As a curious side-note, at the time the story would have been set cardboard was a relatively recent invention, though that depends in part on what sort of cardboard it was. The two main candidates are paperboard (the sort of thing cereal boxes are made of) and corrugated fiberboard (probably better known as corrugated cardboard). The first paperboard boxes were readily available in the 1860s. Corrugated fiberboard was developed in the 1870s.

The Holmes stories were often set before their publication, many of them in the 1870s or possibly the 1880s. Cardboard would have been a relatively new thing, though not a complete novelty. Then again, it may possibly be an anachronism; by 1893 it would have been common enough that it would no longer feel new and Conan Doyle might, taking it for granted, not have bothered to remember when it first came into use.

Sherlock Holmes Often Lets the Criminal Go

In the end of The Three Gables, the woman responsible for the trouble in the story asks Sherlock Holmes for help.

“Well, well,” said he, “I suppose I shall have to compound a felony as usual.”

It’s an interesting phrase, because it’s true—Holmes does often let the criminal go. I was reminded of this when I recently re-watched the Jeremy Brett version of The Priory School, and then re-read the short story to see the differences. Perhaps the biggest change is that in Conan Doyle’s version, Holmes lets the criminals off, while in the Jeremy Brett version there’s one fewer criminal, and the main criminal ends up falling to his death rather than being let off. (To be fair, in the Conan Doyle version, the actual murderer does get caught and is said to be almost certain to hang for the murder.)

This is a rather curious trend. Though the Holmes stories in large part launched the genre of detective stories, in many ways they frequently bucked the trends that quickly came to dominate the genre.

Holmes stories do not tend to feature fair play; in fact they often almost pointedly eschew it with Holmes seeing some evidence which he refuses to show to Watson. The Priory School has an example of this; Holmes stands on Watson’s shoulders to see who is holding the young boy who was kidnapped, but Watson doesn’t get to see who it was and only learns it when Holmes accuses the man.

Holmes stories are frequently not about murder, though admittedly even in the golden age not every mystery story was about murder. I can think of at least three Father Brown stories off of the top of my head which were not. That said, in Holmes stories murder is probably more the exception than the rule.

But perhaps nowhere do Holmes stories buck the trends of the genre they started so much as in how often Holmes lets the criminal off. It’s not merely occasional, it’s all over the place. Perhaps the most memorable instance of it is in the end of The Blue Carbuncle:

“After all, Watson,” said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies. If Horner were in danger it would be another thing; but this fellow will not appear against him, and the case must collapse. I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness. Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward.

Perhaps it’s the second bucking of the trend which is so often responsible for the first; I can’t think of any case where Holmes lets a murderer go. (I should note that my knowledge of his cases is not encyclopedic. That said, I think that in later stories the preference in both readers and writers developed for the detection in detective stories to have some purpose, that is, to have some effect. It need not be a legal effect, of course, though it commonly was that. The solution should please more than just the detective; it should reconcile people to each other or give someone peace.

There are no hard and fast rules on this, of course. I’m quite fond of the Poirot story Murder on the Orient Express, where Poirot lets the killers off. It’s actually more complicated than that; he does not make the decision at all. The director of the Wagon-Lit company that runs the orient express asked him to investigate and he did. He then presented to the director two possibilities. The first was of an assassin who snuck out through a window when he was done. The director dismisses, but Poirot warns him not to dismiss it so quickly. After he hears the second explanation, he may not think so badly of this one. He then explains what really happened, where the death was, basically, the execution of a foul murderer of an innocent child, who had heretofore escaped justice. When he fully understood what had happened, the director did indeed prefer the first explanation, and it was what was given to the police when they eventually arrived. There was a cathartic effect to the action, though, where an impartial judge was given to judge the case, and pardoned the killers. The detective, effectively, reconciled the killers with society.

I am, in fact, fond of the surprise ending where the detective lets the killer go because he is not really a murderer. I suppose I just think that it should be a rare exception for it to have its real effect.

Ultimately, though, it is right that the detective cares more for justice than for the law, and it is generally best when the detectives are not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies.

When Changes For Television Make Sense

I recently watched the Jeremy Brett version of the Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Red Circle. There were a number of changes from the original short story, as there inevitably are in translations of Holmes stories to the screen.

Some of these changes make perfect sense—these are generally of the form of filling in the minor actions which can be elided in prose, or creating dialog which was merely described. Of the former, an example might be greetings exchanged with a servant, the giving of hat and walking stick, etc. Of the latter, an author may write “he gave his consent enthusiastically,” but an actor must actually say specific words. These sorts of things are just a necessary act of translation of the written word to the performed word.

Some of these changes are mere additions. One such are things done to set the scene and tone. Examples of this might be showing the man merely described as a teacher actually teaching a class, or showing a blacksmith working iron. Another mere addition is padding. This is often an issue in the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes episodes based on short stories, as the short story really gave material for about half an hour, while the TV episodes were an hour. It varied from episode to episode, but some of them involve a fair amount of padding. A good example of this might be from the Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle—the TV episode begins with showing the lady who owned the gemstone coming to her hotel after shopping, going to her room, order a bath to be drawn for her, and finally discovering the stone to be missing. None of this appeared in the short story itself, but as presented it was congruent with it. It also served no discernible function beyond avoiding the credits being twenty minutes long.

