Sherlockian.Net: The View Halloa

by Rosemary Michaud (rmmichaud@earthlink.net)

The Five Orange Pips

Watson prefaces this story with the admission that it is one of those which "have been but partially cleared up." Typical British understatement! This case raises as many questions as it clears up. The client appears out of a driving rainstorm and tells a fantastic story about the K. K. K. and his eccentric family. Holmes appreciates the imminent danger that threatens John Openshaw, and he promises to look into his case in the morning. The case is still waiting for Holmes in the morning, but the client has perished, and Holmes is left to claw the air in frustration and send an envelope of orange pips off in the wake of a ship that is later lost at sea. The reader is tempted to claw the air a bit, too. How could Holmes send his client out to his death? What was the matter with the great detective? Was he ill? What was he thinking?

"Incredible imbecility!": Before we get into the story proper, does anyone have any thoughts on that business about Mary Watson's visit to her mother, a woman thought to have died years earlier? Is that who Mary told her husband she was going to visit? Was her "mother" really her aunt, as is written in some editions of the story? Or is "on a visit to her mother's" a Victorian euphemism for "my wife left me," or some other embarrassing circumstance?

Now back to the detective story, in which Sherlock Holmes comes off as incompetent as well as heartless. Even granting that the details of the case are "singular" and Openshaw's account of the pips is darkly fascinating, doesn't it seem strange that Watson should have published a story which puts Holmes in such a bad light? He let his client walk out to his death! Was Watson himself blind to the unfavorable portrait he gave us of Holmes? Or am I being too hard on both Holmes and Watson?

Holmes went into some detail about how "the ideal reasoner" could solve problems "in the study" without seeing the situation at first hand. Was he trying to prove that very point with Openshaw's case? Why did he pick this particular case with which to do it? Did he have a bet going with his armchair-bound brother Mycroft?

Unthinking the unthinkable: I have a hard time reconciling myself to the outcome of this story. I cannot accept the fact that my hero Sherlock Holmes could have made such an error in judgment as the one that led directly to John Openshaw's death. This is even worse than "The Dancing Men," for although Holmes lost his client in that case too, the circumstances were such that only a detective with psychic powers could have prevented the tragedy. But the outcome of "The Five Orange Pips" is almost unthinkable.

Under normal circumstances, we operate under certain basic assumptions when we analyze the adventures of Sherlock Holmes in the course of the Great Game:

  1. The story as written is basically true, and any inconsistencies are simply Watson's memory lapses and bad handwriting.
  2. Watson wrote the stories, except in those instances where it is clearly indicated that he is not the writer.
  3. Sherlock Holmes is really Sherlock Holmes.
  4. None of the stories are dreams from which the central character later awakens.
What would happen if we took these "true" assumptions and analyzed the story with the same assumptions as "not true?" We could make the story quite literally "unthinkable!" Here are the same assumptions as above, but now turned inside out, and followed by a new set of questions which may -- I hope! -- lead to a different sort of analysis of this story:
  1. The story is fiction. For what reason or purpose was it written up and published as if it were true?
  2. Watson did not write the story. Who did write it, and how did he or she manage to get the story published under Watson's name?
  3. The Sherlock Holmes in this story is not the real Sherlock Holmes. Who was he, and why was he impersonating the great detective? 4) The story is a dream or, more accurately, a nightmare. Whose nightmare was it, and how ought we to interpret the story's dreamlike symbols, such as the storm-child in the chimney?

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