Wrapping up ‘The Return…’

I finished reading these stories a few weeks back, and even started writing this post.  Then, I got hit with the one-two punch of the worst kind of lingering cold and a pervasive sense of gloom directly related to online Sherlock fandom and I unplugged a bit to deal with it all.  (My thoughts on Season Four, the finale in particular, may differ substantially from a good portion of fandom and I’m honestly still feeling a little too rundown to dive into any of that now.  Maybe once I can breathe consistently through my nose again and laugh without coughing I’ll be up to it.)  So that’s why this is so late.

Also, vaguely related here and directly regarding this post, researching and writing about serial killers while feverish and heavily medicated leads to some seriously bizarre dreams.  If you define “seriously bizarre” as “creepy, disturbing, and mildly terrifying.”

Anyway…

The four stories I had remaining in The Return of Sherlock Holmes had one very interesting detail in common: murder.  None of these cases were simple burglaries or cases of basic intrigue.  These criminals weren’t just out to befuddle the authorities – they had murder in mind.  In “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” jealousy, obsession, and a woman’s reluctance to just be honest with her husband directly lead to his death, making it essentially a darker version of “The Adventure of the Yellow Face.”  (In case you don’t remember, that story is an earlier example of a woman hiding letters and the reason they freak her out from her husband under the auspices of protecting him from something.)  “The Adventure of the Priory School,” a story that includes my favorite character name ever – Dr. Thorneycraft Huxtable – is a tale of sibling rivalry gone too far that leads to kidnapping and the death of a teacher.  “Abbey Grange”  continues Doyle’s extended literary shaming of abusive and cruel husbands by giving us the justified (as declared by one-man jury John Watson) murder of Lord Treats His Wife Horribly and Throws Liquor Bottles at the Staff-fordshire, Sir Eustace Brackenstall.  Then, in “The Six Napoleons,” we have a man murdered in the course of an apparently pointless and bizarre string of burglaries/serial vandalisms that turn out to be so much more.

This isn’t a trend just in these four stories, though.  Out of the thirteen stories collected in The Return, ten feature a murder either as the inciting incident or part of the climax.  Okay, technically the death in “Priory School” happens before the climax, but that’s generally a solid statement otherwise.  Comparatively, the first two collected volumes – The Adventures and The Memoirs – only contain eight stories combined that fit the “murder mystery” mold.  Of the twelve stories in The Adventures, only four turn on someone’s death.  The Memoirs ration is 4 out of 11.  Either pre-Great Hiatus Holmes took on far more low-key kinds of crime than his post-hiatus self, or Watson chose to write about them far less often.

Does that mean Holmes’ London was just a darker place from 1894 on (the canon date of “The Final Problem”)?  Was Watson more interested in the darker cases after his wife’s presumed death?  (Not getting into the argument of whether canon evidence that Mary Watson is definitely dead exists.  At this point, the assumption is pretty much canon.)  Or was it Doyle’s own wife’s ill health and impending death that cast the darker hue over the universe?  Louisa Doyle died in 1906, a year after the stories were collected in book form and was likely in decline while her husband was writing Holmes’ resurrection.  Tuberculosis isn’t a pleasant or easy way to die, so it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to think this could influence her husband’s writing.

Of course, it could have been a much simpler answer, though: maybe Doyle just had more fun writing about his boys running amuck and solving murder.  Maybe those stories were easier for him to write.  A more external incentive may have existed too.  Doyle may have written murder stories because that’s what people wanted to read.  Murder sells, after all.  Considering Doyle’s decision to bring Holmes back from the dead was in large part financially motivated, that’s probably a good possibility, too.  Doyle was a clever lad, after all.

I guess you can’t really talk about “The Six Napoleons” anymore without mentioning “The Six Thatchers,” at least broadly.  Beyond the obvious feels (referenced in the entry just after the episode), I thought they found an interesting way to twist the canon, but did kind of wish they hadn’t made it such a small part of the overall narrative.  It worked as a handy device, I guess, for packaging the true mystery of the episode; I just kind of wanted it to feature a little more prominently, considering they named the bloody episode after it.  Kind of like how I wished “The Blind Banker” was more like “The Dancing Men” than it is.  Meh.

Honestly, I liked this season, which I know is an unpopular opinion.  I still have a few issues with things, though.  I’ll be capable of talking about them in depth eventually.