Padding can be done well, though in later Jeremy Brett episodes the padding often consisted of revealing a good chunk of the mystery right at the beginning. An extreme example of this is the Jeremy Brett version of The Three Gables, in which the opening depicted the relationship between the dead man and the rich lady which was the reveal toward the end of the short story. I don’t think that there’s really any defense of this which can be given; it makes no sense to turn a Sherlock Holmes story into an episode of Colombo. That said, this is just a question of execution; padding need not hurt the story that is being added to.

And then we come to the changes which make no sense, in which something that appeared in the original story was removed and something else substituted in its place. I will draw my example from The Red Circle, since it’s what inspired this blog post. In the short story, Holmes meets inspector Gregson on the street as Gregson had been working with a Pinkerton detective to follow and try to arrest Black Gorgiano of the Red Circle, and Black Gorgiano was after the lodger that Sherlock Holmes had been called in to investigate. In the TV episode, Holmes met Inspector Hawkins (who replaced Gregson, presumably for casting reasons) at the murder scene of an invented character named Enrico Formani, and then the two joined forces. It might be argued that this was done in order to pad the story out, though, so I will move on to another, though shorter, change, as my example.

In the TV episode, Inspector Hawkins insists that Emilia and her husband Gennaro must be tried for the murder of Black Gorgiano, though he expects that they will not be convicted because it was self defense. He even takes tickets for departure on a ship from Gennaro. (There is also a post-script by Watson which says that they were aquitted and lived happily ever after in Australia.)

In the short story, Emilia surmises that it was her husband who killed Gorgiano and tells the story of what happened—how Gorgiano was following them to murder them, and how he must have come upon her husband and he defended himself. At the end, she asks, ” And now, gentlemen, I would ask you whether we have anything to fear from the law, or whether any judge upon earth would condemn my Gennaro for what he has done?” Here’s the rest:

“Well, Mr. Gregson,” said the American, looking across at the official, “I don’t know what your British point of view may be, but I guess that in New York this lady’s husband will receive a pretty general vote of thanks.”

“She will have to come with me and see the chief,” Gregson answered. “If what she says is corroborated, I do not think she or her husband has much to fear.

There was absolutely no need to change the ending in this way. It might be argued it followed from the earlier change of pushing the explanation from the scene of the death to Holmes going into Emilia’s room, but that change did not entail this one. Emilia could just as easily have asked if they had anything to fear this way. This change accomplished nothing except to slightly dehumanize the character of the inspector and create an element of fear for the couple which was immediately put to rest by Watson’s postscript.

I can think of no explanation for this sort of change except to try to make the story feel a bit more like a cookie cutter TV episode. The mantra of the time, in television (though more in the US than in the UK) was to “raise the stakes”. This was, more often than not, bad advice, though it made sense in the context of an era in which people had recently gained remote controls for their television and, with a much larger number of available channels than two decades before, people growing restless and changing channels was the TV writer’s greatest fear.

(Less talked about, but also interesting, was the concomitant effect on TV episodes that the writers had to bear in mind that the viewer at any given moment may not have watched the episode from the start and thus cannot be relied upon to remember what happened before the current scene. Keeping a viewer from losing interest and changing channels was of utmost importance, but keeping a viewer who lost interest in his original show and changed channels to yours was also very important, and this definitely had an effect on how TV shows were written.)

The Problem of Thor Bridge

The Problem of Thor Bridge was first published in 1922, making it one of the last Sherlock Holmes stories published in The Strand Magazine and towards the last of the Holmes stories published anywhere. (Only ten Holmes stories were published after, the last in March of 1927.)

By this time, other detective stories were well underway. Dr. Thorndyke had been solving cases for fifteen years, Father Brown had been solving cases for twelve years and Poirot for two. I don’t know whether Sir Arthur ever read any of these stories, or to what degree they influenced him. It seems possible, though, as this is one of the only Holmes stories in which there is a ingenious murder device, that is, with a clever and unusual method of committing murder. Far more common in Holmes stories are fairly ordinary means of committing murder that only left a few clues behind. (As well, there are plenty of non-murder cases entirely. Possibly the majority—I haven’t counted.)

Technically all the villain got away with, in the story, was self-murder, and merely attempted to murder the woman she hated by setting the scene to look like murder and framing her rival. It was still a very clever and original technique for murder.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, Mrs. Maria Gibson was jealous of miss Grace Dunbar, the governess of her children, because her husband had fallen in love with Miss Dunbar. Mrs. Gibson made an appointment with Miss Dunbar for a certain time in the evening and had Miss Dunbar confirm it with a note. After Miss Dunbar came, Mrs. Gibson insulted her until she ran away. Once Miss Dunbar was safely out of earshot, she tied a heavy rock, with a long piece of twine, to a gun, and shot herself, with the note clutched in her other hand. When she fell dead, the rock pulled the gun over the edge of the bridge and into the water below. The final piece of evidence against Miss Dunbar was a duplicate gun, planted in Miss Dunbar’s wardrobe.

