Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle – 3

Part three of the reading marathon of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in an edition published by The Folio Society. The set consists of five volumes of short stories issued in 1993 and four volumes of novels which came out the following year. The series has a very attractive binding of an offset wrap around design on each book which makes the spines also display the image and appropriately the books are printed using the Baskerville font.

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So far I have read the first two novels and the first two sets of short stories, this takes us up to the disappearance of Holmes in “The Final Problem” where Sherlock apparently fell to his death from the Reichenbach Falls whilst combating Professor Moriarty.  This had been printed in December 1893 and there the stories appeared to end. In August 1901 however a new Sherlock Holmes story appeared, although set before the events in “The Final Problem”; “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was serialised over the following eight months in the Strand magazine and by the end the clamour for more Holmes stories was irresistible regardless of how much Doyle claimed he didn’t want to write any more he had opened the floodgates and was swept along. Again there are minor spoilers below as it is difficult to review the stories without having them but no plot resolutions are included.

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The Return of Sherlock Holmes

This consists of thirteen short stories originally printed in The Strand magazine between 1903 and 1904, the collection was first published in book form 1905 and the stories are as follows:

  • The Adventure of the Empty House
  • The Adventure of the Norwood Builder
  • The Adventure of the Dancing Men
  • The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist
  • The Adventure of the Priory School
  • The Adventure of Black Peter
  • The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton
  • The Adventure of the Six Napoleons
  • The Adventure of the Three Students
  • The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez
  • The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter
  • The Adventure of the Abbey Grange
  • The Adventure of the Second Stain

Although Holmes had been away from print for eight years Dr. Watson makes it quite clear in “The Adventure of the Empty House” that he had actually vanished for just three years as this story is set in 1894. In this tale he explains his absence as he needed to be in hiding from members of Moriarty’s gang who wanted to avenge their leaders death, for indeed he had died in the incident at the falls at the end of the last book. To this end Holmes had been travelling the world, including a significant amount of time in Tibet in the guise of a Norwegian called Sigurdson. By the time he introduces himself to Watson again only one danger remains at large and he seeks assistance in dealing Colonel Moran who will probably try to assassinate him that very evening. The capture of Moran, in a more dramatic manner than Holmes intended, does indeed occur that night and the two men return to Baker Street to renew their friendship.

Also in the first tale we learn that Mary has died and Watson is again alone. At the start of “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” Watson has been persuaded by Holmes to sell his medical practice and move back in to 221b Baker Street. So Doyle has got rid of the awkward plot narratives of the second set of short stories where one of them needed to go to fetch, or visit, the other before things could happen. All the stories where a date is identifiable are set after Holmes return and Watson comments that they represent a tiny fraction of the cases handled in the ten years since 1894. But again Doyle is clearly planning to stop writing about our favourite detectives as he has Watson explain at the start of “The Adventure of the Second Stain”.

I had intended “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” to be the last of those exploits of my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, which I should ever communicate to the public. This resolution of mine was not due to any lack of material, since I have notes of many hundreds of cases to which I have never alluded, nor was it caused by any waning interest on the part of my readers in the singular personality and unique methods of this remarkable man. The real reason lay in the reluctance which Mr. Holmes has shown to the continued publication of his experiences. So long as he was in actual professional practice the records of his successes were of some practical value to him; but since he has definitely retired from London and betaken himself to study and bee-farming on the Sussex Downs, notoriety has become hateful to him, and he has peremptorily requested that his wishes in this matter should be strictly observed.

It was only because the last tale had apparently been promised earlier that Holmes allows it to be told. The stories in this collection are nearly all good reads, only one as far as I am concerned, “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter”, fails in this regard and as it is one of the shortest examples it doesn’t really let down the book as a whole. Speaking of length I should really have checked how many pages I have to read this week to maintain the schedule, this book is 311 pages, next comes 195 pages and then 241 making a total of 747 and I also have to write around 3000 words, this is tight.

Two of the stories, “The Norwood Builder” and “The Golden Pince-Nez” rely on very similar solutions to the big reveal although they are handled differently and both are excellent tales.  “The Norwood Builder” also has a reference to the uniqueness of fingerprints which Holmes states that he has heard of. This story is set in 1894 so this was very new at the time as it was only in 1892 that the first book on the possible use of fingerprints for criminal detection was published. “The Dancing Men” is another example of Holmes defeating an American gangland member in this case by breaking what is actually quite a simple cypher. We also have several tales that revolve around the English nobility, two of which “Charles Augustus Milverton” and “The Second Stain” are blackmail cases where a lady’s indiscreet letters from before her marriage are to be sent to her husband or else. These very much rely on the strict Victorian morals to make much sense nowadays as a basis for murder. “Black Peter” has an interesting misdirection in the clues presented to us whilst “The Three Students” has, as the title suggests, just three possible malefactors, in this case which of the three students took an opportunity to cheat by copying the paper for an exam they were about to sit.

All in all this was an excellent collection of stories but there will now be another, although shorter, break in Doyle writing any more Holmes and Watson tales as yet again he tries to bring the series to an end.

