March 15th, 2014


Rereading Doyle: The Adventure of the Dancing Men

I've been following along with the sherlock60 community, which invites people to write sixty-word ficlets based on a particular Doyle story. I've not been writing the stories or even reading many of them (to my shame - I need to participate more), but I have enjoyed reading the story alongside them. I think when I read "The Greek Interpreter" it was inspired by seeing people post about it. Now I've read "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" along side them.

The story's one of the more interesting ones I've reread as I get back into Doyle. I mean simply on the level of mystery. It's involved enough that I couldn't work out the riddle until the very end, which I really enjoyed. It kept me guessing. Basically, a man approaches Holmes with some messages he's found scrawled around his property in secret code. They're not even clearly messages; they look like doodles of dancing men, and Watson at first thinks they're just that. But the man's wife is terrified by them. The most obvious answer would to be to ask the wife why she's so scared of them, but when they were married the wife made her husband promise never to pry into her past. He thinks asking about the doodles would be breaking that promise so (while he wishes Elsie would confide in him) he feels duty-bound not to ask her directly. And so Holmes and Watson set out to decipher the messages and work out just why they upset Elsie so much.

To a modern reader, that beginning can seem a bit contrived. I don't know that I wouldn't press my wife about it, particularly if it was upsetting her to this point. But that point aside, it's actually a very engaging story. More than that, it's a very idealistic story: it's driven by honor and duty to keep your word, and even Holmes is much more concerned with getting justice for the man and his wife (to go into that would be revealing too much) than with being clever. He's utterly focused on solving the case, but, having worked it out, he's almost apologetic on leaving Watson and the inspector in the dark for so long. The point here isn't the thrill of the chase or the recognition of his genius, so much as getting their man and making sure he sits in prison for a long, long time. I love so much about the BBC series, but this lack of a moral center, a similar commitment to justice in the cases he solves (at least on its surface; I do think Sherlock is more concerned than he seems) is something I've really been missing.

Besides, as I said, it's a really interesting mystery, full of just those elements that would most interest Sherlock Holmes. It kept me stumped through the end, and I loved trying to work that out.

I also really enjoyed the bits of Watson's and Holmes's interactions. Watson doesn't really add anything in practical terms here except a record of the events. His medical services aren't ever called upon, and he isn't able to work out any important clues. In fact, while Holmes is rolling the facts over in his head on their drive out to Norfolk at the end of the case, Watson is taking in the scenery! But there's still a respect here from Holmes to Watson, because while Watson isn't working out clues, he is intellectually curious in the case. It's fascinating, really, why Holmes felt the need to bring Watson along (aside from the obvious fact that the story needs a narrator). He just seems to want him there at some level, and I found myself smiling at that.

Really, this was a nice read and I recommend it to anyone looking for more Sherlock Holmes. Doyle's in the public domain now so you can find cheap eBooks of his work on Amazon and other places that are probably more navigable. If you're interested in going that route, it's in "The Return of Sherlock Holmes" and will probably have better formatting and editing if you buy the book. But if you don't want to do that you can also read it free online here.