Thursday, January 3, 2013

How to Write like Doctor Watson - The Blue Carbuncle (3)

 "I beg that you will look upon it not as a battered billycock but as an intellectual problem." (Sherlock Holmes, BLUE.)

The impact of Sherlock Holmes on police methods and forensic science has been (deservedly) well documented.

Currently, the detective's observational and deductive powers are the subject or starting point for a growing and varied literature with the common purpose of teaching the general public how to think like Sherlock Holmes. Maria Konnikova's newly  published Mastermind is set to become a classic example.

Such 'self-help' books are firmly in a tradition of which Lord Baden-Powell was a trailblazer. 1908's First Edition of SCOUTING FOR BOYS refers to Sherlock Holmes , notably in Camp Fire Yarn 13 (Instances of Deduction - Sherlock Holmesism), where scouts are encouraged to read and act out the stories.

I'm sure the new generation of budding mentalists will be drawn to the Doyle originals too, inevitably encountering Dr. Watson.

With this in mind I want in this post to look at the good doctor's contribution to our appreciation of how and why Sherlock Holmes solves the case of The Blue Carbuncle.

1. The Reminiscing Narrator. 
Almost all the Canon takes the form of first person reminiscence by Dr. Watson, who, by definition, before putting pen to paper, knows as much as Conan Doyle - the whole story. 

The motivations to reminisce are, patently, love and respect for 'the best and wisest man I have ever known'; a mission to record the detective's unique skills...and an endearing gratitude and nostalgia for the adventure and purpose Holmes gave an ex-soldier leading 'a comfortless, meaningless existence' (STUD).

These motives explain the narrative approach in BLUE.

2. The Dramatic Narrative.
Boswell he may be, but Watson is no ordinary biographer. The genre is imaginative fiction not non-fictional memoir.
Glance at the TIMELINE I collated in my first post on BLUE which reconstructs the events of 5 days in chronological order. The simplest 3rd person narrator (knowing the whole story) would begin on the 22nd December and relate the events in order culminating on the night of the 27th. I leave the reader to consider in detail what would be lost had Watson chosen this path - crucially, Holmes would surrender to mere narrative his centrality in the tale as told.

Watson's focus, always, is on the Great Detective which is why three advantageous things happen to this narrative:

a) The events occurring on the 27th provide the active present for this reminiscence. Thus, the reader learns only what Watson recalls learning on the day he dropped in on Holmes during his rounds. In his enthusiasm to take us as near as possible to his friend, Watson dramatises that day, achieving the kind of vicarious experience of Holmes in action that theatre offers. 

b) Past events (back to the 22nd) are revealed in the order Watson and Holmes became aware of them, immediately allowing the narrator to showcase Holmes's observation and reasoning powers - showing not merely telling us about them. The reader may then (via Watson) see matters through the eyes of the detective. 

c) The (considerable) impact and ironies of the unexpected, the coincidental and the fortuitous upon the train of events  (and Holmes's exercise of his skills) are palpably dramatised too, along with the dawning seriousness of what began as apparently trivial. In a nutshell: the narrative approach exposes Holmes to all the vagaries and pressures real-life situations bring to bear on our endeavours. I remind the reader here of the difference between knowing how to change gear in a car and  doing it when you have yet to develop road sense, of reading a compass for the first time in a howling blizzard!

3. An Intellectual Problem.
As Blue begins we encounter a disguised artistry that Doyle (as invisible as Holmes on your trail) attributes to the pen of Watson. Suppressing the full facts in his possession in 1892 (the year of reminiscence) Watson creates  an iconic image of Holmes absorbed in a purely academic study.

Jeremy Brett as Granada's Holmes enjoying his Christmas Present.

Seemingly, the detective has all the time in the world to study Mr. Henry Baker's hat. He's distinctly odd and frankly comical. The whole of Christmas has been spent examining a hat for no practical reason.

Watson knows his readers, and they know their Holmes. A lost hat and Christmas goose are manna from Heaven for him.