The absence of the gun was very strong evidence against suicide, and the timing selected gave most people, except for Miss Dunbar, an alibi for the time of death. It’s quite clever.

I find it curious that this means of murder has been copied so little. I couldn’t think of any examples, and the Wikipedia page mentions only two TV shows which have borrowed the idea, one CSI in an episode titled Who Shot Sherlock? The other is a Murder, She Wrote episode from the eighth season titled To The Last Will I Grapple With Thee.

I watched that episode of Murder, She Wrote, as I didn’t remember it. It’s a good episode, though a bit strange because most of the cast are Irish immigrants; most of the cast except for Jessica Fletcher and the Police Lieutenant speak with an Irish brogue. It’s one of the episodes set in New York City when Jessica is teaching classes as some university. There’s an Irish ex-policeman who moved to America to start a new life, with his adult daughter, and he’s pursued by a career criminal from Ireland, with whom he had a long history including having tried to win the hand of the same woman, who tries to frame the ex-policeman for his murder. He uses a weight on a string tied to a heavy weight to hide the gun in the open cavity of an unfinished wall, but Jessica spots the marks the gun made on the wall and deduces what happened. It turned out that the career criminal had an inoperable brain tumor, and since he had so little time left, he decided to make one last attempt to get back at his old enemy.

He is explicitly likened to Ahab in Moby Dick, and a part of Ahab’s final speech is quoted. It’s worth quoting in full (if you haven’t read Moby Dick, Ahab had dedicated his life to veangeance against the white whale, who has just rammed Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, and the ship is sinking).

I turn my body from the sun. What ho, Tashtego! let me hear thy hammer. Oh! ye three unsurrendered spires of mine; thou uncracked keel; and only god-bullied hull; thou firm deck, and haughty helm, and Pole-pointed prow,—death-glorious ship! must ye then perish, and without me? Am I cut off from the last fond pride of meanest shipwrecked captains? Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!

The most famous of the lines is, of course, “to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee”. (It was also quoted very well by the dying Khan, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, as Khan self-destructed his ship to try to kill Kirk. Ricardo Montalbán was a good actor.) You wouldn’t think that Murder, She Wrote could pull this sort of true drama off, but somehow it did.

I’ve never seen CSI and have no intention of seeing it, so I can’t comment on it, but I find it curious that the only place this murder device has been used was in long-running TV shows, which have a huge demand for material, and only after many years. And in the Murder, She Wrote episode they played somewhat fast and loose with the wall having an open cavity in it. They never really showed us that it had that feature.

I wonder why this is. Is it just that copying the greats feels cheap? But copying the greats is usually the best strategy for a writer, at least while making it one’s own. Mediocrity borrows, genius steals, and all that.

Perhaps it’s just that the disguised suicide of The Problem of Thor’s Bridge is so recognizable? If a body was found on a bridge with a chip in the stonework, a modern audience might scream if the detective does not immediately dredge the lake or stream for the gun. Yet, I have not seen even variants of this—murdering someone and then dropping the gun over a bridge with a rock on a rope to disguise the murder as suicide-disguised-as-murder. With modern materials one need not even use a rock a a counterweight. Elastics, springs, and other things would expand the range of hiding places for a murder weapon. It is, at least, an interesting direction to explore.

Fingerprints in Detective Stories

The history of fingerprints in detective stories is a curious one; their use in detective stories almost never parallels their use in real life. Which is to say, fingerprints in detective stories are always something to be worked around, while in real life they are a tool for catching criminals.

Fingerprints have been known for a very long time, of course, but their use to identify criminals is comparatively recent. Like most things the history of the technology around fingerprints is a long one, but we can suitably take it up with a book by Sir Francis Galton, entitled Finger Prints, in which he a published detailed statistical analysis showing that finger prints were sufficiently unique that they could be used as identification. That is, if a finger print found somewhere matched a finger print taken from a person, you could be confident that it was, in fact, that person’s fingerprint.

Details are a little hazy to my very cursory reading on the subject, but shortly after Paul-Jean Coulier developed a method of transferring fingerprints from objects to paper using iodine fuming we see fingerprints start to be used to identify criminals by police forces in 1901, with the first conviction for murder based upon fingerprint evidence in 1902.

It is not long after this that we see fingerprints start to appear in detective stories; the first I can think of off of the top of my head in the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Norwood Builder. In it, a bloody thumb mark is found near where Mr. McFarlane would have gotten his hat before leaving. The thumb print was a false one, of course, made from a cast of a thumb mark left in sealing wax. This discovery has nothing to do with the fingerprint itself, however—the criminal had put it there overnight, and Holmes had observed that there was no mark in that place the day before, proving McFarlane’s innocence.

The next instance I’m aware of—I’m sure that there are others before it—is the first Dr. Thorndyke story, The Red Thumb Mark, published in 1907. Here we have another fingerprint, again in blood, but this time the case revolves almost entirely around the thumb print. It turns out to be a forgery, which Thorndyke proves by careful examination of the thumb print under high magnification. The denouement, for so it might be called, is entirely about the process for using photo-lithographic techniques for creating a stamper capable of creating duplicates of a fingerprint.

