Originally published April 3, 2010.
Previously we discussed how Doyle deals with suspense and the rising of stakes.
This time we’ll look at his action sequences. In large part, however, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” is one of the quieter, arguably saner stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon. But you know, it has a cheetah and a baboon in it.
Action! Action! Action!
Well, Doyle’s scenes, even in his quieter pieces, are not stilted; instead, it’s full of people running around, guns being fired, fights, screaming, sharp weapons being wielded and slicing through the air, and sometimes wild animals.
Doyle doesn’t waste time getting to the action after the suspense build in the previous several scenes.
About nine o’clock the light among the trees was extinguished, and all was dark in the direction of the Manor House. Two hours passed slowly away, and then, suddenly, just at the stroke of eleven, a single bright light shone out right in front of us.
“That is our signal,” said Holmes, springing to his feet; “it comes from the middle window.”
Notice we have motion here, not merely words.
As we passed out he exchanged a few words with the landlord, explaining that we were going on a late visit to an acquaintance, and it was possible that we might spend the night there. A moment later we were out on the dark road, a chill wind blowing in our faces, and one yellow light twinkling in front of us through the gloom to guide us on our sombre errand.
First sentence in this paragraph, responsibly plugging a possible plot hole. Not strictly necessary, but nice not to worry about it.
There was little difficulty in entering the grounds, or unrepaired breaches gaped in the old park wall. Making our way among the trees, we reached the lawn, crossed it, and were about to enter through the window when out from a clump of laurel bushes there darted what seemed to be a hideous and distorted child, who threw itself upon the grass with writhing limbs and then ran swiftly across the lawn into the darkness.
“My God!” I whispered; “did you see it?”
Holmes was for the moment as started as I. His hand closed like a vise upon my wrist in his agitation. then he broke into a low laugh and put his lips to my ear.
“It his a nice household,” he murmured. “That is the baboon.”
Lest we think that Doyle is a calm and rational storyteller, remember: there is a wild baboon and a friggin’ cheetah wandering around at night. A baboon and a cheetah. I think honestly if it weren’t going to cause a big plot hole of “Why didn’t Dr. Roylott inspect the noise”, there would have been a fight scene at the very least. It’s not like “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb” was actually sane.
Also note that characters react to things happening around them. Even Holmes.
I had forgotten the strange pets which the doctor affected There was a cheetah, too; perhaps we might find it upon our shoulders at any moment. I confess that I felt easier in my mind when, after following Holmes’s example and slipping off my shoes, I found myself inside the bedroom. My companion noiselessly closed the shutters, moved the lamp onto the table, and cast his eyes round the room. All was as we had seen it in the daytime. Then creeping up to me and making a trumpet of his hand, he whispered into my ear again so gently that it was all that I could do to distinguish the words:
“The least sound would be fatal to our plans.”
I nodded to show that I had heard.
“We must sit without light. He would see it through the ventilator.”
I nodded again.
“Do not go asleep; your very life may depend upon it. Have your pistol ready in case we should need it. I will sit on the side of the bed, and you in that chair.”
I took out my revolver and laid it on the corner of the table.
Holmes had brought up a long thin cane, and this he placed upon the bed beside him. By it he laid the box of matches and the stump of a candle. Then he turned down the lamp, and we were left in darkness.
The narrative is moving relatively quickly at this point, even though if we were there in person, it might be achingly slow. Such are the demands of storytelling; boring the reader is not a good thing.
In the next paragraph, we switch to taffying out time. Suspense-building again; we know they’re not in a good place, and here they are in the dark….
How shall I ever forget that dreadful vigil? I could not hear a sound, not even the drawing of a breath, and yet I knew that my companion sat open-eyed, within a few feet of me, in the same state of nervous tension in which I was myself. The shutters cut off the least ray of light, and we waited in absolute darkness. From outside came the occasional cry of a night-bird, and once at our very window a long drawn catlike whine, which told us that the cheetah was indeed at liberty. Far away we could hear the deep tones of the parish clock, which boomed out every quarter of an hour. How long they seemed, those quarters! Twelves struck, and one and two and three, and still we sat waiting silently for whatever might befall.
