Originally published January 31, 2008.
Last time, we looked at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s techniques of:
- the information dump as extended inner story; and
- pacing between inner and outer story.
Today, we’re going to look at Doyle’s adeptness at revealing character depth through multiple narrative means.
Let us type.
The Red Herring
Let’s clear up the last bits of scene from last time, where Holmes finishes exploring Julia’s thoughts about the circumstances of the death of her sister:
“Were there gypsies in the plantation at the time?” [asked Holmes.]
“Yes, there are nearly always some there.”
“Ah, and what did you gather from this allusion to a band—a speckled band?”
“Sometimes I have thought that it was merely the wild talk of delirium, sometimes that it may have referred to some band of people, perhaps to those very gypsies in the plantation. I do not know whether the spotted handkerchiefs which so many of them wear over their heads might have suggested the strange adjective which she used.”
Here, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lays in his red herring. I don’t think it’s the most subtle of red herrings, but at this point in time no one has any idea what a speckled band might mean at any rate. And that’s what matters when red herrings appear—perhaps they may mislead, but adding psychological uncertainty is always a plus.
Despite much being made of Sherlock Holmes being a cold, calculating machine, he is adept at looking beneath appearances, to the personality and problems beneath. This is a skill that any private investigator needs to polish, because so often problems are solved by psychology as well as by examination of the crime scene (which Holmes does both of in this story).
Holmes shook his head like a man who is far from being satisfied.
“These are very deep waters,” said he; “pray go on with your narrative.”
“Two years have passed since then, and my life has been until lately lonelier than ever. A month ago, however, a dear friend, whom I have known for many years, has done me the honour to ask my hand in marriage. His name is Armitage—Percy Armitage—the second son of Mr. Armitage, of Crane Water, near Reading. My stepfather has offered no opposition to the match, and we are to be married in the course of the spring. Two days ago some repairs were started in the west wing of the building, and my bedroom wall has been pierced, so that I have had to move into the chamber in which my sister died, and to sleep in the very bed in which she slept. Imagine, then, my thrill of terror when last night, as I lay awake, thinking over her terrible fate, I suddenly heard in the silence of the night the low whistle which had been the herald of her own death. I sprang up and lit the lamp, but nothing was to be seen in the room. I was too shaken to go to bed again, however, so I dressed, and as soon as it was daylight I slipped down, got a dog-cart at the Crown Inn, which is opposite, and drove to Leatherhead, from whence I have come on this morning with the one object of seeing you and asking your advice.”
Percy Armitage has seen nothing, and his skeptical attitude at the beginning of this story carries over here. He’s a normal man, with average insight.
Julia, however, has what was called the intuition of women; and so does Holmes. He’s not a normal man, and takes her more seriously than even her own fiance.
A lesser writer may have let the inner story end there, with the most traumatic events past and done with. But Doyle won’t let the tension wind down:
“You have done wisely,” said my friend. “But have you told me all?”
“Miss Roylott, you have not. You are screening your stepfather.”
“Why, what do you mean?”
For answer Holmes pushed back the frill of black lace which fringed the hand that lay upon our visitor’s knee. Five little livid spots, the marks of four fingers and a thumb, were printed upon the white wrist.
“You have been cruelly used,” said Holmes.
The lady coloured deeply and covered over her injured wrist. “He is a hard man,” she said, “and perhaps he hardly knows his own strength.”
There was a long silence, during which Holmes leaned his chin upon his hands and stared into the crackling fire.
Doyle has done several things here.
- First, he’s accomplished a version of “raising the stakes”—via movement in time, bringing the trauma to the present.
- He’s added a strong, memorable point of characterization to the main villain, whom we have not even seen yet.
- He’s demonstrated another facet of Julia’s character not yet emphasized—the abuse has scarred her more than just that single night, however terrible it may have been.
- He’s shown Holmes to have a depth of understanding that normal men miss—including her fiance and Dr. Watson. Not only this, he shows Holmes troubled—and sympathetic.
All that in very few words indeed.
“This is a very deep business,” he said at last. “There are a thousand details which I should desire to know before I decide upon our course of action. Yet we have not a moment to lose. If we were to come to Stoke Moran to-day, would it be possible for us to see over these rooms without the knowledge of your stepfather?”
“As it happens, he spoke of coming into town to-day upon some most important business. It is probable that he will be away all day, and that there would be nothing to disturb you. We have a housekeeper now, but she is old and foolish, and I could easily get her out of the way.”
“Excellent. You are not averse to this trip, Watson?”
“By no means.”
“Then we shall both come. What are you going to do with yourself?”
“I have one or two things which I would wish to do now that I am in town. But I shall return by the twelve o’clock train, so as to be there in time for your coming.”
“And you may expect us early in the afternoon. I have myself some small business matters to attend to. Will you not wait and breakfast?”
“No, I must go. My heart is lightened already since I have confided my trouble to you. I shall look forward to seeing you again this afternoon.” She dropped her thick black veil over her face and glided from the room.
At this point I want to make a small side note as to the importance of the narrator’s voice. We’ll be covering more of this in times to come, but while much of the Sherlock Holmes stories focus on Holmes—how could they not, while Watson is playing his Boswell—Watson’s voice, or rather, Doyle’s voice as Watson, is always present. Even if in a scene his dialog is no more than three words for every 500 of Holmes’, he’s the one who decided the staging, the characterization, and the final image of her gliding from the room.
First-person narrative does not take away the narrator, but incorporates him into a role that is both inside and outside of the story.
“And what do you think of it all, Watson?” asked Sherlock Holmes, leaning back in his chair.
