Mystery Phrases in Common Parlance

In this post, I would like to take a look at two phrases that have become common parlance, and how they relate to the Sherlock Holmes tales.  Be forewarned that it contains SPOILERS!

 

The Inauspicious Sentence

“Then we rushed on into the captain’s cabin, but as we pushed open the door there was an explosion from within, and there he lay with his head on the chart of the Atlantic, which was pinned upon the table, while the chaplain stood, with a smoking pistol in his hand, at his elbow.”

And this somewhat inauspicious sentence transcribed by Watson as told to Sherlock Holmes by James Armitage from ‘The “Gloria Scott” ‘ is the supposed origin of the term “smoking gun.” The Sidney Paget illustration for this scene does indeed show a wisp of smoke emanating from the pistol.  In fact, if there ever appears to be a ‘smoking gun’ almost anywhere else in a Sherlock Holmes case, it will certainly be taken up by the police and reasoned away by Holmes.

Strand Magazine illustration of a smoking gun with thanks to the Sherlock Holmes Encyclopedia

House Servants in the Sherlock Holmes Tales

The staunch, tried, and true British house-servant is seldom doubted in the Sherlock Holmes stories.  In almost every case the house servants are dismissed in one sentence as suspects.  There are, however, a few ‘exceptions.’ 

In ‘The Sign of Four’ the Indian servant Lal Rao (who is not British) communicates with John Small from inside the Bartholomew Sholto residence with bad intent.

There are several cases in ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  Of course, the infamous Vincent Spaulding (aka John Clay), is the half-wage assistant in ‘The Red-Headed League’ though he works at the business, not in the house.  The Indian lascar who protects the title character in ‘The Man With the Twisted Lip’ is, again, not a house servant.  In ‘The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet,’ Lucy Parr, the second waiting-maid, is suspected, and she is even shown to have nefarious night-time business by Alice Holder, the daughter of Holmes’ client, but it is Alice who is the real problem.  In ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,’ Holmes does not trust the servants at the Copper Beeches enough to involve them.  In fact, he has Miss Violet Hunter lock Mrs. Toller in the cellar, but they show themselves to be harmless enough.

From ‘The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes we find three cases.  In ‘Silver Blaze,’ Holmes demonstrates that John Straker, the trainer, is less than trustworthy, but he lives outside the home.  In ‘The Musgrave Ritual’ it is Brunton, the butler, who is the centre of the controversy though his primary indiscretion is not confiding in his master, and it is he, in fact, who becomes the victim of another house servant due to his own relationship quandary.  In ‘The Resident Patient,’ the newly-hired page is the one who is paid to let the real villains into the house; however, a trial did not find the page guilty of any crime. 

In ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ novel, the butler, John Barrymore, is supremely suspected by Watson though Holmes is much less inclined to believe the servant’s guilt, and Barrymore proves to be innocent of the more serious crime at least.  If Selden, the Notting Hill murderer (and Mrs. Barrymore’s brother), had lived, he and his wife could have been tried as accessories to a fugitive, convicted murderer — a very serious crime indeed.

In ‘The Adventure of the Priory School’ from ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes,’ the ‘servant’ who is the illegitimate son of the duke though he is apparently not tried in a court. 

In ‘The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge’ from ‘His Last Bow,’ the household of Aloysius Garcia has mischievous intent, and their whole purpose in involving Mr. John Scott Eccles in their business is because of his trustworthiness as an honourable British citizen, but Eccles is not a servant while the actual servants were not British.

And finally, in ‘The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes we find some possibly disreputable servants.  In ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge,’ Grace Dunbar, the British governess, who, at the commencement of the story, is already imprisoned yet her guilt is contrived, and she is cleared of the charges.  In ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,’ the maid Dolores (who is not British) is caught with a ‘smoking gun’ of sorts, but the actual truth shows her to be more than loyal.  Then we come to ‘The Adventure of the Three Gables,’ which includes as a character the British housemaid, Susan (Mrs. Barney Stockdale).  Now Susan turns out to be a spy for Isadora Klein, so, in this case, the British house-servant — who is really a career criminal — turns out to be bad.

After all that, the British house-servants in Sherlock Holmes’ cases seem to invalidate the phrase “the butler did it.”

Translations of the Non-English Quotations

From time to time in the Sherlock Holmes stories foreign phrases dot the page, and you may find yourself wondering what those phrases mean.  Well you do not have to wonder any longer because this post will set your mind at ease.

