Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book Review: "The Boscombe Valley Mystery" (Doyle, 1891)

“He put his hand over part of the map. ‘What do you read?’
“ARAT,’ I read.
‘And now?’ He raised his hand.
“Quite so. That was the word the man uttered, and of which his son only caught the last two syllables. He was trying to utter the name of his murderer. So and so, of Ballarat.’
‘It is wonderful!’ I exclaimed.
‘It is obvious.’“
--Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”

Leigh: When I first read this story way back three whole summers ago, I wasn't a huge fan of it. It seemed like a really simple case. It seemed like a case that I would see on Law and Order and it wouldn't even be an episode that would stick in my memory. In fact, this was the first one in the canon that I've re-read in its entirety since we started this project. I knew there was a murder and the main suspect didn't do it. I couldn't remember much else. After re-reading it today though, it grew on me. It's still not exciting but there are changes that ACD made to the plot that made it a bit different.

First and foremost, we don't start the adventure in the sitting room at all. In fact, we never even go to the sitting room. There is no moment when Holmes tells someone their entire history because of what shoes they decided to wear that day. Instead we get a little moment with Watson and his wife and then Holmes and Watson on the train together. It's like his editors said, "Hey guy, change it up a bit, will ya?" We still get the instance of Holmes being the most perceptive man ever to have lived but it isn't just to show off his talent and introduce the reader to Holmes' ability but it also is a moment of familiarity with Watson and Holmes. We get to experience the Victorian equivalent of "Bro, you missed a spot," and that tells the viewer where their relationship is. They aren't just acquaintances but they're so friendly that they'll tell each other when they're doing a crap job shaving in the morning. 

We've been talking a lot lately about a balance between mystery and character relationships and I feel that ACD wanted the exact opposite of what the writers of Elementary want. Yes, the story starts with Watson eating breakfast with his wife, but she is only referred to as "his wife," not by Mary or Mary Watson. Their dialog is kept to a minimum and while it is probably more realistic Victorian dialog, it's still a bit rigid for a husband and wife conversation, especially when the husband is getting ready to leave town for a few days in about ten minutes. Sure it wasn't the thing to do at the time, talk about a relationship between husband and wife, but we got more of their relationship when we met Mary in A Sign of Four than we do here. ACD knew when to make it about relationships and when to make it about the mystery and this one is all about the mystery.  

"I would like you all to meet my wife, 'My Wife'"

We get a set of facts that points to one outcome when in fact the solution is something entirely different. Sure, it was a little easy to guess what was going to happen, but there were some facts that threw me for a loop at least. A secret marriage? Stagecoach hold up? Australia? It's another instance where the mystery itself isn't that exciting but all of the clues put together make it more than average. 

And side note, I think that "RAT" that Moffat alluded to about the next series of the other Sherlock Holmes modernization is referenced in this story. Just throwing that out there. 

So what do you think, Austin? Is it just another cut and paste story that we see on other crime dramas or is it better because the clues are odder? What makes this mystery better than an episode of Law and Order? And who will win our bet that we have? 

Austin: Right now I'm sure people are obsessively looking back through the blog to figure out what bet we agreed to. Nope, this is one of those crazy "off-blog" conversations that we sometimes have. To avoid spoilers for something we haven't covered, Leigh and I disagree about the fate of a major character from Sherlock Season Two. When the show returns next year, the one who was incorrect will be recording a speech written by the victor. So look forward to that....in a year or so. (Also, no I don't think "The rat" refers to this story. Giant Rat of Sumatra!!!)

The only problem I had with the introduction was that Watson's wife was basically a non-character. She was the opposite of every wife on TV. I was all ready for "But won't it be dangerous?!" or "But we have brunch with the Featherbottoms that weekend!" but she was fine. She fully understands Watson's mancrush on Sherlock and she is encouraging to see things blossom.

This was more compelling than the one last week. We've had two cases in a row that were a bit low key. Weird silly cases, but nothing like a good old fashioned murder. I wasn't bothered by its typical nature because I thought they did a good job setting up the red herring. Obviously the guy Lestrade suspected didn't do it, but it was thorough enough that it made sense that Sherlock was brought in.

The problem was that there are large chunks of this story of explaining stuff. Some of it was compelling like the typical Sherlock deduction breakdowns, but others felt like a bit of filler. I don't know if Doyle had the Dickens deal where he was paid by the word but this needed to be trimmed down a little bit. Once again we had the bad guy tell us his life story in an attempt to gain sympathy from the audience. Didn't work for me, but it oddly really worked for Sherlock.

