In terms of blogging, it has been a bit of a heavyweight year – what with posts on the first part of Don Quixote, on Persuasion, some monstrously long posts on Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, and, most recently, on James’ The Portrait of a Lady, and so on. And there was the usual smattering of Shakespeare, of course. So, as the year winds down and we enter the festive season, let us lighten the tone a bit.
Some years ago, I used to contribute to an online Books Board, and, every Christmas, we used to set a Christmas Challenge: we had to write a piece on anything we wanted, as long as it was Christmas-themed, and incorporated a number of items specified by whoever set the challenge.
On cleaning out old documents from my hard disk recently (and it still doesn’t seem right to me to spell “disc” with a “k” – even in this context!) I came across a couple of these I had written a few years ago. This one is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and it had to make reference to:
- Two paintings in the National Gallery, London
- A piece of classical music
- A birth, and a death
- A conspiracy
- A kitchen utensil
That’s enough explanation. Here it is.
The Adventure of the Distraught Archaeologist
I had long been accustomed to receiving telegrams from Holmes asking me to meet him on matters of some urgency, so when, early one Saturday morning in December, I received a telegram from my old friend asking me to meet him at a public hostelry by the river near Hampton Court, I cannot say I was entirely taken by surprise. Eager to enjoy the fine, crisp winter’s day, I soon found myself travelling very pleasantly by boat on the Thames to Hampton Court. Inside the inn, I found Holmes sitting at a table by the window with a ruddy-faced, thick-set man who held out a welcoming hand on seeing me approach.
“And this, I take it, must be Dr Watson,” he said, shaking my hand cordially. “I’m very pleased to meet you. Richardson,” he introduced himself, “Cedric Richardson.”
“Good old Watson!” said Holmes, “I knew you wouldn’t let us down – even when you are recovering from illness, although I am happy to see that you are recovering quickly, and, indeed, are organizing a celebration once your wife returns.”
Having known Holmes for many years now, I was not in the least surprised by his uncanny powers of observation and deduction, but my attempts to follow his chain of reasoning all too frequently came to nought. Holmes chuckled on noticing my bemusement.
“That you had been recently ill is plain to see from the pallor of your appearance, and the slightly emaciated look about the jowls. However, that you are fit enough to trek all the way out here is sufficient testimony to your successful recovery.”
“But how did you know about my wife being away?”
“My dear Watson, you may remember that I published a monogram once on the distinctly different types of soil in London. On your boots, there are distinct traces of that reddish earth that is only found in certain parts of Camden. Now, you would not have had time to go to Camden this morning before coming here: so it follows that you went there yesterday, if not earlier. And it follows also that you set out this morning without cleaning your shoes, something your wife, I know, would hardly have allowed you to do had she been in the house.”
“Indeed, she is visiting friends this weekend. She has gone to help out an old schoolfriend who has recently given birth to twins. But the celebrations?”
“Simplicity itself. Camden, I know, is out of your regular circuit: your medical practice does not take you in that direction. However, I do know that you particularly admire the champagne supplied by a certain establishment of wine merchants on Camden High Street. Since your wedding anniversary falls next week, the inference did not seem too far-fetched.”
“Absolutely right, Holmes! As well as placing an order for the champagne, I purchased two bottles of Bordeaux which, when warmed in a saucepan with some cloves, makes the most delicious mulled wine for this time of year. But your deductions in this respect really are quite extraordinary!”
“Elementary,” replied Holmes. “There are twenty-three other deductions one may make from your appearance, but we have more pressing business ahead of us. You have already met Cedric Richardson. He is, if I may say so in his presence without causing him embarrassment, one of our most eminent archaeologists. His assistance was invaluable in the case of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared. But perhaps Mr Richardson can tell us the details of this case in his own words.”
