Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Invitation to the Dance

I might say that "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" hasn't aged particularly well among Sherlock Holmes tales, but I don't really have knowledge of how it was perceived in its time.

The story involves a man whose wife has had a strong reaction to a series of stick figure "children's drawings" found around their house and adjoining lands. He pledged to her in the terms of their marriage that he would not inquire into her past before they met, and on those terms she has refused to discuss the "dancing men." So the man turns to Holmes to decipher them.

And that is literally what Holmes must do, as it is ultimately revealed that the stick figures are actually a series of coded messages. And here's where I must struggle to imagine whether this revelation would have been at all surprising to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's audience of the time. In this age of daily cryptogram puzzles (in the few newspapers that are left), the meaning of the "dancing men" is completely transparent from the moment you read of them. Indeed, it's tempting to set aside the story to see if you can solve the puzzle yourself.

In how the short story treats the code, it's simultaneously too complex and too simplistic. These "dancing men" are a simple 26-symbol substitution cipher that is supposed to be incredibly difficult to crack. (Such ciphers really aren't, given a fair enough sample of the writing to work with.) And yet Holmes actually cracks the code rather too easily, given the tiny sample he has. He's able to pull the culprit's name out of the writing despite missing several necessary letters. (And by the way, why is a criminal signing his messages with his name when it will be clear to the recipient that he's the only one who possibly could have written it?)

Looking past all this awkwardness, this mystery at least distinguishes itself in one other way. Although Holmes as usual gets his man, he fails to save the life of the man who contracts him. It makes for a sort of downbeat ending. While I'm not entirely sure I like it, I do at least appreciate the variation on the usual Holmes formula.

On the whole, I'd give "The Adventure of the Dancing Man" a middle of the road C grade.

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