Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Day Post -The Blue Carbuncle - (2) "A Gem of a Short Story".

Jeremy Brett in Granada's gem of an episode.


"A bonny thing"
(Sherlock Holmes, The Blue Carbuncle)







Compliments of the Season to the Readers of 'Markings' [Do not begin reading until you have checked the crop to begin an investigation in which, also a bird will be the chief feature: your Christmas Dinner!]

Note: A clear, illustrated online text is HERE

1. Laying the Table. Conan Doyle may not have listed this story amongst his favourites but it has attracted an abundance of commentary and, as I write, gives every indication of joining that illustrious Pantheon of books and films we re-visit to celebrate Christmas.

I have no problem with the Sherlockian detectives who question the existence of white swans with barred tails (even, famously, whether geese have crops), who consult the gemologist or time the journey from Covent Garden to Baker St.

Nor do I quarrel with Granada's invention of a wife for John Horner or the BBC's (1968) spiriting of the Countess of Morcar to a 221b she never in fact visits.

These are entertaining and respectful approaches that, at their best, take the reader back to Doyle's short story. Too often, however, we are lead away from The Blue Carbuncle as imaginative fiction - as a work of art in a traditional form, the short story.

This post is about artistry.


I acknowledge Logan Pearsall for this Blog image.
2. The Nature of the Dish.
Sometimes the obvious is the best place to start. The Blue Carbuncle is not a precious stone: it is the defining label chosen for a short story. Painting, music, sculpture and poetry more readily remind us of this essential distinction when experiencing a work of art.


"Soft Watch at the Moment of First Explosion" 1954, Salvador Dali.

As Holmes would say: "The parallel is exact!"

Holmes is closer too in naming the goose as chief feature (as opposed to the stone) because neither he nor the reader has cared significantly for the lost jewel or the Countess of Morcar.

As I observed in the notes appended to my TIMELINE , the stolen jewel has in fact been in Holmes's possession for two days, did he but know it. Tellingly, the detective does not for a moment regret this irony...because, for him, the hat-and-goose-chase has made his Christmas. 

Similarly, for Watson and the reader, the adventure resides not in the mere recovery of a piece of crystallized charcoal but in the animated kaleidoscope of London scenes and characters limelit (or, rather electrically lit) through the prism that is The Blue Carbuncle.


3. The Grace. Jeremy Brett looks into the piece of paste from Granada's prop cupboard - but the image says so much more.
Filmically, we are guided to look, with the detective's eye deep into this glinting objet d'art.

'Carbuncle' is a hard, colourless word that conveys mass and shape. This one is highly polished, multi-faceted and electric blue. I would remind the reader that the piers in my present seaside home of Morecambe were, in the 1890's, delighting thousands by the simple exhibition of the new electric lighting.
Doyle's readers appreciated the special power of this description of the jewel's all-seeing light.

Hence, I would argue The Blue Carbuncle works as a twin-pronged metaphor: for the detective's expertise; and for the very structure of the kaleidoscopic story. Just as the sonnet is a highly condensed form of verse so the short story seeks to mimic the diamond - deceptively small, yet super-hard, rare; intrinsically, richly complex.

Through his art, Doyle draws us into the heart of the stone and it is no accident that we lose focus and concern for the jewel: we are within The Blue Carbuncle, visiting facet after facet, on the coat-tails of the Great Observer. And what a feast he lays out therein! The hidden scenes unveil as with the childhood magic of the Victorian parlour kaleidoscope.

Image by ImagoKaleidoscopes.

4. The Feast.
One reason this story is so readily absorbed into the Christmas tradition is its proverbial nature - at its simplest a wild goose chase is dramatised. There is something of the nursery rhyme and the pantomime here. More specifically it's no accident that BLUE shares the theatricality of A Scandal in Bohemia, a recent predecessor. We encounter a similar succession of set pieces, shifts in scene and frenetic action. The use of aliases and masking recurs here (in Ryder's 'John Robinson' (not "Harrison"!); in what may be thought of as 'The Two Geese of Verona' - identical twins; in the 'masking' of the jewel.

Dr. Watson is on his rounds when he calls on Holmes simply because that is an economic, comic introduction to the surprise 'round' he is to experience in the company of Holmes on a scent.
The pace (for the two investigators and even more for James Ryder) is that of farce. For this reason Sherlockian comments on the accuracy of distances, times and location references miss the point completely. Watch Joe Orton, a Brian Rix farce or the enchanted Bottom - surreality rules.