So, that’s a wrap on The Return of Sherlock Holmes, the collection that starts with Holmes’ resurrection and ends with Watson’s announcement that the Great Detective has retired and put a moratorium on all future accounts of their stories.  Of course, good old Watson doesn’t listen to his friend, which is how we still have His Last Bow and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes ahead of us.  (And The Valley of Fear, too, but we’ve been there already.)

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Unlucky in Love: the Veiled Lodger and The Missing Three-Quarter

Yes, there are brief, mostly spoiler-free thoughts on last night’s “Sherlock” episode below.  But first, I need to blather on a bit about “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” and “The Missing Three-Quarter.”  Because that’s what I do.

**

What could a vaguely suspicious accidental death and the disappearance of a rugby player have in common?  Yes, they’re both mysteries solved by Sherlock Holmes, but that’s just the start.  What they also have in common is something deeper and a little more poignant – the repercussions (potential or actual) of unfortunate love, something that lies at the center of both “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” and “The Missing Three-Quarter.”

How can love be unfortunate, you might ask?  (In which case, my first response is “Have you ever read any Shakespeare?”)  Love is definitely rife with the potential for complication and those – and it – are rarely if ever within our direct control.  It’s a subject that writers, poets, and lyricists frequently acquaint with madness or pain; it’s also been called blind.  The disastrous turns love can take spell doom for Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Desdemona, and Hamlet and Ophelia, to name a few.  (Also, Jack and Rose, Jack and Ianto, Glen and Maggie…that last one might be too soon, actually.). Love bites; it also bleeds, dies, wounds, scars, and never, ever, runs smooth.  (Yes, I did just quote/paraphrase Def Leppard, Nazareth, and Shakespeare, shamelessly, in one sentence.  Sue me.)

Love definitely hurt and scarred Eugenia Ronder, the eponymous lodger with the veil, and she meets Holmes and Watson when she’s ready to finally tell the story of how.  First, it led her into the arms of a cruel, beastly man who she married with questionable consent; she described it the “evil moment I became his wife.”  Her husband tortured and tormented her for his own sick amusement or whenever she committed some perceived sin that earned her punishment, which usually included being tied down to their bed and beaten with a whip.  In the midst of this hell, Eugenia found a bright spot in Leonardo, the strongman that worked at her husband’s circus.  Briefly, this seemingly angelic creature showed her what love was supposed to be like, which only put her torment at the hands of her husband in sharper contrast.

At that point, Leonardo and Eugenia hatched a plan to kill Mr. Ronder.  It was a simple and elegant plan, intended to stop her torment and free her from a situation she had few other avenues out of.  If you remember from an earlier post, the law made it ridiculously difficult for a woman to get a divorce in those days.  Their plan even worked, except for one little hiccup – the lion that was to take the fall for Leonardo’s brutal murder of Ronder reacted like a lion would to the smell of fresh blood and turned on Eugenia.  Leonardo, instead of attempting to save his love, ran screaming from the scene.  Love managed to fail Eugenia twice.

The story of Godfrery Stauton, Oxford’s missing three-quarter (it’s apparently a rugby position.  Anything beyond baseball is Greek to me, though) is less violent, but no less grim.  Staunton was a swell kid and a hell of a rugby player, but he had a rich but cheap uncle whose penny-pinching ways kept his nephew perpetually in the poorhouse (figuratively, since those actually existed back then).  This cheapness wasn’t an instrument to teach Staunton humility or out of any disapproval of his lifestyle, but because Lord Mount-James was just a cheap son of a bitch.  At least Staunton could look forward to inheriting all that money his uncle refused to spend when he finally meandered off this mortal coil, right?  Well, that was apparently in question, since Staunton managed to go and fall in love with a girl his uncle would never, ever approve of, then further doomed himself by marrying her.  But he kept all this a secret in the hopes of preserving his claim on the family fortune and ensuring a better life for him and his wife one day.

And that’s exactly how it all would have gone down, if Mrs. Staunton hadn’t gotten sick. She fell victim to an illness that plagued the era, and the underprivileged in particular – tuberculosis.  There was no cure for consumption in 1897, when the story takes place; the medical community had only recently begun to understand TB and wouldn’t have a firm grasp on it or proper treatment until the early 20th Century.  Staunton knew the diagnosis was a death sentence, and he carried this knowledge and the associated burden mostly on his own.  Sure, her father and physician knew, but he couldn’t confide in a single friend, his family, or even a stranger on the street.  He had to suffer through his impending widowhood entirely on his own because of one cheap, prejudiced old man.  When the end finally loomed imminent, he had to disappear (which is how Holmes and Watson become involved) so that he can be with the woman he loves as she dies.  That sounds like a living hell for anyone, especially a young man.

