Friday, May 12, 2017

Much ado about gypsies.

"It would be a sharp-eyed coroner indeed who could distinguish the two little dark punctures . . ."
 -- Sherlock Holmes in "The Speckled Band"

It started with the "gipsies."

Even when you finish a mystery story like "The Speckled Band," and everything seems solved to everyone's satisfaction, the gypsies remain. Unresolved, they vanish into wherever it is the Roma go when they move on, carrying their own unsolved mysteries with them. What manner of gypsies were this particular band? What were they doing there? Why did Grimesby Roylott wander off and live with them for weeks at a time?

Sure, the estate called Stoke Moran seems to be referred to as a "plantation" and gypsies often did agricultural work, but we are only told there were only a few acres of ground attached to the old house. It seems unlikely they were there for so mundane a cause.

The combination of gypsies colluding with a dark and powerful figure like Grimesby Roylott put a shadow of something else in my head, so I picked up the Les Klinger Annotated and lost myself in that for a time. But it wasn't Klinger's The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. No, it was his The New Annotated Dracula, telling of that tale that happened in the late 1880s or early 1890s, according to its scholars. And Grimesby Roylott's tale takes place in 1883.

Suddenly I'm diving back into the story to make sure Roylott comes to Baker Street during daylight hours. While he might seem preternaturally strong, however, it's very hard to cast him as a vampire. And other details start to distract, like that safe door sitting ajar . . . many think that meant he kept the swamp adder in that airless space, but its more likely he was cleaning it out to prepare for leaving with the gypsies or something similar. So many things about that snake over the years. People think it lived in the safe, drank milk, could hear whistles . . . 

And, of course, this "swamp adder" from "India" isn't any snake anyone has ever heard of.

But those gypsies . . .

Roylott's time in their tents has got to indicate a lover among them. He seems to angry and hard-hearted to be doing any other dealing, even with the travelers. There has to be something in their band to soften his heart when it looked their way. A woman, if I may be so hetero-normative. Yet we don't ever find a woman with Roylott in the story.

We just find a snake.

About as mysterious as the gypsy is something called a lamia. Half-snake, half woman, with legends that involve vampirism along the way. A lamia, a woman who could transform into a snake, let's call her "Swamp Addy," who travelled among her retinue of Roma, gaining power over the master of Stoke Moran? Makes an interesting prequel to Dracula, does it not?

I know, I know, "No ghosts need apply" and all that good Sherlock sense.

But those gypsies. They show up again in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and I've often wondered if there was some "Stapleton the were-hound" cover-up going on there. They also show up in "The Adventure of the Priory School" where cows turn into horses. ("Bovhorses?") And in "Silver Blaze" where a horse turns into another horse. A pattern?

Well, yes, but . . . there's a reason we hold Sherlock Holmes up as an intellectual ideal: He wouldn't have put up with any of this silliness. No ghosts need apply, and no vampire were-snakes, either.

Gypsies or no.

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