Friday, October 30, 2015

Veiled Criticism

"The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger" might just be the shortest Sherlock Holmes story published. And while that might not automatically mean it was destined to be unsatisfying, the connection is still hard to ignore.

Holmes is persuaded to go listen to the story of one Mrs. Ronder, a horribly disfigured woman who has lived a secluded life since the accident that saw her face mangled. She wishes to confess her complicity in a years-old crime, trusting that Holmes will have sympathy enough not to rouse the police once he's heard her tale. She does not seek absolution, but wants a means for the truth to one day come out after her death.

This story hardly contains any mystery at all. Holmes has no clues to unearth, no deductions to make. It's a fact which Doyle acknowledges in the writing, with Watson noting that this tale doesn't really make use of Holmes' skills. The problem is, this choice also makes Holmes and Watson completely extraneous to the story. They don't do anything here; they're simply a vehicle by which a tale that has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes is foisted upon a wider audience.

Indeed, the story left me wondering if scholars question Doyle's authorship as they do one or two other Holmes short stories. This one is just so peculiar, in big ways and in fine details. I've already mentioned the fact that it's short -- roughly half the length of the average Holmes short story. At one point, Watson posits a possible explanation of events which Holmes gently and politely pokes holes in, quite counter to his usual evisceration of the theories the doctor sometimes poses. At another point, Holmes criticizes Watson for his smoking habit; yet if my memory serves (perhaps it doesn't), in past stories it has been Watson lamenting Holmes' vice. It just feels that the writer here has appropriated the names of the characters without respecting any of their essence, a feeling I stand by even if this was one of Doyle's efforts.

In fact, I can really find only one thing to commend about this story-- its opening. Watson often opens these "memoirs" by speaking directly to the readership, grounding the Holmes fiction in the real world. Here, Watson alludes to threatening letters received by Holmes from some anonymous party regarding an unrelated matter. Watson cheekily warns this fictional party that he is in fact not anonymous, that Holmes knows exactly who he is, and that if he wants to keep it that way, he'll stop with the threats. Despite the story's subsequent flaws, this is one of the best blurring of the lines between fact and fiction ever presented in a Holmes adventure.

Still, that basically means that in my view, you could read the first few pages of "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger," and then just stop. (Not that you'd be saving much time anyway.) Not exactly a ringing endorsement. I grade the story a D.

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