Friday, May 25, 2012

Some Thoughts on Character: Reginald Musgrave

“In appearance [Reginald Musgrave] was a man of an exceedingly aristocratic type, thin, high-nosed, and large-eyed, with languid and yet courtly manners. He was indeed a scion of one of the very oldest families in the kingdom… Something of his birth-place seemed to cling to the man, and I never looked at his pale, keen face or the poise of his head without associating him with gray archways and mullioned windows and all the venerable wreckage of a feudal keep.”

In the 1986 Granada Television adaptation of “The Musgrave Ritual,” Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson arrive at Hurlstone Manor for a holiday – much needed (on Holmes’s part) and much encouraged (on Watson’s part). They are greeted by Reginald Musgrave, and the conservation is polite, if a little stilted. Finally, Holmes and Musgrave walk off alone – leaving Watson in friendly conversation with Brunton, the butler. Musgrave compliments Holmes on making a successful living off of his wits, to which Holmes replies, while looking about absently: “And how is the dear wife?” A brief silence follows before Musgrave replies: “I’m not married, Holmes.” There is another, longer, more awkward silence before Holmes claps Musgrave on the shoulder: “How wise!”
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And that is the disconnect with Reginald Musgrave; that is what separates Musgrave from other figures from Sherlock Holmes’s past – Victor Trevor, for example. Although the plot of MUSG was slightly altered for the Granada adaptation to compensate for the somewhat advancing ages of the series’ stars – Jeremy Brett, for example, was 53-years-old at the time of filming and was therefore perhaps ill-suited to play the 25-year-old Sherlock Holmes as seen in the original text of MUSG – the dynamic between Holmes and Reginald Musgrave remains true to the source material. Holmes and Musgrave are not friends. That is not to say that they are antagonistic, far from it. They are merely acquainted. Musgrave spins in and out of Sherlock Holmes’s orbit in much the same way as any of his other clients. At times there seems to be no difference between Reginald Musgrave and Violet Hunter, Victor Hatherley, or Grant Munro – that is to say, once they have served their purpose, they are rarely, if ever, heard from again. Musgrave at least has the added benefit of being openly appreciative of Holmes’s talents, where many had seemed initially incredulous: “Once or twice we drifted into talk, and I can remember that more than once he expressed a keen interest in my methods of observation and inference.”
But like Victor Trevor, Reginald Musgrave intrigues because he knew Sherlock Holmes when. He knew him when he was young and was not yet fully formed or fully in possession of his powers. He knew him when his career as the world’s only consulting detective was not yet sculpted out or defined to his satisfaction. More importantly, Reginald Musgrave knew Sherlock Holmes when Dr. Watson did not. Reginald Musgrave was present at the beginning of Sherlock Holmes – which for some Sherlockians is somewhat equivalent to being present for the Big Bang – and so he is in possession of a piece of the puzzle, which we are not. But does that truly lend any extra weight to Musgrave’s presence in the Canon – does that give him more merit as a character, when Holmes appears to give him the same level of consideration as the dottles and plugs of tobacco left on the mantelpiece of Baker Street every morning?
Unlike Victor Trevor, who was present from the very inception of Holmes’s career (“And that recommendation, with the exaggerated estimate of my ability with which he prefaced it, was, if you will believe me, Watson, the very first thing which ever made me feel that a profession might be made out of what had up to that time been the merest hobby.” [GLOR]), Holmes appears to lose track of Reginald Musgrave for a bit of time before their paths cross again: “For four years I had seen nothing of him until one morning he walked into my room in Montague Street. He had changed little, was dressed like a young man of fashion–he was always a bit of a dandy–and preserved the same quiet, suave manner which had formerly distinguished him.” Holmes’s description of this first meeting with a long-lost acquaintance is rather interesting, in that he manages to both insult and compliment Musgrave in the same sentence. It is up to the reader to determine if the balance of the remark is ultimately neutral. But the casual way in which Holmes marks the length of their separation indicates that it was all the same to him if Musgrave had never walked through his door at Montague Street at all, save for the puzzle he brought with him.
According to Leslie Klinger: “Holmes and Musgrave were never more than ‘slight acquaintance(s)’: thus it is possible that the struggling young detective saw not a social visit but a business opportunity when Musgrave walked through his door. June Thomson speculates that Holmes may have charged Musgrave a fee for his services, pointing to his ‘living by my wits’ remark as ‘possibly a hint that he had turned professional and expected to be paid’” (534). And so, the reader sees Reginald Musgrave present at the time when Holmes has begun to realize that his services had value. Musgrave may not be the Detective’s first paying client, but he was probably one of the earliest. Victor Trevor may have been present for the beginning of Sherlock Holmes, but Reginald Musgrave was present for the event horizon – for the point of no return, for the moment when Holmes’s fate was fully determined and guaranteed.
As has been mentioned before, Holmes ultimately lost track of Victor Trevor – just as he lost track of Musgrave – but that was hardly Holmes’s fault entirely – the sordid circumstances surrounding his father’s death were certainly enough to make a reasonable man want to escape any and all places and persons associated with the events. The weight and merit of Trevor’s character rest largely on what he was present for, and Musgrave bears much the same burden. Though of the two men, Victor is the only one who can honestly wear the title of “friend,” Musgrave is the only one who can be honestly called a “client” – in the fully paying sense of the term. And while Victor Trevor sought out Sherlock Holmes in his hour of need, Reginald Musgrave walked through the door of Montague Street looking for a detective.
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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Currently on Twitter...

As part of an ongoing project on my Twitter feed, I'm delivering stories from the Sherlock Holmes canon in tiny installments of 140 characters or less. I recently finished up "His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes," which opens "upon the second of August – the most terrible August in the history of the world," and closes with "the last quiet talk" Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson may have ever had.

The current story is "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange," which finds Sherlock Holmes acting as judge, and Dr. Watson in the role of jury (but the executioner is conspicuously absent).

Check out my Twitter feed for a daily installment, although I am usually inspired to post more than once a day. And don't forget you can read through the original canon online.

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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