Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Soldiering On

"The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier" marked a major departure for Arthur Conan Doyle in his writings of Sherlock Holmes. For the first time, the mystery is recounted not by Watson (who in fact is only referenced and does not appear in the story), but by the great detective himself.

A former soldier, James Dodd, asks Sherlock Holmes to help with a rescue of sorts for his friend from the war, Godfrey Emsworth. Godfrey's family is united in a lie, that the man is on a round the world tour after returning from the war. Yet Dodd saw Godfrey himself, pale white and lurking around the Emsworth estate at night. Dodd fears that Godfrey may be imprisoned against his will, yet can find no motive or explanation for the family's actions.

The conceit of Holmes narrating his own adventure is an intriguing one, yet I'm not quite sure it's used to maximum effect. A full half of the story is setup, Dodd recounting to Holmes everything he has attempted so far to resolve the matter himself. As is Doyle's custom, the backstory is presented with virtually no commentary or narrative interjections -- so for half the story, it frankly makes little difference who is narrating, be it Holmes, Watson, or someone else altogether.

But when Holmes takes over, the contrast to Watson's narration is quite fun, marked most in my mind in three ways. First, there's a very "just the facts, ma'am" approach to his storytelling, for which Holmes actually apologizes to the reader on a few occasions. Second, we learn that Holmes has not been mocking Watson all those past times he assumed that obviously Watson must already have deduced the solution to a mystery; here, Holmes makes the same assumption of his readers before closing in on what he assumes will be a deflated climax. Thirdly (and related to the first two), he praises Watson's dramatic streak in recounting these adventures, acknowledging that he himself doesn't have storytelling skills and forgiving Watson some of the past exaggerations he'd previously criticized. (One hand giveth while the other taketh away, though. Holmes also basically says that he likes having Watson around because he's such a dullard.)

It's likely that getting these mysteries from Holmes' point of view would get old with too much repetition. Yet it's a very fun departure here, and Doyle does a generally good job of changing the narrative tone to put the reader in the detective's head. The mystery itself isn't among Holmes' most compelling, but the story merits a B overall.

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