While time has been stretched out here compared to previous paragraphs, note that not one sentence is boring filler; every single one highlights the tension and the sense of danger. Doyle, as always during his action scenes, employs all the senses: sight, sound, smell, even touch and taste at times.
And now we move back into action; it’s a staccato of action, tense pause, action, tense pause, and then climax.
Suddenly there was the momentary gleam of a light up in the direction of the ventilator. which vanished immediately, but was succeeded by a strong smell of burning oil and heated metal. Someone in the next room had lit a dark-lantern. I heard a gentle sound of movement, and then all was silent once more, though the smell grew stronger. For half an hour I sat with straining ears. Then suddenly another sound became audible—a very gentle, soothing sound, like that of a small jet of steam escaping continually from a kettle. The instant that we heard it, Holmes sprang from the bed, struck a match, and lashed furiously with his cane at the bell-pull.
“You see it, Watson?” he yelled. “You see it?”
But I saw nothing. At the moment when Holmes struck the light I heard a low, clear whistle, but the sudden glare flashing into my weary eyes made it impossible for me to tell what it was at which my friend lashed so savagely. I could, however, see that his face was deadly pale and filled with horror and loathing.
He had ceased to strike and was gazing up at the ventilator when suddenly there broke from the silence of the night the most horrible cry to which I have ever listened. It swelled up louder and louder, a hoarse yell of pain and fear and anger all mingled into one dreadful shriek. They say that away down in the village, and even in the distant parsonage, that cry raised the sleepers from their beds. It struck cold to our hearts, and I stood gazing at Holmes, and he at me, until the last echoes of it had died away into the silence from which it rose.
The last part of the paragraph sounded like the climax of a fairy tale. This isn’t a bad thing; most climaxes, at some point or another, do, because all a fairy tale does is build to climax. The climax is pretty much the point of a fairy tale, which spends most of its narrative punch there.
“What can it mean?” I gasped.
“It means that it is all over,” Holmes answered. “And perhaps, after all, it is for the best. Take your pistol, and we will enter Dr. Roylott’s room.”
With a grave face he lit the lamp and led the way down the corridor. Twice he struck at the chamber door without any reply from within. Then he turned the handle and entered, I at his heels, with the cocked pistol in my hand.
It was a singular sight which met our eyes. On the table stood a dark-lantern with the shutter half open, throwing a brilliant beam of light upon the iron safe, the door of which was ajar. Beside this table, on the wooden chair, sat Dr Grimesby Roylott, clad in a long gray dressing-gown, his bare ankles protruding beneath, and his feet thrust into red heelless Turkish slippers. Across his lap lay the short stock with the long lash which we had noticed during the day. His chin was cocked upward and his eyes were fixed in a dreadful, rigid stare at the corner of the ceiling. Round his brow he had a peculiar yellow band, with brownish speckles, which seemed to be bound tightly round his head. As we entered he made neither sound nor motion.
I’d repeat something about description, but I discussed that in a previous post.
“The band! the speckled band!” whispered Holmes.
I took a step forward. In an instant his strange headgear began to move, and there reared from among his hair the squat diamond-shaped head and puffed neck of a loathsome serpent.
Although the exclamation about the speckled band might have been a touch over-dramatic, we do need explication about the resolution at this point for maximum impact of the revelation of the true meaning of the title of the story.
“It is a swamp adder!” cried Holmes; “the deadliest snake in India. He has died within ten seconds of being bitten. Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another. Let us thrust this creature back into its den, and we can then remove Miss Stoner to some place of shelter and let the county police know what has happened.”
As he spoke he drew the dog-whip swiftly from the dead man’s lap, and throwing the nose round the reptile’s neck he drew it from its horrid perch and, carrying it at arm’s length, threw it into the iron safe, which he closed upon it.
I… so would not have done that. But Sherlock Holmes does. At least this way it won’t hurt others when they pull the room apart, unless they’re particularly stupid about handling the safe.
Also, this is a bigger plot hole than the one Doyle plugged earlier: the safe has no breathing holes mentioned. Snakes need air.
I usually pretend Watson has overlooked that bit, or the safe is a cheap and sucky one.
