The Red Circle

Yesterday the Sunday Outpatients of Dr. Watson’s Neglected Patients, the Denver Holmes scion society, met at Pint’s Pub to discuss Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Red Circle. Actually we were first quizzed on it by Larry Feldman and then we discussed it.

Actually this was my first time reading the story since the last time I systematically read the Canon back in the ’90s. I had seen the Jeremy Brett version since then, but the story had largely faded from my memory, other than the knowledge that it had something to do with the Mafia, or at least an Italian crime syndicate.

If you’ve also forgotten the story: a Mrs. Warren appeals to Holmes to investigate her mysterious lodger, who after securing his rooms, has remained hidden in the room for ten days, only communicating his needs to Mrs. Warren’s maid via notes requesting such things as “Daily Gazette” and “match.” Mrs. Warren is driven to distraction by both the mystery of the lodger and his incessant pacing. Meals are placed outside his room and he leaves his empty trays outside and unseen by anyone else in the house.

Matters come to a head when later Mrs. Warren’s husband is abducted, presumably because the abductors mistake him for the lodger — who never gave his name to his landlady — only to release him later upon Hampstead Heath, very confused but unharmed.

Holmes and Watson later arrange to catch a glimpse of the lodger, but I don’t want to give it away if like me you’ve largely forgotten this story. And I bet there are a lot of Sherlockians who, being extremely knowledgable, would be jealous of my having forgotten a story. It’s as if I were to discover a Star Trek episode I’d never seen before.

One fault of the story that I did want to mention is something for which I really can’t blame Conan Doyle, but it does stand out to a modern reader. And that is the fact that it would be difficult to remain hidden in a room for 10 days without either sneaking out to the bathroom or using a chamberpot. The story fails to mention the fact that in addition to remove the dirty dishes, the maid must also have removed the chamberpot that the occupant left outside the door. Or else the maid must have entered the sitting room and removed it while the occupant was hiding in the bedroom.

It’s understandable Doyle would have neglected mentioning these details, given the sensibilities of the Victorian age, but you’d have to mention it in a modern novel, in the same way that Jane Austen time travel stories must address sanitary needs, toilet paper and toothpaste. I also find it very difficult to believe the house’s occupants did not comprehend the essential mystery of their lodger after hearing him pacing about, something fellow DWNP member Mae Hymm observed.

Ms. Hymm also alluded to Mr. Warren’s abduction, which seems out of place in the story. It’s timing in the story seems too much like those stories where Holmes fails to act and finds his client dead the next day. Luckily here, the abduction spurs Holmes to action, but again he fails to act after uncovering the mystery of the lodger. Fortunately it turns out well, the only death in the story being one that seems justified.

Larry Feldman asked us whether this story was one those “being less worthy of praise,” and I have to admit it’s not a great story, especially when one has to imagine how long it must have taken to transmit the coded messages in the story. But the joy of reading a story that somehow I’d long overlooked, despite its giving name to the Washington, D.C., scion society, was considerable.

Incidentally, I found the wikipedia article for this story quite good.

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