“Thank you, Mr Holmes,” said Richardson. “Perhaps I should start by telling Dr Watson that for the last few years I have been researching the megalithic remains around our isles, and that in this pursuit, photography is a boon. The photographic images I have taken of various menhirs, dolmens, mounds and burial chambers are absolutely invaluable in my line of research. However, there appears to be a conspiracy against me. Various artefacts that I have recovered from these sites have been stolen. And recently, some of the photographic prints that I took only last week have vanished from my study.”
“May I ask if you developed these prints yourself?” Holmes interjected.
“No, Mr Holmes. I have a good friend who works in a branch of chemists’ shops, and he kindly develops these prints for me.”
“And could you please describe these prints?”
Richardson paused for a moment, and then, leaning forward, said in a whisper:
“Mr Holmes, they were the Boots’ prints of a gigantic mound.”
A thrill ran down my spine as I heard these words.
“These pictures were taken from my desk, which I always keep locked. And I am the only one who has the key. My study, too, remains locked when I am not there, and once again, I am the only one who has the key. Now, who can steal from a locked desk in a locked room? And why?”
“What were you planning to use those photographs for?” asked Holmes.
“I was planning to use these prints next week, when I am due to present my findings at the annual Christmas Conference of the Royal Archaeological Society. But without my evidence, I am utterly lost. I’m telling you Mr Holmes, it’s a conspiracy!”
“Not in the least,“ said Holmes. “I cannot, of course, make any rash promises, but I would be very surprised if, by the end of this day, I do not know the whereabouts of your purloined photographs. But first, I shall have to send a few telegrams. And after that, Watson, I do not think we can spend our time here better than by viewing those wonderful paintings by Mantegna that I know are on public display at Hampton Court Palace.”
I knew better than to ask Holmes about the case until such a time as he should see fit to tell me of his own accord, but that afternoon we spent, on Holmes’ insistence, staring at those dreary paintings, “The Triumphs of Caesar”, by Mantegna. Holmes had recently written a paper on the allegorical paintings of Mantegna, which were considered by many experts in the field as the last word on the subject.
“Mantegna’s treatment of the Agony in the Garden is far superior to the effort of his brother-in-law Bellini, wouldn’t you say Watson?”
“I really cannot say,” I said, barely able to disguise my distaste on being dragged around the gallery when I could have been drinking a few pints of the lovely local ale at a riverside tavern. “You know these things always bored me to death.”
“Good old Watson,” Holmes chuckled. “All right, I shall not bore you any longer. Let us retire to the inn. We still have an hour before Richardson appears, and, if my suspicions are well-founded, we shall know the solution to our problem by then.”
On the way back to the inn, we stopped at the post office, where two telegrams were waiting for my friend. Holmes read these, and with a dry chuckle, put them into his pocket.
“Well Watson,” he said when we were seated at the inn with two pints of ale. “What do you make of it all?”
“I’d say that a crime as daring as this could only point to Moriarty,” I replied, “the Napoleon of crime.”
“Yes, that thought had crossed my mind as well,” said Holmes, “and so I sent a telegram to an associate of mine who is currently in Professor Moriarty’s employment, and he assures me that Moriarty has currently no interest whatever in Neolithic burial mounds. However, another distinct possibility presents itself. And that is that this Cedric Richardson, fine upstanding fellow though he is, is nonetheless a shit-for-brains who cannot distinguish proverbial arse from elbow.”
“My dear Holmes!” I ejaculated.
“So, to ascertain my hypothesis, I sent another telegram to Mrs Richardson, and she assures me that the photographs, far from having been stolen, are in her safekeeping, as her fool of a husband had kept them lying around the place. I have Mrs Richardson’s telegram right here,” he said, holding it out for me to read.
“Extraordinary!” I gasped.
“Elementary,” replied Holmes. “Now, we are due to meet Richardson here shortly, and we must explain the situation to him clearly, and impress upon him what an utter fuckwit he is. Afterwards, I suggest we head back to London. Patti is singing Violetta in Covent Garden tonight in a performance of Signor Verdi’s opera La Traviata, and I have tickets for two seats in the stalls.”