Preface and “The Mazarin Stone” (1921)

maza-02Want to read this along with me? This essay is part of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1927. I used the epub version found on Feedbooks.com.

We arrive at The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. Before I dive into the first story, a note about this book: All of the stories were written after World War I, which had a profound impact on Doyle (he lost a number of friends and family members in the war). Also, his growing interest in Spiritualism and seances appears to have made it harder for him to write in the Holmesian mindset. Further, he was just thoroughly tired of Holmes and still considered him to be beneath his more serious work, and it comes out in the preface to this book, written in 1927:

“And so, reader, farewell to Sherlock Holmes! I thank you for your past constancy, and can but hope that some return has been made in the shape of that distraction from the worries of life and stimulating change of thought which can only be found in the fairy kingdom of romance.”

That being said, there is also a lot of experimentation in this phase of his career (and I count “His Last Bow” as part of this phase, even though it was collected in the previous book). Within are multiple stories that explicitly stray from the formula, and the stories overall are darker and more menacing in tone. As I mentioned in the previous essay, they presage the coming pulp and American detective fiction traditions. As such, many people have very mixed reactions to these stories, but the general opinion is that they are some of the weaker stories in the canon.

Further, the version of the book that I am reading puts the stories in chronological order, although many versions of The Case-Book are in a different order. I debated reordering them into the more common progression, but given Doyle’s mindset about Holmes and the more experimental nature of these stories, I thought it might be instructive to see his progression as a writer chronologically. As such, I’ll keep the Feedbooks progression for this book.

And Doyle’s lack of interest in Holmes and the Holmes formula is extremely clear in “The Mazarin Stone.” The plot is an adaptation of “The Crown Diamond,” a successful play that Doyle wrote. It toured at the same time as this story was published, and it explains the fact that the story all takes place in one room. But the whole thing reads like a bad, exaggerated pastiche of Holmes, and not like Doyle’s work at all.
Part of the reason for the feeling of pastiche is that there are a couple of elements that are clearly lifted from “The Empty House.” A similar bust Holmes was in that previous story, and both were made by Frenchmen — this one by “Tavernier, the French modeller,” although the one in “The Empty House” was made by Monsieur Oscar Meunier of Grenoble. Also, there is another criminal across the street with an air-gun trained on 221B. Further, another anonymous inspector is mentioned — this time, Youghal of C.I.D. (although Holmes has always previously referred to that institution as “of the Yard”), and Billy the page is mentioned, but given a greatly exaggerated role and is implied to be much order than previous stories indicated. Finally, there is a lot more rough slang used in this story, which feels more like American detective fiction than Doyle’s more higher-class fare. Like “His Last Bow,” this is the second story told from a third-person perspective, and also the second story in which Watson is not present for large parts of the action. (The story is written to seem like Holmes may also not be present, but it is later revealed that he was, in fact, there.) There isn’t even much of a mystery here — Holmes simply sets things up to trick two men into giving a confession.

How Holmes is portrayed is also markedly different. He is atypically sarcastic and witty in the story — certainly Holmes has been known for his sardonic wit, but here he comes across almost like a comedian, constantly unleashing his wit and pulling jokes on people. And yet, the story claims that Holmes seldom laughed, even though Sherlockians note between 292 and 316 instances of Holmes laughing in the canon (and certainly that laughter is seen in certain portrayals of Holmes, most notably Jeremy Brett’s). We do get a very Holmesian quote in the story (“I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix.”) and we see his obsession with technology in the use of the gramaphone (which helps to date the case at least after 1900, and probably between 1902 and 1905), but this Holmes is very jarring and inconsistent with the one we know.

In all, this story feels like Doyle is just trying to cash in on his previous successes, although my feeling might be due to the tone of the preface, admittedly.

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