December book group - The Blue Carbuncle by A. Conan Doyle

TukaiTukai Shipmate
For December, we have a "Christmas story". The Blue Carbuncle is a Sherlock Holmes short story set at Christmas time. One of its central characters is a goose intended for Christmas dinner!

The story is not often found on its own - but in a set of 12 Holmes short stories published as the "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes", which is widely available - and cheaply since it's out of copyright! If you have the whole volume, then I strongly suggest you start with the Carbuncle story, and skip the first story in it, A Scandal in Bohemia, which is the weakest story in the whole volume.

As a bit of background, all these stories are set in London in the 1880s or 1890s. Holmes is a private detective who shares an apartment with his friend Dr Watson, who is a medical doctor. (The full back-story was in Doyle's first novel, A Study in Scarlet, which was published before any of the short stories. )

With Christmas approaching, and as the feature story is quite short (23 pages in my edition), I will offer a set of discussion questions fairly early in the month. Discussion will be open not only on the Carbuncle story itself, but on any of the others in the volume, and indeed on the Holmes corpus generally, including what they reveal about London and British society (high and low) in the period.

FWIW, my other favourite stories in this volume are: "The Red-headed league", "The Boscombe Valley mystery", and "The Speckled Band".

Comments

  • Thanks @Tukai, The Blue Carbuncle is one of my favourite Holmes stories. I haven't read it lately but I think we might disagree about A Scandal in Bohemia, as I remember enjoying that.
    If you can find them on-line I really liked the Jeremy Brett versions of the stories from the 1980s and 1990s. The Blue Carbuncle appears to be available.
  • TukaiTukai Shipmate
    I have some of the Jeremy Brett versions on DVD, including the Blue Carbuncle, and the red-headed league - both very well done and atmospheric.
  • DafydDafyd Shipmate
    Tukai wrote: »
    Holmes is a private detective who shares an apartment with his friend Dr Watson, who is a medical doctor.
    Holmes describes his profession as a consulting detective.

  • MiliMili Shipmate
    The story is legally available to read free online as well. My housemate owns "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes", but I also listened to an audio book recording of the story on Youtube.
  • HelixHelix Shipmate
    I've not read Sherlock Holmes - not sure why. I'm going to give this a bash if I may!
  • This was pretty good. My first Sherlock Holmes, can you believe it?
  • Oooh, I'll have to look up a copy and reread it and get involved in this discussion.
  • I'm in, provided Tukai allows me to read his
    precious copy! I think I've read it before; I certainly read 'The Speckled Band'. I was about 12, and my mother told me not to. I disobeyed - and had nightmares!
  • HelixHelix Shipmate
    I've just finished it - a delightful read.
  • Marama wrote: »
    I'm in, provided Tukai allows me to read his
    precious copy! I think I've read it before; I certainly read 'The Speckled Band'. I was about 12, and my mother told me not to. I disobeyed - and had nightmares!

    One of the few Sherlock Holmes that ventures into nightmarish territory as I remember. Curiously, as I’ve just discovered, it comes immediately next after the Carbuncle, which I’ve just finished reading.

    Looking forward to discussing.



  • I love these stories. I read them again and again. And the Jeremy Brett series on Sherlock Holmes - even where story lines have been tweaked or altered - is pretty damn good. I have the DVD box set and their attention to detail, creating the whole Sherlockian scene, according to Conan Doyle's writing, is great.

    'The Blue Carbuncle' was a Christmas story of sorts. And was a bit of fun, in some ways.