Near the beginning of chapter 6, part 1, of ‘A Study in Scarlet’ Holmes quotes Nicolas Boileau when describing the lot of the police detectives: “Un sot trouve toujours un plus sot qui l’admire,” which translates from French into: “A fool always finds a greater fool to admire him.” At the end of that story, Watson quotes this Latin phrase from Horace: “Populus me sibilat, at mihi plaudo; Ipse domi simul ac nummos contemplar in arca” (Book 1, Satire 1).  It means, “The public hisses at me, but I applaud myself in my own house, and simultaneously contemplate the money in my chest.”  Also, in ‘A Study in Scarlet’ the French word “adieu” means “good-bye” or, literally, “until God.”

‘The Sign of Four’ has several foreign phrases and words.  Thaddeus Sholto quotes the French phrase of Stendhal in chapter 4: “Le mauvais gout mene au crime.” Which means, “Bad taste leads to crime.”  In chapter 6, Holmes slightly misquotes a French saying of Francois de la Rochefoucauld.  In commenting upon Inspector Athelney Jones’ noticing the trap-door in the roof, Holmes says, “He can find something, he has occasional glimmerings of reason.  Il n’y a pas des sots si incommodes que ceux qui ont de l’esprit!” (the original starts “Il n’y a point de . . .”) and it means: “There are no fools so troublesome as those that have some wit.”  In chapter 6, Holmes quotes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe on the first of two occasions; this time referring to the methods of Inspector Athelney Jones: “Wir sind gewohnt dass die Menschen verhohnen was sie nicht verstehen.”  The translation from German goes: “We are used to seeing that Man despises what he never comprehends.”  In chapter 10, Watson writes that Athelney Jones “faced his dinner with the air of a bon vivant.”  The translation of ‘bon vivant’ from French is someone who knows how to enjoy life.  Near the end of the story in chapter 12, Holmes says: “Yes, there are in me the makings of a very fine loafer, and also of a pretty spry sort of a fellow.  I often think of those lines of old Goethe:  Schade dass die Natur nur einen Mensch aus Dir schuf, / Denn zum wuerdigen Mann war und zum Schlemen der Stoff.”  The translation from German goes: “Nature, alas, made only one being out of you although there was material for a good man and a rogue.”

In the short story ‘The Red-Headed League,’ Holmes laments explaining his reasoning by stating in Latin, “Omne ignotum pro magnifico,” or “Everything unknown seems magnificent.”  At the end of the story Holmes says, “‘L’homme c’est rien–l’oeuvre c’est tout,’ as Gustave Flaubert wrote to George Sand.”  The translation from French is: “The man is nothing–the work is everything.”

In ‘A Case of Identity’ the French phrase “affaire du coeur” translates as “an affair of the heart” or “love affair.” Also, at the end of the story Holmes finishes by saying “Voilà tout!” in French, which simply means “That is all!”

Sherlock Holmes says, “Nous verrons, you work your own method, and I shall work mine.  I shall be busy this afternoon, and shall probably return to London by the evening train,” in ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery.  The translation of the French is: “We shall see.”

In ‘The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor’ the French phrase “fait accompli” translates as “fact realised or accomplished,” and it might be better understood with the modern idiom a done deal.

We find three French phrases or words in ‘The Valley of Fear,’ the first “genius loci” means roughly the mental impression left by a location.  Second, Watson writes that no “peine forte et dure” would ever force Cecil James Barker to plead against his will.  The translation of the French means: “Strong and hard punishment” or “torture.”  Third, John McMurdo calls Ettie Shafter “acushla” several times which means “darling” in Irish.

Holmes calls Isadora Klein the “the ‘belle dame sans merci’ of fiction.” In ‘The Adventure of the Three Gables.  The French translation is ‘The beautiful woman without mercy,’ and he is presumably referring to the 1424 poem of Alain Chartier or the 1819 English poem of John Keats both using the French title.

Several stories use the French phrase “au revoir” which literally means “to the next time we see one another.”

If anyone wants to add or correct anything, please make a comment out of it for the benefit of other readers.

NEXT WEEK: Woolly Wordings 6

The Text over the Fire

In his explanation at the end of ‘The Crooked Man,’ Henry Wood asserted the following:

“. . . at the sight of me he looked as I have never seen a man look before, and over he went with his head on the fender.  But he was dead before he fell.  I read death on his face as plain as I can read that text over the fire.  The bare sight of me was like a bullet through his guilty heart.”

I could not help but be reminded of the passage in the biblical book of Daniel in chapter five from which the phrase “The hand writing on the wall” is derived.  What do you suppose was written on Henry Wood’s wall?

NEXT WEEK: The unambitious older brother.

Elementary, does it speak for itself?

Today — the 158th birthday of Sherlock Holmes (fictional character for those who were wondering) — seemed the perfect day to launch my blog.