I would like to skip forward, now, to 1921, and The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner. This features the detective Malcolm Sage, and he delivers a very curious lecture on the use of photographs and fingerprints. I will quote it in full, because it’s worth reading for the historical curiosity:

“There is no witness so sure as the camera,” remarked Malcolm Sage as he gazed from one to the other of two photographs before him, one representing him holding an automatic pistol to his own head, and the other in which Sir James was posing as a murderer.

“It is strange that it should be so neglected at Scotland Yard,” he added.

Silent and absorbed when engaged upon a problem, Malcolm Sage resented speech as a sick man resents arrowroot. At other times he seemed to find pleasure in lengthy monologues, invariably of a professional nature.

“But we use it a lot, Mr. Sage,” protested Inspector Wensdale.

“For recording the features of criminals,” was the retort. “No, Wensdale, you are obsessed by the finger-print heresy, quite regardless of the fact that none but an amateur ever leaves such a thing behind him, and the amateur is never difficult to trace.”

He paused for a moment; but the inspector made no comment.

“The two greatest factors in the suppression of crime,” continued Malcolm Sage, “are photography and finger-prints. Both are in use at Scotland Yard; but each in place of the other. Finger-prints are regarded as clues, and photography is a means of identification, whereas finger-prints are of little use except to identify past offenders, and photography is the greatest aid to the actual tracing of the criminal.”

By the later 1920s, fingerprints, where they exist at all, are almost exclusively red herrings, and I think by the 1930s they more-or-less never show up. Consider this scene from Gaudy Night, in 1935.

“Is there no material evidence to be obtained from an examination of the documents themseves?” asked Miss Pyke. “Speaking for myself, I am quite ready to have my fingerprints taken or to undergo any other kind of precautionary measure that may be considered necessary.”

“I’m afraid,” said Harriet,” the evidence of finger-prints isn’t quite so easy a matter as we make it appear in books. I mean, we could take finger-prints, naturally, from the S.C.R. and, possibly, from the scouts—though they wouldn’t like it much. But I should doubt very much whether rough scribbling-paper like this would show distinguishable prints. And besides—”

“Besides,” said the Dean, “every malefactor nowadays knows enough about finger-prints to wear gloves.”

There’s also a later scene where Lord Peter dusts a door for fingerprints.

“Am I really going to see finger-prints discovered?” asked the Dean.

“Why, of course,” said Wimsey. “It won’t tell us anything, but it impresses the spectator and inspires confidence…”

He went on to dust for fingerprints right up to the top of the door, which he said was “merely a shopwindow display of thoroughness and efficiency. All a matter of routine, as the policeman says. Your college is kept very well dusted; I congratulate you.” In fact, he suspected the use of strings over a door to manipulate things inside, and was checking to see if there were marks; at this late juncture checking for fingerprints is merely cover for some other, more useful, activity.

As we move out of the golden age and into more contemporary detective fiction, we tend to find that fingerprints either implicate an innocent person in a meeting with the victim prior to his death or else turn out to belong to the victim in very strange places. In short, they turn out to be either red herrings or further puzzles. (Obviously, I am painting with a very large brush, here.)

Curiously, while there seems to have been a spate of forged fingerprints shortly after the things became used as evidence, I can’t recall seeing or reading of any forged fingerprints in stories written in the last 100 years. Most of the time, fingerprints are like cell phones in horror stories—something the author feels duty bound to add a line or two explaining away, but otherwise things one would just as soon forget.

There is a close analogy in DNA evidence, which to some degree are the fingerprints of our day. Any idiot can get a lab result saying that person A was in place B where the crime was committed, and he should never have been in place B, therefore he committed the crime. This requires not a detective but merely a well-trained monkey. It is, therefore, entirely uninteresting. Fingerprints at least have the advantage that the amateur can take fingerprints almost as well as the professional; DNA evidence simply cannot be found by the amateur. DNA evidence is, therefore, merely annoying, from the perspective of the mystery author. It can be used, as fingerprints were, to frame innocent people, but not really better than any other evidence. Hair is a great place to take DNA from, but matching hair to a person is an age-old thing; finding the innocent suspect’s hair at the scene of the crime can be done without DNA evidence.

I know in my own stories I occasionally feel obliged to explain why there is no DNA evidence, though I’m always annoyed by it. To be fair, I also used DNA evidence in one of my stories, though only as potential clinching evidence that would have been worthless without knowing who to test (the test would have happened after the book was over).

I suspect that DNA evidence will eventually go the way of fingerprints—something that needs only the most cursory explanation to wave away, since the reader is as uninterested in it as the author is.

The Adventure of the Naval Treaty

I recently watched the Jeremy Brett version of The Adventure of the Naval Treaty. Other than a little bit of redistribution of lines to balance things out among the people on screen, it’s a remarkably faithful version of the short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

It’s a fun puzzle in its own right, but it contains one of my favorite sections from a Holmes story. Just for fun, I will quote it again:

“Thank you. I have no doubt I can get details from Forbes. The authorities are excellent at amassing facts, though they do not always use them to advantage. What a lovely thing a rose is!”

