Sunday, May 6, 2012

“My advice to you, sir, is to speak the truth”: In Defense of “The Resident Patient”

“For in those cases in which Holmes has performed some tour de force of analytical reasoning, and has demonstrated the value of his peculiar methods of investigation, the facts themselves have often been so slight or so commonplace that I could not feel justified in laying them before the public. On the other hand, it has frequently happened that he has been concerned in some research where the facts have been of the most remarkable and dramatic character, but where the share which he has himself taken in determining their causes has been less pronounced than I, as his biographer, could wish.”

If you have ever been to a meeting of any of the many Sherlock Holmes scion societies, you know that these meetings tend to be rather boisterous. Rambunctious, even. Loud, to put it in even more simple terms. Members laugh and shout and argue, but it’s all in good fun, even if it is rather spirited. So, you can imagine my surprise, when attending the most recent meeting of Watson’s Tin Box, when the Gasogene opened up the discussion of “The Resident Patient” only to be met with silence. It was an awkward silence, complete with cricket sounds and forced coughing. After waiting a moment for someone, anyone, to speak, the Gasogene finally prompted: “So, I take it that none of you liked this story?”
“No,” someone finally spoke up. “No, I wouldn’t say that.”

“You liked it, then?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that either,” said another Tin Box member.  “I wouldn’t say I feel much about the story either way.”

And that was the problem then. How does one verbalize: meh (complete with indifferent should shrug)? Is there even a way to discuss a story that appears to inspire such little feeling? Stories that are either greatly loved or greatly hated can inspire magnificent discussion, but a narrative that inspires no feeling likewise inspires no conversation. And relatively speaking, Sherlock Holmes doesn’t really do very much in RESI to inspire any kind of traditional response. The story begins with Holmes and Watson discussing the latest news, followed by a typical Holmesian deduction of Watson’s thought -process, and then the two men take a walk around London. They return to Baker Street, and spend the majority of the story listening to Dr. Percy Trevelyan relaying his very strange story. Holmes doesn’t even meet the man at the heart of the strange tale – Mr. Blessington – until more than halfway through the narrative, and even then he refuses to help him. Blessington is then killed in the middle of the night, and the murderers are eventually lost on the steamship Norah Creina, and thus come to no justice, except perhaps that of a karmic variety. 
So where do readers find the value in a story like RESI? If the mystery itself invokes only a feeling of lukewarm indifference, then what is there to which the reader can respond? And readers do respond to RESI – the story tied for 42nd place (along with “The Engineer’s Thumb,” “The Retired Colourman,” “Shoscombe Old Place,” and “The Yellow Face”) in the 1999 poll of invested members of the Baker Street Irregulars.  If the case itself teaches the reader nothing, then the reader is learning something from somewhere else in the tale, otherwise RESI would have been relegated to the very bottom of the list with the three stories tied for 54th place: “The Three Gables,” “The Mazarin Stone,” and “The Veiled Lodger.”

There’s actually quite a bit of information to gather about Sherlock Holmes from RESI – about his talents and methods – even if they are not on display to their fullest possible extent in this story. Watson begins by sharing with the reader:
“[Sherlock Holmes] loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, with his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour or suspicion of unsolved crime. Appreciation of nature found no place among his many gifts, and his only change was when he turned his mind from the evil-doer of the town to track down his brother of the country.”

This insight into Holmes’s character is followed by a magnificent string of deduction on the Detective’s part. The deductions are of little import to the overall scope of the narrative, but he is able to catalog Watson’s entire train of thought and is even able to accurately remind Watson of how this train of thought began when the Doctor himself was unable to remember. This exercise into fundamental Sherlockian method is followed by the two men taking a stroll around London: “For three hours we strolled about together, watching the ever-changing kaleidoscope of life as it ebbs and flows through Fleet Street and the Strand. His characteristic talk, with its keen observance of detail and subtle power of inference, held me amused and enthralled.”
And so the reader finds this particularly charming sketch of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson as friends – a sliver of insight into the relationship that fuels the narratives of the Canon for so many readers. We see Holmes and Watson in a companionable, easy intimacy that comes with a long acquaintance. We see Dr. Watson charmed by his friend on the mere merit of Holmes being himself, nothing more. We see Sherlock Holmes at ease, and at his best.

I once got into a discussion with another Sherlockian about just how many of the stories in the Canon are owed to characters making extremely poor life choices, or being otherwise unable to spot glaring red flags. Obviously, RESI is one of these stories. Where would the reader be if Dr. Trevelyan had reflected for only a moment on the peculiarities of this stranger’s generous offer, and had decided to try his hand at researching nervous disorders for a bit longer? Likewise, what if Mr. Melas had said, “No, I don’t think I shall accompany you to an undisclosed location to translate for you at this late hour” (GREE)? Or if young Englishwomen had paid more cautious attention to those rumors circulating around that Baron Gruner fellow (ILLU)? Or even if Dr. Watson has said to young Stamford, “Beating the subjects in the dissecting room, you say? Oh, never mind. I’ve always imagined that I would be better off living on my own anyway” (STUD). So every story in the Canon has something to recommend to it, even if it is only a reminder of what might have been, or what never was.
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  1. Uncanny! By chance I re-read this story (for my own purposes) an hour before seeing your post.
    1. I agree with all you say about the insight afforded into Holmes & Watson's friendship -Holmes crystallizes the point in the phrase 'en rapport'.
    2. Agree too about the focus on Holmes's observational & deductive powers. Brett makes the most of this in his delightful examination of the murder room.
    3. Two related points: the medical theme chimes with The Red Lamp stories (pub. 1894)whose Preface is on the theme of Watson's opening paragraph - uncertainty about what content goes in which kind of story. I'd say Scylla & Carybdis as an image captures the special nature of this 'story': Doyle thinking aloud about his writings.

  2. @Altamont: Excellent thoughts! I'm not familiar with The Red Lamp stories, but I'm definitely going to look into them now. I'm also intrigued by your idea of essential imagery and capturing the particular theme of them story. Perhaps the caduceus might also be relevant or could make for interesting analysis?

  3. I agree with the previous comment-the Granada episode was fantastic. Brett was at his best, and his examination of the murder room was great (over two minutes without dialogue in a television series-what a feat).

    Also, the fact that Micheal Cox and the other developers of the show selected "Patient" for their first series, when they were only picking the very best of the stories, speaks to it's importance. Like yourself, they most likely saw the value of the Holmes-Watson friendship as presented in "Patient."

  4. Wow. Excellent article, wonderful writing. An absolutely splendid breakdown. Thank you! -Joe Riggs

  5. @Joe Riggs: That's so nice of you to say. Thank you very much for reading!