By now, I'm sure that we've all heard enough references to the second day after Christmas and "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" for this year. In fact, if you quit reading after seeing them mentioned in that first sentence, I wouldn't blame you. But the holidays aren't over yet!
While you'll hear many a mention of that "second morning after Christmas," the line you probably won't hear in the week ahead is "On the fourth day after the New Year I heard my father give a sharp cry of surprise as we sat together at the breakfast table."
Well, a.) It's not about Holmes or Watson.
And, b.) "The Five Orange Pips" is not a happy holiday tale like that other one.
In fact, at New Year's when we celebrate the fresh new year ahead of us, "Five Orange Pips" is a tale of the grim inevitability of oncoming doom. And the character who speaks that line above is dead by story's end, with Sherlock Holmes found impotent in stopping that grim outcome.
Any other year, it would be easy to just skip the New Year's reference in "Five Orange Pips" and move on to Sherlock Holmes's (celebrated) birthday on January 6. But this year? This . . . year?
Well, if "orange" isn't already a trigger word for you, the return of the villains of "Five Orange Pips" to the forefront of American public consciousness with their post-election celebrations should tell you exactly why this week is the perfect time for a re-read of "The Five Orange Pips."
It's that oh-so American institution that I like to call the Triple K Ranch, just because they don't deserve the dignity of a full reference. It's why, coming from the clan Keefauver, we have to take care not to name children "Kevin Keith" or "Kathryn Kyla." It's why our Halloween ghost outfits must be sure to drape roundly over our heads and not have a point. And it's why we don't celebrate "The Five Orange Pips" the way we do many other classic Holmes cases from that first set of short stories.
Being set an ocean away from the horrors of its American source society, "Five Orange Pips" even has some politely British drowning murders instead of the horrors perpetrated on American shores. Watson's agent was selling stories for casual entertainment after all. And Sherlockians of the last century have jokingly sent each other envelopes with five orange seeds on occasion . . . which isn't nearly as horrific as burning a cross on another Sherlockians lawn. So far as we know, the pip thing wasn't real . . . or was it?
Sherlock Holmes solves what he solves of this case by reading from K volume of "the American Encyclopaedia," where he finds "Its power was used for political purposes, principally for the terrorizing of the negro voters, and the murdering or driving from the country of those who were opposed to its views. Its outrages were usually preceded by a warning sent to the marked man in some fantastically but generally recognized shape -- a spring of oak leaves in some parts, melon seeds or orange-pips in others."
Sherlockians don't like to dwell overmuch upon the villains in question, so I can't . . . or maybe just decided not to . . . remember any articles going into American history to discuss the use of leaves or seeds to warn victims. The warning of victims so subtly does not seem like a common practice for the kind of brutality we associate with the Klan in America in any case. Usually the horrors they perpetrated were the warning for everyone else.
And there was horror there. Not all nice friendly fruit seeds and drowning in rivers during a storm.
Which is why it's a good reason to perhaps make "The Five Orange Pips" our New Year's reading this year. Not so we can resign ourselves to oncoming doom, but so we can learn from Sherlock Holmes's lesson in this case . . . sometimes some silly little orange thing is something you should take seriously, and take it seriously a lot quicker than you think you should take it seriously.
Or maybe we've already learned that lesson the hard way and just have to, like Sherlock Holmes, deal with living with the results and learn to be a better detective going forward. And hope the shipwreck doesn't take too many innocent sailors down with it.
"We did at last hear that somewhere far out in the Atlantic a shattered sternpost of a boat was seen swinging in the trough of a wave . . . ."
Happy New Year!