I first heard about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson perhaps when I was seven or eight years old. My father was a great admirer of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary work. Thanks to him, at the age of ten I finally got a hold of a book that compiled most of the stories featuring Sherlock Holmes as protagonist. Those stories, although translated into Spanish, had an exquisite British feel. I remember with nostalgia that book from which the ink was fading and whose pages had turned yellow. One of the stories remained deeply engraved in my soul. It was a tale entitled “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual”. I was very shocked by the Musgrave family’s legend, linked to one of the royal dynasties of Great Britain. In “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual”, Sherlock Holmes retells Watson the events arising after a visit from a university acquaintance, Reginald Musgrave. Musgrave visits Holmes after the disappearance of two members of his domestic staff: Rachel Howells, a maid, and Richard Brunton, the longtime butler. Both vanished after Musgrave had dismissed Brunton for having secretly read a family document, the Musgrave Ritual. The Ritual, dating from the 17th century, is a riddle set in a question and answer format. These questions and answers appear to be utterly insignificant. Reginald Musgrave himself does not understand the meaning of this ritual. The cryptic list consists of apparently meaningless phrases. Here they are:
‘Whose was it?’ ‘His who is gone.’ ‘Who shall have it?’ ‘He who will come.’ (‘What was the month?’ ‘The sixth from the first.’) ‘Where was the sun?’ ‘Over the oak.’ ‘Where was the shadow?’ ‘Under the elm.’ ‘How was it stepped?’ ‘North by ten and by ten, east by five and by five, south by two and by two, west by one and by one, and so under.’ ‘What shall we give for it?’ ‘All that is ours.’ ‘Why should we give it?’ ‘For the sake of the trust.’
What could be the meaning of these questions? Are they related to the butler and the maid’s disappearance? Or is it perhaps something more mysterious than Musgrave can imagine? It is the latter what the famous detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle suspects. Holmes looks upon the case not as three separate mysteries but as one. He takes the ritual’s riddle into account. For Musgrave —as for seemingly all his ancestors during more than two centuries— it was a meaningless, absurd tradition, but not for Holmes, who saw something different. And so did Brunton, Holmes suspects. He quickly realizes that the riddle is a set of instructions for finding something. By ascertaining the height of the oak mentioned within, which was still standing, and the position of the elm, now gone, Holmes performs a few calculations and paces out the route to whatever awaited him, with Musgrave now eagerly following him. Holmes deems quite enlightening the fact that Brunton had recently asked about the old elm tree’s height as well, and the fact that he apparently was a very intelligent man.
Sherlock Holmes, with the expertise of a sorcerer, turns logical thought into the greatest witchcraft and manages to link all the clues. Holmes’ analysis leads to what the butler presumably knew to be a very valuable treasure. This treasure seems related to the British Crown jewels, which may have been hidden in the Musgrave mansion for centuries.
Holmes finally finds the hiding place in the old cellar, but then finds it impossible to lift the stone slab by himself. So, he deduces, Brunton had had to draw someone else into his treasure hunt. He unwisely chose Rachel Howells, who hated him. The two of them could have lifted the slab, but they would have needed to keep it up while Brunton climbed down to fetch the treasure. Based on Rachel’s sudden disappearance, Holmes wonders if she had deliberately kicked the supports away and left Brunton to die.
Upon descending into the basement, Holmes and Musgrave find royalty relics in an antique bag. The detective examines them and notices that the metal parts are gold and the stones are gems. He believes that it is no less than King Charles I’s gold crown, kept from his eventual successor —his son, Charles II, who would not be crowned until 11 years after the execution of Charles I. The ritual was a guide for retrieving this important symbol, and Reginald confirms that one of his ancestors, Sir Ralph Musgrave, was a king’s man. Holmes theorizes that the original holder of the ritual had died before teaching his son about its significance. It had thus become nothing more than a quaint tradition for more than 200 years.
“The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” is the tale I remember the most from those years as a teenager; however, it is in A Study in Scarlet where Conan Doyle introduces Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Watson has just returned from the war in Asia and is looking for an apartment to live in. He wants to split the rent with someone else. A common friend —Stamford— introduces Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes. And it is at this point that Conan Doyle begins to shape Sherlock Holmes’ magical personality and mysterious character. The author does so through the memories of Watson, who from now on will become the chronicler of the detective’s adventures. Can we use the word “magic” to describe a character who boasts of his logical thinking? I do think so. The words and phrases used by the author to describe Sherlock Holmes create an enigmatic aura around him. He depicts Holmes is a being from another world. Let us read some of these descriptions. This is one of Stamford’s answers when asked by Watson about Holmes:
“It is not easy to express the inexpressible,” he answered with a laugh. “Holmes is a little too scientific for my tastes—it approaches to cold-bloodedness. I could imagine his giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects. To do him justice, I think that he would take it himself with the same readiness. He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge.”
“It is not easy to express the inexpressible”. Conan Doyle, with this short statement referring to the detective, leads us to think more of an alchemist than of a scientist. Sherlock Holmes is just the inexpressible. When the author continues to shape the character of Holmes, he again uses terms that make us think of a wizard. Let us see some examples:
“Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” said Stamford, introducing us. “How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” “How on earth did you know that?” I asked in astonishment.
