Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual

"The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual"
(From: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes)
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

First published: 1893

Among my favourite works, the collected stories of Sherlock Holmes have figured for a very long time. To the devotee of Victorian (or Edwardian) England it is of course fascinating in every respect. To the non-devotee, the yarns are often rippingly good, the characters and style of course well fleshed out and distinctive, and as a treasury of zeitgeisty detail it is scarcely surpassable. What helps preserve the illusions of the fine Victorian order is that colonialism is relegated to a distance, spatially and temporally,* and that the criminal underworld is held firmly in its place.
[* I am thinking especially of The Sign of the Four, in which the scenes on the Andaman Islands are depicted as flashbacks.]

Nor are the Sherlock Holmes tales especially unsettling, despite the pervasiveness of crime in Conan Doyle's society – the perpetrators are beggars and baronets, country mice and city mice (or, as the unkinder French has it, rats), gentlemen and ladies, circus folk to bank clerks. In inviting contrast to the murder and mayhem that are beamed into our living rooms by the television nowadays, the reader is spared tales of sexual violence (which is at least in my view nastier than the other kind), nor is he requested to inspect maggots or attend post-mortems, nor are all possible pains taken to make the crime real to him. The hero, heroine, victim, and perpetrator are set up as reliably and distinctly as the dramatis personae in a play, and this play is fitted out with a scenic backdrop, a declaration of chronological and geographical setting, costumes, and extras with conscientious regularity. Then the recounting of the events is filtered through the sensible and stolid perspective of Watson, or the analytically detached and cool one of Holmes. In short, there is a formula. So one never forgets it is fiction.

If there is any agenda underlying the tales, I have failed to discern it. Clearly Conan Doyle was not opposed to capital punishment, as the deaths of many a culprit show, though neither death row nor the gallows appear anywhere, and it seems that a swift demise by gunshot is the preferred mode of disposal. Of course it is implicitly clear that crime does not pay, that retribution may be slow on its feet but is heavy on its impact, and (despite Holmes's amused contempt for the blundering policeman) that the law enforcement system works decently. Only when he writes of international crime organizations, like the sinister American freemasonry or the Italian mafia of his day, does Conan Doyle posit that there are forces against which individual resistance and the criminal justice system are impotent.

Among the screen versions of the tales, Jeremy Brett's television Sherlock Holmes is, of course, a classic, though to my recollection it is a little tedious in its relentless lack of true humour. I saw a portion of a recent film with Rupert Everett and thought it too self-conscious and sensationalist. Basil Rathbone oddly enough has left no impression whatsoever, perhaps due to my bad taste or to the fallacious tendency to expect absolute fidelity to the original character. My youngest brothers have watched the Russian Hound of the Baskervilles and evidently liked it; for a while afterwards they would greet each other with hearty slaps on the back, in imitation of the overly effusive Sir Henry character (whose manners were apparently formed in the Canadian logging industry), and exclaim, "Sir Genry!" The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which is of course a modern psychoanalytical take on the franchise, I liked, though at present I only remember the scene where Holmes is locked in a ring with the threateningly advancing Lippizaner horses. The Dudley Moore take on The Hound of the Baskervilles was diluted Monty Python for me, meandering and self-indulgent and not especially hilarious. But British humour is an acquired taste, after all. As for the animated series Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, my family used to watch it regularly and it was very entertaining if not eminently intellectual. Its premise: the detective, having been pickled in honey, is revived in the far future, in a London where cars fly and women work at New Scotland Yard.

At any rate, to turn from generalities to specifics, the Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual is one of Sherlock Holmes's earliest cases, "before Watson's time" as he likes to put it. The detective visits a college chum at his countryside seat, and this chum, Reginald Musgrave, promptly presents him a riddle in the shape of a disappeared butler and maid. At the unsuspected heart of the issue is the Musgrave family ritual, in which each heir must recite a string of questions and answers:
"Whose was it?"
"His who is gone."
"Who shall have it?"
"He who will come."
"What was the month?"
"The sixth from the first."
"Where was the sun?"
"Over the oak."

Since the lineage has not borne the brightest bulbs, it is Holmes who (aside from the butler) first recognizes that the ritual is an enigma that points to the location of a treasure. A thorough session of triangulation and rapid deduction later – mathematics are apparently a useful life skill after all – a corpse has been discovered, the flight of a further person clarified, and the superficially anticlimactic booty duly retrieved from its hiding-place. This is what happens when servants Forget Their Place! (I'm joking, obviously.)

Last but not least, this story contains one of my favourite passages in Sherlock Holmes, which I and those of my siblings who have read the tale enjoy (partially) quoting at each other:
I have always held, too, that pistol practice should distinctly be an open-air pastime; and when Holmes in one of his queer humours would sit in an armchair, with his hairtrigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges, and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V.R. done in bullet-pocks, I felt strongly that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of our room was improved by it.
Illustration by Sidney Paget, taken from Wikimedia Commons. The quotations are taken from a Penguin edition of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1976). The story is likewise available at

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