Thursday, May 18, 2017

Never Double-Cross a Man with a Mongoose

"The Adventure of the Crooked Man" (Strand Magazine, June 1893) is a wonderful example of just how good a storyteller was Arthur Conan Doyle.

As a detective story, it's a very good one. A man has apparently been murdered while locked in a room with his wife, though a third person could have gotten in through a window. The key to the door was missing and the wife is catatonic and can't say what happened. The prints of a strange but unidentified animal were found at the scene.

By the time we enter the story, Holmes has actually made a lot of progress in the case. He stops by Watson's house (this is when the good doctor was married and not living a Baker Street) and recruits his help to continue the investigation. Watson readily agrees--there's a great line that shows insight into both men:

In spite of his capacity for concealing his emotions, I could easily see that Holmes was in a state of suppressed excitement, while I was myself tingling with that half-sporting, half-intellectual pleasure which I invariably experienced when I associated myself with him in his investigations.

Along the way, we learn the name (Simpson) of a Baker Street Irregular whom Holmes left on stake-out duty. I'm reasonably certain that this is the only Irregular other than Wiggins that's ever named. Of course, the whole point of the crew was that they could hang around places without being noticed.

The case is wrapped up without complications--Holmes uses intelligent but straightforward detective work rather than making brilliant deductive leaps. It makes you wonder why he needed Watson--did the Great Detective simply miss his friend?

The conclusion of the case involves finding and interviewing the titular "crooked man," a veteran of the 1857 Indian Rebellion who has been crippled by years of slavery and torture, He now makes a living doing conjuring tricks and showing off his trained mongoose.

This is really the best part of the tale--the man's tale is a great little story in of itself. There is betrayal, captures, escapes, torture and adventure all effectively encapsulated in just a few pages. It is effective edge-of-your-seat stuff.

We know that by 1893, Doyle was getting a little tired of Holmes and, wanting to concentrate on writing historical novels, would make his unsuccessful attempt to kill off the detective just a few stories later. Here, he puts together a good, solid detective story, but concentrates his best prose on the Crooked Man's tale of woe and adventure. It makes me wonder if perhaps Doyle had that story primarily in mind when he wrote "The Crooked Man." But since the Strand Magazine kept throwing money at him to write more about Holmes, he used Holmes as a framework to highlight the story he actually wanted to tell. That's all just a guess, of course, but it seems reasonable.

But what am I talking about? Everyone knows that Doyle was just Watson's literary agent and that the Holmes stories are all factual history. If this wasn't true, it would mean Holmes never really existed and no sane person wants to live in a world where that is true.

So, when you think about it, it's amazing that so many people encountered by Holmes and Watson were able to tell their stories in such an effectively dramatic fashion.

"The Adventures of the Crooked Man" is available online HERE.


  1. Of course Holmes needed Watson for the case...he needed him to chronicle the adventure. After all, Holmes was not as apt a writer as Watson, as evidenced by "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier" or "The Lion's Mane." He often referred to Watson as "my Boswell." So if for no other reason, he needed Watson on hand to make it an eyewitness account.

    1. That probably was at least part of the motivation. Holmes occasionally complained about Watson's stories, but he was not without ego and also probably appreciated the business it brought him by getting his name out to the public.


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