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His Last Bow

Six of the stories included in this volume were originally printed in The Strand magazine between 1908 and 1913, one other from 1892 (the Cardboard Box) had appeared in the first edition of “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes” but was dropped from some further editions and the title story was first published by Collier’s in 1917; the complete collection was published in 1917 and with just eight tales it is the shortest of the anthologies:

  • The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge
  • The Adventure of the Cardboard Box
  • The Adventure of the Red Circle
  • The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans
  • The Adventure of the Dying Detective
  • The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax
  • The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot
  • His Last Bow: The War Service of Sherlock Holmes

The book starts with a preface by Dr. Watson which reinforces his comments at the start of the previous volume.

The friends of Mr. Sherlock Holmes will be glad to learn that he is still alive and well, though somewhat crippled by occasional attacks of rheumatism. He has, for many years, lived in a small farm upon the Downs five miles from Eastbourne, where his time is divided between philosophy and agriculture. During this period of rest he has refused the most princely offers to take up various cases, having determined that his retirement was a permanent one. The approach of the German war caused him, however, to lay his remarkable combination of intellectual and practical activity at the disposal of the Government, with historical results which are recounted in His Last Bow. Several previous experiences which have lain long in my portfolio have been added to His Last Bow so as to complete the volume.

John H. Watson, M.D

These asides to the reader are great fun and add to the realism of the two characters. The self awareness of the two men, with Holmes regularly complaining in the stories about the ‘sensationalism’ in Watson’s writing up of his cases, is one of the things that make the Sherlock Holmes stories so different from anything else and make them far more engaging personalities. I’ve been looking forward to getting to this collection as ‘the Bruce-Partington Plans’ is one of my favourites of the tales.

The oddest part of this sequential reading is something I hadn’t noticed before and that is just how much the first few pages of ‘The Adventure of the Cardboard Box’ are almost identical to that of ‘The Resident Patient’ in the edition that I have. It appears that Doyle was rather fond of ‘the mind reading experiment’ that Holmes performs on Watson in that section and when the Cardboard Box was not included in subsequent editions of ‘The Memoirs’ collection he simply rewrote the start and tacked it onto the other story.  Whilst reading this volume just a few days later however it was immediately clear that I had read those four pages before, if with slight changes. Editions exist with both stories in the same book and when that is the case ‘the mind reading’ only happens in The Cardboard Box, this was confirmed by my Catalan friend Mixa as her copy does indeed have both tales. However on with the review of the stories as told in this volume.

The first story along with ‘The Red Circle’ feature Inspector Gregson of Scotland Yard whom we have only previously heard of at that rank in ‘The Greek Interpreter’ from ‘The Memoirs’, although he also is a main character in the first Holmes novel ‘A Study in Scarlet’. In that work he was really just a foil to Holmes’ brilliance as he is regularly being shown to be wrong in his deductions. In ‘The Greek Interpreter’ he was very much a bit part but now he has come on in leaps and bounds. In ‘Wisteria Lodge’ he follows his own enquiries, which in previous Holmes novels would result in whichever official detective is involved being shown the error of their ways before long, but in this case he works out the solution just as Holmes does. In ‘The Red Circle’ he is actually working on the same case but from a completely different angle and the two men only become aware of the others involvement at the denouement. Having a Scotland Yard detective proving to be just as good as Holmes at following the clues is a pleasant change so both stories have a lot to recommend them even before they prove to be excellent mysteries. The Cardboard Box is the weakest story in the collection which is probably why Doyle felt safe in extracting its start as he probably assumed it wouldn’t end up being reprinted. he had no expectation of writing more stories about Holmes when the book was published and it would be a shame to waste the best bit of the tale.

Next comes ‘the Bruce-Partington Plans’, I like this because there are two mysteries in one which have to be solved, who stole the plans and what did they do with them? along with how did the body of the main suspect, Arthur Cadogan West, come to be where it was found? The answer to the first proves to be rather simpler than the second but is also the last to be revealed. The structure of the short story draws the reader along in a very satisfying way. In ‘the Dying Detective’ Holmes already knows the solution to the case from the start and we instead follow his trap for the murderer and his explanation at the end is the first we get to know about what he has been working on. A very nice twist to the narrative structure which shows Doyle’s mastery of his craft at this stage of his career.

Another variant is seen in ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax’ this time instead of Holmes being the detective he sends Watson off on a chase around Europe looking for the missing lady only to eventually become exasperated by his failure to catch up with her and have to get involved after all. They jointly rescue her, but with only minutes to go. ‘The Devil’s Foot’ is one of those tales which I thought we had seen the last of as it is based around a narcotic with unusual properties that Doyle has invented. This means that the reader can have no real feel for the story as the solution is hidden in a fantasy product.