    'A Study in Scarlet' was the first appearance of Holmes, and how he met with Watson etc. But I don't think Brett's Holmes ever covered that story?
  • TukaiTukai Shipmate
    A Study in Scarlet is novel-length, and includes a backstory set in the wild west of America , so would have been difficult to incorporate into a series based on one episode per short story.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    Before I read this story I never knew a carbuncle could be a gem. I had a vague idea it was something like a wart or papilloma on the foot which makes it hard for me to imagine a beautiful, blue gemstone while reading the story. I had to pause to look up the definition and apparently the other definition of carbuncle is a type of boil or abscess, so that meaning must have stuck in my head from reading it somewhere else. Carbuncle stones are actually red. I wonder why Conan Doyle decided to make this one blue or to call it a blue carbuncle rather than a sapphire?
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    Rereading the story I realise Holmes explains why it is a blue carbuncle. I guess it is to make it rarer and more valuable to have a fictional type of stone that would be highly sought after if it existed.
  • I just opened Silent Nights Christmas Mysteries to re-read on my Kindle, and The Blue Carbuncle was the first story - so I have now re-read it (and thought, oh yes! I remember this one!)
  • NenyaNenya Shipmate
    Marsupial wrote: »
    Marama wrote: »
    I'm in, provided Tukai allows me to read his
    precious copy! I think I've read it before; I certainly read 'The Speckled Band'. I was about 12, and my mother told me not to. I disobeyed - and had nightmares!

    One of the few Sherlock Holmes that ventures into nightmarish territory as I remember.

    I agree. I also found "The Creeping Man" pretty, er, creepy.
  • TukaiTukai Shipmate
    As so many of you have already read the short story for this month, “The Blue Carbuncle, and with Christmas coming up, I am posting the questions “early” this month. As usual feel free to answer any or all of these or any other questions that you want to raise yourself.
    Discussion will continue until Boxing Day and beyond for those who prefer to read their Christmas stories after Christmas.

    [Apologies if some of these are spoilers for those who have not yet finished the their reading.]

    The first few questions here are just about that one story, whereas some later ones go to the wider Sherlock Holmes set.

