Tuesday, November 22, 2016

"The Adventure of the Speckled Band" (1892)

Read story by Arthur Conan Doyle online.

Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories brought a strange combination of the hyper-rational and the superhuman to the foundations of mystery stories as we know them today, advancing and developing them in new and better directions. The influence is still basically huge. Most Holmes stories feature at least one scene where the eccentric master detective reels off a series of insights that astonishes everyone within earshot. He's like a magician, but tut-tuts and gives all credit to science and the logic of deductive reasoning. Holmes is indeed observant, a fine trait for any detective, but his amazingly accurate insights are more often a matter of misdirection on the part of Doyle, who is the real magician. Examine closely any of these displays by Holmes, and one is more apt to find a series of lucky guesses. The clues often support other interpretations as well. But everyone in these scenes is amazed, so we go along with it. There's probably some psychological term for this powerful effect, and what the hell, it makes the stories entertaining. The fact is, there's something wonderfully comforting about Holmes and his sidekick / biographer, Dr. Watson, that makes their stories a pleasure. Holmes is a ridiculous superman but at least he has flaws too, and somehow it works. "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" is a fine example of how it's done. Holmes amazes his clients (and Watson, and us) once or twice, and solves the mystery before any of the rest of us, even as we are all exposed to the relevant evidence at the same time. Amazing! This one is an example of the locked-room mystery subsubgenre, in which a victim is found locked into a room that can only be locked from the inside, with no evidence of any other way out. It's an ingenious dream of a mystery—until, again, we look at it or think about it too closely, at which point it verges on self-parody. I'm reminded of villains in places like James Bond movies, who are never satisfied with simply killing someone, but instead must have elaborate schemes involving fountains, indoor pools, sharks, and floors that recede into walls. Certainly we have a version of that here. But we also have something that's scrupulously fair by the rules it sets for itself, the rules of giant swaths of mystery story writing. We have equal access to the clues, but Holmes is usually the only one who can put them together. I just picked one story for this exercise, but my own experience is that Sherlock Holmes stories are best enjoyed by the handful, meaning you're better off picking up a collection of a dozen or more (why not all of them!) and reading that. It's probably not a bad idea to make sure this story is included.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

1 comment:

  1. My impression of film versions includes stock Victorian stereotypes, so I've always remained a little skeptical ab the books. But I like the mystery story as a populist form of the enlightenment, where reason and science triumph over ignorant superstition, even if Doyle deploys shell game plot devices to make his point.