The Adventures of “the Reigate Squires” and “the Second Stain”: Doyle’s Version of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup

I’ve decided that the scariest part of the double-up weeks, for me, is this need I have to find something that connects these two stories that  could potentially have nothing whatsoever in common.  It helps to have a common thread between them to frame the discussion around, after all.

With the first pair, “The Musgrave Ritual” and “The Gloria Scott,” I lucked out that they both gave me the opportunity to discuss point of view and Holmes as a young, fledgling detective, but that’s not always going to be the case.  Not when each week’s assignment is based solely on hints some poor Sherlockian pried out of the text to affix a date to the story, at which point I begin to question this chronological approach thing.  Thankfully, “The Adventure of the Reigate Squires” (or “the Reigate Puzzle”, since it’s known by both titles depending on where you look) and “The Adventure of the Second Stain” go together like peanut butter and chocolate (hence the post title).

What makes “Reigate” and “Second Stain” such good companion pieces, you ask?  Well, there’s a few things, actually.  To start, let’s focus on what they have in common. Both stories revolve around someone being burgled, and someone dying as an indirect result of said initial burglary, the degree of indirectness being relative.  “Reigate” involves a pair of break-ins in the English countryside, one that ends in murder, that Holmes and Watson accidentally find themselves involved in while Holmes is recovering from the strain of another case (we’ll get to that later).  “The Second Stain” involves the disappearance of something very mysterious from a high-ranking member of British politics’ home and the subsequent death of an underworld figure.  In both cases, it’s Holmes’ astute skills of observation, as much as his keen deductive capabilities, that lead to the solution of the crimes.

Doyle also shows the reader the softer side of each of our valiant heroes in these stories.  With Holmes ill, Watson is afforded the opportunity in “Reigate” not only to play doctor (minds out of the gutter; I was referring to his profession) but to display his finely tuned nagging tendencies as well.  He’s not only a physician looking after a patient when he nags Holmes to rest – he’s also a concerned friend.  He whisks Holmes off to the estate of an old Army friend in Surrey as much to pull him away from the temptation of crime-ridden London as for the fresh air and sunshine.  And then there’s the scolding.  Consider the following exchange that happens when Colonel Hayter tells the boys about the most recent burglary:

But I held up a warning finger.

’You are here for a rest, my dear fellow.  For heaven’s sake, don’t get started on a new problem when your nerves are all in shreds.’

Holmes shrugged his shoulders with a glance of comic resignation towards the colonel, and the talk drifted away into less dangerous channels.

People have called Holmes and Watson “an old married couple” before, and snippets like this would be why.  Watson’s tsk-tsk, followed by Holmes’ long-suffering look to the Colonel, reads like a scene between any sitcom couple.  Keep in mind, too, this is still early Holmes and Watson in the beginnings of their friendship, and they’ve already settled into this familiar pattern.  This is all pre-Mary Morstan.  More importantly, pre-“The Final Problem.”  These are the boys before Holmes’ “betrayal” and Watson’s grief.  Holmes faking his death altered the dynamic even more than Watson’s marriage: how well do you trust someone after they’ve lied to you to that extent, after all, and how does that change your relationship with that person?  But that discussion is a ways off yet.

“Second Stain,” on the other hand, is one of those stories that shows us the endless mystery that is Holmes’ relationship with women.  They aren’t his expertise, as he points out, and he has no plans to muddle his focus with romance, but he has a definite soft spot for the opposite sex.  There will be more on this when I get to “A Scandal in Bohemia,” but Holmes’ treatment of Lady Trelawney Hope in the course of the investigation into the item taken from her husband’s safekeeping is almost chivalrous, particularly the final time they cross paths.  It could be said that Holmes has never met a damsel in distress that he didn’t want to rescue, even if just rescuing them from themselves.

As interesting as the similarites are, the counterpoints also make these two stories a good team-up.  First, to the matter of the respective criminals and whether or not they’re brought to justice.  Let me start by saying that both cases are what Watson would deem successes – the puzzle is solved, Holmes figures out the correct answer, and the reader is left knowing what happened to all the parties involved.  But not all parties face the long arm of the law.  “Reigate” sees a pair of dastardly felons carted off in cuffs, both for the burglary and a poor coachman’s murder.  In “Second Stain”, the murder’s actually unrelated to the theft, and while the murderer is taken in, the burglar gets away scot-free.

