Friday, February 23, 2018

The puzzle that is "The Cardboard Box"

Last night's discussion of "The Cardboard Box" at the Peoria library was a lovely mini-vacation after a very tough workday for me, showing once again the value of Sherlock Holmes in one's life.

Any time I look at that particular tale, however, the greatest mystery isn't within the story, but outside it, as "The Cardboard Box" is a tale suppressed by its own author for decades. The reason Conan Doyle suppressed his own work has been given that the tale has an extra-marital affair. But since the collections we know as The Adventures and The Memoirs contain all sorts of other human behaviors, like pre-marital dalliances, previous spouses, and really abusive step-fathers, one has to wonder why wandering spouses where sex wasn't even involved was such a radioactive topic to Doyle.

Especially in a story that involves bashing people's heads in and cutting their ears off.

Reading "The Cardboard Box" this time, it really sunk in just how much Sherlock Holmes distances himself from this case just within his own investigation. In later tales, he'd make a point of luring murderous sailors to Baker Street itself, but here? He just hands Lestrade a card with all the answers and basically says, "Go get 'em, boy!" like the Scotland Yarder is a golden retriever.

Holmes and Watson don't even go down to the jail to hear the murderer's story, as they did on occasion, they just get a nice transcription delivered to Baker Street. For a gruesome murderous case, their main adventure is talking to one nice lady and knocking on the door of another, then not seeing her when they hear she's sick. When it's over, you really had to wonder who told the nice lady that the severed ear she was keeping out back was her own sister's ear.

Even at this remove, Holmes is still a bit devastated by the case: "What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear?" (He leaves out the circle of loneliness, alcoholism, and manipulation which really drive the drama.) And that makes one wonder about Holmes's early intent of just sitting in Baker Street and consulting from afar . . . was he distancing himself for his own emotional health?

"The Cardboard Box" never gets the full attention it deserves as one of the original twenty-four stories, because Doyle moved it so far back in the Canon and many a reader sees it as a case near the end of Holmes's career, both in detection and as a literary character. Readers also aren't quite as fresh by the time they get to the stories of His Last Bow. Doyle actually altered the way we see the story by his desire to hold it back for decades.

Why was the temptation of a married man, who only just reaches out a hand in his moment of trouble, such a problem for Doyle? Or was it the wife lured away for boat rides with a sailor? The mystery of Conan Doyle's treatment of this one story grows with each year we get further from the Victorian era and his mindset of the time.


  1. One theory I've read - published in 1893, (with the body mutilations) too soon after the Ripper slayings. Did not want to be associated with?

  2. Given that the Literary Agent no doubt handled such things as when and where a story got published, it's not surprising that this story was, after its initial magazine printing, more or less suppressed until late in Watson's writing career. One might wonder whether the story, even for its first printing, was edited to keep Holmes clear of much investigation into things close to adultery. We need only seek Doyle's own "temptation" for the reason and the likely "misery" that he must have felt for many years.