There’s another similarity: how Holmes handled both cases.  Due to their individual sensitive nature in both circumstances, Holmes refrained from involving the police.  Per his usual judgement that sometimes a broader form of justice is more fitting, he let the matter of Ronder’s murder settle with the recent death of Leonardo and Eugenia’s disfigurement.  In young Mister Staunton’s case, there was no actual crime to report.  Exposing the events would have been criminal – in a moral sense – however, and neither Holmes nor Watson felt the need to put the widower through more than he had already suffered.  I mostly agree with one of those decisions, and only slightly disagree with the other.

**

In other news, I have so many thoughts about last night’s Sherlock season four premier, “The Six Thatchers,”and they are all so full of spoilers, which is why I’m not sharing them here.  Needless to say, I was blown away.  I also kind of want to punch John Watson in the nose, for a few reasons.  And hug Sherlock as well.  Martin Freeman’s performance in that scene was exceptional in its heartbreak.  Mark Gatiss, the bad bad man responsible for writing it, is both a genius and a bastard.  Which trait is dominant, by my reckoning, switches from minute to minute.

I can’t wait for next week.  I’m also terrified by how they might be planning to break us, too.

As a distraction, I plan on posting about an era-appropriate set of unsolved mysteries that caught my attention thanks to (yes, again) a podcast I listened to last week.  I think I plan on finishing up the canon by working my way through the remaining stories in batches based on which collection they were published in as well. So, the four remaining stories from The Return of Sherlock Holmes next week, then what’s left of His Last Bow the next, and maybe break The Casebook up over the two remaining weeks in order to finish up by February 1st.  I am not throwing in the towel.  I can do this!

(And then, maybe after that’s done, I’ll go back and fill in the fiction blanks.  Because otherwise I have all these useless notes mini-outlines and nothing to show for them.)

And now for a little “sub”text

I’m finally writing a post about something that my friend James knows way more about than I do. (Be gentle, JY, if my facts go slightly off the rails here. This is your area of expertise, not mine.)

In “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are tasked by the British government – or at least the manifestation of it that is Mycroft Holmes – to retrieve the stolen plans for a top secret submarine. Did you know, though, that at the time Doyle was creating the fictional version, the British government was working on an actual, real-life one? 
(Okay, you may have known that already. I didn’t, though, and I find it pretty interesting. But, I’ve already demonstrated that I find very odd things interesting.)  

The British Royal Navy began playing with submersible ships with the A-Class submarines which rolled out in 1902, but the idea of submerging a boat for tactical purposes dates back to the US Civil War and ships like the Confederate Navy’s H.L. Hunley. Early attempts had as many failures as successes – the Hunley sank off the coast of Charleston in February of 1864 with all eight of its crew; the A-Class subs tended to have issues with their petrol-based engines and every one of the 13 boats fell victim to some kind of fatal accident in their lifetimes. Failure just led to innovation: Britain rolled out the B, C, and D-Class in short order over the next decade, and finally unveiled the E-1, the first of the E-Class submarines, in November of 1912.   

(Apropos of hardly any of my point: I need to remember to make use of the Hunley if I ever get back to things that aren’t Holmes adjacent.)

There is a lot of speculation that this submarine – or the rumored existence of it – inspired Doyle to have someone steal plans for a highly classified submarine in “The Bruce-Partington Plan.” 

Nothing about the E-1 probably sounds all that revolutionary compared to modern submersible warships. It had a maximum recommended depth of only 100 feet, though some later models managed to hit the 200s. These weren’t exceptionally fast ships by our standards, either: surfaced, it could only manage around seventeen miles per hour; diving, it topped out around nine and a half. While it had four engines – two 800 horsrepower diesel-powered ones that did most of the heavy lifting above water and two six hundred horsepower electric ones for under water – it had a maximum range of somewhere around 3,500 nautical miles. Considering its predecessors were mainly stuck doing coastal missions, though, that was a monstrous leap in distance. For its time? The E-Class were some badass mothers. 