If the story of Sherlock Holmes was not so well-known nowadays in books, movies and television series, these words would make us think he is a sorcerer who guesses things from people’s past or one that foresees the future. How could Holmes know that Watson had fought in the Afghan war? There are paragraphs in A Study in Scarlet that depict a Sherlock Holmes in the margins of the time and place he had to live in. This is one of those paragraphs:
“His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it”.
This ignorance seems typical of a man of the Middle Ages; but soon, as a result of his adventures, we will realize that Holmes, in fact, is not a man of the Middle Ages, but not of the present either. He is unique in time and space; he seems to have been drawn from another dimension. The detective is a wizard of what Conan Doyle calls “the science of deduction”. Is science a kind of witchcraft? Or is magic a method that can be explained in a scientific way? The answer to these questions is a narrow and enigmatic path, a cliff edge at both our sides, that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle impels us to walk through in all the tales and novels whose main character is Sherlock Holmes.
The novel A Study in Scarlet, published in 1887, marks the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, who would become two of the most famous characters in popular fiction. The book’s title derives from a speech given by Holmes to his friend and chronicler on the nature of his work; he describes the murder investigation the story refers to as his “study in scarlet”: “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”
The story and its main characters attracted little public interest when they first appeared. Only eleven complete copies of the magazine in which the story was published in 1887, Beeton’s Christmas Annual, are known to exist now, and they are of considerable value. Although Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories featuring Holmes, A Study in Scarlet is one of the only four full-length novels in the original canon. The story’s outcome ends up having to do with the Mormons settled in Utah, in the United States of America. A crime in England is connected to this past and it is somehow also linked to the Latter-day Saints religion in lands beyond the sea.
Yet, of all the Holmes-focused works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the one that struck me the most for its beauty and mystery is, undoubtedly, The hound of the Baskervilles. In this novel, Sir Henry Baskerville, heir to his ancestors’ old mansion and great fortune, is haunted by a “ghost”, an old legend, a demon dog that is believed to have killed Hugo Baskerville centuries ago. Hugo was an evil and impious aristocrat. At the end of the nineteenth century, when Sir Henry inherits all, everything seems to indicate that the “ghost hound” has returned. Henry’s uncle, Sir Charles Baskerville, was also killed by a terrifying hound that arose from a desolate moor one night. Doctor Mortimer, a friend of Sir Henry Baskerville, seeks Sherlock Holmes and asks him to help the new master of Baskerville’s Hall. Holmes, after a plot full of intrigue and false clues concerning the murder of Sir Charles, finds in the mansion an old oil portrait of Sir Hugo Baskerville that leads him to the killer. At Baskerville Hall, Holmes notices a resemblance between a portrait of Hugo Baskerville and Stapleton, a naturalist and neighbor of the Baskervilles. He realizes that Stapleton could be an unknown Baskerville family member, seeking to claim the Baskerville wealth by eliminating his relatives. Accompanied by Inspector Lestrade, whom Holmes has summoned, Holmes and Watson travel to the Stapleton house, where Sir Henry is dining. They rescue him from a hound that Stapleton releases while Sir Henry is walking home across the moor. Having shot the animal dead in the struggle, Sherlock reveals that it was a perfectly mortal dog —a mix of bloodhound and mastiff— painted with phosphorus to give it a hellish appearance. They find Miss Stapleton bound and gagged inside the house, while Stapleton apparently dies in an attempt to reach his hideout in a nearby mine. They also find Sir Henry’s boot, which had been used to show the hound Sir Henry’s scent. Weeks later, Holmes provides Watson with additional details about the case. Stapleton was, in fact, Rodger Baskerville’s son, also named Rodger. His now-widow is a South American woman, the former Beryl Garcia. He lived on crime for many years, before learning that he could inherit a fortune by murdering his uncle and cousin. Stapleton had taken Sir Henry’s old boot because the new, unworn boot lacked his scent. Mrs Stapleton had disavowed her husband’s plot, so he had imprisoned her to prevent her from interfering.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is a novel that means to me a lot of fun and good times throughout my life. Besides being a very well written detective story, it has some passages of great beauty. Here I quote some of these fragments: “To that Providence, my sons, I hereby commend you, and I counsel you by way of caution to forbear from crossing the moor in those dark hours when the power of evil are exalted”. “The moor are very sparsely inhabited, and those who live near each other are thrown mucho together”. “Then we gazed round us at the high, thin window of old stained glass, the oak paneling, the stags heads, the coats of arms upon the walls, all dim and sombre in the subdued light of the central lamp”. “I have said that over the great Grimpen Mire there hung a dense, white fog. It was drifting slowly in our direction and banked itself up like a wall on that side of us, low but thick and well defined. The moon shone on it, and it looked like a great shimmering ice-field, with the heads of the distance tors as rocks borne upon its surface”.
There are, in short, many detective adventures of Sherlock Holmes to choose from. In all of them, despite his using logical thinking, “the science of deduction”, the investigator always maintains that magician-like personality, a man surrounded by deep mysteries. For that reason, Sherlock Holmes, that strange yet well-mannered detective will never be forgotten. And, of course, Holmes owes it all to Dr. Watson, who minutely chronicled his best friend’s cases.