Friday, January 1, 2016

My Favorite Sherlock Holmes Story: "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" (SIXN)

[As presented at "A Saturday with Sherlock Holmes," in Baltimore, Md., on November 14, 2015.]

When Beth first honored me with the invitation to be here today, and I heard the theme for today’s presentations, I knew immediately and without hesitation that my favorite story in the Canon is “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.” What I did not know immediately and without hesitation was why. And as I pondered the topic for many weeks (and months, if I’m being truly honest), I began to worry that maybe there wasn’t a why, that like the infamous motiveless crime I simply loved SIXN because. Because of its own merits. Because it was simply a great story. Because I said so. Because, end of sentence. Because, because, because. And then, to my own mind, I started to sound like a petulant child, unable or unwilling to complete the assignment given to her.

And this, for some reason, made me think of my mother. Who knows why?

Those who know me a little better know that my mother is the great reader of my life. She’s the reason that I love books and writing and words. And if there is anything my mother loves more than books and writing and words, it is Law & Order. Not the process, mind you – the television show. The original flavor too, not the Special Victims Unit persuasion or even the Criminal Intent version with its pseudo-Holmesian detective played by Vincent D’Onofrio (but that’s a topic for another day and another presentation). No, she loves the classic with Sam Waterston as Jack McCoy and its ever-cycling cast of district attorneys.

So, what does this have to do with Sherlock Holmes and his six busts of Napoleon, you may be asking (or not)? Because it occurred to me – as I contemplated SIXN and Jeremy Brett’s facial expressions and Basil Rathbone’s creature-features and everything else peripherally related to this tale – that the reason I loved this story is because it is exactly like an episode of Law & Order.

Told you I was going somewhere with this.

Now if you think about it (and I’m going to make you) – an episode of Law & Order typically opens with banal, unassuming scene meant to distract: some kids playing basketball in a park, two friends shopping for expensive clothing in a high-end boutique, a young couple spending the night in a fancy hotel. Eventually, all these people stumble upon something nefarious and gruesome (and usually dead). And SIXN has a similarly inauspicious beginning: the reader learns that Inspector Lestrade has taken to dropping in at Baker Street. To chat. And this particular evening is no different. They are talking about newspapers and the weather. Maybe even their macramé. There’s probably a fire going and brandy in snifters. It’s as charmingly a domestic scene if there ever was one. But not for long, because crime is about to drop from the sky, like a body falling right into the middle of the Baker Street sitting room (a plot device which may or may not have happened in an episode of Law & Order, I can’t be sure). Lestrade has a case. An interesting case – “This is certainly very novel,” says Sherlock Holmes.

Despite the case’s novelty, however, Holmes and Watson don’t pursue it right away. In fact after getting the initial details from Lestrade, Watson posits a theory which ultimately bears no fruit, and Holmes decides to wait to investigate the case until there are “fresh developments.” This brings us to our second element of a Law & Order episode: the redirection in the form of a second crime. In any given episode, upon being given their task, the detectives will set out on their investigation (this is, of course, the “law” portion of the title). However, invariably they find that this initial thread of investigation is nothing but a red herring, leading to a dead end. Or even worse (and better television), while they have been giving their energies to the first investigation, a second and related crime has been committed. There is another victim. And it’s this crime that will ultimately set the detectives on the right path towards solving the case.

In the case of SIXN, the second crime is the body found on the doorstep of Mr. Horace Harker of the Central Press Syndicate. Aside from the dead body (a minor difference), the crime at the Harker residence seems much like the others before it – shattered busts of Napoleon and all. But now there’s a photograph in the dead man’s pocket and a broken streetlamp, both of which are indicative if not outright conclusive. From there, Holmes and Watson go to Harding Brothers, and then to Mr. Morse Hudson, of the Kennington Road. It’s Morse Hudson who provides a major breakthrough (interspersed with talk of Nihilists and anarchists and red republicans). He knows the man in the photograph: it’s Beppo, “a kind of Italian piece-work man,” he says. From there Holmes and Watson “make for Gelder & Co., of Stepney, the source and origin of the busts.” And then finally, based on the information they receive there, to Chiswick and the home of Mr. Josiah Brown. This is where Beppo is apprehended with the fifth bust of Napoleon and the active investigation draws to a close.

And...commercial break!

Now, a typical episode of Law & Order is usually split equally, with "law" bowing out of the way for "order" at about the 30 minute mark. We'll find that the structure of SIXN is definitely frontloaded with more law at the beginning and a briefer order experience at the end. If SIXN were truly an episode of Law & Order, then the “order” portion of the plot would probably only take up about 10-15 minutes of the episode. However, the reader finds that the impact of Sherlock Holmes's order more than makes up for its brevity. With Dr. Watson and Inspector Lestrade acting as something tantamount to a jury, Holmes’s revelatory theatrics are equal to any courtroom drama. With the reveal of the missing pearl in the sixth bust, one can easily imagine Waterston’s Jack McCoy unleashing the last damning piece of evidence against the accused, and all of the pieces of the case falling neatly into place. I mean, Watson and Lestrade even break out into applause for Sherlock Holmes, like they would for any actor on the stage. Holmes then proceeds to outline the details of the case, which go back over a year, and when he is done, it is obvious to the “jury” that Beppo is guilty. Holmes has proclaimed it so, with every leap and twirl and dramatic gesture. But more than that, Holmes has proven it so. And after all, what is order if not that?

Finally, every episode of Law & Order has a summary scene. More often than not, it’s very brief. Sam Waterston shares heated words with the prosecuting attorney on the steps of the courthouse. Or there’s a poignant conversation amongst all the attorneys over Chinese food in a darkened office. It’s a way to draw the episode to close quickly, and with wit and pathos. And this, let’s be honest, the concluding scene of SIXN has in spades.  
“Well,” said Lestrade, “I’ve seen you handle a good many cases, Mr. Holmes, but I don’t know that I ever knew a more workmanlike one than that. We’re not jealous of you at Scotland Yard. No, sir, we are very proud of you, and if you come down to-morrow, there’s not a man, from the oldest inspector to the youngest constable, who wouldn’t be glad to shake you by the hand.”
End of scene. Fade to black. Dun dun. And the Great Detective goes so far as to say, “Thank you! Thank you!,” as if he were at a curtain call, as if he were taking a bow.

As if you didn't know what I meant by "dun, dun".

Of course, it’s more accurate to say that the structure of SIXN paved the way for the episodic organization of Law & Order than the other way around. And I wish I could say with certainty, as Sherlock Holmes does in “The Empty House,” that “The parallel is exact.” Because it’s not exact, of course, but it is very near. It is very near enough to say that SIXN is my favorite Sherlock Holmes story because it reminds me of another dearly beloved thing. Of another dearly beloved person. Or perhaps just because. Because, because, because. 

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful to read this! Your comparison gives such insight into the "why" of this story's perfect structure. It's clear that in a great story, not only must each element be present but each one needs to have something a little special about it. This is true from beginning to end, but the coda of this story rises to a new emotional pitch that is both surprising and, as they might say, gratifying. Thanks, as always, for your wonderful asides and humor, and for sharing your talk!