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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Sherlock Holmes and the Agony Columns

Watson reads the newspaper to Holmes and Jabez Wilson.

Sherlock Holmes is an omnivorous reader of the papers, clipping and pasting into his “good old index” ads and articles of astonishing variety. Equally amazing is his filing system. Thus we find in the V volume: the voyage of the Gloria Scott; Victor Lynch, the forger; venomous lizard or gila; Vittoria, the circus belle; Vanderbilt and the Yeggman; vipers; Vigor, the Hammersmith wonder; vampirism in Hungary and vampirism in Transylvania (SUSS, 1034).

He seems to have regarded “the agony columns,” what we now called classified ads, and news stories as equally file-worthy. Nowhere is this clearer than in a passage from “The Adventure of the Red Circle,” where Watson writes:

He took down the great book in which, day by day, he filed the agony columns of the various London journals. “Dear me,” said he, turning over the pages, “what a chorus of groans, cries, and bleatings! A rag-bag of singular happening! But surely the most valuable hunting ground that was ever given to a student of the unusual.”

And so it was. On this particular occasion, Holmes finds a string of ads in The Daily Gazette from one “G,” who turns out to be Gennaro Lucca, communicating with his wife, Emilia.

But just think of the many other ads that appear in the Canon, not all of which wound up in the index: Jabez Wilson’s helpful assistant points out to him an ad about a tremendous opportunity called the Red-Headed League). Poor, deluded Mary Sutherland advertises for the missing Hosmer Angel, little dreaming how lost that cause was. An ad for a missing engineer causes Holmes to comment with dark humor, “Ha! That represents the last time the colonel needed to have his machine overhauled, I fancy.” Violet Hunter both advertises and answers ads when looking for a position as a governess.

Mycroft Holmes, that least energetic of men, stirs himself to place an ad “in all the dailies” offering a reward for information about Paul Kratides from Athens and “a Greek lady whose first name is Sophy.” It is “an advertisement in the Times” that lures music teacher Violet Smith into such a perilous position in the home of Mr. Carruthers. The spy Hugo Oberstein communicates with Colonel Valentine Walter through ads in The Daily Telegraph, which Holmes uses to his advantage by taking out an ad of his own under Oberstein’s pseudonym to trap Walter.    

Holmes doesn’t take out ads as often as you might think. More on that later.

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