Uncommon Mysteries - Sherlock Holmes and Christmas

Dec 5, 2008

Murray, KY – Literature's most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, was introduced to the world during the winter holidays just over 120 years ago in the publication, "Beeton's Christmas Annual." Author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was known for having his cunning detective rely on astute observations and deductive reasoning to solve mysteries such as The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear. Mystery fan Michael Cohen says deciding whether or not to read a book featuring Sherlock Holmes this holiday season, would be "Elementary, my dear Watson."

I want to talk about Sherlock Holmes and Christmas. You may be aware that the first story Arthur Conan Doyle published about Sherlock Holmes was A Study in Scarlet, which came out in Beeton's Christmas Annual, a gift book that was an enlarged version of a monthly magazine, in 1887. A Study in Scarlet has the basic three-part structure of most mystery short stories. There is the introduction of the detective and the crime, then the investigation, and finally the capture of the criminal along with the explanation of the crime and its solution. But Doyle has inserted between the last two parts a long, tedious background narrative about the Mormons in Utah a subject, by the way, as exotic for him as the tale of the Andaman Islands he inserts in his next novel. It was not until The Hound of the Baskervilles that Doyle figured out how to structure a novel-length story about Holmes, and I wish he hadn't. I agree with Ellery Queen who said, disingenuously, considering his own mystery novels, that the short story was the proper mystery form and "the detective novel is a short story inflated by characterization and description and romantic nonsense." In any case, A Study in Scarlet, though set in winter, is not a Christmas plot, despite its Christmas gift book presentation.

Doyle did write one Christmas story for Holmes: "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle." A story of classically simple construction, "The Blue Carbuncle" begins two days after Christmas but looks back at events that occurred on Christmas morning and a jewel theft three days before that. In the course of the story a Christmas goose is restored to its poor and grateful owner, a delivery man who's done a good deed will end up with a fat reward, and a first-time offender is turned loose by Sherlock Holmes after a frosty evening of clever detective work that nets the jewel thief. "I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies," says Sherlock Holmes as he lets the man go. "I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. . . . Besides, it is the season of forgiveness."

The story is one of the first dozen Sherlock Holmes short stories, published in the Strand Magazine in 1891 and 1892 and collected in book form under the title of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Though there were fifty-six short stories in all, most Holmes fans agree that this group of stories is the best work Doyle ever did, and definitely worth another reading. Merry Christmas, mystery lovers.