Finally we come to the title story, written much later than the other works, it has Holmes pulled out of retirement a couple of years before the First World War by the urging of the Prime Minister to crack a German spy network before they can obtain military secrets which would assist them greatly in the expected conflict. This he duly does although only just in time as it takes him a lot of that time to infiltrate the organisation. It has a very different feel to any previous Holmes and Watson story and definitely gave the impression that Holmes will at last be allowed to disappear into retirement this time for good, although of course the existence of another volume on my shelf means that this wasn’t to happen.

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The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

This consists of twelve short stories originally printed in various magazines between 1921 and 1927, the collection was first published in book form 1927 and the stories are as follows:

  • The Adventure of the Illustrious Client
  • The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier
  • The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone
  • The Adventure of the Three Gables
  • The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire
  • The Adventure of the Three Garridebs
  • The Problem of Thor Bridge
  • The Adventure of the Creeping Man
  • The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane
  • The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger
  • The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place
  • The Adventure of the Retired Colourman

Doyle by this time has stopped having Watson saying this will be the last collection and instead wrote an introduction under his own name where he acknowledges the significance of the story arc and finally recognises that it hasn’t really detracted from what he sees as his more ‘serious’ work but there will be no more and this time he means it. Let us however start with what must be the worst of the Holmes stories in any collection ‘The Adventure of the Creeping Man’ just to get it out of the way. I have no compunction in revealing that this case is based on the nonsensical concept that the taking of extracts of monkey glands to ‘enhance an older man’s prowess with a much younger lady’ would either work or even more ridiculously lead to him acting like an ape and able to scale sheer walls with the aid of guttering and window ledges just like one and then running round on all fours dragging his knuckles on the ground. Doyle was clearly following one of his madder moments when he wrote this, much like his belief in spiritualism or fairies at the bottom of the garden.

That said the remaining eleven tales are very good. ‘The Adventure of the Three Garridebs’ takes back to familiar territory first trodden with the ‘Red Headed League’ where it is necessary to lure somebody out of their home in order to achieve a nefarious act but with again a twist to make the story interesting although as 33 years separate the writing of the stories it is only when reading them one after another that this becomes so obvious. Two of the tales are written by Holmes rather than Watson, the first ‘The Blanched Soldier’ is apparently because after criticising the good doctor’s style for many years and being told to “Try it yourself, Holmes!” he feels he really ought to have a go. The second, ‘The Lion’s Mane’ is because it occurs well after Holmes’ retirement to the South Coast and Watson is simply not around. Both cases are interesting, although ‘The Lion’s Mane’ has quite an obvious solution right at the beginning and the switching of the narrative style works surprisingly well although Holmes does complain that it makes the writing more difficult.

And here it is that I miss my Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he would elevate my simple art, which is but systematised common sense, into a prodigy. When I tell my own story I have no such aid.

The other eight cases presented in this final volume are all equally strong and mark a fitting end to the Holmes saga. I particularly enjoyed ‘Thor’s Bridge’ for its ingenious solution and ‘The Sussex Vampire’ also has much to recommend it. The final story was actually ‘Shoscombe Old Place’, printed in April 1927, forty years after the publication of ‘A Study in Scarlet’ and three years before the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He would write another novel and several stories and articles for The Strand magazine in the intervening years including an obituary of the cricketer W.G. Grace, but nothing more about his great detective.

Next week I will read the final two novels written well before this final set of stories but it seemed logical that once I had started on the short stories I would carry through to the end and Holmes is nothing but logical.

 

Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle – 2

Continuing reading the complete Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in an edition published by The Folio Society. The set consists of five volumes of short stories issued in 1993 and four volumes of novels which came out the following year. The series has a very attractive binding of an offset wrap around design on each book which makes the spines also display the image and appropriately the books are printed using the Baskerville font.

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Last week I read the first two novels as these preceded the appearance of Holmes in short story format however it is now time to tackle the first twenty three short stories in volumes one and two of the set I have.  The first group of short stories is collectively titled…

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

This consists of twelve short stories and in this edition it also has a short introduction by Peter Cushing who played the part of Holmes many times both in film and on television. Originally printed in The Strand magazine between 1891 and 1892, the collection was first published in book form in 1892 and the twelve stories are as follows:

  • The Adventure of a Scandal in Bohemia
  • The Adventure of the Red Headed League
  • The Adventure of a Case of Identity
  • The Adventure of the Boscombe Valley Mystery
  • The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips
  • The Adventure of the Man with the Twisted Lip
  • The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle
  • The Adventure of the Speckled Band
  • The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb
  • The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor
  • The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet
  • The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

I do not propose to review each story as that would make this blog excessively long and I am also concerned about revealing too much about the plots, but let’s look briefly at each, there may be small spoilers ahead but nothing that gives away solutions. However I do need to answer a question posed at the end of last weeks review, where is Watson? Straight away on the first page of Scandal in Bohemia we find

I had seen little of Holmes lately. My marriage had drifted us away from each other.

