Friday, July 15, 2011

“You like this weather?” (CHAS): Using the Weather as an Indicator in the Stories of Sherlock Holmes

“It was a wild, tempestuous night, towards the close of November…Outside the wind howled down Baker Street, while the rain beat fiercely against the windows.  It was strange there, in the very depths of the town, with ten miles of man’s handiwork on every side of us, to feel the iron grip of Nature, and to be conscious that to the huge elemental forces all London was no more than the molehills that dot the fields.  I walked to the window, and looked out on the deserted street.  The occasional lamps gleamed on the expanse of muddy road and shining pavement.  A single cab was splashing its way from the Oxford Street end” (GOLD).
When it comes to setting a scene in a Sherlock Holmes story, needless to say, there are a lot of elements at work.  First, there is the tenor of the case itself: is it murder, blackmail, or robbery? Or is Sherlock Holmes tirelessly tracking down the origins of a mysterious Christmas goose with a valuable gemstone in its crop?  Also, consideration must be given to the physical location of the story: are Holmes and the Doctor at Baker Street?  Or Cornwall?  Or is it the middle of the night on the moors?  And what about the Great Detective’s mood: is he ill, and on holiday?  Lounging about his sitting room like a giant cat?  Or is he already in disguise and crouched in the corner of an opium den
When beginning a story from the Sherlock Holmes canon, there are many ways to tell just what kind of story the reader is going to get, but by simply by looking out of Baker Street’s bow window, or stepping out onto the street, another clear indicator can be gauged.  Will the story be violent and gruesome?  Focus on the cold and dark places of the human heart?  Or will it be about political conspiracy, with complexities so intricate that they are often confused and muddled?  Oftentimes, the weather sets the scene as much as the locale or Holmes’s disposition, and it provides clear clues to the reader, allowing them to prepare for Sherlock Holmes’s next client, perhaps before he or she even arrives at his door.
“It was in the latter days of September, and the equinoctial gales had set in with exceptional violence.  All day the wind had screamed and the rain had beaten against the windows, so that even here in the heart of great, hand-made London we were forced to raise our minds for the instant from the routine of life, and to recognize the presence of those great elemental forces which shriek at mankind through the bars of his civilization, like untamed beasts in a cage.  As evening drew in, the storm grew higher and louder, and the wind cried and sobbed like a child in the chimney.”
Along with Hilton Cubitt from the “The Dancing Men,” John Openshaw, the client from “The Five Orange Pips,” holds the unfortunate distinction of being one of only two clients to be murdered after consulting Sherlock Holmes about his problem.  Openshaw’s arrival in the midst of such a violent storm certainly seems to foreshadow his brutal and futile end.  Openshaw’s family history is also fairly wicked, with its origins in the American Civil War and the Klu Klux Klan.  Openshaw’s uncle, Elias, and father, Joseph, likewise meet violent ends.  Joseph, for example, had been found at the bottom of a chalk pit with his skull shattered, while his son was tossed into the water to drown near Waterloo Bridge.  Perhaps most unjustly, Joseph and John Openshaw’s deaths were entirely dependent upon the actions of Elias—actions that they were neither aware of, or in a position to prevent.
When Openshaw first arrives at Baker Street, he says, “I fear that I have brought some traces of the storm and rain into your snug chamber,” and it is appears that he was correct, if only posthumously.  Openshaw’s death rattles Sherlock Holmes more than Dr. Watson has ever seen.  He takes the young man’s murder personally—a blow to his not inconsiderable pride—and the Detective’s quest for vengeance is as relentless as any “equinoctial gale.”
“It was on a bitterly cold night and frosty morning, towards the end of the winter of ’97, that I was awakened by a tugging at my shoulder…Ten minutes later we were both in a cab, and rattling through the silent streets on our way to Charing Cross Station.  The first faint winter’s dawn was beginning to appear…Holmes nestled in silence into his heavy coat, and I was glad to do the same, for the air was most bitter…”
The frosty morning that begins Holmes and Watson’s adventure to the Abbey Grange complements vividly the icy relationship that they encounter there.  To say that the marriage between Sir Eustace Brackenstall and his wife, Lady Mary Brackenstall, was unhappy would be a dramatic understatement.  Lady Brackenstall spares nothing in describing her late husband: “…Sir Eustace was a confirmed drunkard.  To be with such a man for an hour is unpleasant.  Can you imagine what it means for a sensitive and high-spirited woman to be tied to him for day and night?  It is a sacrilege, a crime, a villainy to hold that such a marriage is binding.”  It is immediately clear that Lady Brackenstall feels no warm sentiment for her late husband; indeed, her opinion of him is as cold as his corpse.
What’s more, the bitterly cold atmosphere of ABBE provides excellent contrast to the fiery and passionate relationship between Mary and Captain Jack Crocker.  There is nothing that Crocker will not do for Mary, even face trial himself as long as she is allowed to go free. “When I think of getting her into trouble,” says Crocker, “I who would give my life just to bring one smile to her dear face, it’s that that turns my soul into water.”  Perhaps Mary Brackenstall’s hot Australian blood and the Captain’s ardent temperament are better suited outside of England’s terribly cold environment.
“In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London.  From the Monday to the Thursday I doubt whether it was ever possible from our windows in Baker Street to see the loom of the opposite houses…after pushing back our chairs from breakfast we saw the greasy, heavy brown swirl still drifting past us and condensing in oily drops upon the window-panes…”
In My Dear Holmes: Studies in Sherlock, Gavin Brend inevitably brings his discussion of BRUC around to the greasy, yellow fog that encroaches on 221B’s windows: “…the survivor is the greasy, brown, swirling fog of The Bruce-Partington Plans.  This is partly due to Watson’s masterful description, but even more it is due to the fact that we, the English, love and cherish our fogs beyond all things on earth” (136).  And what a fog this is, in BRUC.  This is no wispy fog, no tenuous thing of ethereal gray.  This is a serious fog, and Mycroft Holmes has brought his brother a serious problem—one of national import, with international consequences.
But at first, the Great Detective seems mystified: “But if this is true, then the case is at an end.  On the one hand, the traitor is dead.  On the other, the plans of the Bruce-Partington submarine are presumably already on the Continent.  What is there for us to do?”  Of course Sherlock Holmes is never content to rest upon his laurels, and in reality he is eager to set off on the hunt—but neither is his pathway clear.  When the most likely suspect, Cadogan West, is ruled out, Holmes must set off in fresh pursuit of a criminal that he cannot quite see through the miasma of circumstances, evidence, and deductions.
There are a variety of ways in which stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon are marked, indicators that allow the reader to know what sort of story to expect before the case even properly begins.  The reader can look for Sherlock Holmes crouched over a tin box of his former cases, or gregariously offering to introduce Watson to his brother, or even stabbing at a dead pig with a harpoon.  But if the client arrives at Baker Street with snow dusting his coat, or the wind chasing him up the seventeen steps—he may not have to speak a single word, for the reader to anticipate what mysteries might come next.

Only a little more than a week left to enter the new blog contest!  Share the details of your ideal Sherlock Holmes story, and you can win a prize package of pastiches.  Contest is open until July 23.


  1. I love this theme! A great window into the stories. The examples you found are delightfully instructive. I would like to go back through "Hound of the Baskervilles" and see what weather is mentioned or if I've merely imagined the pervasive dark clouds and gales!

  2. @Lucy: I had to restrain myself, because once I got into this topic, I found that there was a wealth of material and I could have gone on for awhile! Gavin Brend's book was definitely crucial in its construction, however.

    Are you familiar with this site? It's great for searching for key words or phrases in the canon if you're looking to go over HOUN. :)