Of all the Sherlock Holmes stories, I have read three over and over. The novel The Hounds of the Baskervilles continues to entertain me. “A Scandal in Bohemia” is unique because Holmes is outwitted by a woman. But it is the sole Christmas story, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” that I have read more than any other Holmes story.
I re-read it again this Christmas season, as I do most years, and enjoyed it as much as I always have. This time, however, I read it as a writer. I am no Sherlockian scholar by any means but I did observe a couple of interesting tidbits. I assume you’ve all read the story so there will be spoilers throughout.
The most obvious facet of the story is so obvious, it can be missed: the structure. Arthur Conan Doyle always gives the reader, in the form of Watson, all the facts of the case. Two days after Christmas, Watson stops by Baker Street “with the intention of wishing [Holmes] the compliments of the season.” The detective has been examining a hat and, after retelling how the hat came into his possession, beckons Watson to play detective. “Here is my lens. You know my methods. What can you gather yourself as to the individuality of the man who has worn this article?” I think Doyle puts this scene at the front of the story not only to propel the case forward but also to offer his readers more insight into the world first consulting detective. “Blue Carbuncle” was the seventh short story published and there might have been a few folks who were not attuned to Holmes’ ways.
The hat wasn’t the only thing brought to Baker Street. It also came with a goose. Holmes released the goose to the policeman who found both items but the story really gets moving when that same policeman returns to 221B with the blue carbuncle in his hand, the very same gem recently stolen from the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Now, Holmes’s little mental exercise pays dividends as he and Watson now must find the owner and trace the path of the carbuncle and exonerate an innocent man.
It is the path that I noted in this re-reading. Holmes and Watson follow the trail of the gemstone: from goose to the club from which it was given to Henry Baker (the hat’s owner) to the reseller to the lady who fattens geese for sale. What fascinated me was the logical progression. Nothing was coincidence, something I struggle with in my own writing. Oh, I think, I need Guy and Girl to meet so they’ll rob a bank together. I’ll just have them talking aloud at a street corner, they’ll hear each other, and then… Yeah. Not believable. Even train of thought and action in “Blue Carbuncle” is consistent and rational.
Doyle’s word choices in this story are also of note. They’re subtle but say a good deal about how Doyle sees his creation. On the first page, Doyle writes, “…he [Holmes] jerked his thumb in the direction of the hat…” It’s the word “jerked” that striking. Not motioned or pointed but jerked. Doyle’s showing us Holmes brain had already moved on past the problem of the hat—something that probably took seconds for him—until Watson arrived. Once he has an audience, Holmes frankly, to show off. I think he needs to demonstrate his prowess. How else can you explain all the times when he doesn’t even let Watson in on his plans?
I also appreciated how Doyle’s word choices allowed the readers to fill in the blanks. With space limited in a short story, Doyle didn’t have time to go on and on describing things. Watson noticing the ice crystals forming on the windows of 221B Baker Street allows the readers to create their own mental picture of what Victorian London at Christmas time. Undoubtedly, we almost all think of Dickens and Scrooge and you probably wouldn’t be far off. A little later, Doyle writes “…and the breath of the passers-by flew out into smoke like so many pistol shots.” Now, if that isn’t a great way to describe seeing people’s breath on a cold night, I don’t know what is. And then there is the use of the word “ejaculated” to describe a vocal utterance. Never understood that one.
As I turn my own writing attention to short stories, it is nice to return to a familiar and loved tale and dig deeper into what makes it a great story. It’s Holmes and Watson to be sure as well as the Victorian setting. The story itself, however, is the key. It’s a page-turner with few pages. The action propels you forward until you reach the end and Holmes’ Christmas pardon to the culprit. Doyle may have grown to dislike his creation but the man can still tell a good story. I hope to, as well.