Want to read this along with me? This essay is part of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1892. I used the epub version found on Feedbooks.com.
It’s the start of the Christmas season, and every Christmas, I run into images of the Victorian ideal of Christmas, which inevitably slides into renditions, quotes, and readings from A Christmas Carol. People mention Scrooge and his ghosts, and hold that up as the ideal story of the holiday season. But through my life, my favorite Christmas story hasn’t been that Dickensian classic, but rather “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” Other Sherlockians might dismiss the story as one of the weaker cases in the book, but it has always held a special place in my heart, and I’ve read it dozens of times throughout my life. (And yet, I still notice little things each time I read it, like the fact that Holmes tends to crumple papers into a ball when he’s done reading them.)
This case starts off with a scenario in which a crime isn’t committed, and Watson specifically mentions three previous stories in which this is the case.1 Later we learn that a jewel theft is committed, but we’re starting to see Doyle draw connections between his own previous works and build this elaborate chronology around Holmes – even, as we’ve already seen, if it’s fraught with inconsistencies and conflicts.
The scene in which Watson and Holmes analyzes the hat is perhaps one of my favorite scenes of deduction around a physical object in the whole canon. And here, we see not only yet another example of Watson’s own intelligence, but a clear instance of him downplaying his own intelligence. During the scene, Watson recounts a detailed list of observations (but, again, not deductions) about the hat – a full paragraph of them. And yet, at the end, he says merely that he sees nothing. Even Holmes calls him “too timid” as a result.
As the case warms up, we meet another policeman – Peterson – and find another reference to Inspector Bradstreet. Holmes also puts in another advertisement in the paper as a key part of solving the case. In fact, many of Holmes’ cases revolve around advertisements in the paper or short telegrams revealing a key fact. Even though mass media and instant communication was in its infancy by today’s standards, Holmes used the technology available to him to great effect in acquiring details and trapping suspects. As a culture we have this image of Holmes that is quaint and retro, but in many ways Holmes was on the cutting edge of the intersection between technology and culture. He probably would have been absolutely in love with smartphones if he were around today.2
This story contains a great example of how manipulative Holmes can be. Again, far from being the unreasoning and unsocial machine that Holmes is sometimes portrayed to be, he can be quite adept at manipulating people into revealing information about themselves, such as when Holmes masterfully manipulates Breckinridge into giving him more information by disguising his inquisition in the form of a wager. Gambling is an interesting aspect of the canon that pops up every now and then – something to keep an eye out for.
The fascination with jewel thieves and thievery is common in the crime literature of the time, and is summed up perfectly by one sentence by Holmes in this story:
“In the larger and older jewels every facet may stand for a bloody deed.”
And yet, Holmes once again takes justice into his own hands. Regardless of Holmes’ good intentions, he does let go a man who stole a valuable gem without notifying the police, and explains that the solution is his real reward, not the prosecution of criminals:
“Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward.”
All in all, an underrated story in the canon, and one of my personal favorites.