Watson had indeed moved out and Holmes was now living alone in Baker Street and for the most part the stories in this volume deal with cases after that separation. But the Speckled Band specifically mentions that it occurred before Watson’s marriage to Mary, but only now can Watson reveal it to the world as the lady concerned in the case had passed away. This story also includes the information that some seventy cases had been documented by Watson over the first eight years of his friendship with Holmes so Doyle was clearly already allowing for a significant number of stories to be eventually written even if he didn’t increase the time line any further. The last three tales also relate to the time before Watson’s marriage, The Noble Bachelor specifically states that it occurs a few weeks before he moves out whilst the other two are clearly set whilst the two men are sharing the apartment.

Going back to Scandal in Bohemia, this is the only time that Holmes would be defeated by a woman,  although later on in this book he also admits to three failures against male opponents.  Irene Adler not only bamboozles Holmes but has the nerve to speak to him whilst in disguise outside his own home. so he greatly admires her, keeping a picture of her in 221b Baker Street. The next three tales are a bit of a let down as it is obvious what is going on and who the respective culprits are well before the end however the Five Orange Pips, which is the first ‘old’ tale i.e. before Watson’s marriage and has interest as it is effectively Holmes versus The Ku Klux Klan or at least the remnants of its first incarnation. When Doyle wrote this story the KKK was a thing of the past having effectively died out in the mid 1870’s and it wouldn’t be revived until 1915.

The next three stories, along with the Copper Beeches are my favourites from this set with enough detail given to make it possible to reason along with Holmes as he solves the cases but with enough of a twist to make them interesting. The Engineers Thumb is another where Holmes fails to capture the perpetrators but you do still get a satisfactory resolution to the case however the solution to The Noble Bachelor revolves around the price of a hotel room being high, but it is just given as eight shillings, which a reader from over a century later simply has no idea if that is high, low or a median for London prices at the time. This leaves The Beryl Coronet which frankly has a ridiculous plot device that a banker is worried about a famous treasure being stolen from the safe in his bank so takes it home and locks it in a bureau which has such a poor lock that pretty well any key will spring the drawer, and having first shown it to everyone in the house.

On to the second volume of short stories.

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The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Again all the stories were originally printed in The Strand magazine, this time between 1892 and 1893; the collection was first published as a book in 1894 and there are eleven stories included as follows:

  • Silver Blaze
  • The Yellow Face
  • The Stockbroker’s Clerk
  • The Gloria Scott
  • The Musgrave Ritual
  • The Reigate Squires
  • The Crooked Man
  • The Resident Patient
  • The Greek Interpreter
  • The Naval Treaty
  • The Final Problem

I enjoyed this selection rather more than the first, it gets off to a great start with Silver Blaze which is a really good story about a murder and a missing racehorse although the denouement would certainly not be allowed in modern times and I doubt it would have been possible back in the 1890’s either. One of the joys of this collection is that unlike the first there is no obviously weak story, Doyle appears to have gained mastery of the difficult genre of mystery short stories. Considering that the entire tale from setting out the original position, through investigation and then to the conclusion has to be done in such a condensed manner, the eleven cases here average just over 8,100 words each, this is quite a challenge and that all of them work well says a lot about his improved abilities as a writer in this style over the first collection.

There are really just ten cases in this collection as The Final Problem is supposedly written by way of an obituary and description of how Holmes met his death at the Reichenbach Falls whilst fighting Professor Moriarty, but published two years after it happened.  Doyle must have realised that separating his two compatriots was not really a good idea so only three stories are set after Watson married Mary, these are The Stockbrokers Clerk, The Crooked Man and The Naval Treaty. There are also a couple of tales set before Holmes and Watson met (The Gloria Scott and The Musgrave Ritual) where Holmes is telling Watson about the cases which alters the narrative structure. The Gloria Scott is apparently the first ever case that Holmes was consulted on and he clearly enjoys telling the tale. The Musgrave Ritual is his third and is more of a treasure hunt rather than one of his more usual endeavours. I like this structure of the two men just discussing a case in their apartment and I hope there will be more like this in the further books. The other five tales are set during the time whilst the two men are sharing 221b Baker Street.

The Greek Interpreter marks the first appearance of Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older and even more astute brother, and is technically another of his few failures as although he saves his client the protagonists get away. The Resident Patient also has the wanted men escape but at least we get to understand what and why they do what they do. Probably the weakest story included is The Stockbrokers Clerk and that would have been fine apart from the fact that the plot is quite similar to The Red Headed League, although the ultimate reason is different.

It is difficult to pick out a favourite, The Yellow Face has an interesting twist at the end and for a change Holmes is not dealing with a crime, just a mysterious circumstance. I also liked the Naval Treaty particularly as it is one of the few examples of Holmes showing a sense of humour along with an urge to be dramatic in his final reveal. I think these have to be joint favourites and as I said at the start of the review of The Memoirs the writing is definitely better than the first collection.

And there this reading marathon of the tales of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson should have ended. Doyle made it quite clear in 1893 that he had no intention of writing any further stories about the duo which is why he killed off his hero in his Final Problem as he wanted his other works to be appreciated more.

