Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Book Report: "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" (Doyle, 1903)

“I ought to make you sign a paper to that effect.”
“Because in five minutes you will say that it is all so absurdly simple.”
“I am sure I shall say nothing of the kind.”

--Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”

Leigh: I feel like I've started every email of the new book off with, "I really liked this story" but it's true. I really did like this one. The first time I listened to it, the person reading it tried to read every little picture as well which just made it frustrating to listen to. Add to the fact that I was working at 5am while listening to them and needless to say that I didn't remember this one much while reading it this time around so it was like I was reading it for the first time.

And while I liked this story, the first half of it, I couldn't help but think, "Didn't we read this one already?" It seems that there are a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories that have a wife who has a secret that she won't tell her husband so he goes behind her back to find out what is going on. I felt a little ripped off while reading the first half because I felt like I've read this before with “The Yellow Face”. There always seems to be a bit of a formula with Doyle's stories but this one felt more formulaic than normal at first.

I can't translate this. It's way too vulgar.

But then it gets interesting. There's a murder that is the turning point in the story for me and which seems to be happening more often in Sherlock Holmes' world, and a crazy set of dancing guys which is a secret language made up by an organized crime group of some sort. So possible mafia and a murder definitely makes it more interesting than a little girl with a weird mask. 

Is it just me, or do the stakes seem higher more often now? It feels like every story has a possibility of murder or an innocent being blamed for a crime. It doesn't seem like it's as simple as a husband who is posing as a bum or a girl being held captive by her family. Those could be considered serious but murder is more serious I feel.

What did you think?

Austin: You're right. This seemed very similar to that earlier story when there was the young married couple who didn't communicate well. What's great about this opening is that even Sherlock thinks is familiar. He felt like Abed at the beginning calling out Watson for his repetitive responses. Then during the story Sherlock even says, why don't you just ask what her secret is. Like the previous story, I was really impressed with Doyle's writing during the huge exposition dump. He really made Hilton Cubitt (dumb name) feel like a real person.


I did not see that coming and I felt genuinely bad about this. You're right, the stakes are raised. This isn't a stupid mystery where an affair is hidden. There's something crazy going on and it involves these dancing men. Was this Doyle's homage to Treasure Island? Because these symbols reminded me a lot of the Black Dot. (However this was more complicated.)

Treasure Island. Muppet Treasure Island. Cabin Fever song. Dancing Men. KEEP UP.

 Things become more exciting as Doyle explores a new exotic terrain: Chicago! Which is filled to the brim with mobsters. Abe Slaney (also dumb name) was a good villain because of how ruthless he was and bizarrely threatening. Honestly, I'm not even sure he needed a code to get his message across but he did it anyway. The use of the code was such a wonderful Sherlock Holmes oddity with the darkness of the message with the gleeful absurdity of dancing stick figures. 

Now as fun as it was, did it entirely play fair? Did the story connect the dots in an intelligent manner or were there some jumps? I know one thing bugs me a little bit.

Leigh: If there's one thing that we can agree on it's that after Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Arthur Conan Doyle kinda sucked at naming people. His characters that he creates for these mysteries that are just one offs have some of the dumbest names. 

There is one thing in the whole plot solving bit (which wasn't so much Sherlock retelling what he had already done around a fire but more of an explanation which I really enjoyed) that did annoy me. There is a theory that was written by Rex Stout that Watson was a woman and Holmes' wife. It's a relatively interesting theory until he gets to the part where he is explaining how he figured it all out. It is literally him picking random numbers that correlate with Sherlock Holmes story titles and they JUST SO HAPPEN to spell out Irene Watson. There's no rhyme or reason as to why he picked the letters he did except that they happen to eventually spell out Irene. That was the point where I rolled my eyes so much that Liz Lemon would've been proud of me.

Liz is so proud of you, Leigh, she's choosing to look at you instead of Oprah.

When Holmes was explaining how he started figuring out the code, it sorta felt like that. Sure, guessing with "e" is a pretty safe bet but I've watched enough Wheel of Fortune to know that there isn't always going to be an E in every word. There have been plenty of people lose their possible $30,000 because they got a word with no E's and 3 L's. 

That scene seemed a bit more of guessing from Sherlock Holmes than is appropriate, I think. Holmes has always said that guessing is a bad thing. (“I never guess. It is a shocking habit — destructive to the logical faculty”) and yet, here he is just kinda taking a stab at it. I also didn't feel that the whole situation was explained. Slaney shoots at Cubitt and kills him, Cubitt misses Slaney, somehow the wife was severely injured in all of this. Did I miss that part in my attempts not to fall asleep (just because I was tired, not because the story was boring) or was it not explained very well? And really, how obsessive do you have to be to travel to a different continent to try to marry a woman who is happily married to someone else? I think the characters here, while interesting, don't really make sense with their actions most of the time. Just think of how creepy that guy would've been if it were present day and he had Facebook and things like that? 

Austin: That's exactly what I was alluding to! Those damned "e's. So many aspects of mysteries are about cracking the uncrackable codes. Having each dance refer to a different letter wasn't that crazy of a concept. Everybody take note because this isn't going to happen again for awhile, but I thought Elementary handled the code solving techniques better than Doyle did. 

Codes are the perfect example of why people are so interested to this day about the character of Sherlock Holmes. It's about the truth being hidden in plain sight but only the truly intelligent or perceptive are able to solve it. I still think the best example of a code like that being used in media was in the first season of The Wire where it took a brilliant detective weeks to figure out how uneducated gangsters were hiding their cell phone numbers. Even though The Wire wasn't popular in its first season, to spread this little puzzle over a few episodes means that the audience has all that time to crack it before the characters. Yet the answer is so wonderfully brilliant because it's so simple. (It helps that it was based off a real technique used by criminals.)

"The code was 1-2-3-4-5 which is also the combination on my luggage."

As for the complications that were literally witnessed, I'm not sure how much I can clarify. Holmes seems to have found the murderer and the law decided the rest of the guilt. The American psychologically messed with the wife, confronted them, fired at the husband (we'll never know who fired first), and it all ends with the wife killing herself, perhaps as a dark act of revenge.

At the end of the day, Sherlock isn't interested in being a barrister. He just wants the truth and he found it even if that truth was ridiculous. This will be especially true later this week when Sherlock Holmes has a cell phone and that helps him solve a string of serial suicides. Get excited.
And here is Leigh Montano with the last word…


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