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.
Right after “The ‘Gloria Scott’,” we have another case in Holmes’ pre-Watson career.1 In my opinion, this one has far more flair and character than “The ‘Gloria Scott’.” Here we have some more exploration of Holmes’ early adult life, a good old-fashioned treasure hunt, some intrigue and romance, and there are more staples of the Holmes canon introduced here. In fact, this story is so iconic that the Baker Street Irregulars recite the actual ritual during their annual dinner, and T. S. Eliot paraphrased it in his play Murder in the Cathedral. This story is listed as one of Doyle’s favorites, and on reflection, it’s probably one of mine as well – a great, classic read.
Like the previous story, this one doesn’t feature Watson in a support role and has Holmes as the primary narrator. As such, we get another glimpse in Holmes’ methods from his own words:
“You know my methods in such cases, Watson. I put myself in the man’s place and, having first gauged his intelligence, I try to imagine how I should myself have proceeded under the same circumstances.”
Holmes also mentions more apocryphal cases (and failures), as well as some of the details of his college days. This actually leads to another interesting question of canon lore: what college did Holmes go to? Even though three stories now reference Holmes’ college days, none of them specify which college it was, although many Sherlockians, including William Baring-Gould, have narrowed the debate to being between Oxford and Cambridge. (I’m inclined against Cambridge, as he doesn’t seem to recognize or remark on anything when his cases take him to the Cambridge area, but I’ve seen evidence both ways.)
One of the things he may have studied “which might make me more efficient” was phrenology, the now outdated science of studying the measurements of the human head to determine behavioral characteristics. For example, in “The Blue Carbuncle,” Holmes mentions the size of the skull as an indication of intelligence. But many in Victorian England believed in phrenology. During “The Musgrave Ritual,” Reginald Musgrave described his intelligent butler, Brunton, as such:
“‘He was a well-grown, handsome man, with a splendid forehead….'”
In fact, Brunton is a quietly unrecognized contribution to literate. This is one of the stories in which the cliché of “the butler did it” originated, but it also plays to a second trope, that of the intelligent servant who outwits their employer. The second cliché is best seen (to a comedic extreme) in P. G. Wodehouse’s “Jeeves” stories and novels: Jeeves, an English valet, repeatedly develops elaborate schemes to get his master, Bertrum Wooster, out of an endless variety of social and romantic problems. But while this is probably the first detective story in which the butler is the culprit, there are actually surprisingly few mystery stories overall in which one of the servants is actually responsible for the crime. Many stories use the butler as a red herring, subverting the cliché early on in the 20th century, even though it persists to this day. The reason why these tropes were so strong at the time was due to the utter reliance that the upper and middle class had on their servants, and the notion that they might somehow be untrustworthy was terrifying. You can compare it our growing reliance on technology in the later part of the 20th century, and the subsequent rise in movies and stories that featured robots, machines, and other technology turning against humanity.
Aside from the contributions to Holmes’ past and to literature in general, this story has a few nuggets of information about the Baker Street years (which is the frame for this story). Watson talks about Holmes’ slovenly habits again, but this time contrasts it with Holmes’ extreme neatness of dress. Watson admits to being a bit of a slob himself, but not as much as Holmes. In Watson’s description of (and frustration with) Holmes’ habits, we get some of the most iconic images of their rooms at Baker Street.
But with me there is a limit, and when I find a man who keeps his cigars in the coal-scuttle, his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper, and his unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jack-knife into the very centre of his wooden mantelpiece, then I begin to give myself virtuous airs. I have always held, too, that pistol practice should be distinctly an open-air pastime; and when Holmes, in one of his queer humours, would sit in an arm-chair with his hair-trigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges, and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V. R. done in bullet-pocks, I felt strongly that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of our room was improved by it.
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- The fourth case in his career, assuming we count “The ‘Gloria Scott'” as his first, and that it was not one of the cases he undertook when he had rooms at Montague Street. ↩