#1057: Little Fictions – ‘The Five Orange Pips’ (1891) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Tuesdays in May will see us recommence charting the complete short stories of Mr. Sherlock Holmes as written by his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

And so, today we have:

‘The Five Orange Pips’ (1891)

The Case

One stormy evening, Holmes is consulted by twentysomething John Openshaw, whose uncle Elias, having emigrated to and then returned from the United States, received an envelope containing five orange pips and was found mysteriously drowned several weeks later. Then Openshaw’s father, Joseph, received the pips and fell into a chalk pit and died. And now Openshaw himself has received the pips…so what does it mean, and how long does he have to live?

The Characters

John Openshaw, inherited more than wealth; gets his five-a-day.

Elias Openshaw, uncle of the above, deceased; bit of a racist.

Joseph Openshaw, father of the above, deceased; largely blameless.

The Timeline

We have here perhaps the strongest indicator yet of Doyle’s willingness to play funny games with his timeline: this, the fifth published short story to feature Holmes and Watson, takes place in September 1887 — potentially making it a prequel to all the preceding short stories. It certainly precedes ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (1891) and ‘The Red-Headed League’ (1891) based on dates given therein, and I can’t be alone in wondering why Doyle bothered to make his chronology so damn hard to follow, can I? I mean, there’s no reason for these stories not to have taken place in the order they were published…unless they weren’t written in that order, of course, but we also know that later stories certainly not yet written will be set among these earlier ones. And given Doyle’s famous lack of care with details — Watson’s moving bullet wound, James Moriarty and his brother James, the inconsistent dates in ‘The Red-Headed League’ (1891) — it’s not like he was being especially rigorous about this for any reason. So…what gives?

The Tropes

As trapping go, we have to content ourselves with a positive overflowing of references to cases never to be written by Doyle…

  • “…an account of the adventure of the Paradol Chamber…”
  • “…of the Amateur Mendicant Society, who held a luxurious club in the lower vault of a furniture warehouse…”
  • “…of the facts connected with the loss of the British barque Sophy Anderson…”
  • “…of the singular adventures of the Grice Patersons in the island of Uffa….”
  • “…of the Camberwell poisoning case…”
  • “I heard from Major Prendergast how you saved him in the Tankerville Club scandal.”

Anything else worth mentioning, of which there is plenty, will be dealt with below.

Points of Interest

Alongside the mentions above of the wider canon — doubtless explored by other authors in the time since Holmes entered the public domain — we also get an intriguing window on both the detection employed (“In the latter, as may be remembered, Sherlock Holmes was able, by winding up the dead man’s watch, to prove that it had been wound up two hours before, and that therefore the deceased had gone to bed within that time—a deduction which was of the greatest importance in clearing up the case.”) and — perhaps importantly, given the reputation that the character has come to enjoy over the decades — an acknowledgement that not everything Holmes achieved was done using the iron-forged deduction best associated with his name:

Some [cases] have already gained publicity through the papers, and others have not offered a field for those peculiar qualities which my friend possessed in so high a degree, and which it is the object of these papers to illustrate. Some, too, have baffled his analytical skill, and would be, as narratives, beginnings without an ending, while others have been but partially cleared up, and have their explanations founded rather upon conjecture and surmise than on that absolute logical proof which was so dear to him.

It’s difficult not to wonder if this glimpse at the wider world of Holmes and Watson wasn’t offered by Doyle in partial acknowledgement that the story containing them is pretty thin. Someone receives an envelope, Holmes works out immediately that they’re being threatened by the Ku Klux Klan — aaah, more innocent times, when the knowledge of that group wasn’t so widespread — and…that’s really it. There’s a stab at some pleasingly humdrum detection (alas, completed off-page) but the story as a whole doesn’t offer much except as an historical curio.

More interesting, and perhaps tying into the obfuscated timeline mentioned above, is Holmes’ admission that “I have been beaten four times — three times by men, and once by a woman”. We know the last of these, of course, but it’s tantalising even at this early stage to wonder what those other cases might have been. And it is to be wondered, too, whether Holmes would go on to count this as another of his failures: his client does [er, SPOILERS] die, after all — presumably at the hands of people he has approached Holmes to protect him from — and Holmes would appear to shoulder some responsibility for this (“That he should come to me for help, and that I should send him away to his death—!”). Plus, the villains, assuming villains they are, evade justice by dint of apparently drowning when their boat sinks…so, really, the impact Holmes has here is nil.

So, disappointing as a mystery, and not showing our resident genius in the best light, but perhaps this is all the more interesting for that. There’s a tendency to see Holmes as the apotheosis of the fictional detective, but indicators here imply that Doyle was very keen, at least at this stage, to keep his man on a footing with mere mortals.


The Sherlock Holmes canon by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on The Invisible Event

A Study in Scarlet (1887)
The Sign of Four (1890)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes [ss]:

  1. ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (1891)
  2. ‘A Case of Identity’ (1891)
  3. ‘The Red-Headed League’ (1891)
  4. ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ (1891)
  5. ‘The Five Orange Pips’ (1891)
  6. ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ (1891)
  7. ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ (1892)
  8. ‘The Speckled Band’ (1892)
  9. ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’ (1892)

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)

5 thoughts on “#1057: Little Fictions – ‘The Five Orange Pips’ (1891) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. I too have always found this one a little lackluster – largely down to the changing times, I think. One gets the impression that Doyle wanted to tell a story about seeds foretelling death and simply ran with it. Stellar atmosphere – the setting of the scene in Baker Street is quintessential Holmes and a perfect encapsulation of what Doyle did best as a writer – but as the plot unravels, I can’t help but lose interest.


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