However after a break of eight years Holmes would be back…

It remains for me to provide a link to my Catalan friend Mixa’s, reviews of my second weeks books which we read simultaneously. The Google created English translations are readable if not very good English but at least you get the feel for what she wrote.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Original Catalan

Translation to English via Google

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Original Catalan

Translation to English via Google

 

Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle – 1

Last August I completed a reading challenge of all ten books in the first Penguin Books crime set from 1938. So this month I have decided to also attempt more than the expected four books by tackling the complete Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as published by The Folio Society. The set consists of five volumes of short stories issued in 1993 and four volumes of novels which came out the following year. The series has a very attractive binding of an offset wrap around design on each book which makes the spines also display the image and appropriately the books are printed using the Baskerville font. My copies are well read and the titles on the short stories are badly worn, although looking at other examples in various bookshops this does seem to be a common feature of this particular edition.

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Now although this looks like a logical reading order in fact Doyle wrote the first two novels “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Sign of Four” before he produced any short stories so in fact a better reading sequence is those books this week, followed by the short stories then finally the last two novels. Although novel number three “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is set during the time of the first two collections of short stories it didn’t actually come out until much later and it doesn’t affect time lines too much to leave the last two novels until the end as they both are looking back on past cases.

As last year I will be writing about each volume as I go along rather than waiting for completion so without further ado lets jump in with the first two novels

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A Study in Scarlet

This is the first appearance of Holmes and Watson and originally appeared in print in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual before being published in book form in July 1888.

“Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” said Stamford, introducing us.

“How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

“How on earth did you know that?” I asked in astonishment.

“Never mind,” said he, chuckling to himself.

and so a partnership was born…

The book fairly rattles along, just ten pages in Holmes and Watson are ensconced in 221b Baker Street and Holmes has started his work much to the puzzlement of Watson. The two men are after all just sharing the property there is no indication that Watson would get involved in anything in fact he is specifically looking for a quiet life whilst recovering from his injuries from the war in Afghanistan. Watson however is intrigued as to what Holmes is up to and creates a list of attributes to try to work it out, these include him knowing nothing of literature, astronomy or philosophy, whilst other things such as botany (natural poisons anyway) or geology (soils and clays) were specialised in the extreme. Chemistry and sensational literature however he was a complete master of; none of these items seem to make any sense though.

Another few pages and Holmes again demonstrates his deductive reasoning and explains he is a consulting detective just as he gets a message from Sergeant Gregson of Scotland Yard asking him to come to Lauriston Gardens; Watson joins him and so starts his journals that the Holmes stories are supposedly taken from. The case, to Holmes anyway, is absurdly simple. In fact so simple that by the eightieth page he has apprehended the murderer with the help of his street urchin employees also known as The Baker Street Irregulars, and there is where the book starts to fall apart. For the next fifty two pages are back story. Doyle writes well with the dynamic of Holmes and Watson along with the bungling Gregson and Lestrade from Scotland Yard but over fifty pages without any of these characters whilst he ranges over the settlement of the Mormons in Salt Lake City and the inter-family rivalries just plods along especially after the pace of the first half of the book. It is not even written as though being told to our protagonists it is just an over long history.

We finally get back to Holmes, Watson, Gregson, Lestrade and their prisoner in 221b with just 22 pages left for Watson’s journal to wrap up and the murderer to explain how and why he did it. Very much a book of two halves but with enough promising material regarding the great detective to make a sequel inevitable.

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The Sign of Four

The second time out for Holmes was in the February 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine issued jointly in the UK and US, and by October of that year it had been published as a standalone book.

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

The opening paragraph of The Sign of Four shows Holmes the drug addict, in this case injecting a seven percent solution of cocaine much to the disgust of Dr. Watson. This was turned into a particularly powerful scene in “The Secret of Sherlock Holmes”, a play starring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke that I saw in 1988 at Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End. These two actors, for me at least, are the definitive Holmes and Watson and to see Brett as Holmes in silhouette at the back of the stage injecting into his arm before the lights were cut at the end of the scene is a dramatic act that has stayed with me for over 30 years.

As for the book itself it is much better written than the first although there is again a large section of back story at the end. This time it is much shorter than in “A Study in Scarlet” and rather than being a standalone tale it is given as Jonathan Small telling his involvement in the crimes at 221b Baker Street with Holmes, Watson and in this case Athelney Jones of the Yard. This is a considerable improvement as the three can react to Jonathan Small’s story and there is no massive disjointed section. This is also the first appearance of probably the most famous Holmes quote

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

Still back to the beginning, Dr. Watson is trying to draw Holmes away from the cocaine over breakfast the next day when a young lady by the name of Miss Mary Morstan arrives and lays out a singular problem for the great man. Her father had returned to England eleven years ago and disappeared without trace however each year for the last six she has received a fine pearl from an anonymous benefactor and now she has had a letter from him desiring her to be at the Lyceum theatre and she can bring two companions. Naturally Holmes and Watson are willing to go but for very different reasons, Holmes to solve a puzzle but Watson has fallen for Miss Morstan almost immediately and in this state would do anything for her.