Wrapping Things Up
Some stories (novels included) like to end at the previous point, because resolution can be boring after a climax. But resolution is something readers desire strongly, and leaving it out is generally also a bad idea and can be considered a breach of contract—something you can do for an effect if you can really justify it, but otherwise not a terribly good idea.
Resolution, though, doesn’t have to be long—it just needs to be sufficient. And relatively clear as to what the hell happened. And too long of a resolution may simply annoy everyone all around.
Okay. Now would be a good time for Doyle to remember that paragraphs are his friend, but … ah well, it is Doyle.
Such are the true facts of the death of Dr. Grimesby Roylott, of Stoke Moran. It is not necessary that I should prolong a narrative which has already run to too great length by telling how we broke the sad news to the terrified girl, how we conveyed her by the morning train to the care of her good aunt at Harrow, of how the slow process of official inquiry came to the conclusion that the doctor met his fate while indiscreetly playing with a dangerous pet. The little which I had yet to learn of the case was told me by Sherlock Holmes as we travelled back next day.
“I had,” said he, “come to an entirely erroneous conclusion which shows, my dear Watson, how dangerous it always is to reason from insufficient data. The presence of the gypsies, and the use of the word ‘band,’ which was used by the poor girl, no doubt to explain the appearance which she had caught a hurried glimpse of by the light of her match, were sufficient to put me upon an entirely wrong scent. I can only claim the merit that I instantly reconsidered my position when, however, it became clear to me that whatever danger threatened an occupant of the room could not come either from the window or the door. My attention was speedily drawn, as I have already remarked to you, to this ventilator, and to the bell-rope which hung down to the bed. The discovery that this was a dummy, and that the bed was clamped to the floor, instantly gave rise to the suspicion that the rope was there as a bridge for something passing through the hole and coming to the bed. The idea of a snake instantly occurred to me, and when I coupled it with my knowledge that the doctor was furnished with a supply of creature from India, I felt that I was probably on the right track. The idea of using a form of poison which could not possibly be discovered by any chemical test was just such a one as would occur to a clever and ruthless man who had had an Eastern training. The rapidity with which such a poison would take effect would also, from his point of view, be an advantage. It would take a sharp-eyed coroner, indeed, who could distinguish the two little dark punctures which would show where the poison fangs had done their work. then I thought of the whistle. Of course he must recall the snake before the morning light revealed it to the victim. He had trained it, probably by the use of the milk which we saw, to return to him when summoned. He would put it through this ventilator at the hour that he thought best, with the certainly that it would crawl down the rope and land on the bed. It might or might not bite the occupant, perhaps she might escape every night for a week, but sooner or later she must fall a victim.
“I had come to these conclusions before ever I had entered his room. An inspection of his chair showed me that he had been in the habit of standing on it, which of course would be necessary in order that he should reach the ventilator. The sight of the safe, the saucer of milk, and the loop of whipcord were enough to finally dispel any doubts which may have remained. The metallic clang heard by Miss Stoner was obviously caused by her stepfather hastily closing the door of his safe upon its terribly occupant. Having once made up my mind, you know the steps which I took in order to put the matter to the proof. I heard the creature hiss as I have no doubt that you did also, and I instantly lit the light and attacked it.”
“With the result of driving it through the ventilator.”
“And also with the result of causing it to turn upon its master at the other side. Some of the blows of my cane came home and roused its snakish temper, so that it flew upon the first person it saw. In this way I am no doubt indirectly responsible for Dr. Grimseby Roylott’s death, and I cannot say that it is likely to weight very heavily upon my conscience.”
Watson ties up the necessary details, and not beyond that: what happens to Miss Roylott, what happens vis-a-vis the inquiry into Dr. Roylott’s death, and what Holmes had figured out during the entire story, as well as Holmes’ final thoughts about the events that occurred.
Holmes’ explanation of his deductions are really only nice when you don’t know/don’t remember all the details that led up to his conclusion, and afterwards is something that can be skipped over, because otherwise they’re kind of boring.
And here ends the tale.
Incidentally, “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb” follows. Unfortunately, Holmes and Watson merely frame it, and aren’t involved in the main action, which is completely crazy and would have fit well into the action sequences of the Guy Ritchie film.