    (1) Their hat is, according to Holmes, one of the more distinctive features of a man. What might be some other possessions or physical features which can reveal so much about their possessor to an observer like Holmes?
    (2) Goose was clearly the standard for Christmas dinner in 1880s London. Have you eaten goose? What is now the favoured meal for Christmas in your place/ culture? . Has it changed over time?
    (3) Holmes and Watson have what today would called a “share house”. But theirs comes complete with a housekeeper/ cook and even a pageboy. How did they manage that?
    (4) What sign tells Holmes that “this man’s wife has ceased to love him”? Do you think a present of a goose would convince her to take a more charitable view of her husband? How about Horner’s wife - do you think she still loves her husband, accused criminal though he is, and with some past “form” to go with it?
    (5) How does Holmes manifest the spirit of Christmas in this story? Do you think he acted rightly in this instance?
    (6) Did you notice how many newspapers were available for Holmes to place advertisement in? What media might a present-day Holmes equivalent use for a similar purpose?
    (7) A few class distinctions show up in this story, but they are much more obvious in some of the other stories in ”The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” collection - e.g. in the stories of The Noble Bachelor, the Beryl Coronet or A scandal in Bohemia. What do these stories reveal about class distinctions in 1880s Britain? In the behavior and attitudes of some of the characters? In the author’s mind, consciously or otherwise? Are these effects still manifest today in your place/ culture?
    (8) What is your favourite Holmes short story of those you have read ? Why?
  • I listen to Sherlock H. stories on-line, mostly.
    There are 2 sites I use, and love. Old Radio Programs -An Archive Of Historical Old Radio Broadcasts and https://archive.org/details/oldtimeradio.
    All kinds of categories of programs: Crime & Detective/ Comedy / Sci Fi / Drama/ Sherlock Holmes
    Find these wonderful radio shows. You won't be sorry! The old commercials are a hoot, too.
  • (1) Their hat is, according to Holmes, one of the more distinctive features of a man. What might be some other possessions or physical features which can reveal so much about their possessor to an observer like Holmes?
    As I recall, a walking stick is studied in The Hound of the Baskervilles to very good effect. A man's watch (was it Watson's brother's watch?)--and how poorly it was cared for--told Holmes many details. I would imagine a pipe would also be fruitful--strength of teeth, carelessness in lighting, etc.
    (2) Goose was clearly the standard for Christmas dinner in 1880s London. Have you eaten goose? What is now the favoured meal for Christmas in your place/ culture? . Has it changed over time?
    I can't recall eating goose. Duck, certainly. In my family, things like Beef Wellington, Beef Bourguignon or something along those lines does for Christmas. Occasionally ham, studded with cloves. I do love the flavor of cloves.
    (3) Holmes and Watson have what today would called a “share house”. But theirs comes complete with a housekeeper/ cook and even a pageboy. How did they manage that?
    The pageboy tends to show in the later stories, after Holmes has his practice up and running and he is collecting nice fees and could afford one. As for Mrs. Hudson acting as cook & housekeeper (and, in the early days, escorting visitors up), I always imagine her as a widow trying to find a way to keep a roof over hoer own head by taking in lodgers. For the income, cooking and housekeeping seem reasonable. I seem to recall that, in one of the later stories, Watson mentions that Holmes paid Mrs. Hudson a princely sum to live there--suggesting that for the amount he had paid over the years he could have bought the house several times over.
    (4) What sign tells Holmes that “this man’s wife has ceased to love him”? Do you think a present of a goose would convince her to take a more charitable view of her husband? How about Horner’s wife - do you think she still loves her husband, accused criminal though he is, and with some past “form” to go with it?
    Not knowing more about the wife and her ability to carry a grudge, I have no idea if a goose would get her round her good side. Maybe. Especially if she particularly loved goose. As for Horner's wife...well, let's move on to the next question for a better discussion of that.
    (5) How does Holmes manifest the spirit of Christmas in this story? Do you think he acted rightly in this instance?
    Just to be on the safe side, I am going to put this in a spoiler box because it discusses the end of the story.
    The act of Christmas generosity towards Ryder is commendable and Holmes is probably correct that Ryder won't again stray against the law. But what rubs me the wrong way is that poor Horner kind of gets the shaft. Oh, yes, we are told that the case against him will collapse without the witness---but that is not exactly an exoneration. He is already a felon and now accused of another crime that he just doesn't get convicted for because the witness against him mysteriously disappears---do we really think Horner is going to get any more legitimate jobs? He almost certainly won't keep the job at the hotel. The poor guy was completely innocent of the crime and, even though he won't be convicted for it, it seems to me that his life is going to get tougher. Perhaps so tough that he turns back to crime, thereby diminishing the effect of Holmes' "saving" of Ryder from a life of crime.
    (6) Did you notice how many newspapers were available for Holmes to place advertisement in? What media might a present-day Holmes equivalent use for a similar purpose?
    Oh, I don't keep up with those newfangled things....
    (7) A few class distinctions show up in this story, but they are much more obvious in some of the other stories in ”The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” collection - e.g. in the stories of The Noble Bachelor, the Beryl Coronet or A scandal in Bohemia. What do these stories reveal about class distinctions in 1880s Britain? In the behavior and attitudes of some of the characters? In the author’s mind, consciously or otherwise? Are these effects still manifest today in your place/ culture?
    All of us tend to reflect the culture of our times, for better or worse. Class distinctions certainly existed at the time and were undoubtedly in Watson's mind (that is who you meant by "author" I assume :wink: ) both consciously and unconsciously.
    (8) What is your favourite Holmes short story of those you have read ? Why?
    Oh, there are a number of ones. The suspense of "The Speckled Band" makes that a good read. I am also fond of "The Musgrave Ritual" for the puzzle, although the ending is a touch on the horrific ("The Cardboard Box" also made me shudder--far more than "Band" ever did). And I love the intrigue of "The Bruce-Partington Plans."

