Sunday, June 1, 2014

Summer of Sherlock: Stock Broker's Clerk

The first of the two Sherlock Holmes cases that begin on June first (my chronology), is fascinating from the get-go for one important reason: It starts off by being completely about Watson.

Watson rarely writes completely about himself without tying Holmes in. The very first novel, A Study in Scarlet, even starts off as a Watson biography only to be quickly sidetracked into a story of Sherlock Holmes. When Holmes calls Watson "my biographer" in later cases, he tends to ignore/forget the fact that Watson began this whole thing as a part of his own biography. So the details we get at the beginning of "The Adventure of The Stock-Broker's Clerk" are especially rare.

We even find out how much money Watson's practice was bringing in at the outset -- three hundred pounds a year. But it's 1889, Watson is both young and hard-working, and he's throwing himself into his career to try to raise that number back up to the twelve hundred pounds per year it once was. (Interesting that Watson still considered his "youth" a big plus in his early thirties in Victorian England. But then, remember Holmes saying, "You look the same blithe boy as ever" when he sees Watson almost twenty-five years later? Watson had a youngish thing going, to be sure.)

Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked, as I always do in these stories. "Stock-Broker's Clerk" is a very career-oriented tale, from Watson's intro to the main client and his new job, but for Watson, this case comes as a much enjoyed day off, a one-day vacation if you will -- just the sort of thing one does at the beginning of summer.

Hall Pycroft, the clerk from the title, is a hale and hearty young fellow who makes half what Watson does, even at the start of his new practice. He has some hip lingo to his story-telling that emphasizes him being the young urbanite: "nasty cropper," "soft Johnny," "the screw" and the like. (And at least one racial slur.) Watson may be young compared to old Farquhar, but Hall Pycroft is younger and even more ambitious, which is where the troubles start for him.

Get ready for another sidetrack, though: Is "Stock Broker's clerk" the high point of Holmes and Watson's urban investigations? Their trip up the stairs to the fifth floor of the office building on Corporation Street may be no Reichenbach climb, but it certainly stands out among their usual crime scene locations. The first "skyscraper" was built in Chicago only a few years before and stood ten stories tall, so a fifth floor office was still pretty high up at that time.

While the plot beneath "Stock-Broker's Clerk" is sometimes seen as a rerun of "Red-Headed League," it's really a much more complex con -- rather than one fellow being duped, there are actually rubes being fooled at both ends of this scheme. The villains kindly keep Hall Pycroft fooled at one end (rather than just imprisoning him or killing him, which would seem much more practical) while working their true con at the other. And this double-ended con leaves Holmes and Watson far, far away from the real scene of the crime and the climax to the adventure, when it all comes apart.

And all of that makes "Stock-Broker's Clerk" an easy day off. After their criminal catch is handed over to the police, one can easily envision Holmes and Watson finding some decent place in Birmingham to have lunch before taking the train back to London. And, hey, since Watson took the whole day off anyway, why not spend the afternoon catching up?

It's summer, after all. And summer with Sherlock, at that.

Postscript one: Similarities between the movie "Trading Places" and "Stock-broker's Clerk"? I can find a few.

Postscript two: Beddington's great-great-grandson may have taken a page from his ancestor's book and tried to go to New York and get a job under the name "Sherlock Holmes." That would certainly make the odd bits of a certain TV show more elementary.

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