Friday, March 11, 2011

“North by Ten and by Ten”: The Musgrave Ritual

I like puzzles.  There’s a shock for you—someone who loves mystery novels is also into puzzles.  Hold on to your hats and clutch your pearls, everyone.  I should probably add that my enjoyment of puzzles does not necessarily mean that I am any good at them.  I have half a brain for cryptograms, but lateral thinking problems, logic-based riddles, Sudoku?  I’m sunk.  Forget it.  But it doesn’t stop me from liking them.  It doesn’t extinguish that small flame of hope that one day I’ll be able to solve the obligatory Rubik’s Cube my mother buys me for Christmas every year, bless her.  It just means I usually keep an answer book or cheat sheet around.  I wonder what that says about me.
Anyway, I like puzzles because I like having answers.  I like having answers wrapped up neatly in a little package and handed to me with a pretty bow.  And one of the best examples in the Sherlock Holmes canon of a “pretty little puzzle” is “The Musgrave Ritual.”  It might even be one of the most famous treasure hunt puzzles in all of literature.  T.S. Eliot borrowed liberally from the story when writing “Murder in the Cathedral (Klinger 528),” and it has been adapted for the screen many times, including Basil Rathbone’sSherlock Holmes Faces Death.”
But what I like most about MUSG is that it’s revealing, but not necessarily in the way you might think.  It reveals quite a bit about Sherlock Holmes as a man of logic and deduction, in addition to revealing a lot about his priorities as a detective.  And I don’t think it matters very much that the story took place when he was twenty-five-years old, because he’s telling the story as a thirty-seven-year-old (approximately) man, and his reflections on the case are as revealing as the story he tells.  In the case of “The Musgrave Ritual,” the reader learns more about the character of Sherlock Holmes from the cases that he does not solve, than from the ones he does. 
When Reginald Musgrave approaches his former classmate, Sherlock Holmes, he wants Holmes to deduce what happened to his butler, Brunton, and his second housemaid, Rachel Howells.  He does not ask him to solve the riddle of a centuries-old family tradition, which Musgrave had thought “to be of no practical importance.”  Although Leslie Klinger rightly points out, in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, if Musgrave didn’t think the ritual was important, why did he bring it with him to his meeting with Holmes (538)?
And while Holmes does find Brunton (or his earthly remains), he cannot definitively say what happened to him.  He can theorize and rationalize all he wants, but with the two witnesses to the incident dead and missing, respectively, he’ll probably never get anywhere.  And he doesn’t seem to care.  Holmes moves effortlessly from imagining Brunton's and Rachel’s last moments together, to the more concrete business of the ancient crown jewels of England, without missing a beat—jumping to his feet and dashing all thoughts of Brunton's dead body from his mind.  And as for Rachel Howells, she is never heard from again, though various stories have put forth theories, such as Michael Doyle’s “The Legacy of Rachel Howells,” which can be read in The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures.
In his 2005 article, “Reflections on ‘The Musgrave Ritual,’” Steven Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes for Dummies, highlights what might have been Holmes’s intrinsic problem with the other mysteries of MUSG:
“Beneath the surface, beneath the canonical puzzle of what university Holmes attended, the fact of it being an early case, the connection to Charles I, beneath the cryptic Ritual itself, is a story of love, obsession, and betrayal, and of revenge.  Who among us doesn’t recognize themselves in Rachel Howells, or perhaps, God forgive, even Brunton?  Who among us hasn’t at some time wished to dash the support away, and send the slab crashing down on those who have wronged us, perhaps far more than anyone knows?”
Sometimes I wonder if the answer to Doyle’s questions isn’t, perhaps, Sherlock Holmes.  Rachel Howells’s motivations certainly did not matter to him, and he doesn’t spend a great deal of time castigating himself for being unable to figure them out.  He does not care, because he does not understand, and perhaps that does mean he’s never experienced the unpredictable variables of love, obsession, betrayal, and revenge.  He certainly seems unable to process it as a mid-twenty-something, and only seems to grow more understanding of them as he grows older, but only in fits and starts.  But Sherlock Holmes’s apparently stunted emotional life is another blog post entirely.
