Thursday, March 8, 2018

The calendar man

"You seem to be a walking calendar of crime."
-- Stamford, A Study in Scarlet

"Ah, it is not a part of your profession to carry about a portable Newgate Calendar in your memory."
-- Sherlock Holmes, "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs"

One quote from early in Holmes's career, one from near the end of his career. And yet, in between those book-end quote, how often does Sherlock Holmes use his expertise in criminal history?

"The Noble Bachelor" is perhaps the single example where we can be certain, as Holmes lays it out for Watson.

"But I have heard all that you have heard," Watson protests as his friend explains he's solved the case.

"Without, however, the knowledge of preexisting cases which serves me so well," Holmes replies, citing similar events in Aberdeen and Munich. In 1887, Holmes still prided himself in his expertise in the history of crime, as he did when advising Inspector MacDonald to spend months just reading criminal history in the early days of the Moriarty investigation.

For those of us trying to apply a calendar to the crimes that Sherlock Holmes himself was involved in, it's interesting that Sherlock Holmes wasn't just a crime historian, but the fact that crime kept on a calendar figured in so prominently in the way Stamford described him and the way Holmes described how he himself kept that knowledge.

The Newgate Calendar, of course, was not an actual calendar, but a best-selling five-volume set of books that could be found in many a home. And while Sherlock Holmes probably disagreed with the style of that set of books, being embellished, with details not always taken from solid sources, it was still the most common collection of criminal history to be found. Hopefully he wasn't referring to the Newgate Calendar as it was originally created -- as a monthly bulletin of executions.

A calendar of executions kept in the mind palace of Sherlock Holmes might make us wonder what really did happen to Captain Calhoun of "The Five Orange Pips" or Wilson Kemp of "The Greek Interpreter," villains thought to have escaped only for Watson to later hear they probably died of unnatural causes. How did Watson hear of those karmic death sentences? Was it news passed along from Holmes, framed as a "Oh, I heard that . . ." when it may have been a more certain bit of personal experience from his own "Newgate calendar?"

Depending upon your own virtues or vices, that thought could make tales like "Pips" and "Interpreter" much more satisfying, even if they do cast a darker light on Sherlock Holmes himself, as a man leading a La Femme Nikita double life. (Or is that a "Mary Morstan" double life since Sherlock?) Calendars never looked so grim as an assassin's hit list etched in the mental stone of a man who was known to do the work of judge and jury on occasion.

But, Sherlock Holmes was probably just an academic or hobbyist sort of criminal historian, right?


Well, of course . . .


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