The Silver Blaze (1892)

The Silver Blaze
The Silver Blaze

Want to read this along with me? This essay is part of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1894. I used the epub version found on Feedbooks.com.

“The Silver Blaze” is the first story in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and is one of the most well-known stories, primarily due to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time:

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

In fact, this quote is so popular that it’s often misplaced into other stories – most commonly The Hound of the Baskervilles (another story that takes place on the moors).

And yet, for all the popularity of this quote, the story isn’t the best representation of Holmes’ skill. To start, Holmes doesn’t dramatically uncover new evidence so much as sift through a large amount of existing evidence to find the correct conclusion. Further, Holmes is uncharacteristically lucky in this case. He makes a fair number of guesses, and even he admits to being surprised when he is proven correct.

Much of these unusual quirks may relate to “The Silver Blaze” being one of the few “fair play” mysteries in the early canon. Fair play mysteries are when all of the facts and characters are available to the reader as well as to the detective – something that’s very common in mysteries today, but fairly infrequent in the stories of Doyle’s time.

This is a story about a race horse, although it’s not the first time that horse racing has come up in the canon. Betting on horse races was a part of “Blue Carbuncle,” and the allusion to Holmes’ knowledge of horse betting in that story is reinforced when he places a bet himself in this one. Further, there is some question as to whether Holmes’ bet was entirely ethical, as it appears that he bet on Silver Blaze, and he clearly had inside information on the horse. It could be a case of Holmes being a bit naive about betting etiquette, but the events of “Blue Carbuncle” seem to contradict this point. Regardless, we learn that Holmes (and, in later stories, Watson) gambles, both with his money and with some of his deductions.

We also meet a new Scotland Yard inspector and one of the most talented, Inspector Gregory. Holmes considers Gregory to be an “extremely competent officer,” lacking only in imagination. Gregory actually proves himself to be quite clever, and is diligent about preserving evidence. Gregory is also very respectful of Holmes’ methods. As for timing, Holmes and Watson are talking over breakfast at the start of the story, but Holmes has come to earn the respect of at least one Scotland Yard detective, so it’s likely that this is a late case in the pre-marriage period.

Holmes is uncommonly modest in this story. Not only does he admit to guessing, but he also admits to making a mistake in his deductions:

“Because I made a blunder, my dear Watson – which is, I am afraid, a more common occurrence than any one would think who only knew me through your memoirs.”

Some more threads that we’ve been watching pop up in this story:

  • This is another one of the few appearances of the “ear-flapped travelling-cap” – only the second in four books.
  • There’s another background reference to gypsies, in much the same way as in “The Speckled Band.”
  • There’s another example of Holmes’ sense of personal justice: “I follow my own methods, and tell as much or as little as I choose.”
  • Watson again makes some good observations. He strikes upon a key point in the evidence (the stable-boy locking the door) and he notices the return tracks of the horse and man, saving them valuable time.

All in all, one of the better stories in the canon, and well worth reading.

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And now, a quick note. In many of the British editions of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the next story is “The Cardboard Box,” but in American editions that story shows up in one of the later collections due to it being censored from Memoirs. As the Feedbooks editions I’m using are based off of an American printing, I’ll be dealing with that story when I get to it in my reading.

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