Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Summer of Sherlock: The Retired Colourman

When one reads the original Sherlock Holmes cases on the dates they started, late summer takes a definite turn.

Earlier, in June and July, we say Holmes and Watson relaxing, hanging out with friends, even while solving cases. In August, however, the caseload slows a bit, and they encounter Josiah Amberly. And while Charles Augustus Magnu . . . er, Milverton might be the most memorably repulsive villain of the Canon, Josiah Amberly is memorably repulsive as a client from the start. It's almost like Holmes and Watson are in a bad mood because summer is almost over.

"What did you think of him?"

"A pathetic, futile, broken creature." (This is Watson talking. Watson! Sweet, kindly Watson!)

"Exactly, Watson. Pathetic and futile. But is not all life pathetic and futile?"

Okay, Mr. Sunshine Holmes . . . hope somebody locked up the cocaine. Holmes doesn't like his client, doesn't seem to think Scotland Yard respects him in sending him this loser, and is actually winding up the case of "the two Coptic Patriarchs," which certainly doesn't seem to be bringing him any joy. (Or at least not enough that he feels like sharing it with Watson or involving him.) So what's up at Baker Street?

Well, according to my dating of this case, it took place on August 20, 1898. And if you look back at "The Dancing Men," which took place in late July of that year, you'll find that the tragedy of Riding Thorpe Manor occurred less than ten days before . . . one of those rare, but important cases where Sherlock Holmes did not decipher a hidden message until it was too late. ("The Five Orange Pips" being another of note.) And of that event, Watson would write:

"Would that I had some brighter ending to communicate to my readers, but these are the chronicles of fact, and I must follow to their dark crisis the strange chain of events which for some days made Ridling Thorpe Manor a household word through the length and breadth of England."

And Josiah Amberley comes Holmes's way right in the middle of those "some days" of which Watson wrote. Now we get to the really weird part.

Josiah Amberley seems to be a fan of Sherlock Holmes. "So famous a man as Sherlock Holmes," Amberly says, and later, "of course, it is all art for art's sake with him."

And Sherlock Holmes did say "It is Art for Art's sake, Watson!" in "The Adventure of the Red Circle" . . . which was published in March and April of 1911, over twelve years after Josiah Amberly and Dr. Watson have that conversation. To be fair, Holmes also mentions "art's sake" in Black Peter, which saw print in 1904, but the same problem applies: How did Amberley know, "it is all art for art's sake with him," when the stories mentioning that aspect had yet to be published?

Consider this fact: At the story's start, Holmes is seriously depressed over that "Dancing Men" business going so horribly south. But in the last line of the tale, we find Holmes with a tolerant smile. He's satisfied with his work on this case. Pleased. Possibly even feeling redeemed.

All because of his fan, Josiah Amberley, who seems to have read parts of the Canon that weren't even published yet.

Now, suppose the Sherlockian Canon originally ended with "The Final Problem." And while Sherlock Holmes survived that case and returned to Baker Street in 1894, he encountered a case so dis-spiriting in 1898 that not only did he give up detection, Dr. Watson didn't bother to write or publish the rest of the Canon. And suppose a fanatical Sherlockian in the future realized that the summer of 1898 was such a key turning point, and really, really, REALLY thought he could change history, go back in time, and give Holmes and Watson a success that would inspire them both to go on, detecting and writing.

And once that time-traveller had done his deed, he could take a little, white nanotech time travel pill and return to his own time. But even his fans will often underestimate Mr. Sherlock Holmes, so that last part didn't exactly work out.

Well, since we live in the timeline where the Canon goes on past "The Final Problem," perhaps thanks to a Sherlockian superfan named Josiah Amberley, it's hard to say if that didn't happen. Time travel is such a messy business. Who knows, we might have not had Adolph Hitler had Amberley not messed with the time stream!

Did Sherlock Holmes eventually puzzle out the time-traveller's true nature? Did Watson save the full write-up of those facts for the last story to be published, only to have the British Government redact all the parts with time travel in them, as they worked to master that science themselves?

Well, if any of you are about to go back in time and set up in a place called "the Haven" to test Sherlock Holmes (and get a little time with a beautiful wife along the way), send me a note before you go . . . except I guess you already did, changed the timeline, and now don't know you did.

Okay, ignore the time travel, and the British Government probably wants us to anyway, and just enjoy the simple tale of Sherlock Holmes succeeding when he could really use a win.

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