Thursday, December 13, 2012

Book Review: "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb" (Doyle, 1892)

(Please excuse the delay. Both of us were traveling this week and Leigh totally forgot what day it was until Tuesday.)

“And now, Doctor, perhaps you would kindly attend to my thumb, or rather to the place where my thumb used to be.”
– Victor Hatherley, “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb”

Leigh: This week we have a story about an engineer who is put under pressure then doesn't make the cut but the details of the story aren't what make this case interesting. Okay, this case is a really interesting one and in my list of favorites for being intense and unusual, but how the story is told is what makes this adventure stand out. Instead of the case coming to Sherlock Holmes and unraveling from there and then being solved, the audience is told the story as it happened to the engineer. Sherlock Holmes is a much a part of the audience as we are in this case. We've listened to other people tell their stories in the adventures and we've complained about it. After the engineer told his story, I almost forgot that it was a Sherlock Holmes story. Sherlock only interrupts to ask a question once and based on that one question, he figures out the location of the house. While the case itself is exciting and different, I don't think that Sherlock Holmes' part was really needed. The one clue that helps him decide where the events took place was all that he was needed for and in the end, I think that an average police officer would've figured it out, especially if they arrived to a house on fire. Personally, I think Watson was just as useful in this case as Sherlock Holmes was and that rarely happens.

And can I talk about something important here? The old saying goes "nothing but trouble happens after midnight." I've heard this more in relation to a girl going over to a guy's house to hang out after midnight but I think that it is entirely applicable here. Especially if the person inviting you says, "Don't tell anyone about this ever at all period." Also, why are some people so thick that when they are told, "Hey, you should leave. Now." they decide to stay? Seriously. I don't think that this was originally intended to be a "worse case scenario" for teen party-goers but I think it could be used now as one. If you go out after midnight and are told not to tell anyone anything, there is going to be trouble and you'll probably end up dead. If you are told to leave by someone at the party, you should probably leave before you make an ass out of yourself or you get your ass kicked/thumb chopped off. That is the main message I got from this story and that's what I'll tell my kids this story is about when I read it to them when they're going to bed. I'm going to be a terrible mother.

 Austin: Well when your kids ignore your advice and lose their thumbs in cruel irony not only will they learn their lesson but all of the kids in their school will know about the Thumbless Ones and what mischief can lead to.

This is an odd story. Not one of my favorites because Sherlock Holmes is basically irrelevant. As they started their carriage to the grounds, I couldn't help but notice there were very few pages left. The ending is almost a mocking of a Holmes third act.

"I think we should go west!"
"No, it's east! We must search east!"
"What do you think Holmes?"
"The house is on fire. End of mystery!"

Then it ends. We don't even know if they attached the blasted thumb.

Much less dramatic than losing an actual thumb.

That said, I did enjoy his story and would enjoy it more on a reread because I won't be searching for what to solve. They had their best hook yet to the beginning. Instead of sitting down and starting from the beginning and getting to the odd element of the mystery, we start off with a guy who lost his thumb and pressured the bleeding with a twig.

I think I know your answer but should we judge this story just as a story or should it be seen though the filters of a "Sherlock Holmes story" or even as a mystery? Can it be a good short story and a bad mystery? Is it even a mystery?

Leigh: My kids will have enough difficulty in life because I'll be raising them. Being thumbless would give them an awesome story to tell though and I'm all about having fun stories to tell at random parties or in elevators to complete strangers or to myself because I'm bored.

Now for your questions.

Is this a good Sherlock Holmes story?: No.
Is this a good short story?: Yes! 
Is this a good mystery?: No.
Is it even a mystery?: Eh, I don't think so. 

The story itself, I felt was interesting. If you cut out Sherlock Holmes and make it about a guy who goes to the doctor because his thumb was cut off, I think it would be a really neat short story. I don't think it's a mystery though. As we both said, there wasn't really anything to figure out. There was no mystery. It was a thriller, definitely! I think this is one of the most suspenseful stories we've read yet! But because the genre wasn't really defined in ACD's day, can we really fault him? We've brought up this question before. I couldn't tell you what I had said but I think right now we can't blame him for making a story that wasn't a mystery but we can blame him for making a story that isn't like his others at all. There is a difference between having a story be unique in a set but still fit within the set and then there is what we have here. We have a story that doesn't fit the rest of the collection that we've seen so far. I think that this would've been really successful as a one-off in an issue of The Strand. Or even just have the story be about Watson but never go to see Holmes. There was a time period where Holmes was missing (SPOILER ALERT! lulz!) and I think that this story would've been a nice "While he was gone" story. ACD didn't really know that he was going to try to kill off Holmes though so I guess that idea doesn't work...

Austin: In my mind the best reason for having Holmes there is so there is someone for Watson to compare himself to. The first few pages consist of him bragging about how amazing this story is and how he found it on his own.

I always enjoy the concept of an unreliable narrator. I don't think it's a radical theory to suggest that Watson restructured this story to make him look better. I bet in "real life" Sherlock did all sorts of clever things aside from ask about the horse colors. Watson just took creative liberty and made himself the hero in a story where our heroes don't do anything.

This was a fun odd all of a story that I plan on rereading before next week's adventure. Yet this week everyone should prepare to watch a Classic Doctor Who story that is undeniably awesome and questionably a Sherlock Holmes tale. Get excited!

And here is Leigh Montano with the last word.

Leigh: THUMB!

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