Jeremy Brett - a Whimsical Little Incident.

Jeremy Brett is precisely right to play the drama from the outset as vaudeville. It is this knockabout Twelfth Night whimsy that makes a mockery of Malvolian concerns for the fate of stock characters like Horner. In the shorthand of the whimsical short story, the author expects the reader to cotton on to the tone and style - hence the initial hat business. Of course, this scene displays the detective's observational and deductional powers but it does so in a holiday mood. Of course Horner will be released! ( uneconomic to state the obvious). Of course the stone seems less realistic and more like theatrical paste jewellery - it is! 


The reader's capacity to read this shorthand releases the full flavour of this festive story  and we embark on a whistle-stop tale of a winter's Victorian London, savouring momentarily the best beer at an Alpha Inn (A is for 'any'), all the market stall holders in the metropolis rolled into one in B for Breckinridge and the comforting presence of upright honesty and easily recognised authority in C for Commissionaire Peterson (to whom I shall return).

On the way, there are some delightful cameos with the depth and detail of a Hilliard miniature. I am thinking of Mr. Henry Baker, a moving portrait of many a man caught in a loveless marriage, enduring his private, bleak mid-winter:

Granada TV - Frank Middlemass as the Disjecta Membra.

Of Breckinridge (he of the pink 'un) in this classic passage of comic business and social realism (via Youtube):







   ...and that ferret, Ryder, whose Backyard scene in Brixton plays out the proverbial wild goose chase with period realism from the 44th minute in this full Granada episode video, courtesy Youtube:



All, even Ryder, are cherished in their contribution to the evocation of a bustling, hustling, vibrant city. All are treated sympathetically.Ryder is afforded (Malvolio again) seasonal forgiveness and the opportunity Horner has already taken to go straight

Some may balk at the initial implication that what turns out to be a robbery was probably to be a case 'entirely free of legal crime'. In the end this is closer to the story's tone and truth.
Few are the Sherlock Holmes stories that do not feature at least one policeman. Here their absence is as telling as...dogs that do not bark in the night. The message is: this is a different kind of story.

In the world of The Blue Carbuncle Holmes is licensed to dispense what justice is required. And in keeping with the holiday mood the malefactor (such as he is) is a bungling amateur easily snuffed out of success by a combination of unruly geese, an intractable market stall-holder and sheer rotten luck.
5. The Dessert.
Any sense of the criminal is, additionally, more than balanced by the presence of decent folk. Baker is one of them; Horner another. And when Doyle needs an immediately recognizable figure of honesty and authority, his artistry for short story shorthand calls upon the familiar Commissionaire to be seen, respected and trusted in every London thoroughfare, going about his duties.

Frank Mills as Mr. Honest in Granada's BLUE.
Peterson loses much if we visualise the modern 'doorman', pale shadow of the Victorian commissionaire, who would have been in the military and now a member of the the Corps of Commissionaires set up for wounded members of the armed forces  at the time of the Crimean War.
1880 photograph.


Please click on the link to read a contemporary account of the work and pay of the Corps: COMMISSIONAIRES CORPS

Doyle has selected the ideal man for his story's needs - the uniform scares off Henry Baker's molesters; his legendary honesty and trustworthiness render his interaction with Holmes credible; even Dr. Watson knows Peterson; and, most satisfyingly, he deserves a windfall if anyone does, having suffered for his country. (Doyle would enjoy this touch.)
NB: To go straight to my 3rd post on BLUE please click HERE

6. Il Digestivo.

In conclusion, this Christmas Day, may I offer (to follow your late supper of woodcock perhaps?) something to help the digestion.

In writing about this gem of a short story I recalled how often in my years as a teacher of English Literature I had to remind students of what they very likely appreciated naturally as children but 'forgot' (ironically) in the process of 'learning': that writers of poems, fiction and plays are artists as surely as painters and musicians.

Vaughan Williams' Wasps swarm only in the imagination; entomology is irrelevant. Van Gogh's Cypresses are...Van Gogh's and no one else's. So we respond to his and set aside images stored (learned) from life observation.

The same applies to Conan Doyle's The Blue Carbuncle.
For what it is worth, I used to find D.J.Enright's poem (Oh! Happy accident!) Blue Umbrellas invaluable as a digestivo for the feast that is literature.

My present under your tree:  TRUST THE CHILD IN YOU 
(always click on 'trust').