  • Mili wrote: »
    Before I read this story I never knew a carbuncle could be a gem. I had a vague idea it was something like a wart or papilloma on the foot which makes it hard for me to imagine a beautiful, blue gemstone while reading the story. I had to pause to look up the definition and apparently the other definition of carbuncle is a type of boil or abscess, so that meaning must have stuck in my head from reading it somewhere else. Carbuncle stones are actually red. I wonder why Conan Doyle decided to make this one blue or to call it a blue carbuncle rather than a sapphire?

    FYI, I attended a talk on Yorkshire dialect which mentioned that the gem definition of 'carbuncle' came first, as you say, a red gem and that the ailment came from that. A sore that was swollen and red. In the parish records there was a girl named 'Carbuncle', presumably the equivalent of naming your child 'Ruby' in the present day.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    Thanks for the information. How interesting! Poor Carbuncle to have her name change meaning in such a way if it was in her lifetime!
  • Tukai wrote: »
    Goose was clearly the standard for Christmas dinner in 1880s London. [EDIT] Did you notice how many newspapers were available for Holmes to place advertisement in?
    I pulled out my copy of the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (Klinger, ed.) which informs me that most families in the 1880s celebrated Christmas with a roast goose, but by the end of the century there was an increasing preference for turkey.

    In terms of newspapers, in 1887, London had six evening papers and eleven morning papers. Holmes reeled off seven names, which included all six evening papers and "The Star" which began publishing in 1888. "The Blue Carbuncle" story was published in the January 1892 edition of The Strand Magazine. Thus, it seems that Watson wrote this story up pretty quickly after it happened!

  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    edited December 2020
    I watched the Jeremy Brett TV version of the other week and re-read the story a few days ago. Interesting to compare the two. The TV programme fleshed out the backstory of the unfortunate Horner, whose wife still loved him despite the accusation of theft. Otherwise kept pretty much to the story as on the page. It also managed to be pretty atmospheric, the scene in Covent Garden market was really well done.
    The whole thing with the hat is interesting. I find the deduction about no gas and even the wife ceasing to love him logical, but not the deduction about the man's intelligence based on the size of the hat.
    As for the goose. I've only had goose once and that was a Christmas in Austria getting on for forty years ago. I liked it then, but having been a vegetarian for over thirty years not something I'm likely to ever try again. The whole dropping the goose reminds me of the story my mother told about her dad. He was in his fifties when she was born in 1928 and worked as a commissionaire up in London. One Christmas Eve, in I guess the early 1930s he was going home to Southend with the Christmas turkey when he stopped for a drink or two. I think he managed to get back as far as Southend or maybe somewhere along that line by train, but was very much the worse for wear. Someone tied the turkey to his arm and put him in a cab home. My grandmother took it all in her stride, but then she was used to his eccentricities, such as deciding a horse was lonely and trying to bring it to a party.
    I'm not sure if Holmes acted rightly or not. Ryder was such an abject sorry specimen in the TV adaptation I can imagine letting him off, though I hope Holmes would do something towards ensuring that Horner didn't lose his job over what happened.
    I'll come back to some of the other questions later, but I once saw a cracking stage production of A Study in Scarlet with a very young Homes and Watson.
  • I'm not sure whether I’ve ever had goose at a Western dinner table, but it’s a specialty of a well-known restaurant in Hong Kong. Made very much like BBQ roasted duck, if that helps. When I was there in 2001 there was a bird flu outbreak and one could only get frozen birds flown in from elsewhere. They refused to compromise so we had to settle for variations on BBQ pork.

    I’m not sure how realistic the ending is - part of me wants to say that the crime and the way it was committed are at odds with Holmes’s conclusion that Ryder was the kind of person who would be deterred from ever committing another crime by the mere fact of getting caught.
  • HedgehogHedgehog Shipmate
    edited December 2020
    Sarasa wrote: »
    The whole thing with the hat is interesting. I find the deduction about no gas and even the wife ceasing to love him logical, but not the deduction about the man's intelligence based on the size of the hat.
    Yes, the conclusion that a big head means high intelligence is of doubtful reliability. If I recall correctly, though, it was a popular belief in Victorian times.