“It seems to me to be a most dark and sinister business.”
“Dark enough and sinister enough.”
“Yet if the lady is correct in saying that the flooring and walls are sound, and that the door, window, and chimney are impassable, then her sister must have been undoubtedly alone when she met her mysterious end.”
“What becomes, then, of these nocturnal whistles, and what of the very peculiar words of the dying woman?”
“I cannot think.”
“When you combine the ideas of whistles at night, the presence of a band of gypsies who are intimate terms with this old doctor, the fact that we have every reason to believe that the doctor has an interest in preventing his stepdaughter’s marriage, the dying allusion to a band, and, finally, the fact that Miss Helen Stoner heard a metallic clang, which might have been caused by one of those metal bars that secured the shutters falling back into its place, I think that there is good ground to think that the mystery may be cleared along those lines.”
Editor! Editor! That’s all actually one sentence! *groans and dies*
But on a more serious step…. We’re watching Holmes and Watson bat about various notions, and we get to peer into their thinking processes. Holmes is analytical in nature, and he notices and holds onto details very well. Watson is more focused on the atmospheric nature of the crime, and acts as Holmes’ sounding board.
This is yet more characterization in combination with a form of information dump, the Characters Analyzing Stuff Dump. With great characters, the latter sort of dump is much easier to deal with than the former.
“But what, then, did the gypsies do?”
“I cannot imagine.”
“I see many objections to any such theory.”
“And so do I. It is precisely for that reason that we are going to Stoke Moran this day. I want to see whether the objections are fatal, or if they may be explained away….”
Note that Watson also serves another purpose in the story; he acts as the reader might, asks the questions that the reader asks, wants to go into danger as the reader does (with the difference being that Watson has to pack a revolver and the reader might need some tea and a comfy chair).
There are certain advantages with having a narrator and character all rolled up in one.
“…. But what in the name of the devil!”
The ejaculation had been drawn from my companion by the fact that our door had been suddenly dashed open, and that a huge man had framed himself in the aperture. His costume was a peculiar mixture of the professional and of the agricultural, having a black top-hat, a long frock-coat, and a pair of high gaiters, with a hunting-crop swinging in his hand. So tall was he that his hat actually brushed the cross bar of the doorway, and his breadth seemed to span it across from side to side. A large face, seared with a thousand wrinkles, burned yellow with the sun, and marked with every evil passion, was turned from one to the other of us, while his deep-set, bile-shot eyes, and his high, thin, fleshless nose, gave him somewhat the resemblance to a fierce old bird of prey.”
No offense to the wonderful Mr. Paget, but his illustration does not do justice to the description that Watson has given the villain of our piece. Part of this is because Watson is drawing upon simile and metaphor of the most evil and insidious kinds that he can imagine. Like the description of Julia Stoner, the description of Dr. Roylott focuses on communicating one aspect of the character.
“Which of you is Holmes?” asked this apparition.
“My name, sir; but you have the advantage of me,” said my companion quietly.
“I am Dr. Grimesby Roylott, of Stoke Moran.”
“Indeed, Doctor,” said Holmes blandly. “Pray take a seat.”
“I will do nothing of the kind. My stepdaughter has been here. I have traced her. What has she been saying to you?”
“It is a little cold for the time of the year,” said Holmes.
“What has she been saying to you?” screamed the old man furiously.
“But I have heard that the crocuses promise well,” continued my companion imperturbably.
“Ha! You put me off, do you?” said our new visitor, taking a step forward and shaking his hunting-crop. “I know you, you scoundrel! I have heard of you before. You are Holmes, the meddler.”
My friend smiled.
“Holmes, the busybody!”
His smile broadened.
“Holmes, the Scotland Yard Jack-in-office!”
Holmes chuckled heartily. “Your conversation is most entertaining,” said he. “When you go out close the door, for there is a decided draught.”
“I will go when I have had my say. Don’t you dare to meddle with my affairs. I know that Miss Stoner has been here. I traced her! I am a dangerous man to fall foul of! See here.” He stepped swiftly forward, seized the poker, and bent it into a curve with his huge brown hands.
“See that you keep yourself out of my grip,” he snarled, and hurling the twisted poker into the fireplace he strode out of the room.
Dr. Roylott does not speak so much as bark, with every sentence short and fierce, in decided contrast to the calm and lengthier ones of Holmes and Watson. His characterization is partly established through language, even without the shouting and raging.
Holmes’ reactions to Roylott’s barking jeers establish Holmes’ character as a brave and cheeky bastard. We love him the more for it.
“He seems a very amiable person,” said Holmes, laughing. “I am not quite so bulky, but if he had remained I might have shown him that my grip was not much more feeble than his own.” As he spoke he picked up the steel poker and, with a sudden effort, straightened it out again.
“Fancy is having the insolence to confound me with the official detective force! This incident gives zest to our investigation, however, and I only trust that our little friend will not suffer from her imprudence in allowing this brute to trace her. And now, Watson, we shall order breakfast, and afterwards I shall walk down to Doctors’ Commons, where I hope to get some data which may help us in this matter.”
Cheeky, brazen, has problems with authority (and despises the police). That would be Holmes; and not one speck of this has had to be uttered by Watson as description. It’s all done through dialog, which impresses us more, even if it’s not as efficient as a simple summary—it’s far more fun this way.
Next time, among other things, we’ll explore Doyle-as-Watson’s descriptive methods, which will play a large part in the reader envisioning the scene of the crime, both in terms of atmosphere and in terms of physical presence.
Until then, beware of vulture-nosed doctors with hunting-crops.