Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A different Sherlock Holmes tale for a different holiday.

Maybe you've gotten to your yuletide reading of "Blue Carbuncle" already, and maybe you haven't just yet. In either case, one short story is hardly enough to fill the entire month of December, so let me recommend another case from the Canon in celebration of another of the holidays this season brings: the winter solstice.

The winter solstice lies at the heart of nearly every other holiday you can name at this time of year, that point when every culture in this hemisphere gets its shortest day and longest night. The season of long, dark nights needs something to pick up our spirits right in its center, and so cultures both modern and ancient seem to have always found some excuse to move one of their holidays here. And what Sherlock Holmes story is the best holiday read for the longest night of the year?

It's not too hard to come up with that one: "The Adventure of the Speckled Band."

It has a touch of Christmas in it, if you need that extra push, but no other tale in the Canon may be as strongly night-oriented as "Speckled Band" -- the perfect way to commemorate a long, dark night.

Whistles in the dead of night. A sudden death amid a stormy night with a howling gale. A clearer night with Holmes and Watson walking to Stoke Moran after eleven at night. Then the vigil as they sit into the night, waiting for the unknown . . . "Twelve o'clock, and one, and two, and three, and still we sat waiting for whatever might befall."

And then, in that darkest hour of the night, between three and four A.M., a sudden small gleam of light from a ventilation duct! Yet in this case, unlike the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, the light signals deadly danger still to come. And yet another half hour passes in complete darkness.

Even though Watson sees nothing, Sherlock Holmes strikes, and lights his own lights, first a match and then a lamp. And with that light, he reveals the truth behind what only took place in darkness before.

If "Blue Carbuncle" is the best tale for Christmas socializing, feasting, and fun, "Speckled Band" is the perfect tale to commemorate the Winter Solstice and its longest night. For no night was surely any longer for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson that sitting in Stoke Moran waiting for invisible death to strike. It might be a true horror story, if not for Sherlock Holmes, whose keen eye and ready hand kept watch through that night . . . a spirit that lies within every Sherlockian to some degree through every long dark night. A lesser detective than Holmes might not have faced the source of danger straight on, might have become distracted or drowsed as the night wore on.

We never learn whether or not Helen Stoner slept peacefully in her old bedroom while Holmes and Watson stood guard, but by three in the morning, surely she had found some rest before the house was stirred up by her two secret protectors. So whether you take the path of John Watson, staying awake, or Helen Stoner, trying to get some sleep, Sherlock Holmes is a comforting presence in any dark night. Even the longest one the year has to offer.

So, happy Winter Solstice! Sleep tight, and don't let the bed adders bite!


  1. A bit OT, but not quite: A very merry Christmas to you and yours, dear Brad!