Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Book Review: "The Red-Headed League" (Doyle, 1891)

“As far as you are personally concerned,” remarked Holmes, “I do not see that you have any grievance against this extraordinary league. On the contrary, you are, as I understand, richer by some £30, to say nothing of the minute knowledge which you have gained on every subject which comes under the letter A. You have lost nothing by them.”
--Sherlock Holmes, “The Red-Headed League”

Leigh: So this week we tackle the Curious Case of the Ginger We’re Supposed to Care About. Or The Adventure in Finding Out if Gingers Have Souls. Or something else attempting to be witty and pithy and falling short.
This short format is something that I really like about ACD’s writing. We have a short, easy to digest, easy to read story that really doesn’t take that long to get through. It’s perfect for a child to read if they are interested in mysteries or it’s great reading before bed. You don’t have to worry about losing your place because if push comes to shove, you can just read the whole thing over and you haven’t really lost that much time, not that I have any experience with this. It’s a fun little adventure that doesn’t feature a life-threatening case or anything too thrilling. And it’s a fun little story with little odd clues. Gingers? Who really wants to hire a ginger, I mean willingly, of course, let alone put out an ad specifically for gingers.
We get a classic story with a bit of a twist with the Red Headed League. We have a bank heist but not one that is SUPER easy to predict. It’s even mimicked by real life theft attempts such as the Baker Street robbery. COINCIDENCE!? Probably… That was later depicted by Jason Statham with some pretty lackluster ‘70s sideburns. The reveal at the end is a bit unbelievable, I mean, why would a bunch of people want to hide out in a basement if not for a fantastic surprise to the crooks? Over all though, it’s fun and not too strenuous and when it comes down to it, that’s all I want in a book. That and more pictures.
So you're saying if I pull this off, I am not obligated to say "yes" to The Expendables 3?

Now to the bits that I don’t like about this story, besides the lack of pictures. It really has to deal more with format. I understand that ACD was constantly hoping new readers would read the stories in the Strand and discover Sherlock Holmes but having a situation at the beginning of every story where Sherlock tells someone their entire life history just by looking at their clothes is a bit tiresome. I know that these were serialized and one almost has to do that at the beginning of every adventure, but it would be nice for it to not be so formulaic. Throw a wrench into the mix every once in a while, don’t have everyone meet in the sitting room and Holmes tells them what they had for breakfast in 1890, but have our heroes meet someone on the street or in a pub or something. Change something about the situation to make it seem less repetitive. I know I’m generalizing but that’s what I do best, that and complain.
 What do you think, Austin? Do the adventures seem a bit cut and paste or am I being too picky?  And what was with all the gingers? 

Austin: I'm going to give Doyle a little leeway on repetition at this stage in our marathon. He released these stories to the Strand and I don't think he had any plans right away to put them into a collection. Even though he does the client assessment a bit too many times, at least it still has little amusing things in it. Like how Sherlock knew this guy was a Freemason...he was wearing a Freemason pin. Sometimes it's easy.

This case is a very interesting one because it's a realization that Sherlock Holmes is in the mystery genre out of convenience. It doesn't have to be a murder; he's not a homicide detective. Sherlock Holmes is a puzzle solver. It's not necessarily about helping people, but figuring out what the hell is going on. In this story, Sherlock has him repeat all of the details of "The Red-Headed League" that may not be necessary to figure out what's the next step, but he just wants to hear how weird it all is.

And it is weird! I'm still not entirely sure this story makes the most sense. It is definitely convoluted and not the most satisfying. But those odd bits are entertaining enough. What I did like about this story is that Doyle seems to be trying to make London as exciting as the other parts of the world. He's making an adventure story in the reader's backyard. That works better in "Bohemia" with all of the fire and disguises that could all happen on a nice street. This story requires more coincidences to pull off, but it still involves a (soulless) average Joe getting into the middle of something more exciting.

I didn't hate this story, but it's easily the weakest of the four we've read. Now the important question, to tie into the point of our blog, are we being too nice on it? We've been ripping apart episodes of Elementary. Should we be doing the same to this plot? Or what makes an average Doyle story more effective than the typical episode of Elementary?