E-Class subs performed admirably for Her Royal Highness’ Navy during World War I, primarily seeing battle in the Baltic, the North Sea, and the Turkish theater, though some served – and then were scuttled – off the Russian coast. The Germans made wider, and more notorious, use of subs during the First World War, of course (does the Lusitania sound familiar?), but the rest of us weren’t far behind the curve there. World War II would see an increase in submarine warfare, as well as a broadening of its boundaries and its users, but those strategies began being tested more than twenty years earlier. 

So, how much evidence is there that Doyle based the Bruce-Partington sub on the E-1? Well, there’s good old coincidence, and if Leroy Jethro Gibbs (random NCIS reference) has taught me nothing else, it’s that there’s probably no such thing as coincidence. Doyle published his fictionalized theft in 1908, just four years before the E-1 was launched and three years before construction began. The plans had to have been in existence by then. It’s not beyond possibility that Doyle heard about the ship’s future existence from one well-placed acquaintance or another and that it laid the groundwork for his imagination to run a bit amuck. Holmes and Watson had retrieved their fair share of national secrets by then, so giving them another opportunity to save the day and prevent nationwide scandal seems almost obvious. 

This story also features one the cleverest bits of deduction I think Doyle ever wrote (and possibly the least possible plot point as well, though I’m not going to wait for a metro train to park outside my window so I can push a body out onto the roof and see if it’ll stay there), but I don’t want to go too far into it and spoil it for you (oops? Ignore the previous parenthetical). Needless to say, there’s a reason so many people enjoy this story, and why it made it into the number two slot on Doyle’s own list of his favorite Holmes and Watson adventures (he apparently made two of these lists in his lifetime, and “Bruce-Partington” made it onto the second one; it wasn’t written yet when he made his first).   

If this all sounds familiar, and you’re only a fan of BBC’s “Sherlock,” this would be the case Mycroft keeps trying to give Sherlock but gets pushed off onto John repeatedly in that ever important subplot to “The Great Game.” That episode packed so many fantastic canon references in, it’s almost hard to keep track, but that one featured very prominently.   

Now, let’s all sit back and see if James reads me up one side and down the other for my military knowledge/research, shall we? 

“And Peggy!”, or, “The Other 46 (Cops, That Is)”

Did you know that, over the course of 56 short stories and 4 novels, Arthur Conan Doyle introduced us to twenty-five Scotland Yard Inspectors, fourteen Constables, three French inspectors, two Pinkerton Agents, one German Inspector, one private detective, and one New York City cop in a pear tree?  That might seem hard to believe, considering most adaptions only focus on G Lestrade (he of the first initial and no canon given name) or Tobias Gregson, but there was an exhaustive cast of supportive Yardies and other law enforcement personnel bumping heads with and lending a hand to Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.  And they get forgotten way too often.  

A lot of what looks like favoritism or forgetfulness might be nothing more than quantity – Lestrade shows up in eleven of the Sherlock stories and two of the novels – the two more well-known and more frequently adapted, A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles.  The frequency of his appearance means we have far more time to get to know him and for Doyle to develop his character.  His continued antagonism of Holmes and his frequent disrespect of Holmes’ skills also makes him a popular friendly foil.  Gregson’s adaption popularity probably stems in part from his long-standing feud with Lestrade, and the fact Holmes considers him the smartest of the Yardies.  In fact, in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes refers to Gregson and Lestrade as “the pick of a bad lot.”  

Quick historical sidebar (I promise it’ll be quick) – Scotland Yard (aka the Metropolitan Police Force) was a fairly young institution at the time Doyle was creating the likes of Lestrade and Gregson.  Policing in any form close to what we’re used to didn’t come to exist in England until the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829.  Previously, London had been overseen by the Marine Police Force (created in 1798), the Bow Street Runners (1749), and the Bow Street Horse Patrol (1805).  None of these groups had extensive governmental oversight.  Previous experience with less than entirely moral and law abiding “cops”- both before the MPS was created and after – led to considerable distrust of the police.  When you take into account unofficial “thief-takers” who would extort victims in order to get the criminals that wronged them punished, the public just had more reason than ever to not trust the “official” versions blessed by the government.  It took time, and some good cops, for the general populous to begin seeing cops as anything but a public menace all their own.

