Friday, May 10, 2013

Book Report: The Crooked Man (Doyle, 1893)

“And you intend to ask him?”
“Most certainly—but in the presence of a witness.”
“And I am the witness?”
“If you will be so good.”
--Watson and Holmes, “The Crooked Man”

Leigh: Yet again we get a flashback that sends us to India. And yet again, someone is deceived while in India by someone they could trust. Convenient plot point or is it some sort of symbolism? "Don't go to India with your friends because they aren't really your friends and they will try to kill you/steal your treasure/steal your special lady." It seems when we travel to America, we lose something and that's why we go to England. But in India, we are usually deceived. Do you think this is more of a reflection of the time or just a happy coincidence or am I reading too much in to this at all?

The mystery this week starts off a bit differently because Holmes comes to Watson. That doesn't happen too often but it's a nice change of pace when it does happen. We don't get the fun of walking around with Holmes and finding the clues though because he already has most of them. The only clue we get to go and find with Holmes leads to the backstory in India. It didn't feel as much of a mystery to me as it did a more complex riddle. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed this story because it was complex and fun to read but I didn't feel like it was a mystery. Am I wrong? What makes a mystery a mystery? And what is with the mongoose? What was the point of having it at all?


Austin: Leigh, you've seen the way academic scholars think. You know there is no such thing as a happy coincidence or reading too much into things. Yes, there is a paper to be written about Doyle and his opinion of India but I'm just going to chalk it down to him adding danger to exotic lands again, which makes for a good adventure.

You're right, this didn't feel a lot like a mystery. It's more like Holmes telling Watson a story...again. Luckily I thought this one was more exciting than some of his own flashbacks, but it was still remarkably linear. That could be because Watson and the audience are coming into the mystery almost complete. He just needed Watson as a witness to a questioning--which is really just an excuse to bring the audience along into this case. Fine by me. The only thing that annoyed me by this structure was we just recently had Holmes arrive at Watson's home and that was a shocking thing. I'm not perfect on my timelines, but I believe "The Crooked Man" came before that story.

On whether or not this a mystery, I'm not sure it matters entirely. Sherlock Holmes is often labeled as the Great Detective, but the more we read Doyle, the more I realize he's just a mender of society. He has no judicial power so he's just consulted when there is confusion in town. Be it a red-headed league or the occasional murder. There weren't a lot of traditional twists and turns. We hear the riddle played out and then we watch Holmes follow up on his theory with a bit of ease.

So if the normal structure of a mystery with red herrings and clues and investigation doesn't fully apply to this tale, what makes this so entertaining? Is it the exotic locale? The marital strife? The mongoose?

Leigh: The more I've thought about this story, the more it reminds of me of those riddles that we used to do when we were kids. The one that comes to mind is a scuba diver is found dead in the middle of a forest with only a puddle of water around him. How did he get there? But instead our riddle is that a man drops dead while arguing with his wife and she's the only one in a locked room. How/why did he die? Sure there is a mysterious element to it but we don't really get to ask the questions before they're answered. Part of the fun of a mystery is asking questions and trying to figure them out before the protagonist does, at least that's why I enjoy them.

"The Adventure of the Plot-Starting Scuba Diver!"

But this isn't one of those. It's still incredibly enjoyable and I think it's more because it isn't that predictable of a riddle. It at least isn't as predictable as some of the other ACD stories we've read. I don't really enjoy having the story told to us and this one we get not one, but two story times. I know that ACD isn't talking down the audience but in those moments I can't help but feel like a kindergartener being rounded up before nap time. But we have interesting characters, interesting plot points and even a mongoose. Mongooses (mongeese?) always add a bit of excitement even if they're only there to confuse the audience slightly before the mystery is solved. I think the main excitement of the story though is trying to prove that a woman is innocent even though everything points against it but even then I never really thought she was in trouble. Do you think that her friend withholding evidence upped the thrill of the "mystery" or do you think it was a bit lazy? 

Austin: Perhaps there's more to the title of this collection than I've thought. I used to interpret "Memoirs" as a synonym for "Adventures" but this seems to fall into yet another example of Sherlock Holmes becoming more of the storyteller of the collection. Watson isn't just relaying information of the adventures that he witnessed, but simply transcribing the stories of Sherlock Holmes.

But back to "The Crooked Man" (which was the name of the monster in the recent Doctor Who episode "Hide"). I think the withholding of mystery is a cheat. It's a cheat I'll allow due to the shortness of time. There was a recent and brilliant article written by Film Crit Hulk on arguing what is and isn't a plot hole. In that there is an understanding that certain things do have to happen or there isn't a story. Throughout most of these stories, things could have been clarified with simple communication but if that happened then nothing would have happened. Ultimately the best stories are the ones that are the tightest with every action making complete sense to a fully realized character but in the course of a riddle, I'm fine with the British being very British.

"It's a family show!"
Next up we have a very odd and forgotten film we're going to review starring John Cleese as Arthur Sherlock Holmes. It's called The Strange Case of the End of Civilization As We Know It and you can find it on YouTube right HERE.

And here is Leigh Montano with the final word...

Leigh: Story-time!

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