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:
In the early 1950s, John Dickson Carr collaborated with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s youngest son Adrian on six stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. These were published in various magazines before being collected together and published as either The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (as my edition – featured below – is, also containing six stories solely from the pen of Conan Doyle, Jr.) or The Further Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, separate from Conan Doyle, Jr.’s stories which were themselves published as The Exploits. Are you keeping up?
‘The Problem of Thor Bridge’ gives us the classic impossible crime setup of a body that has been shot in the head but without any sign of a weapon to hand…and then manages to appear not at all impossible by finding the murder weapon hidden in the most likely suspect’s room, also throwing in a note from the suspected murderer arranging to meet the victim at the place of their demise and at around the time they are suspected of being having died. True, there are no footprints anywhere near the body, but – before you get too excited – “The ground was iron-hard, sir. There were no traces at all.” Oh, so that takes care of that, then.
In an attempt to broaden my approach to this blogging lark, I thought I’d turn my hand to some linguistic analysis. This presents a problem in the form of my being a qualified mathematician and therefore acutely aware of how easy it is to skew any set of data based on the interpretation it’s given, and thus how pointless it becomes to really bother. Nevertheless, I shall sally forth into the Sherlock Holmes canon with a quick sweep over some of the main points, and I can always come back to it later if I feel it warrants further investigation.
It is difficult to believe that Arthur Conan Doyle ever intended for his Sherlock Holmes stories to be as influential as they have proven to be. Not only are we still churning out variations on his characters in print and on radio, television and film but such is the fascination with his detective that something published before Conan Doyle even put pen to paper can achieve retrospective interest because of the similarities between the two. And so Locked Room International published this translation of Henry Cauvin’s debut novel The Killing Needle, wherein a skeleton-thin genius master of disguise who shuns social norms, declares “In my case, the brain dominates everything and is continually boiling over. This fire is eating me up and doesn’t leave a moment’s peace. The mind! The mind is a vulture that’s eating me alive” and takes opium (though in this case “to help me get some much-needed sleep”) has his adventures in crime-solving related by a doctor who becomes his confidant after being introduced by a mutual friend …yeah, okay, that’s a lot of overlap right there.
Unfortunately, once these similarities have been pointed out – and translator John Pugmire does a superbly even-handed job of this in his introduction – you can’t really take this story on its own terms. Maximilien Heller – for ’tis he who bears the brunt of these comparisons – is an expert in chemistry, has some previous experience with the criminal classes that proves crucial in untangling the skein he’s confronted with here, and even has the slightly less catchy “I follow the facts and nothing but the facts…I assemble them, no matter how contradictory they may appear to be, and at some point, the light shines” as something approaching Holmes’ “When you have eliminated the impossible…”. It’s like trying to read Gerald Verner’s Lattimer Shrive stories: you can’t do it without superimposing Holmes over every action and event. Verner has no excuse, coming after Conan Doyle as he did, but Cauvin should at least be given his own two feet to stand on, because he does some very good work.
In truth, though, Cauvin’s writing – and Pugmire can be trusted as an accurate and fair translator – brings to mind that of Maurice Leblanc and Edgar Wallace, which is perhaps surprising given how he predates both of them, too (was this man the most influential person ever in the history of crime fiction?!). Leblanc certainly shares Cauvin’s obsession with every tiny narrative detail – the extended epilogue here, for example – and his broadly gothic framing of a second half that takes place in a spooky and creaky isolated old mansion with a black bear occasionally let loose in the grounds (see ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’, too…). In fact, this almost works better as a tonal companion piece to Leblanc’s The Eight Strokes of the Clock, but once again there I go not giving Cauvin his due on his own terms. Right, come on, focus. Here we go…
The impossible crime here involves a man found dead in his bed with tell-tale traces of arsenic in the cup containing the nightcap that his servant brought him. Of slightly more interest, and resolved disappointingly quickly, is how one (trustworthy) doctor finds no evidence of arsenic in the dead man’s system and yet another (a well-established quack), performing his test in front of several witnesses, finds an abundance of the stuff. It’s a very nice little trick, perhaps a little transparent on account of how it’s written, but it shows a lovely degree of invention and interpretation in the exceptionally early days of the form. You could see it being repeated in a more celebrated book and garnering plenty of praise, and it’s a shame that it is cast aside so quickly here. Elsewhere, there’s a nice surprise whose form I shall not give away (though its revelation depends on – shock horror – Cauvin actually recycling someone else’s idea from what I shall simply call a famous book published three years earlier) that at least establishes a different pattern to and motivation for the crime than the one you may reasonably have been expecting.
The murder method is resolved before the halfway stage, and the resolution of the mechanics is discussed at the end in a manner that I personally think is fine given the information that you, the reader, has. You’re not present at the discovery of the body and so there’s only so much to be intuited, and while it is a little brief I’d say that it’s perfectly acceptable. Interestingly, it’s not the focus of the book at all, which leaves it floundering a little a to exactly what the focus is. The guilty party is deliberately clear from practically first appearance (did all 19th century villains really behave in such obvious ways?) and the adventures of Heller are strewn with him being confined to bed with fevers and various other maladies, perhaps to heighten his own determination to see this through but instead making him come across as a slightly uneven central presence. Possibly that would be the idea, were the ghost of Holmes’ driven determination not chasing him down the corridors and standing by gently chiding him as he passes out from fright or allows himself to get sick again. It’s all a bit odd: given a lack of definite focus, Holmes inevitably creeps in. Were it not for Holmes this would probably fare better, but if it fared better then Holmes probably wouldn’t enter your head to begin with. And thus you become stuck and it becomes difficult to ether dismiss it out of hand or recommend it unreservedly.
Overall, though, there is enough here to recommend it. If you share my interest in the roots of the genre then you should give this a go, and the couple of nice little tricks that it plays on you are worth seeing. If you have your doubts, it’s probably not quite for you. But do bear it in mind. It will fill a rainy afternoon, and should give you some decent material next time someone starts holding forth on Conan Doyle’s creation. Joseph Bell, you say? Ahem, I think you’ll find…
Coming on Friday: Conan Doyle’s grudging triumphant return of Sherlock Holmes in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ …
Since I can’t quite go the Full Sherlock – he’s out of my era, after all – I thought I could at least have a look at the three Arthur Conan Doyle-penned short stories that comprise the (official) entirety of his impossible crimes: ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’, ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’, and ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge’ (I’m excluding novella The Valley of Fear because it’s not technically an impossible crime, and remains a mystery for all of about six lines). It’s also a lovely excuse to get some of Sidney Paget’s gorgeous illustrations out for airing, too, and I don’t think anyone is going to mind that. So, first up going chronologically, is my least favourite of these three: nonsense-fest ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’.