I could make a comment about history repeating itself where public perceptions of law enforcement are concerned, but I try to keep this blog, at least, fairly politics-free.
If I wanted to really stretch this out, I’d go into the difference between the Metropolitan Police Force and the City of London Police, but that might lead into other tangents, and we all know what happens if I give in to too many of those. Chaos, that’s what.

So why am I talking about the other 46 (#hamilparaphrase) in regards to “Black Peter,” since that’s the story I’m supposed to be blogging about?  Because this story is the second time we get to spend a little fictional time with Inspector Stanley Hopkins, who we previously met in “The Golden Pince-Nez.”  (We’ll meet him again in “Abbey Grange” and he gets mentioned in “The Missing Three-Quarter.”)  Hopkins is something of a student of Holmes’methods, even if how he applies them is sometimes…well, wrong.  But hey, he’s only human.  It’s not his fault the evidence of a notebook at a crime scene pointed to a killer who couldn’t actually manage to commit the murder.   We’re all susceptible to falling for a red herring when it drops in our lap, right?  As was discussed back when I covered the “Boscombe Valley Mystery,” it’s super easy to take the, well, easy way out. 

Hopkins isn’t the only dutiful student among the Yardies: Alec MacDonald, which we met in The Valley of Fear, appears to be studying – and applying – Holmes’ methods.  Unlike other members of the force, MacDonald is willing to believe that Moriarty might not be all he says he is – remember, VOF is set in a time before Reichenbach, possibly to deal with the fact Doyle basically one-shotted the man who was supposed to be Holmes’ ultimate nemesis.  We know, from Watson, that MacDonald is big, brash, ginger, and from Glasgow, and that he and Holmes are close enough that Holmes has given him a cute nickname – Mr. Mack – which is something none of the others earn (unless ferret-faced is a term of endearment). 

Inspector Bradstreet, he of no first name or initial, appears in three stories, but we don’t know much about him at all, except he was a Bow Street Runner before he became a cop.  He doesn’t make much of an impression on Holmes – or not enough of one to have him say anything about him to/around Watson that gets conveyed to us.  He does get to carry the ball in one of the most iconic of Holmes stories – “The Blue Carbuncle” – and has been used as a fill-in for Lestrade in the Granada series in an episode where the actor playing Lestrade was unavailable.

Then there’s Inspector Baynes, who only shows up in the two-part story collected as “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge.”  Baynes is the only inspector ever shown to be even close to as good an investigator as Holmes, and that’s potentially because Holmes just didn’t care enough to really investigate (or was a ghost, or a doppleganger, or sick…see this post about “Wisteria Lodge.”). 

Of course, I’m as guilty of forgetting about the rest of the Yardies as anyone else.  When I started writing Charlotte – when I started outlining and world building and filling out the stick figures holding places for actual characters in my universe – I went straight to Lestrade.  Which is funny, since I still haven’t written the story where Charlotte and Lestrade first cross paths, though I’ve got a clear picture of it in my head.  I’ve dusted off Bradstreet – he even clocked Watson – but I’ve stayed entirely away from Lestrade so far.  That was an entirely unconscious decision that I find really interesting now.

(Confession: I played with Lestrade a bit in November.  But he was backup to my playing mostly with Inspector MacDonald.  I may have relocated him to Scotland.  I needed an excuse to romp about in the Highlands for a month.  Fictionally.)

So, my point is this – the bullpen at Scotland Yard is very deep and a lot of the relievers Doyle traded for don’t get the innings of work they should.  There is a very handy Wikipedia list of all the canon inspectors, constables, detectives, and agents that worked with or assisted Holmes.  If you’re writing pastiche or fanfiction and you need a handy Yardie or two, try looking into one of Lestrade and Gregson’s colleagues and give them the ball for a couple innings.  You might find something really fun.

Like a cheeky, kilt-wearing Glaswegian who tries his damnedest to take over your story.

We interrupt your regularly scheduled silence…

This blog isn’t dead.  It was just sort of…sleeping.

 Between NaNoWriMo (oh hi, November, you were super short) and a few life-related incidents, things…sort of fell by the wayside.  But that ends next Monday.

And I still plan to finish the canon by my original deadline.  Which, yeah, means some doubling up, but it’s doable, right?  Right.

And this is still going to be home to all sorts of random Holmesian/Victorian goodness, and replete with Charlotte’s…unique world view.  She just got to have her third novel-length adventure last month and she’s all kinds of chatty.  (So is Mycroft.  I know one person in my life is really happy about that.)