Indeed, it might be the first time we have documentation of Holmes casting aside that which he cannot concretely prove, but it is certainly not the last.  In “The Six Napoleons,” as Holmes explains the process which led to “the famous black pearl of the Borgias” becoming embedded in a plaster cast of Napoleon Bonaparte, he says: “Beppo had the pearl in his possession. He may have stolen it from Pietro, he may have been Pietro’s confederate, he may have been the go-between of Pietro and his sister. It is of no consequence to us which is the correct solution [Emphasis mine.]”  Holmes doesn’t really care how the pearl ended up in the bust—especially since it probably involved all these sticky relationships—just as long as he found it.
"...there stood a patriarch among oaks,
one of the most magnificent trees that I have ever seen."
In the 1986 television adaptation of MUSG, Holmes’s apathy even causes him to make a significant error in judgment.  The studio altered the original story slightly to bring Watson into the tale, and to accommodate for the fact that Jeremy Brett was no longer able to play a man in his mid-twenties.  Additionally, the ritual itself was changed to due to the fact that producers had been unable to find a filming location that fit all of the ritual’s stringent requirements.  At the end of the episode, as Holmes and Watson drive away, it is the Doctor who posits the theory that perhaps Rachel Howells may have intentionally sent the stone crashing, and also the alternate hypothesis that she had “only been guilty of silence as to [Brunton’s] fate.”  Holmes seems uncharacteristically indifferent about this loose thread and says, “Very probably she's far away from Hurlstone now and carries her secret with her.”
Of course, Holmes is wrong.  In the final scene, the pale, waterlogged face of Rachel Howells’s corpse rises up from the mere.  Her romantic rival, Janet Tregellis, recoils in horror at the sight, and runs away screaming in terror.
It’s fairly obvious that Sherlock Holmes loves pretty little puzzles, and he absolutely wants answers, but that doesn’t mean he wants all of them.  As he once so famously said, "What the deuce is it to me? […] You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work (STUD)."  What difference is the fate of Brunton or Rachel Howells to his work?  Sherlock Holmes solved the real (interesting) mystery, even if that wasn’t what Musgrave had in mind.  It’s not a pretty picture of my favorite detective, but I think it’s enormously in-character to imagine him staring keenly at the lost crown jewels, brushing Reginald Musgrave away, and saying: “What? The butler?  Nevermind that now, I’ve found something worthwhile.
Still two weeks left to enter my contest!  Never before have I worked so hard to give someone something for free.


  1. Wonderful post!

    I love hearing other people write/talk about SH because I always have something new to consider, some new facet to ponder.

    I hadn't yet thought about the huge amount of data that Holmes collects in the course of solving his mysteries that he chooses to ignore or that he dismisses as unimportant. It's intriguing to ponder the back stories and the later developments which follow those dismissals. One wonderful aspect of the works is how well they capture the sense that life teems around Sherlock. He doesn't exist in a vacuum. People have their lives and motivations and there's no way he could possibly take it all in.

    Narratively, this may also point to the problem Mark Gatiss mentions in the commentary for the Sherlock episode "The Great Game." It's hard to write all those complex deductions! Some things just have to be ignored. I think it speaks to how great a writer Conan Doyle was that he acknowledges the gaps in his stories, and attempts to explain why they're there.

  2. @2000irises: Thank you! And I think that all the untouched "threads" are really what keeps the Sherlockian community going (Watson's "Tin Box," for example). It's very easy for me to stand on the sidelines, going: "Hey! Hey, Mr. Doyle! You missed something!" But if there weren't unfinished elements, if everything single item, in every single case had been tied up, there wouldn't be anything to left to discuss. And that's no fun.