Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Devil, You Say

In "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot," Sherlock Holmes is on holiday with Dr. Watson, only to be roped into an investigation when a woman is, by outward appearances, frightened to death by something so horrible that it left two more people in the same room insane.

I find it a tricky story to consider in its historical context. This was the fastest I've ever "solved" a Holmes case; I was expecting a certain clue to be dropped from the moment Holmes enters the crime scene, and I mentally cried "aha!" at the sentence that indeed alluded to it. That's because (spoilers here) we live in a day and age where people are well aware of the risks of a natural gas leak in the home, of running a car engine in a closed garage, and so forth. At the time the story was published, did the average reader know anything about invisible, airborne poisons?

In any case, knowing the "how" in this case does not necessarily spoil enjoyment of the story. For one thing, the "who" isn't as obvious, nor are his motives. There's also a twist in which the killer himself is killed, leading to a conclusion in which Holmes decides to allow a criminal to get away with his crime. It's not the first time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote such an ending -- not even the first time he chose to let a murderer get away with it. But it's a device used sparingly enough to be of surprise and interest here.

What's also surprising -- but in a "hard to believe it" sort of way -- is the manner in which Holmes decides to test his theory of the poison's origin. He subjects himself and Watson to its toxic effects! The lack of precautions here, given the already proven danger, seems inexcusable for both characters: Holmes having reached a conclusion that the chemical has already caused a death, and Watson being a doctor who should appreciate the possible risk. It's a strange scene apparently meant to inject danger into the story, but does so in a rather preposterous way.

Still, the story is fairly entertaining overall. I give it a B-.

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