The ending led to the most interesting part of the story. Sherlock decides not to send the murderer to prison but held onto his signed confession only to be used if the innocent can't go free. Then the story ends! Once again we have Sherlock being the one to decide justice as he sees fit. He's working outside of the law in a very compelling way. The big plothole for this is, of course, that Watson published this big secret. Silly Watson.

Was Sherlock right to withhold this man from prison? Why wasn't this story is called The Boscombe Valley Tragedy? That's a better title and they even used that phrase!

Leigh: I’ll just say that of everyone I’ve talked to, more people agree with me than with you. Just sayin’…
I have to agree about the ending. It seemed weird to me that Sherlock not only felt sympathy for a criminal who wasn’t that great of a guy but then kept him out of jail. Sherlock is really good at doing what he thinks is the right thing to do and in this situation it seems that letting an old man die in his home is the better choice than setting a younger, innocent man free. Sure the younger man was set free anyway based on the evidence but still, he doesn’t do what is “right” and does what he believes to be right. This situation adds more depth to our (anti)hero and creates a much more complex character than Elementary has done, so far at least.
Watson waited until the old man had died before publishing the story so that might be why he published it. The dead old guy can’t go to jail since he’s, you know, dead. There are other stories where Watson mentions that he changes the names of the people involved so that could’ve been what happened here, just not talked about. What I’m saying is that you probably totally missed it. Way to go.
A day after reading this one and I’m having problems remembering the details again. It is pretty bland if I’m honest. Yeah there are a few odd clues to throw the reader off the scent but in general it wasn’t outrageous, it wasn’t exciting, it was a very typical murder. I’m sure at the time it was written and published it was a bit more scandalous.  Australia hadn’t been an actual country for too long and even at the time this was written, it was mainly known as a land full of scoundrels and all around bad guys. That would give the audience plausibility that not one, but two pretty terrible people came from Australia.
I almost wonder if this story just hasn’t aged well. What say you? Do you think that some of these adventures are showing their age? That they aren’t aging gracefully? That they’re pulling a Madonna and not a Meryl Streep?

Meryl Streep in an Oscar-winning performance as Margaret Thatcher
Austin: And 100% of the people who I've talked to about this agree with me, except for one little girl who takes five letters to spell one syllable...

Oh sure Watson changed the names and whatnot. Lestrade knows what's up. I'm sure he read the Strand and was rather ticked. Friends of the family as well could probably figure the changed details. It would be cool to see if there were ramifications from this, but I doubt we're seeing that sort of serialization at play. Maybe his last story will be a Seinfeld-esque clip show with cameos of all the pissed people that Sherlock has bothered returning.

Aside from Doyle's wonderful consistency with properly representing other countries, I think this holds up rather well. I don't think every mystery needs to be completely flashy with bizarre elements. That could distract from the key mystery at the center. I think this is a better example of what Doyle can accomplish than something like "The Red Headed League" because it shows what Sherlock set to accomplish in "A Study in Scarlet". The power of deduction solving a case without being tempted away by other beliefs.

Still the best documentary we've ever seen about Australia

In fact with Sherlock's odd moral ending, this has best of both aspects of the character. The observing quality of The Terminator with the human element mixed into the how he decides to handle the information. This is a story that may have worked better in his novella length to avoid his long passages of describing what happened off screen.

So I'll stick with this maybe not being the most memorable, but it's a good story done rather well. But what does Leigh say? Here she is with the last word.

Leigh: RAT!

1 comment:

  1. I didn't get to this one in my collection in time, but I'm all for characterization. Depth heretofore unplumbed in Sherlock's psyche, and yet not wholly unexpected: he works with the law, but not for the law.

    To get geeky for a moment: Lestrade and Gaspard (or whoever the heck it is) play the lawful stupid vein of police officer; the kind that thinks "this is the law, and I can draw a line from this person to the end of it, and so I'm doing good" whether or not they're actually right. Sherlock is the true Lawful Good; he does a good thing after analyzing all the facts. It may not fit nicely into our little cookie cutter, law and order kind of world, but it's still a good thing to do. Bitter pill, no?

    Definite bromance between Watson and Sherlock, but who can blame the doctor? Finally some excitement that gets him out of the house and stimulates his own rather stilted intelligence. I bet it almost feels like being back in medical school, all bright eyed and eager, learning something new every time you turned the corner. Nothing like the heady rush of intellectualism (as Sherlock could tell you).

    My final word? BALDERDASH! Just because I like the way it sounds.