It’s funny, actually, because the nature of the successes themselves is counterpoint, too.  Holmes figures out the solution in “Reigate” the moment he looks at the scene of the crime.  With “Second Stain,” his initial suspicion is proven wrong very early on and he has to reassess his theory of the crime entirely.

Maybe the biggest counterpoint, though, is in the fact that one of these stories leaves us with the granddaddy of all teased-but-never-told cases, and the other is meant to fulfill a promise Watson/Doyle made in another story.  Watson admits at the beginning of “Second Stain” that he had every intention to stop writing stories about Holmes’ adventures after “The Adventure of Abbey Grange,” per Holmes’ own request, but since he’d promised the reader an account of these events back in “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty,” he feels compelled to pen one more.  Now, the story he delivers in “Second Stain” doesn’t exactly match the details that are alluded to in “The Naval Treaty,” and is reminiscent of “The Beryl Coronet” in setup at the very least, but Doyle did give us the case versus leaving it dangling forever over our heads like a giant neon question mark.  (As an aside: did nobody learn from the last time that carrying Very Rare And Important Things Of Immense National Value back and forth between home and work to keep them safe is stupid?)

Doyle did the exact opposite in “Reigate,” however.  At this point, I think it’s fair to say that Doyle – and by extension, Watson – is a horrible, awful tease.  It’s one thing to drop random throwaway cases here and there for flavor or just to watch the readers froth at the mouth, but what he does in “Reigate” is just cruel.  Not only does he tempt us with “the whole question of the Netherland-Sumatra Company, and of the colossal schemes of Baron Maupertuis,” which reportedly left Holmes so exhausted he ended up in hospital, but he further baits the hook with the fact it was “intimately concerned with politics and finance,” two buzzwords guaranteed to make something sound even more intriguing.  And then he drops this on us:

Even the triumphant issue of his labours could not save him from reaction after so terrible an exertion, and at a time when Europe was ringing with his name and when his room was literally ankle-deep with congratulatory telegrams I found him a prey to the blackest depression.  Even the knowledge that he had succeeded where the police of three countries had failed, and that he had outmaneuvered at every point the most accomplished swindler in Europe, was insufficient to rouse him from nervous prostration.

WHY DO WE NEVER GET THIS STORY?!?  Here’s a case that spans three countries and spreads his fame across the entire continent, that has him so exhausted and weak that he’s fallen into a massive depression, that involved taking down the biggest swindler Europe has ever seen, and Doyle never gives it to us.  Not cool, man.  Not cool.

So, in short, I’ve come to four conclusions this week:

  1. For all his assurances that he has no time or interest in women romantically, Sherlock Holmes has a very large soft spot for the fairer sex;
  2. Watson is a horrible fusser (and will make someone a very fine wife someday. Sorry, I couldn’t quite help myself there);
  3. Doyle was a terrible tease (and possibly a sadist that liked to hold back fantastic cases just to make his readers twitch); and
  4. I am not always going to be this lucky with how well two-story week’s pair up, and that terrifies me more than a little.

(Unofficial #5 – man, can I go through a lot of words talking about Sherlock Holmes stories.  Damn…)

**

I would love to say that the central conceit of this week’s Charlotte story was inspired by anything from the above, but I actually ended up having to find a way to squeeze the overall theme into the idea.  Because, see, this week’s story was mostly inspired by a random factoid on a rerun of QI I watched on Hulu and a quote from season three of “BBC’s Sherlock,” in that order.

The Baker Street Puzzle

“I suppose the Yard is too busy to handle burglaries these days?” Anne asks as she sets a plate in front of me at the seldom-used kitchen table.  Breakfast – mine, anyway – is more than slightly early and has been for a week.  All my meals are early, and alone.  By my choice.

“The burgled prefers not to draw too much attention to the matter,” I say, reaching for a piece of toast without raising my eyes from the morning paper.  “The inspectors tend to bring quite a bit of it with them whenever they become involved.”

Anne clucks her tongue.  I know the sound well.  I heard it often enough in my school days, usually when I brought home a note from a teacher who disapproved of my tendency to tell them they were wrong.  They especially disapproved when it turned out I was right.  “I wish you weren’t dashing off on this alone, Charlotte.”

“I wish a lot of things.”  I look across the table at the empty chair and missing place setting.  I think about my usual breakfast companion and sigh softly to myself.