He walked past the couch to the open window, and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.

“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

(I discussed this quote in some length in my post Sherlock Holmes on Flowers.)

There is something of an irony in the story in that this magnificent reflection of Holmes is met with disappointment by the people who hear it. To be fair, one of them is facing complete social ruin and the other intends to marry him, so their minds are elsewhere when they hear it.

NOTE: what follows containers spoilers. As the oldest person living, at the time of this writing, was ten years away from being born when The Adventure of the Naval Treaty was published, I can safely say, dear reader, that you have had your entire life to read this story, or at least that fraction of it since you learned to read, and if you really have not yet read it, you have, at least, been given ample time.

Anyway, considered as a mystery, it is definitely an interesting one. It has a long setup, full of facts, with what seems a nearly impossible crime. The criminal had a very short time to act, and—to all appearances—no way to have known that there was anything worth stealing. And then there is the very curious fact that the criminal made life much harder on himself by ringing the bell.

It is an extremely well executed setup, especially for its time (1893). I say, “for its time,” because, prior to the explosion of detective stories, readers were not so much in the habit of analyzing the story as a story. As G. K. Chesterton put it in 1925:

Generally speaking, the agent should be a familiar figure in an unfamiliar function. The thing that we realize must be a thing that we recognize; that is it must be something previously known, and it ought to be something prominently displayed. Otherwise there is no surprise in mere novelty. It is useless for a thing to be unexpected if it was not worth expecting. But it should be prominent for one reason and responsible for another. A great part of the craft or trick of writing mystery stories consists in finding a convincing but misleading reason for the prominence of the criminal, over and above his legitimate business of committing the crime. Many mysteries fail merely by leaving him at loose ends in the story, with apparently nothing to do except to commit the crime. He is generally well off, or our just and equal law would probably have him arrested as a vagrant long before he was arrested as a murderer. We reach the stage of suspecting such a character by a very rapid if unconscious process of elimination. Generally we suspect him merely because he has not been suspected. The art of narrative consists in convincing the reader for a time, not only that the character might have come on the premises with no intention to commit a felony, but that the author has put him there with some intention that is not felonious. For the detective story is only a game; and in that game the reader is not really wrestling with the criminal but with the author.

What the writer has to remember, in this sort of game, is that the reader will not say, as he sometimes might of a serious or realistic study: “Why did the surveyor in green spectacles climb the tree to look into the lady doctor’s back garden?” He will insensibly and inevitably say, “Why did the author make the surveyor climb a tree, or introduce any surveyor at all?” The reader may admit that the town would in any case need a surveyor, without admitting that the tale would in any case need one. It is necessary to explain his presence in the tale (and the tree) not only by suggesting why the town council put him there, but why the author put him there.

If one thinks about the story as a story, in which the rules of detection fiction state that the criminal has to actually be introduced in the story before he is unmasked as the criminal, that Percy’s future brother-in-law is the criminal is quite obvious. It would be preposterous that Lord Oakapple would commit so sprightly a crime—for it certainly involved running. The commisar could not have committed the crime, for Percy was himself the man’s witness. About the only character in the story who had opportunity was the future brother-in-law; everyone else in the story was a train ride away, and with witnesses. However, in 1893 this was not a given. People did not read stories in this sort of meta way. Conan Doyle does an admiral job of keeping suspicion on some unknown person while Holmes fixes the evidence on the real culprit.

It is also interesting that Holmes delivers the treaty to Percy in a breakfast dish. He apologizes to Percy for this theatrical surprise, saying, “Watson here will tell you that I never can resist a touch of the dramatic.” It’s an interesting aspect of Holmes’s character.

The story also has a great ending. (If you haven’t read the story, it will help to know that Holmes arrived to the breakfast at which he delivered the naval treaty with a bandage on one hand, where Mr. Joseph Harrison, Mr. Percy Phelps’ intended brother-in-law, had attacked Holmes with his knife. Also that the day before, a figure, who turned out to be Harrison, had come to the window of the bedroom in which Mr. Percy Phelps was staying, carrying a knife.)

“You do not think,” asked Phelps, “that he had any murderous intention? The knife was only meant as a tool.”

“It may be so,” answered Holmes, shrugging his shoulders. “I can only say for certain that Mr. Joseph Harrison is a gentleman to whose mercy I should be extremely unwilling to trust.”

The Two Kinds of Evidence in Murder Mysteries

In murder mysteries, there are two kinds of evidence: evidence which tells the detective what happened, and evidence which can get a practical result from society. The practical result is often a criminal conviction, but it need not be; a wedding being called off, the payment of an insurance policy, or the settling of a will all require similar sorts of evidence.

Of the two, it is the former type of evidence, not the latter type, which is of interest to the reader.

The main distinction between the two types of evidence is not really one of the strength of the evidence, that is, of the level of certainty which it conveys. In fact, one of the common features of murder mysteries is the early presence of highly convincing evidence which will convict an innocent person unless the detective uncovers the truth. No, the distinction is not in certainty. The distinction is, rather, what is required knowledge and understanding is required to apprehend the true meaning of the evidence.

