Thursday, October 08, 2015
Gable It Up
Sherlock Holmes is asked to consult in an odd decision facing an elderly widow, Mrs. Maberley. A mystery party has suddenly offered to buy her house for an exorbitant price, giving her money enough to live out the rest of her days in comfort and leisure. But the sale is predicated on an odd condition: she must abandon every last possession she has inside the house. Sensing something amiss, she and her lawyer have asked Holmes for insight into what true motivation may lie behind the offer.
The general thrust of that motivation is easily guessed, particularly when this story comes so soon on the heels of "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs" (which itself cribs "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League"). The would-be buyer is after some possession in the house, not the house itself. But to Arthur Conan Doyle's credit, he doesn't really seek to surprise the reader on this count. Sherlock voices this theory early on in the story -- a theory which even the often-hopeless Watson has arrived at. This story turns not on the offer itself, but on the secret of the prize truly being sought.
But before the tale gets to any of that, it opens in a manner quite counter to Doyle's typically staid pace. The brutish Steve Dixie bursts in on 221B Baker Street and threatens Holmes not to take the case about to unfold. This intrusion would set the table in an exhilarating manner... if the modern reader weren't so distracted by the casual racism in the scene. Steve Dixie is a black man. He is portrayed as a dumb oaf, his dialogue written in a caricature of an accent, and Holmes shows him no respect. (As far as I can recall, he's the only person in the entire canon that Holmes calls by first name rather than last.) In the middle of the story, a police inspector uses that most dreaded of racial slurs in referring to Dixie -- a total record scratch of a moment that snaps you right out of the narrative flow. It's the simple reality that Doyle had no reason to think anything of all this, writing in his time, but the context is different a century later.
The climax of the tale, however, feels still quite topical. It's revealed... ahem, SPOILERS... that one Isadora Klein, a spoiled and wealthy woman used to getting her way, is the person after Maberley's house. And the thing she's after is a manuscript for a book revealing a romantic relationship between her and Marbeley's deceased son. Rich people using their money to buy their way out of scandal is pretty much a timeless theme. And the idea of a "tell-all book" generating controversy is as current today as it was when Doyle wrote the story. It's a reasonable revelation, made more fun by the way Holmes then blackmails Klein to avoid involving the police.
It's of interest that some scholars have voiced the theory that this story may not in fact be the work of Arthur Conan Doyle. But whoever wrote it, I'd say the various aspects of the story -- dated and current -- work out to around a C+ for me.