So!  Next week, same bat-time, same bat-channel.  And hey!  Isn’t there a new season of “Sherlock” starting soon or something?

The Sign of the Three – Numerology in Sherlock Holmes

Yeah, I know, the book’s called The Sign of the Four.  I’m making use of the twist Moffat and Gattiss made for season three of “Sherlock.”  Let’s just pretend for a second that I’m being clever and not riding on the coattails of someone else’s wordplay.

I noticed something when I was looking at my list of stories to read in preparation for this week’s discussion of “The Three Students”: Doyle titled a lot of things “The Three” something or other.  He also used numbers in titles of other stories – The Sign of Four, “The Five Orange Pips,” “The Second Stain,” and “The Six Napoleons” – but the number three shows up in the titles of, and as part of the plot in, four different stories.  (You may argue that four isn’t a lot, but just work with me here, okay?  Four out of 60 is possibly statistically significant.  Maybe.  Somewhere.  Anyway…)

This could be discounted as just whim or it being Doyle’s lucky number, except that the number three is kind of big in various forms of spiritualism and in many religions.  And, as we know, spiritualism was of major importance to Doyle, particularly later in his life.

Doyle the Spiritualist

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first became involved in spiritualism in around 1887.  That’s the year he wrote a letter to the journal Light to “come out” as a spiritualist the first time.  He attended several séances also in 1887, helped found the Hampshire Society for Psychical Research two years later, and became a member of the London chapter in 1893.  He didn’t hard-core join the movement, though, until World War I and the influence of the Doyle nanny, who claimed to have psychic abilities.  It was during this period, helped along by the loss of close friends in the War, that he started believing in ghosts and the ability to commune with the spirits of the deceased.  The deaths of one of his sons, two brothers-in-law, and another family member only increased his interest.

(Some like to claim that Kingsley Doyle’s death in 1918 drove his father deeper into spiritualism, but Doyle published his first war-time treatise on the topic two years earlier, debunking that assumption.  The loss didn’t make him a spiritualist – it just pushed him further into the practice.)

He wrote several texts on the subject, both fictional – a Professor Challenger novella titled The Land of Mist – and non-fictional, such as his book on the Cottingley Fairies photos and one called The Vital Message on general Spiritualist topics.  His quest for proof of life after death led him to associate with men like Harry Houdini, William Thomas Stead, and Harry Price.  Over the course of his investigations, he managed to get taken in by faked photos of fairies (see the Cottingley photos mentioned above) and fake psychics like the Zancigs.   By all accounts, he was a man on a desperate mission to prove that those we lose are never, ever really gone.  Considering he buried a wife and a son, other family members, and numerous friends thanks to a bloody war, who could really blame him for his quest?

While there’s nothing specifically that points to Doyle having a direct interest in numerology, it is an interesting coincidence.  The stories in question – “The Three Gables,” “The Three Students,” “The Missing Three-Quarter,” and “The Three Garridebs” – were all written after 1900, placing them well after Doyle’s initial dive into spiritualism.  So it’s possible he was thinking of the significance of the number when he wrote those stories.  It’s also possible he just liked the number.  Doyle wasn’t known for doing a lot of planning of any of his writing.  (Doyle was a true pantser; I’m sure he would’ve found NaNoWriMo a very intriguing concept.)

The Number Three

What’s so special about the number three, then?  It depends on who you ask.  In baseball, three strikes and you’re out and three outs end an inning; there’s a three-point shot in basketball and a field goal is worth three points in football, too.  People like to count to three before doing things – just ask Murtaugh and Riggs of “Lethal Weapon” fame.  Mathematically, 3 is how you round down pi.  It’s also the first odd prime number and the first number attributed to a shape (the triangle).  It’s a lucky number to the Chinese and it is said that the third time’s the charm, right?

But it goes deeper than that.  Three plays a significant role in many religions.  Christianity revolves around the holy trinity – The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit.  Wicca follows the Rule of Three: whatever you put out in the world, for good or ill, will be returned to you threefold (so always make sure to put out good energy, of course).  In Greek mythology, the Titan, Cronus, had three sons that represent the rulers of Olympus/Heaven, the Ocean, and the Underworld/Hell.  A lot of religions have triple deities as well: Hindus (the Trimurti and the Tridevi), Buddists (the Three Jewels of Buddhism), Wicca (the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone), and the aforementioned Christian Holy Trinity.  And hey, we all know that three’s company, right?  Just ask Jack Tripper.