Without giving away the plot, the pearls are quickly revealed to be part of a large treasure and in searching for the remainder Holmes engages the use of a scent hound to follow a creosote trail left by one of the culprits from a house in Norwood after he stepped in some of this highly pungent liquid, and this provides one of the few bits of genuine humour in the books as the dog getting confused by crossing trails eventually comes to its mark…

On the dog raced through sawdust and shavings, down an alley, round a passage, between two wood-piles, and finally, with a triumphant yelp, sprang upon a large barrel which still stood upon the hand-trolley on which it had been brought. With lolling tongue and blinking eyes, Toby stood upon the cask, looking from one to the other of us for some sign of appreciation. The staves of the barrel and the wheels of the trolley were smeared with a dark liquid, and the whole air was heavy with the smell of creosote.

Sherlock Holmes and I looked blankly at each other, and then burst simultaneously into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.

Another funny passage occurs with Watson attempting to take Miss Morstan’s mind off the danger they may be in with some of his tales from Afghanistan.

To this day she declares that I told her one moving anecdote as to how a musket looked into my tent at the dead of night, and how I fired a double-barrelled tiger cub at it.

His tongue-tied behaviour is somewhat explained at the end of the book when less than a week after first meeting her he explains to Holmes that he will no longer be available to accompany him on adventures as

Miss Morstan has done me the honour to accept me as a husband in prospective.

Next week I start on the short stories first printed in The Strand Magazine between 1891 and 1893. Will Watson still be living with Holmes or are he and Mary setting up home together with him merely reporting from the sidelines?

A History of the World in 100 Objects – Neil MacGregor

In 2010 BBC Radio 4 ran a fascinating series where the then Director of the British Museum in London chose 99 objects from the museums collection to illustrate world history. Each object was described in its own radio programme over a period of several months and soon became addictive. By Christmas a book had been produced which not only included versions of each lecture but importantly had a really good photograph accompanying it. MacGregor had done a wonderful job describing each item for the radio but the inclusion of pictures completed the project.

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The book is over seven hundred pages long to cover properly the 100 objects in the series and has an excellent index and bibliography which alone makes the book an invaluable companion to the series. The 100th object was chosen by MacGregor from suggestions by listeners to represent the modern day and was purchased by the museum to complete the collection. Fortunately both the BBC and the British Museum regard this as a milestone project so all 100 episodes are still available as downloadable podcasts from this BBC site. The museum also maintains a series of web pages dedicated to the project including a programme by programme set of pages which also tell you where the object can be found in the museum if it is currently on display (at the time of writing 21 of the 100 objects are not in a museum gallery).

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The above mosaic shows all 100 objects and as you would probably guess this is not a book you can really just sit and read. Not only from its sheer length, but also from the way it was created from 100 separate lectures which were never intended to be listened to one after an other although it does make sense to hear or read them in sequence. Having loved the series from its inception I of course bought the book when it came out but still I tend to listen to Neil when I want to delve into the series, preferably with the book to hand so that I can admire the object as he talks about it.

We start with the mummy case of Hornedjitef and end with a Chinese made solar lamp and charger but I’m just going to pick out five of my favourites:-

  • 12 – Standard of Ur – A truly beautiful object which nobody knows what it was used for. It is inlaid with a mosaic of people coming to pay their taxes to the king so is clearly a demonstration of his power.
  • 17 – Rhind Mathematical Papyrus – Basically a primer in ‘all the mathematics that you need’ in order to work in the Egyptian civil service. How such a document came to survive the centuries is a miracle. I have a book on ancient Egyptian mathematics, maybe I should review that sometime?

  • 47 – Sutton Hoo Helmet – It was reading about the Sutton Hoo discoveries as a child that first gave me an interest in archaeology and history.
  • 76 – The Mechanical Galleon – It was this object that really made me want this book, listening to Neil’s description of this marvellously intricate device made me want to see it and there is a wonderful close up image of the stern with the beautifully detailed figures standing there.
  • 91 – Ships Chronometer from HMS Beagle – One of twenty two carried on the famous voyage where Charles Darwin was inspired in his great work on evolution. The chronometers were used to determine longitude and led to the first truly accurate maps of South America.

So this short article before I hit my planned August reading marathon for this year is yes a suggestion that you should obtain and read the book but really  a big hint to check out the podcasts available via the links I have included and enjoy a master at work.

Under the Frog – Tibor Fischer

a béka segge alatt

translation from Hungarian
Under the frogs arse – which indicates that things are really bad

20190723 Under the Frog

November 1955

It was true that at the age of twenty-five he had never left the country, that he had never got more than three days march from his birthplace, no more than a day and a half of horse and carting or one long afternoon’s locomoting. On the other hand, Gyuri mused, how many people could say they had travelled the length and breadth of Hungary naked?

The opening paragraph of Under the Frog  raises a few questions. I first read the book whilst working in Hungary in 1995 just six years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and whilst Hungary then was a lot better than when I originally visited in 1987 when it was still very restricted, away from Budapest (which is where I was) it still felt very different. I have come to know and love the country over the decades both from working there and also visiting friends since that time but I haven’t picked this book up again in twenty four years. It will be interesting to see how my reactions to it have changed. Back then I didn’t know much Hungarian history and this was to be the first book that really awakened my interest in that subject. But what little I did know was that less than a year after that paragraph is set roughly two thousand five hundred Hungarians would have died in a failed revolution and many more than that had been imprisoned for their actions so just what is going on in that paragraph?