Convenient names for the sorts of evidence of which we are speaking might be complex evidence and simple evidence. Complex evidence requires extensive background knowledge and understanding of human nature. Simple evidence does not; it tells its story plainly. (Using this terminology, we can say that it is common for murder mysteries to, early on, have complex evidence which appears to be simple evidence.)

In order to achieve societal action, such as convicting the murderer in a court of law or getting some other legal effect, one must have simple evidence. However, simple evidence is, in murder mysteries, hard to come by. This is, of course, a selective effect. In the case where the murderer’s fingerprints are on the murder weapon, and the murderer was seen killing the victim by multiple witnesses who know the murderer personally, and the murderer was caught immediately afterwards—these are not the stuff of murder mysteries.

Detective stories have the structure of story-within-a-story: the murder is the interior story while its detection is the outer story. Within the outer story, it is frequently the detective’s main purpose in his investigation to try to uncover simple evidence about the inner story. This makes it curious that his success or failure at achieving this goal is (almost) irrelevant to whether the story is a good story.

An excellent example of this is the Poirot story Five Little Pigs. In it, the daughter of a woman who was hanged for murdering her father, seventeen years ago, comes to Poirot asking him to uncover the truth. She just received a letter from her mother, written immediately prior to her execution but entrusted by lawyers to be delivered on her daughter’s 25th birthday, telling her that her mother was innocent.

Poirot undertakes the investigation and interviews all of the people principally concerned. At the end, he explains how all of the evidence which had pointed to the guilt of the woman’s mother actually pointed to the guilt of someone else. That person speaks alone with Poirot, afterwards, and asks him what he intends to do. Poirot says that he will give his conclusions to the authorities, but that it is unlikely that they will pursue it and very unlikely that they will get a conviction. And that’s fine. It’s a very satisfying ending to the story.

But why?

I suspect that the answer (which may be obvious) is that complex evidence is fun, while simple evidence is not fun. It takes brainwork to understand complex evidence, while simple evidence is too easy to be interesting. What matters in a murder mystery is being interesting, not achieving results. Achieving results is, really, the domain of an action story, or possibly a drama. This is why detectives tend to hand their cases off to the police at the end of the story. It’s best if the tedious work happens off-screen.

But there’s an interesting complication to this.

It is not a good story if the detective (and hence the reader) merely finds out what happens without anyone else learning it. Why this is so relates to the detective’s role within the story. As I’ve said before, the detective is Christ figure: the world has been corrupted by the misuse of reason, and the detective enters it in order to restore order to the world through the proper use of reason. So while society need not act, something must be put right. That is, someone beside the detective must learn the truth and be better off for it.

A good example of this is the Sherlock Holmes story The Blue Carbuncle*. It begins with a curious set of coincidences which place the key evidence in front of Sherlock Holmes, and with some investigation he discovers who it was who stole the gemtsone. He invites the man to his room, and he comes. After Holmes confronts him with the evidence, he falls apart and confesses, sobbing. I’ll quote just the last part:

“Get out!” said he.

“What, sir! Oh, Heaven bless you!”

“No more words. Get out!”

And no more words were needed. There was a rush, a clatter upon the stairs, the bang of a door, and the crisp rattle of running footfalls from the street.

“After all, Watson,” said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies. If Horner were in danger it would be another thing; but this fellow will not appear against him, and the case must collapse. I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness. Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward. If you will have the goodness to touch the bell, Doctor, we will begin another investigation, in which, also a bird will be the chief feature.”

Here there are two aspects to the world which Sherlock Holmes has put right, even though he has produced no evidence for a jury. In the first, the man wrongly accused of the crime will not be convicted of it because the principle witness against him has fled. The second is less certain, but the true criminal may well repent of his crime since he’s seen what evil he’s capable of and still has a chance to make his way in society honestly.

This satisfies the role of the detective as Christ figure. In fact, it even has a curious echo (perhaps intentionally) of the story of Christ and the woman caught in adultery, and how he releases her from the punishment for her crime on the condition that she sins no more. Neither is, strictly speaking, a satisfying story, but they have something else to them—the idea that there is something better than justice. That’s a very tricky notion, because mercy should never be unjust—but at least in the story of the Blue Carbuncle, what was stolen is returned, and so justice is at least mostly satisfied in restitution.

Be that as it may, the primary point under discussion is satisfied. Holmes collects complex evidence which tells him (and thus the reader) the tale, and this is the interesting part. Achieving a practical effect from society is of minor concern.

(I suspect that part of the reason why The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle ends as it does is that, though it predates Fr. Knox’s decalogue, it violates rule #6 (“no accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right”). The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle is predicated upon a series of accidents, all of which help the detective. If he achieved a practical societal effect, his reputation would benefit by pure chance. By letting the criminal go, he remains in anonymity and so the accidents which help him produce only an interesting set of circumstances.)


*A carbuncle is a red gemstone, most often a garnet, so a blue carbuncle is something of a contradiction in terms. The story suggests it is a blue diamond, though it could be a blue garnet or even a blue sapphire.

