Monday, December 17, 2012

Give Me Holmes for the Holidays!*

You know what sounds like a good idea but usually isn't? A Christmas mystery. Titled something like "Mistletoe Murders," or "Sugar Plum Dead." Maybe snowbound at an English country manor, tea in the conservatory, body in the library, bright young things playing charades or getting up spontaneous Christmas theatricals while the Scotland Yard inspector interviews suspects....

Somehow it never works out. It seems that Christmas and death by violence don't actually go together that well. Go figure. Christmas mysteries are either too bloody, or just too bloody boring. There is one shining exception, and of course it's by the master, Arthur Conan Doyle, and it's about the master, Sherlock Holmes. "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" is the perfect Christmas mystery.

If you're not up on your Sherlock, "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" is the one with the hat and the goose. It includes a spectacular set piece in which Holmes deduces practically an entire life story from the stains and dust on a lost hat. Nobody dies (except the goose). Instead, an exotic jewel heist is wrapped inside a Victorian Christmas pudding of a story.

The tone is set in the very first sentence, when Watson calls on Holmes on "the second morning after Christmas," to wish him the compliments of the season. Right away we are whisked back to a merrier old England, when "the season" was the full twelve days of Christmas, as celebrated in song.

Apparently, Holmes is in the holiday spirit -- Watson reports him laughing and joking! (I'm sure this happens in other stories, but I can't remember any.) Doyle tries to introduce a slightly sinister shadow when an exotic jewel -- the Countess of Morcar's blue carbuncle, in fact -- shows up in the crop of a Christmas goose! Holmes has a nicely chilling speech about jewels in general and this one in particular:

"Of course it is a nucleus and focus of crime. Every good stone is. They are the devil's pet baits. In the larger and older jewels every facet may stand for a bloody deed.... There have been two murders, a vitriol-throwing, a suicide, and several robberies brought about for the sake of this forty-grain weight of crystallized charcoal. Who would think that so pretty a toy would be a purveyor to the gallows and the prison?"

But we're not fooled. It's Christmas and we know that all will be well, as long as there is a crackling fire on the hearth at 221B and Mrs. Hudson is planning to serve a woodcock for dinner. And, indeed all ends well. "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" has a particularly satisfying solution, in which Holmes dispenses his own rough justice, and mercy.

"After all, Watson," said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, "I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies.... 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."

The end. But I do have an addendum. One of my favorite teaching experiences was studying Sherlock Holmes with 10th graders. In the tradition of "The Blue Carbuncle," I challenged my students to make Sherlockian deductions about the owners of certain objects, mostly random items of clothing culled from the school lost-and-found. But I secretly introduced a pair of my own sneakers, just to see how accurate they might be. Here's what they told me:

These shoes belong to a girl or woman who

  • loves coffee (check)
  • lives on an unpaved road or a gravel driveway (check)
  • tends to be careless or impatient (check)

Do I have to explain? It's elementary, really. The shoes had tiny stains from drops of coffee, and gravel caught in the soles. The last one is the most truly Sherlockian, though. The laces were still tied on the shoes, indicating that the owner removed them without untying them -- thus careless and impatient! Those kids SO had my number! Is it any wonder that I loved teaching?

*It should be noted that I stole my headline from a collection of Holmes pastiches, Holmes for the Holidays edited by Martin Harry Greenberg, Jon L. Lellenberg and Carol-Lynn Rossel Waugh. Also in researching "The Blue Carbuncle," I came across a couple of excellent blogs making much the same points about this great Christmas mystery. Check them out at:

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