The word ‘elementary’ appears in the sixty Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle exactly eight times while ‘my dear Watson’ occurs more than a hundred times, but they never appear together.  People tend to look for the pithy when trying to communicate the complex, and the phrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” suits that goal perfectly. It captures Holmes’ attitude rather than his actual words; a further point, Holmes is lost without his Boswell, or Watson, so the word ‘elementary’ alone does not embody the character.  I managed to locate a smattering of the phrase in various publications long before the 1929 film ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’ starring Clive Brook that is often purported to introduce the phrase to the public, so I hope to shed much light on the question: Where did the phrase originate from?

The first occurrence of the word in the Sherlock Holmes stories comes in the very first, ‘A Study in Scarlet’ — initially published in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual — recorded by Watson from a magazine article titled, rather presumptuously, ‘The Book of Life’ that, we find out later, was written by Sherlock Holmes.  “Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the inquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems.”  In the September 1891 Strand Magazine, the word occurs for a second time in the fifth story ‘A Case of Identity.’  After recapping his minor deductions from the appearance of Miss Mary Sutherland, Holmes states dismissively, “All this is amusing, though rather elementary, but I must go back to business, Watson.”  The word next emerges in the twenty-second story titled ‘The Crooked Man’ first published in the July 1893 Strand Magazine.  In perhaps the occurrence most closely capturing the attitude of the phrase, Holmes deduces Watson’s busy schedule by observing the state of his boots.  ‘”Excellent!” I cried.  “Elementary,” said he.’  A mere five months later Watson announces that no more stories of his friend’s adventures will be forthcoming.

My speculation (for I never guess) is that the phrase arose as one of those topics that boiled over while a long-suffering public languished for the return of Sherlock Holmes.  That return may never have taken place had Conan Doyle not reconsidered in 1901 while visiting Dartmoor with his friend Fletcher Bertram Robinson who shared with him the local legends of a hell-hound.  The phrase may have come of the fascination that the public must have harboured for the mysterious character of Sherlock Holmes and his penchant for the grotesque and complex little problems that came his way.  The actor William Gillette — co-author of the play Sherlock Holmes — is often credited with giving the phrase its birth in the very late 1800’s.  Though there are no surviving scripts containing the phrase, he certainly may be one of those who started the ball rolling.  The earliest occasion of the phrase found in my research comes twice in the London Municipal year book and public services directory for 1898 on pages xcii (92) and 352.

The word elementary does not materialise again in the Conan Doyle stories until it appears twice in the twenty-seventh Holmes story the serialised novel ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ with the parts first published in The Strand Magazine for August and September 1901.  In referring to Watson’s deductions and his own examination of the absent-minded Dr. Mortimer’s walking stick, Holmes states in chapter 1, “‘Interesting, though elementary,’ said he, as he returned to his favourite corner of the settee.”  And again in chapter 4 whilst explaining his special hobby of identifying newspaper print, “The detection of types is one of the most elementary branches of knowledge to the special expert in crime, though I confess that once when I was very young I confused the Leeds Mercury with the Western Morning News.”  Not until the forty-first Holmes story ‘The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge’ first published in August of 1908 did the word reappear. Even so, Holmes only uses it to describe the book on botany he allegedly is using to pass the time in the Surrey countryside.  The phrase occurs once again in chapter 19 of the P. G. Wodehouse novel called Psmith, Journalist, which was first serialised in ‘The Captain’ magazine from October 1909 thru February 1910, and subsequently published in 1915 as a book.

In the forty-sixth Holmes story, ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax’ published in the last month of 1911, Holmes again used the word when he deduces Watson’s actions from observing his boots. More specifically he speaks of the elementary classes of deduction when describing their newness and peculiar double bowed tying.

We next find a minor flurry of publications using the phrase starting in 1913.

1913 Everybody’s Magazine, volume 28, page 577.

1913 University of Wisconsin’s Proceedings of the First National Newspaper Conference, Volume 1, page 146.

1916 Modern Hospital, volume 7, page 74.

1919 The Weekly review, volume 1, page 92.

1922 ‘The Secret Adversary’ by Agatha Christie, chapter 17.

The eighth and final time Holmes uses the word elementary comes in the fifty-sixth Holmes story ‘The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier’ penned by Holmes himself and not published until October 1926.  Holmes writes the word to describe the case presented by his client, Mr. James M. Dodd.

I am certain more occurrences of the phrase might surface with a proper search of the Internet and other sources, but, for now, these are all the clay we have. Holmes does say “Exactly, my dear Watson,” in three different tales though the first of those does not appear in The Strand Magazine until August 1904. Perhaps Conan Doyle was trying to divert attention from the phrase. If that is the case, the plan apparently failed. So the next time someone tries to advance the fallacy of the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson,” you can now present them the facts just like Sherlock Holmes.

Happy birthday, Sherlock Holmes!

NEXT WEEK: Watson’s servant girl? in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia.’