GERALD BURNS SOCIETY
|GERALD BURNS SOCIETY|
A GAME OF PATIENCE: INTERRUPTED SPEECH IN THE VALLEY OF FEAR
Dr. Watson, that "most long-suffering of mortals," is brutally interrupted by Sherlock Holmes in the first line of The Valley of Fear. "I am inclined to think --" says he. "I should do so," snaps Holmes. But (still on the first page) Watson pays him back in an exchange beloved of Sherlockians:
In the scant half of the book set in London and Sussex I count twenty instances of talk interrupted. Watson is interrupted three times by Holmes (the third time is when Holmes begs the loan of his umbrella.) Cecil Barker is interrupted once by Inspector MacDonald and once, at the end of the story, by Holmes. Ivy Douglas is interrupted once by Barker. White Mason is interrupted twice by MacDonald, who is interrupted twice by Holmes, twice by himself (to avoid saying something indelicate), and once by event, "with a look of absolute amazement" when he sees "Douglas" and "Birlstone" in the completed cipher message among the breakfast dishes. Holmes is interrupted twice by event (Cecil Barker's knock at the door, and appearance at a window), twice by Watson, and three times by MacDonald.
The most famous interruption in English literature is when the "person from Porlock" walks in on Coleridge as he is transcribing "Kubla Khan," condemning, says Coleridge, that poem to fragmentary status. Holmes is rude to Watson at breakfast because he is staring at a cipher message and its envelope. "It is Porlock's writing," he says. Watson, who takes the conversational shift as excuse if not apology, asks who Porlock is and is told it is "a nom-de-plume, a mere identification mark," for the weakest link in Moriarty's gang. As the story begins Holmes (we find) is engaged in a train of thought. Watson's remark interrupts him, hence the rudeness. A second letter comes, which Holmes hopes will contain the key to the cipher, but the writer was interrupted by an unexpected visit from Moriarty (cryptically referred to as "He"), and "FRED PORLOCK" as he signs himself is afraid to follow through.
So we have, as a shape, an activity going on before the story starts, which is interrupted by Watson, whose interruption is rudely interrupted by Holmes, whose study of the cipher is in a sense interrupted by a letter the purpose of which is interrupted, signed with a name which is a byword for interruption.
The tale itself is interrupted by a sixty-five-page espionage yarn Watson is moved to excuse by saying, "Do not think that I intrude one story before another is finished." Part II of The Valley of Fear introduces Birdy Edwards -- who probably, though he says it of another, sends cipher messages, filling the telegraph form "with stuff that might have been Chinese." Edwards at one point is surprised by his fiancée in the act of writing a letter. "With a tiger spring he turned on her, and his right hand was feeling for her throat. At the same instant with the other hand he crumpled up the paper that lay before him." Porlock will have felt something of the sort invaded by Moriarty, and we trust with Holmes that he will come to no harm. "I was able to cover it up," says Porlock. "But I read suspicion in his eyes." Edwards gets an unsigned letter from Brother Morris, the weakest link in Vermissa Valley's Eminent (or is it Ancient?) Order of Freemen. Morris is as afraid of Bodymaster McGinty as Porlock is of Moriarty. Both are disconcertingly omniscient, hence the unsigned messages and ciphers.
The link between the tales is "a dead man in Sussex," and Holmes is quick to observe that the body is never identified by John Douglas's second wife, though Barker and the utterly trustworthy Ames swear it is Douglas. In unraveling the puzzle Holmes is interrupted seven times. Hoist on his blushes by Watson's rejoinder, he accuses Watson of "developing a certain unexpected vein of pawky humour." Yet his own vein of pawky humor is responsible for everybody interrupting him. Holmes is never funnier than in Valley of Fear, and nobody can stand it. Whether it's the history of Jonathan Wild, or Birlstone Manor, or the painter Greuze, or a missing dumb-bell, no one wants to hear it. The official detectives tear into the case like terriers; neither is seduced by the obvious meaning of obvious clues. They interrupt each other in their eagerness to reconstruct the crime, and the reconstruction isn't bad. It's just wrong. As a police procedural the dice are not loaded against them.
In passing, Holmes calls MacDonald "Mr. Mac" twenty-two times, the prerogative of genius addressing talent. Abbreviation is a theme in the book -- from "V.V." on the card left by the body, "P-E-N" on the sawed-off shotgun, perhaps even the shapeless lions on the Birlstone Manor gates, to the "He" for "Moriarty" in Porlock's second letter, and "C2" for "Column 2" in his first. There is a touch of it in the connoisseur's use of the painter's name for a particular masterpiece, part of an oeuvre -- "a Greuze" helps persuade the Inspector that Moriarty is a criminal; at the end of the book Holmes says, "I can tell a Moriarty when I see one."