We see in three dimensions.  In some branches of mysticism, three represents The Triad – the beginning, the middle, and the end; birth, life, and death; past, present, and future.  The moon has three phases as well.  If you look to movies and television, we’ve got the Three Musketeers, the three witches that deliver the prophesy to Macbeth, and innumerable trios of heroes from Harry, Ron, and Hermione to The Doctor, Amy, and Rory.  “Charmed” is all about a family of witches who reach ultimate power when the three Halliwell sisters invoke the Power of Three.  Three is the sort of natural number we just find ourselves drawn to, apparently, and it’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder if we’re drawn to it because of its relation to religion and myth, or if it became so prevalent there because the people writing down said myths were drawn to it themselves.

Holmesian Threes

Technically, we’ve only gotten to two of the four listed stories, so I won’t dwell too long on this subject, but it is relevant, I think, to mention how the number plays a part in the two stories I have read.  The three eponymous gables refer to the house the poor old widow lives in that someone has such desperate interest to buy that they’re ready to purchase everything in it as well as the structure.  Of course, the gables themselves and the house in particular actually have nothing to do with why the buyer is interested.  She’s just after the manuscript in the widow’s son’s trunks.   In “The Three Students,” the number shows up a few times: the professor’s bedroom window has three panes; the Greek text to be translated at the exam is three pages long; and there are three students who live above the professor’s rooms.  One of those students is, of course, the almost-dirty cheat responsible for the quasi break-in.

Let’s not even forget that there are three Openshaws – the uncle, the father, and then eventually the son – that die before the killers disappear (likely to die at sea) in “The Five Orange Pips.”  I just thought of that.

 

If I really wanted to belabor the whole numerology point, I’d go into the relevance of the other numbers used in the canon – four and five in particular, since the numbers in both those stories play such a big part in the plot – but I’m not much of an expert on the topic.  And I admit, I’m one of those people drawn to the natural harmony of three, too.  Besides, it would mean adding a fourth header, and stopping at three seems very fitting.

“The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” or “When I meet Thomas Jefferson Imma compel him to include women in the sequel.”

(WORK!)

(Sorry, it’s an involuntary reaction to hearing that lyric.)

It’s no surprise to anyone reading this, I’m assuming, that the Victorians had some weird thoughts and practices in regards to women, especially single women.  We were delicate flowers who couldn’t handle a slightly uncomfortable truth (“A Case of Identity“), were not expected to be as devious as our male counterparts or in any way their equal (“A Scandal in Bohemia“),were property whose worth was determined by our marriageability or our perceived purity (“The Noble Bachelor“), and were easy targets for blackmailers (“Charles Augustus Milverton“).  This was an era when women had to fight to own anything of their own, could be utterly destroyed by a poor marriage or a hint of scandal, and had nearly no one fighting for them.  I mean, married women didn’t even truly get the right to really own property in any real sense until The Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, for God’s sake.

The mystery at the heart of “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” revolves exactly around those antiquated ideas of a woman’s worth and autonomy, taking James Windibank’s plot to trap his step-daughter in a fictional engagement in “The Noble Bachelor” to keep his hands on her inheritance to an all new low.  What Mr. Carruthers and Mr. Woodley plan to do to Violet Smith is potentially the worst thing any Holmes villain has ever planned to do to another human being, and that includes the several of them responsible for murder.

Yes, there is something worse than murder.

Violet comes to Holmes and Watson not necessarily because of the odd business arrangement she’s found herself in – reminiscent of every odd business arrangement ever presented in a Holmes story, ever – but because someone has been following her on her weekly bike rides to the train station to spend her weekends back in London.   She doesn’t consider the job offer or its connection to a dead relative in South Africa to be strange enough to worry about, but the creepy cyclist is weird enough to engage Holmes and Watson over.  And, really, it is super weird and creepy, but so is the rest.

See, Carruthers and Woodley found Violet and her mother through an ad in the newspaper.  According to them, they had known Violet’s uncle, her father’s brother, who recently died penniless in South Africa.  His last dying wish had been for his friends to find his sister-in-law and niece and ensure they’re taken care of.  To this end, Carruthers offers Violet a job teaching his daughter piano – and basically being a live-in governess – for a hundred pounds a year.  That’s about double the going rate, by the way.  The arrangement includes the ability to spend weekends at home, which is why she heads off to the station every Saturday on her bike, and rides back to Carruthers’ home the same way every Monday.