Leigh: You bring up a very good question, one that I’m sure our readers have also pondered. Are we going too easy on Doyle here? Are we too enamored by Sherlock Holmes to look at the flaws of the stories? I think there are multiple parts to the answer for this so I’ll try to answer the best I can.
Should we be ripping this plot apart like we have with Elementary? The problems with Elementary aren’t just with the plots of the episodes. Yeah, the plots are terrible and a bit pointless, but that isn’t the only issue we’ve found with Elementary. The Holmes and Watson that the show has presented us are two-dimensional, half developed characters attempting to be something that they just aren’t. Hopefully this will change. I still have a glimmer of hope for the Elementary writers getting their act together and fixing the mess they’ve made. (I would like to add a note here that for this blog, I have cleaned up my language considerably. I should get a prize for that, dammit.)
What makes an average Doyle story more effective than the typical episode of Elementary? “Red Headed League” is by far the weakest we’ve read so far but it is still an enjoyable read. It’s so silly and ridiculous that it’s fun. All of the gingers being rounded up, I mean, applying for one job position? Sitting in a room and copying the Encyclopedia? And then the job just disappears? These are weird clues that make the reader interested and want to read more. The audience for Elementary isn’t presented any clues and they’re all rounded up at the end for a big reveal. There is no audience participation and that is what all good mystery/crime procedurals need. If they audience at home can’t play along, they’re gonna get bored. If the writers don’t want them to play along, give them something else to pay attention to like characters or even red herrings. Not even presenting the clues is like telling the audience that they’re too dumb to understand so why bother trying to tell them what’s going on. Personally, I don’t like it when my intelligence is insulted.
So long and thanks for all the freckles

So are we going to easy on Doyle? We can forgive him when he makes mistakes because he has shown us with the first few stories that he can do better. We know that Sherlock has some amazing adventures and that they are some of the greatest mysteries ever. Much like Bohemia though, not every one can be remarkable.  There are going to be some that are a bit more ridiculous and goofy and kinda lame, but we forgive that because Doyle has earned it. The writers for Elementary haven’t earned that yet. They haven’t shown us that they can be fantastic and show these characters doing remarkable things and solving seemingly impossible mysteries. They’ve shown us mediocrity at it’s finest.
I have my serious pants on today, if you can’t tell, so you get to try to answer me this: Why gingers? Why an encyclopedia? Is copying the encyclopedia the equivalent of scanning every page of a book, page by page?

Austin: Criticism is basically the articulation of a personal emotional response. I have fun with Doyle and I don't with Elementary. (Not yet anyway.) To me, the big strength with Doyle is still the warmness of his lead characters. Thanks to our discussion of Dressed to Kill last week, I read this story with Basil Rathbone as the lead. Especially the way he was very kind to Watson; how he was happy that he was able to take part in this adventure. Elementary doesn't have that because as we've discussed, we're not sure they even like each other.

I like your series of questions. Why gingers? Why are they copying the encyclopedia? The answer is obviously: Why not! There is fun in the absurdity. I enjoyed the short story more when it was just a bunch of weird things. It didn't tie together perfectly so the ending wasn't as great, but it's still fun to stumble upon the weirdness that is there for the weirdness. In LOST what was more fun: Having Sayid being surrounded in the woods by whispers or dryly finding out what they were? 

Doyle was wisely set up a mystery series that is only interested in handling the goofiest cases because anything conventional would be too dull for the smartest man who ever picked up a magnifying glass. Watson is allowed to react like a normal person by saying this is all insane, but like the audience he's completely along for the ride to see what's behind the next mysterious door.

And now Leigh Montano with the last word.

Leigh: Gingers

Editor's Note: Thursday is the Opening Night for the Heartland Film Festival and Friday is a really big screening day. Expect a slightly later review for this week's Elementary because Austin's not sure when he'll have 45 free minutes. If all of you buy tickets, I'm sure he can manage something during his lunch break...


  1. This is my Other Half's favourite story of all the Holmsian mysteries so I feel compelled to comment.

    First: Leigh? Really? Red Herring? I saw what you did there you naughty girl.

    Second: this really is a very Holmsian mystery simply because it is just so off the wall. Could you really see any police officer being slightly interested in why a bunch of men are being hired to copy out the encyclopaedia? And why only men with red hair are asked for and hired? Nope. They're too grounded in the mundane to look at that and think beyond "That's weird". Only Holmes could thing "That's weird. Why is that weird?" and then go out and find out precisely why. Like in the restaurant in *Sherlock*, Cumberbatch's Holmes comments: "That's clever. Really? That's clever? Why is that clever?". Holmes second guesses those things normal people would simply dismiss. That is also a sign of his genius. This one wasn't something glamourous, not really, but it was different, and odd, and enough to pull his mind into a state other than self-destructive boredom.

    Third: I do agree that the starting in the parlour bit did and would get old if you're reading them all together, but spread out, it's nice to have that reminder of where their home base is, and to get a refresher of just what Holmes is and how he works. It's a starting point, like picking up a quest in a tavern. Sure you get bored with it, but Holmes starting in a parlour is just as classically cliche.

    Finally: Seriously, Leigh? Red Herring. I'm still smarting.

    Love the pics, too; "The Doctor. Doctor. Fun."

    1. HAHAHA! The red herring thing was completely unintentional, I promise.

      As per usual, you are spot on with your comments. Holmes would want to figure out why all of these odd and off the wall things were happening and want to solve the problem.

      I feel like the opening is like the one chapter of Harry Potter books 2, 3 and 4. You knew they were recapping so you knew you could skip it, especially if you're marathoning them. You see the opening with the parlor and you know that you can just skim that portion because it's only sorta needed. I know that this changes eventually, much like the Harry Potter books, we just have to get to that point in the writing.