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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Is Any Canonical Story Really Dull?

“Could a Canonical tale really be dull?”

The eminent Sherlockian Donald Pollock asks that question in “Death and Derbies,” an article published in The Saturday Review of Literature in 2014. He very kindly sent me a copy in response to my post last week, “Ranking the Best is a Fool’sErrand.”

The article was in response to a challenge by Russell Merritt for Don to talk about his choice of the dullest story in the Canon. After some thought, Don settled on “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place,” the last Canonical adventure published.

He makes a great argument that Holmes delayed his report to the police about the circumstances of Lady Beatrice Falder’s death until after the Derby in order “to invest a few quid in his own future, at exceptional odds.”

But “Shoscombe” as the dullest story? This is a tale with a haunted crypt and an angry baronet. What’s dull about that?

Here’s the wonderfully Gothic crypt passage:

It was pitch-dark and without a moon, but Mason led us over the grass-lands until a dark mass loomed up in front of us which proved to be the ancient chapel. We entered the broken gap which was once the porch, and our guide, stumbling among heaps of loose masonry, picked his way to the corner of the building, where a steep stair led down into the crypt. Striking a match, he illuminated the melancholy place–dismal and evil-smelling, with ancient crumbling walls of rough-hewn stone, and piles of coffins, some of lead and some of stone, extending upon one side right up to the arched and groined roof which lost itself in the shadows above our heads. Holmes had lit his lantern, which shot a tiny tunnel of vivid yellow light upon the mournful scene. Its rays were reflected back from the coffin-plates, many of them adorned with the griffin and coronet of this old family which carried its honours even to the gate of Death.

Then later:

Someone was walking in the chapel above. It was the firm, rapid step of one who came with a definite purpose and knew well the ground upon which he walked. A light streamed down the stairs, and an instant later the man who bore it was framed in the Gothic archway. He was a terrible figure, huge in stature and fierce in manner. A large stable-lantern which he held in front of him shone upward upon a strong, heavily moustached face and angry eyes, which glared round him into every recess of the vault, finally fixing themselves with a deadly stare upon my companion and myself.

“Who the devil are you?” he thundered. “And what are you doing upon my property?” Then, as Holmes returned no answer, he took a couple of steps forward and raised a heavy stick which he carried. “Do you hear me?” he cried. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” His cudgel quivered in the air.


But maybe it’s not fair to pull out these moments of high drama from the story. As Rex Stout who said in a January 1941 radio interview, “It is impossible for any Sherlock Holmes story not to have just one  marvelous scene.”

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