And is followed each way by a creepy bearded dude on a bike.

While Carruthers is nothing short of a gentleman to Violet, his friend Woodley is not.  He is a bully and a prick who gets grabby with Violet and whose actions definitely imply he thinks he is within his rights to force himself upon her, either through just his company or physically.  People that know him freely call him a blackguard for good reason.  Carruthers disapproves of this behavior, so he throws his friend out of his house, and Woodley is smart enough to stay away, but that doesn’t mean Violet has any less reason to be concerned about what the bastard might be up to.

Holmes takes the whole affair pretty seriously (despite not wanting to be bothered early on), but Watson initially misses the seriousness of the scenario.  I’d love to say that his initial cavalier attitude towards a woman being stalked by a man is unheard of in the present day and just another Victorian point of view we left far behind, but we hear the opposite on the news too often to dismiss it as such.  Stalking is a highly under investigated crime, especially when the ones being stalked are women.  But that’s another rant for another time.  Holmes does at least eventually see the potential for danger and arranges to try to catch the creep in the act after Violet has to discontinue her working relationship with Mr. Carruthers.  (She found his marriage offer to be a little inappropriate, especially since she was already engaged to someone else.)  Unfortunately, Violet plans to leave on an earlier train and is already heading out – and caught by her pursuers – by the time Watson and Holmes arrive.

And that is when we find out the evil scheme at the heart of this mystery.  We discover that Carruthers is the stalker (though he had pure intentions, he swears), that he and Woodley planned to coerce Violet into marrying one of them to get their hands on the money she inherited from her supposedly penniless uncle, and that Woodley “won” the right to be the bridegroom in a game of cards.  They also discover that Woodley’s taken up with a disgraced and defrocked vicar who helps him perform a shotgun wedding very much against Violet’s will.  I’m fairly sure the wedding night would have gone the exact same way if Holmes, Watson, and Carruthers hadn’t intervened.  It’s probably pretty true that Violet might not have survived much past the actual collection of said inheritance, actually, and that her life would have been pretty much hell until then, too.

Here’s the sad thing: the laws and philosophies of the era this story was written about?  Would have entirely allowed the overall concept of what Woodley and Carruthers planned.  Even if parliament gave women a right to own property in 1882 (but only in England, Wales, and Ireland; the law didn’t apply in Scotland and it only applied in Northern Ireland once the split happened), the easiest way to get your hands on an unsuspecting heiress’ money was tricking her into marrying you.  Lie your way to the altar.  Coerce someone into agreeing.  Or force her to do it if all else fails.  We can only assume someone tried the last option at least once for Doyle to come up with the idea for this plot.  I’m not saying he lacked the imagination to come up with the idea on his own, but reality does frequently inspire art, after all.  I mean, look at how many episodes of the various Law and Order franchises had disclaimers about their similarity to true events?  Hell, Dragnet started every episode with “These stories are true.  The names have been changed to protect the innocent.”  I’m just saying, there’s precedent for mysteries to be based on real events and for this slimy scheme to have at least been attempted.

Given his thoughts on women’s marriage rights (we’ll ignore his thoughts on suffrage for now), I can see why Doyle would choose to make these types of men his criminals.  Which isn’t to say he set out to deliver a message with this particular story, but it certainly touches on one of those issues he felt passionately enough about to lend his pen to publicly.  This was about six years before he published “Divorce Law Reform” after all, so maybe it was his way of decrying something fictionally he’d address otherwise later.  A dry run, if you will.

There are a lot of things I can get irate over and then, in the next breath, hand-wave off as “it’s how it was; it was horrible and stupid and inhumane, but historical hindsight is always 20/20.”  But Woodley (and Carruthers, whether he had a change of heart or not) did something that was inexcusable in any time.  No civilized society could find a reason to consider forcing a woman into matrimony at gunpoint with the help of a scuzzball vicar just to access a fortune she doesn’t know she has as acceptable.  The fact that doing so with false promises and no gun was less unacceptable is an unfortunate blemish on the Victorian legacy.

The good news is, Holmes and Watson stopped the unimaginable from happening, Violet married her betrothed, and inherited a nice chunk of change to boot.  So even stories with potential rapey undertones can eventually have a happy ending.