Sherlock Holmes on Flowers

I like the Sherlock Holmes stories, though for some reason they’re almost never what I go back to re-read, while I do go back to Cadfael, Lord Peter, and Father Brown quite frequently. I think that part of it is that they are a bit intentionally antisceptic (moreso than most fans tend to admit). But there is in the story The Naval Treaty a part of which I am very fond and do very occasionally go back to:

“Thank you. I have no doubt I can get details from Forbes. The authorities are excellent at amassing facts, though they do not always use them to advantage. What a lovely thing a rose is!”

He walked past the couch to the open window, and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.

“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

I like this scene, both for itself, and for the light it throws on the character of Holmes. He is so often, in the modern age, portrayed like a logic machine, except in the case of religion.

It is a great mistake that moderns make to think that logic is on the side of atheism. Indeed, atheism is, in a very real sense, little else but the denial of logic. Atheism is the denial that our reasoning actually works, when we look on creation and see the unmistakable hand of the creator. Atheism is the denial that we are capable of thinking logically, when it comes to explaining away our own minds as just sex robots that happened, by an odd coincidence, to fall under the delusion we could think.

There is another way to see this. If you look at the beginning of the gospel of John, you have:

ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὖτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν.

In the beginning was the word, the word was with God, and the word was God. He was in the beginning. Through him all things came to be, and not one thing came to be but through him.

Now, the word translated as “word” is “λόγος” (“logos”), and it means an awful lot more than just “word”. If you look it up in an Ancient Greek-English dictionary, you’ll find it also means thought, argument, speech, rationality, and other, related things.

There is a very important relationship to the creation story in Genesis, where God spoke the world into existence. “God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.” etc. That is, the world was created according to a rational idea. This is what makes the world rationally intelligible. This is why human reason works to know truth—because the world was created according to reason.

If the world was not created according to reason, but was merely a cosmic accident of unthinking [there’s no actual word that means the irrational being that has to go here in the sentence because words are intrinsically rational], then human reason is a phantasm that does not work.

Human beings reject logic not because they are hard-nosed logicians who want evidence, but because they are soft-headed people who do not think adequately or because they are hard-hearted people who prefer darkness to the light.

If you ever find a man who is ruthlessly logical, you will find a man who believes in God.

William Gillette: The First To Play Sherlock Holmes

Thanks to frequent commenter Mary, I recently learned about the existence of William Gillette, the first man to play Sherlock Holmes, mostly on the stage but also in a silent film.

Born in 1853, in Connecticut, William Gillette was a stage director, writer, and actor in America. In 1897, his play, Secret Service, was sufficiently successful in America that his producer took it to England. There, a Sherlock Holmes play written by Conan Doyle—who wrote it because he needed money after killing Holmes off but before he brought him back—was not having success at getting produced. It happened to come to Gillette’s producer, who recommended Gillette for extensive re-writes. The deal was made and Gillette began the rewrites.

The story of when Gillette and Conan Doyle met for the first time is quite interesting:

Conan Doyle’s shock was understandable… when the train carrying Gillette came to a halt and Sherlock Holmes himself stepped onto the platform instead of the actor, complete with deerstalker cap and gray ulster. Sitting in his landau, Conan Doyle contemplated the apparition with open-mouthed awe until the actor whipped out a magnifying lens, examined Doyle’s face closely, and declared (precisely as Holmes himself might have done), “Unquestionably an author!” Conan Doyle broke into a hearty laugh and the partnership was sealed with the mirth and hospitality of a weekend at Undershaw. The two men became lifelong friends.

(Undershaw was the name of Conan Doyle’s home.)

The play which Gillette wrote, or rather, rewrote, was enormously successful, both in America and in England. In total, Gillette performed it approximately 1,300 times, while it was put on under license—and not infrequently, without license—by actors in other countries.

Perhaps most interesting is the effect which Gillette had on the image of Sherlock Holmes. It was Gillette who introduced the curved briar pipe—prior to Gillette, the famous illustration in Strand magazine had depicted Holmes with a straight pipe. He also performed in the deerstalker hat and ulster coat, which seem likely to have had a strong impact on depictions of Holmes in those particular clothes. His use of a magnifying glass as a stage prop also likely helped to cement the iconography of the magnifying glass with the detective.

Also curious is that Gillette, as a writer, may have had an influence on the classic phrase, never to be found in the actual Holmes stories, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Gillette’s Holmes never said the exact phrase, but he did say, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow.” This line, which would have been well known in the late 1920s and early 1930s when the first Sherlock Holmes talkies were made (starring Clive Brook), may well have led to the final version, which appeared in a Sherlock Holmes talkie starring Clive Brook. (At least according to Wikipedia; I haven’t watched any of the Clive Brook Holmes movies, though apparently at least parts of them are available on YouTube. A task for another time, perhaps. The first few minutes of part 1 of 6 weren’t encouraging.)

The Woman in Green

I recently watched the Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie, The Woman in Green. Released on the 27th of July, 1945, it was the eleventh Sherlock Holmes film in the series starring Rathbone and Bruce.