The ensuing exchange is leisurely as Watson and the reader are treated to a masterclass in observation and deduction. The goose has not been neglected - exemplified by the economic precision of the label 'tied to the bird's left leg'. But  a living man's hat reasonably offers more interest than a dead goose. Not even Holmes would think to check its crop.

Just as the apparently trivial hat holds centre stage so is revealed a) the deduced history of its owner and b) how the lost items reached Baker Street.

The former prepares Sherlock Holmes's response to Baker himself at a more serious juncture; the latter illustrates the value of reputation and a network of contacts. Peterson thinks to bring the hat and goose on Christmas morning 'knowing that even the smallest problems are of interest to me.

What we have here is the equivalent of the Boy Scout motto Be Prepared. Holmes is like an athlete or footballer constantly in training, maximizing form for the big event. No wonder he is often straining at the leash for the game to be afoot! Watson is to proceed to illustrate the necessity and benefits of such committed preparation in detective work.

Before the Commissionaire's entry with the stolen jewel we have witnessed in splendid isolation the 'peculiar introspective fashion' in which Holmes daily 'dockets' apparent trivia and a useful knowledge of hat styles!

If the hat is a metaphor for deductive reasoning, the goose stands for assumption.

4. A Practical Case.

In a moment it dawns on Holmes, Watson, Peterson and the reader that the Countess of Morcar's Blue Carbuncle has sat disguised by a goose on the detective's sideboard for two whole days, an irony not regretted by Holmes who was grateful for the hat and accepts the reality of reasonable assumption occasionally limiting even the best trained observer. (His one comment - that Mrs. Hudson be asked to examine the crop of their woodcock supper -  is all wry amusement). 

This has not been a waste of energy. Nor has Holmes's regular practice of reading the latest criminal news and agony columns.Trivia and training  suddenly assume importance.

A disservice is done I think to Doyle's art by those who assert that Holmes is always one step ( at least) ahead of Watson and the reader. It does not take a Sherlock to appreciate the case is to find the robber and the method is to follow the goose trail. How and when to do so is an expert's province.
Truth be told most of us would hand the jewel in at the nearest police station and claim the reward. Such, however, is the respect for Holmes, so infectious is his curiosity that Peterson, Watson (and therefore the reader) wish to see 'the solution of so tangled a business'.

5. The Application of Advanced Skills.    
Before even finding the Times report on the Hotel Cosmopolitan robbery in his pile of recent newspapers, Holmes details the salient facts, including the reward offered. His first step (to place an ad in that night's papers) is determined by the earlier estimation of Henry Baker's character, circumstances and likely innocence. Action this day is his watchword. Holmes is acutely aware of (a) the 'singular chance' not shared by the police and (b) the serious import of the situation -

'we have so homely a thing as a goose at one end of this chain, we have at the other a man who will certainly get seven years’ penal servitude unless we can establish his innocence.'
 Peterson is used efficiently both to place the ad (in evening editions reeled off effortlessly by Holmes) and (foresight here) to purchase a replacement goose for Mr. Baker.

[ I pause here while Watson resumes his rounds to note the Puckish role coincidence has begun to play in the chain of events: Baker happened to be given this particular goose at the Alpha Inn; he happened to be set upon at 4am; uniformed Peterson happened to be in Tottenham Court Rd to rescue him.]

Henry Baker forensically quizzed and reunited with hat and a goose, the pace hots up, time is of the essence, all thought of supper delayed this frosty night. Two contrasting, economically drawn vignettes follow illustrating how to interrogate a witness. The landlord is easy, requiring only the off-hand remark ( about Covent Garden salesmen): 'Indeed? i know some of them. Which was it?'.

The exasperated, truculent Breckinridge is more of a challenge. Holmes reaches into his quiver and produces the weapon appropriate to one observed carrying a pink 'un. Rising to the bait of a bet, the market stallholder is soon eating out of Mr. Cocksure's hand, actually showing him his account books. Boy scouts, note!