After the first chapter the book leaps back to 1944 and then progresses to the disasters of 1956. Tibor Fischer was born in England in 1959 to Hungarian parents that had managed to escape in 1956 and this, his first novel, takes his parents background as Hungarian basketball players as a means of informing his text. His mother was captain of the national team and his father was also a quality player, whilst Gyuri and his fellow misfits that we follow through the novel play for the Locomotive team in the Hungarian first division.

Like last week’s book, Lolly Willowes, the novel changes significantly about two thirds in although this time it is because there simply isn’t much funny that can be written about the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and Fischer wisely doesn’t try. Up until then however the book is full of often quite dark humour. As far as possible it also seems to be historically accurate, from the invasion of the country by the Russians in 1944 which pushed out the Germans, but did little to improve the conditions of the populace beyond that, to following the development of the communist state after the war. There are several mentions of the AVO secret police which a couple of the characters have unfortunate encounters with during the novel and the general malaise of life under the regime. The chapters headings are all dates as we trace the passage of time via significant events for either the country or more often the characters interaction with each other or the police state until we get back to November 1955 where if things are not actually going well at least they don’t appear to be getting any worse as long as you stay out of the clutches of the AVO.

The final, and longest, chapter is entitled 23rd October 1956 and it certainly starts then with the birth of the revolution but it continues until early November when the Russians totally crushed the nascent republic. Fischer is very good at inserting his characters into the significant moments of the revolution whilst keeping their being there entirely believable. Central Budapest is surprisingly small and easy to walk around so it is highly likely that people did follow Gyuri’s route around the city on the 23rd, being at both the Radio building and also around the fighting surrounding the Corvin cinema. As stated earlier the jokes largely stop here and indeed the tragic aftermath of the fighting is brought more into focus by the contrast with the considerably more jokey style (even when dealing with awful events) that characterises the first two thirds of the book.

I was in Budapest in October 2016 for the 60th anniversary of the revolution, the 23rd is now a national holiday and a few of my pictures can be seen at the end of this blog. Sadly it would be another thirty three years before the Russians went home as painted on the side of the car and the oppression would if anything be worse in the years immediately after 1956. It’s a very good book and it won’t be another twenty four years before I read it again. Under the Frog was, in 1993, the first debut novel ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize and made it to the shortlist of five before losing to Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.

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Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

A radio programme I listen to regularly is BBC Radio 4’s “A Good Read”, it’s a book programme with a difference as rather than focusing on new works the presenter and her two guests each choose a book they like; they then read all three and finally meet up in the studio to discuss them. The last episode in June had novelist Nicci Gerrard pick an odd sounding book, but the title seemed familiar to me and sure enough it is on my shelves. Now from the discussion I have a slight idea as to what happens and it sounds intriguing, from the summary on the radio shows website we get.

Nicci’s favourite is Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a novel which takes a surprising turn halfway through and provokes a debate about the merits of sleeping in ditches

What’s not to like with a precis like that so here I go. My copy is the 1937 first Penguin Books edition, the first ever edition was by Chatto and Windus in 1926. It’s still in print although now as a Virago Modern Classic.

20190716 Lolly Willowes

The book tells the story of Laura Willowes, known to her nieces and nephews as Aunt Lolly and starts with the death of her father leading her to move in with one of her brothers and his wife in London. We then take a step back and learn about her childhood growing up in Somerset; her mother had died when she was in her teens and by the time her father died she was twenty eight, still a spinster and showing no signs of being interested in marriage. The Somerset family home would go to her other brother, James, and his wife and Lolly looks to settle into the role of the maiden aunt to both couples children. Life in the London home of Henry, Caroline and their two girls was undoubtedly respectable as befitting the late Victorian period, but also full of dull routine. So it continued for many years, through the Edwardian period and up to the First World War with even that failing to disturb Lolly’s routine much.

All begins to change in the winter of 1921 when Lolly whilst out shopping has ‘a revelation’, she is now forty seven and she needs a complete change out of London and back to the countryside. She buys a guidebook and map and announces that evening at a family get together that as the children are all grown up, she isn’t needed any more so she is moving to Great Mop in the Chilterns. Upon this apparently random decision the book pivots.

There are hints soon after she arrives about what is going on in the village, groups of villagers standing around in groups late in the evening, the fact that the place is strangely quiet after that. But she soon fits in to village life however without feeling that she is fully accepted. The arrival of her, now grown up, nephew further upsets her hopes of fitting in by his decision to also move to Great Mop.  But one evening Lolly finds a kitten in her room at her lodgings and suddenly her landlady wants to go for a walk late that evening and takes her to a remote field where most of the rest of the villagers can be found dancing and enjoying a witches sabbath.