**

Lady Evangeline Morris Murray is tall, blonde, and has the figure and posture of a dress form dummy.  Even when she sits, in the overwrought salon of her Grovesnor Place townhouse, she’s startlingly erect.  No, it’s not the dress form she reminds me of.  It’s those fragile little porcelain figurines old women collect on dusty shelves.  Perfect and utterly inhuman, that’s how my hostess appears.  Her gloved hands twist a delicate peach handkerchief into knots in her lap as she sniffles quietly in her chair.

“Two days, Miss Holmes.  It’s been two whole days!  I don’t know how much longer I can keep my husband from noticing that it’s gone.”

I smile; I hope it’s the reassuring one.  Watson is usually here to poke me if I fall short and land on condescending or something closer to a smirk.  “We have excellent leads, Lady Murray.  Since you finally decided to admit that you know who likely has it, it’s making it much easier to try to run the miscreant to ground.”

The knot-tying is abandoned so that my client can dab theatrically at her dry eyes.  “I’m sorry.  I know I should have been more upfront from the beginning, but it’s just not the easiest thing to admit, even to another woman.”

“Of course.  I’m sure it’s entirely horrendous to admit to one’s self, let alone one’s social inferior, that you foolishly gave your wedding ring to your itinerant lover as a token of your esteem in a moment of passion-deluded insanity.”  Lady Murray makes the oddest little squeak of a noise.  I bite my lip.  Blast, was that out loud?

**

I mutteri to myself as I stalk through the front door of 221B, my left boot in hand and my sodden hat hanging precariously off one side of my head.  If not for the grace of a strategically placed hatpin… As I stop to examine the extent of the damage to my boot heel, I hear a snicker from above me.  Watson stands half up the stairs, pipe held firmly between his full, smirking, and irritatingly supple lips.

“Were you attacked by a very large puddle, Holmes?  Or did you fall in the Thames again?”

My grip tightens on my boot, but only because I’m considering the ramifications of throttling the doctor with it.  “A foot chase went slightly awry.  Nothing for you to concern yourself with.”  Gathering up the stringy tatters of my dignity, I march up the stairs, pausing only when he impedes my trek.  “If you’ll excuse me…”

Watson turns to give me room to pass.  One step later, he reaches for my elbow.  “Holmes, about…”

“There’s no about, doctor.”  I tug my arm free and ratchet a placid expression onto my face.  “Nothing to discuss.  One of us had a momentary bout of insanity.  The other cleared that moment up very directly.  That’s all.”  I restart my climb but pause another two steps up.   “The other also might reconsider the wisdom behind the continued presence of their mustache.  I know it was regulation during your service, but it’s doing you no favors where kissing is concerned.”

As I disappear up the stairs, I hear Watson scoff and mutter to himself.  It sounds suspiciously like “I’m not shaving for Charlotte bloody Holmes.”

**

“I really don’t understand why people spend so much time in places like this,” I say, standing in an alley outside a pub with the puzzling moniker “The Mouldy Duckling.”  I borrowed – if by that definition I actually mean stole, flagrantly, from the washing basket – a shirt, pants, jacket, and cap of Watson’s and put myself into a fairly decent facsimile of a mild-mannered young lad for the purposes of hunting my prey.  Gerald Saunders has been inside the establishment for a good hour, hopefully partaking of enough spirits to make him an easy pocket to pick.  Lady Murray’s ring, at last accounting, is tucked in a pouch in his left pocket.

“He sent the first blackmail letter this morning.  ‘One hundred quid, or I tell the Mister.’  Criminals these days have no imagination, I swear.”  The smell of damp garbage isn’t grand for the appetite, but my stomach rumbles all the same.  “You didn’t happen to pack a sandwich in your bag by chance, did you Wat-“

I half turn, expecting to find the doctor hunched down beside me.  It takes a moment too long, for my state of mind, for me to remember Watson isn’t there.

**

“Break open the good scotch, Anne!” I say as I burst into the sitting room, whipping the cap from my head and letting the unwieldy knot of my hair fall free.  “We’ve reason to celebrate.”

“You’ve solved it, then?”  Watson’s voice inspires less need to run than it had a day earlier.  Before I realized I missed him.  Bastard.

“Of course.  Was there any doubt?”  I hang the cap on the appointed hook and shake my arms free of the too-large coat.  “The missing item has been returned to my anonymous client and peace has been restored to the country…or at least a small portion of it.”  The coat joins the hat.  I turn to face my surely enrapt audience with a wide sweep of my arms.  “Thankfully, preventing the collapse of a member of parliament’s marriage is a well-paying…Heaven’s, Watson, what did you do?”