The problem now for Holmes is a familiar one to him and his readers - which of two alternative courses of action to take. SCAND presented an identical dilemma outside Bryony Lodge and was resolved, as here, by coincidence (sheer luck). Just as Irene and her fiancee emerge to go to the church and a handy cab enters the street so Holmes can follow them, so the detective has no need to go to Mrs. Oakshott's tonight or in the morning - James Ryder has popped up for the umpteenth time to question Breckinridge.

Sherlock Holmes's gentle, courteous persuasion of Ryder back to 221b is a joy to behold. With him, we, surely, already know this is the man responsible for the robbery. Who else would be desperately mithering a stallholder on a freezing cold night about one stupid goose?

'It is always awkward doing business with an alias' is not only a moment of shared knowingness for the reader - it is also an illustration of how Holmes tests his man to determine how thick a skin he must penetrate. Having ascertained the (contemptible) measure of his man, the detective proceeds accordingly.

6. The Perfectionist & Professional Pride.
To agonise over the morality of releasing Ryder is to miss this short story's raison d'etre. The Twelfth Night setting and festive mood are sufficient preparation for seasonal forgiveness. Ryder's importance rather lies in his capacity to fill in the missing links in a fascinating chain and Holmes will never let him go without divulging all. Centrally, this is to fully satiate the detective's consuming curiosity and to bring elegance and order to chaotic tangle.

The Elizabethan Stage.

Watson's narrative preference for dialogue and first person sub-narration by characters animates dramas within drama, in much the way the Elizabethan stage used the inner stage.
Just as Henry Baker gave the reader a vivid film of his experience. Ryder is painfully, farcically capable of re-enacting every cuff from the hand of fate dealt out to him in spades since the robbery. Especially do we re-live with him the outrageous chain of coincidence that robs him of fortune and dignity.

Almost sick with fear at the thought of being apprehended with the jewel on his person, Ryder acts only to precipitate a chain of unforseeable events.
- his sister's geese have not yet been sold.
- she happens to come into the yard, making him drop the goose.
- there happen to be two identical geese of which he chose one out of two dozen.
- the geese happen to have been sold on...and on by the time he trudges back from Kilburn.
- Breckinridge happened to be the most unhelpful stallholder in the world. 

Holmes the detective is not merely curious. He needs this information to enrich his appreciation of how the exigencies and chance occurrences of everyday life can impact on the art of detection:
' Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward'.

7. Writing like Watson and Thinking like Holmes.
Conan Doyle is a very skilful wordsmith who does not confuse the varied genres in which he chose to write. Elsewhere, beyond the Canon and other fictional works, is an extensive body of books, pamphlets and speeches on a multiplicity of topics. Just one of his preoccupations is the training and equipping of young men in defence of the Empire. He can be as didactic and direct as Baden-Powell...or as indirect and illustrative as Dr. Watson.

My theme here is that we do not confuse these different kinds of literary expressions. Didacticism gives us information, advice, rules and facts. Imaginative fiction offers vivid vicarious experiences with the implicit (never stated) analogy that learning from literature has more in common with learning from life than heeding the lessons of textbooks.

Through 40 years the impact of Sherlock Holmes on Strand readers was a slow, osmotic absorption of positive,practical ways of thinking into ordinary lives. The unspoken lesson being I imagine that one came to look for the Sherlock in others and discover him in oneself.

It is my hope therefore that this study of The Blue Carbuncle may be seen as illustrative of an educational dimension to the Sherlock Holmes stories which works in a very different way from manuals of self help like Scouting For Boys. One may readily spot the protean Boy Scout in a Baker Street Irregular (you try surviving on the streets of Victorian London without Holmesian skills!) but it would be a shame to miss the first-hand, adventurous, vicarious insight afforded by accompanying one bare-foot along the Thames Docks looking for the launch Aurora.

LATE COMMENT received from Mr. Sherlock Holmes:

"Come, come, sir," said Holmes, laughing,"You are like my friend Dr. Watson, who has a bad habit of telling his stories wrong end foremost." (WIST).






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