A fixture of Christmas crime story anthologies throughout history; but is it any good?
The goose is indeed getting fat, it’s time for…
‘The Blue Carbuncle’ (1892)
Running to the aid of a man who — carrying a parcel home in the days before Christmas — is set upon by a gang of toughs, Scotland Yard man Peterson unwittingly spooks the man he is intending to help, causing him to drop his parcel and hat and flee. The parcel turns out to be a Christmas goose, and Peterson passes the hat onto Sherlock Holmes in the hope of reuniting the man with his property. After a couple of days, however, when it becomes necessary to cook the goose so it does not go to waste, Peterson rushes back to Holmes having made the discovery of the eponymous stolen jewel within the animal. How to explain the presence of the jewel, then, and can the man who has been accused of the theft be cleared of the crime?
Commissionaire Peterson, Scotland Yard; done out of £1,000.
Henry Baker, popularly named; his goose will be cooked.
James Ryder, a.k.a. John Robinson; on a wild goose chase.
Watson calls on Holmes “upon the second morning after Christmas” — so we can assume that means 27th December — but no year is given, nor is any indication made relative to other cases except that we’re post-The Sign of Four (1890) since Holmes and Watson are no longer co-habiting. Apart from that…your guess is as good as mine.
The only real Holmesian trope herein is the extended sequence of deductions about Mr. Henry Baker from the condition of his hat…a lot of which is specious at best:
“I have no doubt that I am very stupid, but I must confess that I am unable to follow you. For example, how did you deduce that this man was intellectual?”
For answer Holmes clapped the hat upon his head. It came right over the forehead and settled upon the bridge of his nose. “It is a question of cubic capacity,” said he; “a man with so large a brain must have something in it.”
There’s a Dr. Thorndyke story by R. Austin Freeman — and damn my leaky memory, I forget which one — in which he pours wonderfully cold scorn over this particular piece of showmanship, but — even when I can pick holes a mile wide in the reasoning Holmes applies — I can’t help but enjoy the creativity of these undertakings. No-one else was writing this sort of thing at the time, and it’s fascinating to think of the new ground Doyle was mapping out even if he didn’t do a rigorous job of it.
Points of Interest
I learned what a bird’s crop is, this apparently not inspiring any curiosity in me when I last read this story two decades ago, so there’s that.
Don’t let the mention of Inspector Bradstreet, who cropped up in previous masterpiece ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ (1891), lull you into thinking that this story must be set after that one. I’ll not entertain any nonsense like that.
Peterson really is done out of a fortune: there’s a reward of the equivalent of £162,000 available for the return of the Blue Carbuncle, and it is unarguably Peterson — or at the very least, his household — who discovers it. Sure, we don’t know that Holmes doesn’t ensure he gets the money, but I’m willing to be he didn’t.
The only real point of interest in this is the pleasingly humdrum detection done in tracking down the origin of the bird. It’s far from complex, and doesn’t exactly show The World’s Greatest Detective requiring the peak of his powers, but given that Holmes usually knows so much it is nice to see him doing some leg-work for a change.
Beyond that, this is pretty forgettable, innit? It definitely makes those Christmas anthologies on the strength of name recognition alone, because the contents are rather uninspired.
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]:
- ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (1891)
- ‘A Case of Identity’ (1891)
- ‘The Red-Headed League’ (1891)
- ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ (1891)
- ‘The Five Orange Pips’ (1891)
- ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ (1891)
- ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ (1892)
- ‘The Speckled Band’ (1892)
- ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’ (1892)
5 thoughts on “#1063: Little Fictions – ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ (1892) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle”
I won’t disagree with you about the merit of this as a work of mystery fiction but I do think it is a superb piece of seasonal writing which is a big part of its charm, at least for me. You are spot on about the reward though!
I recognise the Thorndyke criticism of the hat deductions, so there’s a good chance it’s in The Singing Bone collection as that’s the only Thorndyke anthology I have. Although I have read a few others in the BLCC collections.
I think Doyle must have been dissatisfied with “The Blue Carbuncle”, because “The Six Napoleons” reuses the same central plot device (a treasure hidden in one of a number of similar objects which have been distributed), but weaves substantially more complexity around it.
The R. Austin Freeman story that you are remembering is “The Anthropologist at Large” (1910), in which Thorndyke’s client, Mr Löwe, suggests that “by examining a hat it is possible to deduce from it, not only the bodily characteristics of the wearer, but also his mental and moral qualities, his state of health, his pecuniary position, his past history, and even his domestic relations and the peculiarities of his place of abode”. Thorndyke politely disabuses him of these unrealistic expectations, saying, “We must not expect too much. Hats, as you know, have a way of changing owners.”
One little detail that I like in “The Blue Carbuncle” is the implication that Henry Baker has sold or pawned his shirt to pay for drink: “His rusty black frock-coat was buttoned right up in front, with the collar turned up, and his lank wrists protruded from his sleeves without a sign of cuff or shirt.” Holmes of course notices this, but endeavours to save Baker from embarrassment by saying, “It is a cold night, and I observe that your circulation is more adapted for summer than for winter.”
Thank-you for digging up that Thorndyke reference; lovely to know I’m not imagining these things.
And a good spot on the shirt, too. That detail, clearly, completely eluded me.
I read this one as part of an anthology, and enjoyed it. There’s one line about breath rising up like pistol shots that’s stayed with me; Doyle was an excellent writer.
I think this story is really mostly known for A. being the only Christmas story in the canon, and B. the ending. It’s an interesting take on the “detective lets the culprit go” plot device. Normally, when authors do this, including Doyle, it’s because the culprit is sympathetic. Here, the culprit is a bit scummy and Holmes lets him go in the spirit of the season and because he deduces that he’s been scared off crime and that jail will do him no good. Certainly a more pragmatic and humanist take on the idea.