Lolly realises that she also is a witch and that must have been what drew her to the village with the help of Satan who appears to her in the guise of a gamekeeper and also a gardener during the rest of the book. Now you can read the book as a mystical adventure but it really is a feminist novel about a woman finding herself and escaping her fusty background. She gets her independence from the family to whom she will always be just dependable old Aunt Lolly and realises just what she can become. In the last twenty or so pages where she is discussing this with Satan you could, apart from the setting obviously, be reading from works by the great feminist writers such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I’ll finish with an extract where Lolly is describing the position of women at the time which gives a good example of the quality of the writing as well.

women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. I see them wives and sisters of respectable men, chapel members and blacksmiths. and small farmers and puritans…
Well there they are, there they are, child rearing, home-keeping, hanging washed dishcloths on currant bushes; and for diversion each other’s silly conversation, and listening to men talking in the way men talk and women listen. Quite different to the way women talk and men listen, if they listen at all. And all the time being thrust further down into dullness when the one thing that all women hate is to be thought dull. And on Sundays they put on plain stuff gowns and starched white coverings on their heads and necks – the Puritan ones did – and walked across the fields to chapel. and listened to the sermon. Sin and Grace and God and the – (she stopped herself just in time) and St Paul. All men’s things like politics and mathematics. Nothing for them except subjection and plaiting their hair. And on the way back they listened to more talk. Talk about the sermon, or war, or cock-fighting; and when they got back there were the potatoes to be cooked for dinner. It sounds very petty to complain about, but I tell you, that sort of thing settles down on one like a fine dust, and by and by the dust is age, settling down.

Don’t Tell Mum I Work on the Rigs – Paul Carter

Or to give the book its full title “Don’t Tell Mum I Work on the Rigs: She Thinks I’m a Piano Player in a Whorehouse”. A series of real life stories of life on oil rigs around the world in some of the most dangerous places you could ever hope not to go to.

20190709 Don't tell Mum I work on the Rigs

Carter has written a really funny summary of some of his exploits in fifteen years working on oil rigs around the world and the scrapes he has got into whilst doing it. The book has a prologue with an extract from chapter nine which has him in business class on a scheduled flight from Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea; unfortunately with Amoebic Dysentery which strikes just after take-off. Now there is definitely nothing inherently funny about an explosive attack of dysentery, especially in a crowded aeroplane, but the way he writes about it is so vivid that you cannot help laughing at the situation.

The first chapter relates to his childhood and initial links to oil, He had a rough time in his early years with a domineering father who was in the RAF, eventually his mother left him taking the two children with her. She moved the family to Aberdeen and got a job in the oil industry where she would meet her second husband and subsequently got posted to Australia which is where Carter spent his adolescence and eventually some dead end jobs but he wanted to work on rigs. Ironically after his father left the RAF he also started working on rigs and Carter would sometimes meet people who had worked with him. As he says the work is all over the world but the actual people doing the work form a surprisingly small community and there are regular characters that keep turning up no matter where he is working.

In amongst the stories about offshore and land rigs, crazy holding accommodation and the horror stories you also get to learn a little about the oil business and definitely a lot about why being involved may be lucrative but also extremely dangerous. Carter has worked on all sorts and after proving his abilities has been freelance for four years at the time he covers in the book. He is obviously good enough at what he does to be wanted by numerous companies no matter what type of rig is involved.

20190709 Don't tell Mum I work on the Rigs 2

We go on a bounce around the world starting in Australia with a land rig in the Western Australia goldfields back in the early 1990’s where he learnt the trade as a labourer, or roughneck, and worked his way up and then mainly in the Asian oilfields. Apart from the dysentery, and the local wildlife trying to kill you this was relatively safe until it got to time away from the rig when men who work in a dangerous and frequently deadly job chill out by doing dangerous and sometimes deadly ways of not being at work. The wilder the country the more dangerous it was, not just from the locality but also the often poorly maintained equipment such as ancient helicopters.

Every time I read Upstream, an oilfield newspaper, there’s an article like this

Bumfuck Nowhere: all nine passengers and crew died yesterday, when a twelve seater Sikorsky helicopter operated by Doom Air crashed in a really big ball of flames shortly after take off from Bumfuck Nowhere regional airport. Witnesses say the helicopter fell for, oh wow, ages before vaporising into the jungle at 1592 miles an hour.

He also worked the Gulf and South America but the stand out awful places were Russia which  was cold, so very cold and really primitive and worst of the worst Nigeria which was so dangerous to work in that getting out alive was regarded as a bonus. Nowhere in Nigeria was without armed guards when not on the rig especially on the trip to and from the airport, his two predecessors for the job he had there had both been killed by fake taxi drivers before they had even made it to the camp for the first time.

But it’s not just about the oilfields you also get the ups and downs of his personal life and the surprising sideline he ended up doing which was in advertising in Sydney in his downtime between jobs. This is probably what honed his way with words and makes the book such a pleasure to read.

This is not a book for the easily shocked or offended, but you probably guessed that from the prologue so at least you have been warned. I loved it and need to get his follow up “This is Not a Drill”