Holmes is deliberately offensive, prattling away about his guidebook. On the next page he becomes insufferable, suggesting "a nice, cheery country walk for both of you. . . . In the evening, tired but happy --" MacDonald, as sore tried as the "long-suffering" Watson, interrupts, "Man, this is getting past a joke!" At least he sees the irony here, when Holmes pats him on the shoulder. He missed it altogether in his interview with Moriarty, when he took the same gesture as "like a father's blessing." Still he's up for almost anything. If taking the day off is outrageous, taking dictation is not. He interrupts Holmes's misleading note twice, "Impossible!" but both writes and delivers it.
A page later Holmes's aesthetic sense condemns them all to a cold vigil by the moat -- no "brutal tap upon the shoulder" for him -- bending St. Luke to his purpose: "Possess our souls in patience and make as little noise as possible . . . Where would be that thrill if I had been as definite as a time-table? I only ask for a little patience, Mr. Mac, and all will be clear to you." Holmes alludes, ironically, to train schedules as well as scripture, and two pages later has solved the case, which began with byplay at the breakfast table over what Charles Lamb calls biblia a-biblia, railway guides and almanacs, as well as the Bible itself. His stylistic criticism of Bradshaw -- "nervous and terse, but limited" -- is worthy of Lamb, and I am pleased to see that Bernard Darwin, an eminent Sherlockian, quotes it in his preface to The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, doubtless to be sure to get it in.
Before we see the dead man in Sussex, MacDonald has described White Mason as "a very live man." (His name is never contracted, a fact which leads some Sherlockians to toy with the notion that the name is covertly hyphenated; the same has been suggested for Trelawney Hope.) It may be significant that this Sussex inspector is one of the few characters Holmes never interrupts. On the contrary, he listens "intently, with no sign of that impatience which the official exponent too often produced." Always "White Mason" or "Mr. White Mason," this character is one of three whose appearance is described as deceptive, "looking like a small farmer, a retired gamekeeper, or anything upon earth except a very favourable specimen of the provincial criminal officer." Another is Moriarty, who seemed to the Aberdonian MacDonald like a "grand meenister with his thin face and gray hair and solemn-like way of talking." The third is Black Jack McGinty: "Here, one would say, is a bluff, honest fellow, whose heart would be sound however rude his outspoken words might seem." McGinty is "a black-maned giant, with a shock of raven hair" and eyes "of a strange dead black." At McMurdo's initiation the head of Lodge 341 wears "a flat black velvet cap upon his shock of tangled black hair." V.V. stands for Vermissa Valley, which Brother Morris calls "the Valley of Fear, the Valley of Death." Vermissa is dog-Latin for wormiest; when Brother Baldwin tracks down Douglas at Birlstone to assassinate him, he calls himself Hargrave. Such blackness calls for a white. The estate of Birlstone was donated by the Red King; is it too much to suggest that White Mason bears a similarly hieratic name? If White Mason is a Mason, a member of a Sussex Lodge, this man who doesn't look like what he is, who Holmes goes out of his way to treat with respect, may be intended as a foil to Black Jack. Holmes's foil is Moriarty -- a "king devil" (Barker calls him) disguised as a "meenister," himself a "bodymaster" of sorts given his book on the heavenly bodies we call asteroids. Is Moriarty a Mason?
There is no end to speculation, but there is a final problem. The identity of Porlock, Holmes's pseudonymous correspondent, is not beyond all conjecture. Now Birdy Edwards is a curious name; the reader wonders where he got it. (His second wife calls him Jack, MacDonald says he comes out of the secret room like a jack-in-a-box, and Barker says "he will always be Jack Douglas of Benito Cañon to me.") Given the literary associations of "Porlock" in Part I, why does so circumspect an informant sign himself Fred? It looks downright odd. As Watson says at the beginning of The Valley of Fear, "It's pretty maddening to think that an important secret may lie here on this slip of paper, and that it is beyond human power to penetrate it." I suspect that "Fred" is his real first name. The explanation leaps to mind. Further, the style of his message reminds me of Brother Morris's anonymous note to Birdy Edwards, arranging the meeting in which he describes a murder for which he was lookout:
There is a gap of at least fifteen years between the events in Vermissa Valley and the Tragedy of Birlstone. Ted Baldwin escapes the scaffold and serves ten years in prison. At the end of that time he hounds Birdy Edwards from Chicago to the California gold mines. Edwards makes his pile and clears for England, marries in London and lives "for five years as a Sussex county gentleman." How old was little Fred at the time of the anecdote? Five or six? It is easy to imagine that Morris may have abandoned his drygoods store on Market Square, and moved to England with his wife and children for safety's sake. Given the lapse of time, Fred will have grown to young manhood. Could he have done so in London? He would be at least twenty-one at the beginning of The Valley of Fear, and probably a bit older. This would give him time enough to be trapped in Moriarty's web. Edwards, puzzling over Morris's unsigned note in Vermissa Valley, sees it is "the writing of a man, and of a well educated one, too." Such a man might well introduce his son to the Lake Poets. Gone bad, perhaps through an inherited ambivalence, and led on as Holmes surmises, "by some rudimentary aspirations towards right," might such a lad, the youngest lieutenant in Moriarty's organization, appalled by the "deviltry" to which he is a part, come to emulate his father's epistolary habits? Like father like son.