The doctor strokes his newly bare upper lip with an unsure hand.  “Someone complained that they found the previous arrangement unacceptable.  I thought, in the event that the situation arises again…”

I stare at him.  My tongue is fully prepared to inform him that he’s the most confusing creature in the history of conscious thought,  but Anne strolls in, carrying the previously requested Scotch.

I down the first sip in silent mourning of Watson’s late mustache.

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11 thoughts on “The Adventures of “the Reigate Squires” and “the Second Stain”: Doyle’s Version of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup

  1. One of the interesting things about reading the stories in “chronological” order is that I wonder if we really do get the proper understanding of their relationship that way. Doyle obviously isn’t terribly interested in continuity (doesn’t even check the details of hinted-at cases before writing them years later), so I get the impression that when writing a story he writes it the way he is now used to writing it, rather than as he would have written it if he had done so chronologically. Does that make sense? So Watson’s nagging is more appropriately placed much later in his and Holmes’ relationship. Maybe. I couldn’t prove it without reading everything through in the order written, but it’s the sense I get.

    As for Doyle’s admittedly very mean teasing, I think there’s a simple explanation for that too: he simply hasn’t got the authorial chops to pull off a story like that. He’s obviously created a compelling and enduring character, but – and I apologize if this is heresy – I don’t think he has the ingeniousness for mystery and plot of, say, Agatha Christie. I don’t think he could have written a criminal that flummoxed Holmes for that long without writing Holmes at a lower standard than usual. Now, why dear Ms Christie didn’t solve that problem for us is another story!

    Finally, in this blog-post-length comment, a question about your own authorial tendencies: why does Charlotte refer to her aunt as “Anne” rather than “Aunt Anne” or “Aunt” or even “Auntie”? It throws me every time – I think for a second that she’s talking about the maid, and then I remember who it’s supposed to be. After all, even in Gosford Park (set in the 1930s) Maggie Smith demands, “If he must call me by my Christian name, why can’t he make it ‘Aunt Constance’? I’m not the upstairs maid!” It would not surprise me if Charlotte has a reason for this anachronism – but if so please share!

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    1. You’ve got a point about the relationship. Which is why i doubt I could ever write in such a non-linear way as Doyle did. It would involve remembering all the little nuances of interaction and how they would have been prior to this thing or that thing and making sure they stayed true to the timing versus how they’ve developed since. Not that I’m entirely sure Doyle cared about that level of consistency. The lack of it would make me insane, though.

      Oh, no heresy at all. As I’ve said somewhere else, Doyle never figured out how to sustain Holmes over a novel-length narrative, and that’s the kind of case that could NEVER be handled competently in short-form fiction. Too involved for that. That does not reduce my frustration of being teased and left high and dry, though. (I may have to solve that problem for myself, actually. Hmmm…)

      As for Charlotte’s choice to call her aunt Anne instead of Auntie or something else…I have no idea why she does it. It’s just what came out the first time they interacted and what feels “right” for her. I think she’s actually called her Aunt once or twice in the books, and it’s usually when she wants something or when she’s in trouble. It’s entirely not proper for the period, at all, but it’s just what comes out of her mouth. Which isn’t exactly helpful in really explaining it.

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      1. Well, there’s something to be said for, “That’s just the character.” Actually, what reconciles me to it more than anything is that “she’s actually called her Aunt once or twice in the books, and it’s usually when she wants something or when she’s in trouble” – to me, that proves this is real characterization.

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      2. She is a very particular character, and is one of the few I’ve created that talks to me as loudly and as frequently and whose voice was so concretely there from the moment of creation. There’s a lot about her I can usually only explain as “because she’s Charlotte.” That’s equal amounts of nice and frustrating at the same time.

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      3. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a character with a strongly distinct voice, so it just sounds nice to me. Not, as mentioned, that I don’t have strong-minded and difficult characters (in fact, most of them are) so I get the frustration, too.

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  2. My favorite parts of your blog posts are when you are indignant and/or parenthetical. Anyone (okay, not anyone, but some people somewhere) could read and summarize Doyle. This insight you bring is enlightening. But the rage against it, even while you emulate it somewhat with Charlotte’s stories — that’s what keeps me coming back for more.

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    1. I have never met a parenthetical I didn’t like. Especially in a tangent.

      At heart, I love these stories. The characters. But I can also admit they aren’t perfect, and I can definitely point out when Doyle is a mean, awful tease who never gave me that epic case that he dangled so temptingly over my head.

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