Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Book Review: "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" (Doyle, 1892)

“On glancing over my notes of the seventy odd cases in which I have during the last eight years studied the methods of my friend Sherlock Holmes, I find many tragic, some comic, a large number merely strange, but none commonplace…”
--Dr. John Watson, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”

Leigh: Case of the Speckled BLAND, amirite? No, but I love this story. If I had to pick one of the short form ACD stories to be the definitive Sherlock Holmes adventure, this one would be it, I think. It has the complex mystery that the longer stories have but in a much more compact story. We get the background of the situation without having to sit through too much excess information and we still have a grasp on what's going on. We don't learn about the doctor's time in India more than he was there and then left, because we don't need it. We don't need to know why he killed someone, just that he did. I think this might be the best-written short form Sherlock Holmes adventure. ACD was really on form for this one.

But of course I have some questions and critiques. I wish there was a class that I could take called "Inheritance and allowances in Victorian era England" because everything I've learned about how much money people are allowed each year is from Sherlock Holmes novels and Downton Abbey. One might say that it is incomplete. I don't understand where the allowance comes from. I understand that their mother left it to them but where is it right now? Why can't they get all of it at once? Why does their money fluctuate with the market? If anyone can answer these questions for me, you get internet points. 

What's an allowance?

We have had a similar story to this one before. Not with the deadly snake or anything, but with the stepfather trying to con his stepdaughter out of money. The first was an actual con and this one was murder. What has changed so much in the past ~125 years to make mysteries less about just killing someone out of passion and killing them because of money? There are a lot of TV crime dramas that center around someone killing someone over their fortune but more often than not, it's for some other deranged reason. What has changed? Has the focus of the public/media changed or have the criminals changed? 

I feel like a four year old today, asking every question ever but my inquiring mind wants to know. 

So, Austin, why?

Austin: What? No I don't know anything about Victorian allowance systems. Even the allure of internet points isn't going to make me research that topic. I'll just wait until you have half a Woodchuck and you investigate it yourself.

Anywho, this story is so awesome. It's essentially a locked room mystery filled with insanity. What I loved about rereading this one is finding all of the humor in the story. The story begins with Holmes appearing at the end of Watson's bed while he was asleep. There's a great little bit with Holmes saying the only way to solve the case is for him and Watson to be in her room that night. She is a bit startled that he just proposed a rather indecent payment for the case. Then of course you have the constant reminder that the house contains a cheetah and a baboon.

It's wonderfully absurd. The story basically relies on it being absurd. If the original girl would just scream "Snake!" this whole thing would be over, but instead she screamed "Band!". All of this fits in a story where you have a criminal who would think of a plan like this to sneak a snake through a ventilator. Such a thing would be impossible to solve because it's insane. That's why this is my favorite Sherlock Holmes because he doesn't judge the insanity, only looks at the facts.

Oh shit! A band!

In fact, he basically solved it before he even got to the house in a wonderful bit of bragging at the end.

As for your pondering on the motive, I think you still see plenty of examples of both. Usually if something is this calculated and involving rare snakes, you have a better reason than hating the person. The amount of planning will last longer than the initial emotion of anger. Crimes of passion can happen so easily because we live in a world where anything can kill someone. Mysteries need a satisfying resolution due to their puzzle structure. Audiences will probably be unsatisfied with "I hated that guy" as a reason for the murder. Needs backstory and motive and blah blah blah. What it really needs is more swamp addlers.

Enough of your questionings over nitpicks. What makes this one of the best stories ever?

Leigh: I'm only nitpicky because I love it so much, like an overprotective mother.

For me, the best part of this whole story is when Holmes says that he was wrong and that he didn't come to the right conclusion in the first place. It's not often that the infallible man admits he was wrong. This whole story was another glimpse into the character of Sherlock Holmes that just adds more to the complex character that he is. Instead of being the usual cold person that he is, when the living twin is visibly upset, he is soothing and tries not to put her on edge any more than she already is. He tells her to get closer to the fire to get warmer, he gives her a good "there there" pat on the arm, and instead of showing off and patronizing her, he calmly explains how he figured out how she got there. He usually isn't this comforting towards women and often thinks that their bouts of emotion are silly but here he is different and kinder. Why is that, I don't know but I'll allow it.

We see how Holmes reacts to threats, no matter how serious they might be. Holmes does this by simply ignoring any threatening motions that the evil doctor presented by talking about the weather and flowers. This guy has killed people and at that point, was planning on doing it again and yet Holmes just sits calmly talking about crocuses. And then to show the audience that he can hold his own in any fight, he unbends an iron poker. I don't know if you've tried to bend an iron poker, but it's not easy. 

And finally, we see that Holmes has a different set of morals that he adheres to than the rest of us. If I had unintentionally caused someone's death, I would feel terrible and probably require years of therapy, even if the person I killed was a grade A jerk. Yet here, Holmes shows no remorse at all. He basically said, "Yeah, I killed that guy. What of it? You wanna fight about it?" He doesn't tell the coroner or the police what he did and doesn't feel the need to. He's alright with the country thinking that this guy died because he was playing with a dangerous snake. By the way, I'm all for exotic and interesting animals as pets but a cheetah, a baboon and a deadly snake all in one house? Wouldn't the police or something get involved? Or the RSPCA or something? Or were exotic animal laws different then than now? Someone should just make me a course on Victorian Era laws and how they differ from our modern ones. More internet points for anyone who does and even a pretend cookie!

Austin: This is the real character showcase for Holmes. It's all we love about him wrapped up in this story. Emotional, aloof, bizarre, bragging, imperfect, and a bit violent. Watson isn't overshadowed by any of this oddly enough. This is where he plays the role as the biographer very well. All of his questions and ponderings are never belittling because the story is so mysterious. This is one of the best paced Doyle stories where even with long monologues of information.

Perhaps it's because I have to run out the door to head to Chicago, but I think we've covered it. Of course on the drive I'll think of all the things more I wanted to say. 

The Spectacled Band

Instead, I'll plug what we're going to talk about soon. On Friday we'll finally tackle one of the billion adaptations of “The Hound of the Baskervilles". First up will be the 1959 version starring Peter Cushing (best known for his small part in Star Wars and playing "Dr. Who" in a couple of bad Dalek films.) This is available on Netflix Instant.

Next week we'll be covering the next Doyle story as usual. Then on Friday we'll be reviewing something I am very excited about. When Tom Baker was the star of Doctor Who in the 70s, there was a glorious golden period of the show when the writing and the style was top notch. In one beloved story, The Doctor changed his wardrobe and took on a Sherlockian case. So we'll be reviewing that awesome story called...."The Talons of Weng-Chiang"

Get excited.

And here's Leigh Montano with the final word.

Leigh: Why'sitalwayshavetobesnakes?

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