I’m guilty of sedition here: this isn’t technically part of the Tuesday Night Bloggers – they’re looking at travel in classic crime this month – but rather my own delayed TNB post on John Dickson Carr from March before I was sidelined. But, y’know how it is, it’s the second one looking at Carr’s Sherlock Holmes stories and so I feel I should probably post it on a Tuesday if only for internal consistency…my apologies for any confusion (though I suppose I cam writing about a Carr trip…). Just look upon this as my Never Say Never Again.
I talked about the origin of these stories in my first post on this topic, so let’s get straight on with it: this story is built on the reference to a case “of Colonel Warburton’s madness” made at the start of ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’ and so it’s appropriate that it begins in much the same way: someone in distress seeks out Watson (then for his doctoring, now seemingly because he knows Holmes) and is thus ushered into the Great Presence. It’s here that the story plays its most interesting card, as Holmes is rather short with the unfortunate Cora Murray who has just had a Colonel Warburton seemingly shoot himself and his wife while locked together in his study in the house where they all reside:
“The door of that room was locked on the inside. Each of the French windows was double-bolted on the inside though the curtains remained undrawn. No other person was there or hidden there; nor was there any other access to the room… There had been no tampering with any bolt or fastenings; the room was locked like a fortress.”
It’s shame that the cause of Holmes’ irritation is put down to Irene Adler – I do so tire of people going on about The Woman in their Sherlockian pastiches, as if it shows some deep insight – but it at least displays the acerbic side of Holmes that is often played down or turned into avuncular twinkling as if in jest. And in a way this also helps highlight my chief problem with this story, because – like ‘The Adventure of the Highgate Miracle’ – it is a fairly decent reproduction of Arthur Conan Doyle’s style and structure (the small clue dropped early on the catch Holmes’ attention is so perfectly Doylean it’s almost hard to bear), but feels for once strictured and constrained by the necessity to conform to these expectations. ‘Highgate Miracle’ almost rejoiced in these limits, but ‘Sealed Room’ wants to be something more and – though perhaps this should be impressive – restrains itself to better ape the original.
It is of course the references to Warburton’s travels in India, and the manservant Chundra Lal who has returned with him along with various death masks, to which I refer. There are ingredients here that could be used brilliantly with Carr’s hand given a freer range, but instead we simply get a few mentions of Chundra Lal, a few mentions of the blue-eyed death mask and…well, that’s it. Nothing is made of either, but you feel that Carr wanted to do something, otherwise why introduce them? Brevity, perhaps, but then Carr was never one to waste space anyway – admittedly Conan Doyle was never big on his adjectives, but such ripe potential is utterly squandered and it hovers over proceedings rather like the spectre at the feast.
One possible argument, naturally, is that failing to utilise The Foreigner is an era-appropriate treatment of an aspect that someone writing in the late 1890s wouldn’t know how to explore and so shies away from – witness the now-infamous character of Steve Dixie in ‘The Adventure of the Three Gables’ if you want to see the damage that can be done by writing about that whereof you do not know. However, I remain unconvinced. Some 60 years on – still, admittedly, not written at a time of great societal understanding – there would have been sufficient comprehension of the issues involved the expand this aspect if it was so wished, and instead one must ask how much freedom Carr had in the writing of this particular story. There is always room for speculation of exactly who did what when collaborations emerge, and I feel this particular case gives just cause for that!
However, the solution is entertaining and shows both the clever deductive reasoning and understanding of the canon (the muttered reference to “a hundred and forty-first sort” – see, that’s great pastiche-writing) as well as the classical ‘We’re going somewhere, bring your revolver and wait with me in a dark room’ denouement of which Conan Doyle was so beloved. So if this journey is perhaps a little plain, at least it has the tang of authenticity and the destination is worthwhile.
Next week I shall skew more in a ‘travel’ direction for the TNBs, I promise; there’s such scope there that it seems a shame to pass it up. Until tomorrow, then, and the joys of Rupert Penny…