Interestingly, there were fourteen films in the series and they were released between 1939 and 1946. Though it wasn’t on a perfectly regular schedule, that’s an average of one movie per 6.85 months. It’s also curious that this ran from very slightly before World War II to very slightly after it—it’s curious in particular because the second world war is generally taken as the end of the golden age of detective fiction. With it, tastes changed.

In fact, the Wikipedia article on the series says something about this—the first two films were made by 20th Century Fox while the remaining twelve were made by Universal Studios, and part of the explanation given for why Fox lost interest was:

their decision to withdraw from further productions was also because the Second World War meant that “foreign agents and spies were much more typical and topical than the antiquated criminal activities of Moriarty and the like”.

Anyway, it was very interesting seeing the series I’d heard about before, with Basil Rathbone being the definitive Sherlock Holmes until Jeremy Brett came along. Supposedly there are those who still prefer Rathbone, but for my money Jeremy Brett perfectly captured the Holmes of the stories. Or at least in the first two series; Brett’s declining health did negatively affect the later Holmes films.

But even with Jeremy Brett being the better Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone had a larger impact, and in that sense was definitive. This is especially true of references in other works, including parodies and spoofs; people who have never seen Basil Rathbone’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes have seen imitations of it. It’s probably also a large contributor to the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” being well known (since it never appears in the original stories).

The Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies are especially curious, as the definitive Sherlock Holmes, because they’re not at all faithful to the original Conan Doyle stories. They sometimes borrow plot elements from the original stories, but are mostly just original creations.

Also very interesting is that after the first two, they were updated to modern times—modern at the time they were made, that is. People drove around in cars, rather than horse-drawn cabs, and made frequent use of the telephone. This has a curious effect since the mid-1940s is a time which is now a historical setting for us. Instead of being in the distant past of the Victorian times, it’s in the distant past of the 1940s; it still feels quite old. In fat, 1945 is 55 years away from 1890 but 73 years away from March of 2019, in which year I’m writing this post. The updated setting is still closer, culturally and technologically, to the original stories than it is to the modern day.

As to the specifics, I think that Basil Rathbone does a good job as Holmes. I do dislike the bufoonish character that Watson was turned into, though Nigel Bruce did play that character well.

The story is a curious one. Since readers will have had at least 73 years to have seen the movie, I will not withhold spoilers. And there isn’t much of a point to it; figuring out what’s going on takes up only about the first third of the story.

There is a series of murders of young women going on in London, with nothing to connect the women except that in each case the right forefinger is surgically removed after death. The police can make nothing of it and call Sherlock Holmes in to investigate. As Inspector Gregson is talking with Sherlock Holmes over a drink in a particular bar, they see Sir George Ferrick with a young lady. He leaves with the young lady, goes to her (remarkably luxurious and spacious) apartment, they talk over music and wine, and then Sir George wakes up in a cheap boarding house right next to the scene of one of the murders. He goes back to the apartment of the young woman and asks what happened last night. She tells him that he seemed offended and left in a distracted mood. Then a man enters the apartment and talks with Ferrick. He claims to have seem Ferrick murder the young woman and returns something which he claims Ferrick dropped when putting the severed finger into his pocket. He blackmails Ferrick.

Then a young woman who turns out to be the daughter of Sir George comes to Sherlock Holmes and tells him the story of her seeing her father bury something in the garden and how she dug it up and it turned out to be a woman’s finger, and she’s worried, and won’t he come to help. He does, but it’s too late—Sir George was murdered in his library, clutching a packet of matches from the establishment where Holmes saw him with the young woman.

Holmes deduces that the murders are set-ups to blackmail men who are somehow made to believe that they committed the murders, and that professor Moriarty is behind it.

This is about halfway through the movie, the rest of the movie is about how Holmes catches professor Moriarty.

Catching professor Moriarty involves a visit from the professor at Sherlock Holmes’s apartment, an attempt on Sherlock Holmes’s life by a hypnotized sniper from the empty building opposite, a visit to the Mesmer club, meeting the young woman who lured Sir George into the trap and hypnotized him, pretending to let her hypnotize him, and then the police rushing in to save the day, followed by Moriarty’s off-screen demise while trying to escape.

The main mystery of the story is an interesting device. The question which occupies a good ten minutes of the film—I still find it a little odd that the mystery is only half the movie, if that—is what could possibly connect these seemingly random murders. And the answer is a curious one: what connects them is nothing about the victim, but rather about the marks—the people who are being set up to be blackmailed for the crimes. It’s a clever and a workable mystery, though its solution depends almost entirely on Sherlock Holmes happening to have witnessed the titular woman in green seducing Sir George Ferrick. It does at least happen prior to the knowledge doing Holmes any good, but it’s still pure happenstance, which makes it not very satisfying.

Ultimately, the movie is not really about the mystery nearly so much as it is about showing off Basil Rathbone playing Sherlock Holmes. Which works for a movie, since Basil Rathbone is very charismatic.

Ultimately, I wouldn’t recommend the movie except for historical purposes, but I will say that it is quite interesting for those purposes.