    It is interesting to see how actors handle that particular deduction in film or audio versions. I heard Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce do a radio version of "The Blue Carbuncle" and Rathbone, when giving the "hat size measures intelligence" deduction, manages to say it so flippantly that he conveyed the impression that it was meant as a joke and not to be taken seriously.

    But it wouldn't be the first time that Holmes made a blunder in a deduction. Was it "The Copper Beeches" where he deduced that the ladder outside a house was evidence that the homeowner was kidnapping the woman in the room? Apparently it didn't occur to Holmes that, if the homeowner wanted to spirit the woman away, all he had to do was go up the stairs....

  • MiliMili Shipmate






    (2) Goose was clearly the standard for Christmas dinner in 1880s London. Have you eaten goose? What is now the favoured meal for Christmas in your place/ culture? . Has it changed over time?

    I have never eaten goose. In Australia they are not a popular food, though more popular for people of Eastern or Southern European heritage. My friend whose dad was Serbian and mum was Croatian once had a family goose that they raised and ate. But they become very tame and pet-like before being eaten, so people who have not grown up with that tradition would not be able to go through with it, even though a lot of us eat poultry killed by others! One of my neighbours had a goose in their front yard for a while a couple of years ago that acted as a guard goose, honking at everyone who walked past. It wasn't there long so I think it might have met the same fate as my friend's goose.

    (4) What sign tells Holmes that “this man’s wife has ceased to love him”? Do you think a present of a goose would convince her to take a more charitable view of her husband? How about Horner’s wife - do you think she still loves her husband, accused criminal though he is, and with some past “form” to go with it?

    Holme's wife was probably glad to get the replacement goose, but I don't think it would be enough to fix their marriage problems. Who knows how he treated her when he had drunk too much.

    I didn't remember that Horner had a wife. I guess it depends if she was involved in his criminal enterprises or if she married him thinking he was an honest man and was ashamed of his crimes.

    (5) How does Holmes manifest the spirit of Christmas in this story? Do you think he acted rightly in this instance?

    I felt really sorry for Horner, especially as the blue carbuncle had an almost cursed quality in the people it had tempted to their doom. Holmes is supposed to have a genius for working people out, much like Poirot and Marple so I trust that he is accurate in his assessment of Horner.

    (6) Did you notice how many newspapers were available for Holmes to place advertisement in? What media might a present-day Holmes equivalent use for a similar purpose?

    Holmes would be posting on Facebook groups today and maybe other types of social media.

    (8) What is your favourite Holmes short story of those you have read ? Why?

    I have read quite a few Holmes stories over the years, but not recently. I enjoyed reading them, but none have stuck in my mind and I haven't watched any of the modern movies or T.V. series based on the stories. I prefer Agatha Christie stories and will read, listen or watch adaptions of her stories multiple times over the years.
  • TukaiTukai Shipmate
    Looking back, this story attracted quite a few readers and re-readers, but not much in-depth discussion.(*) Suggesting a cheerful and easy (and short) Christmas read was the object of this choice, so I think we have achieved that. Thanks to you all. Now for 2021.

    (*) My wife has suggested that the relative lack of discussion of the questions I set is either (1) because (even as a retired teacher) I am no good at setting questions, or (2) perhaps because The Blue Carbuncle is "only" a short story without a lot of depth.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Not sure why we didn't get quite as much discussion as we did for Mansfield Park. I thought it was a great choice, and I certainly enjoyed re-reading it and re-watching Jeremy Brett.
    I've read all the Holmes stories at least once, including the ephemera. Not sure which one is my favourite, maybeThe Red Headed League or The Six Napoleons. I also like The Norwood Builder mainly because I used to live in South Norwood as did Conan Doyle. There is a plaque on the house where he used to live, a quite large, but not remarkable late Victorian villa. There is also a foundation stone inscribed with Doyle's name on the Spiritualist church round the corner from me.
    The most intriguing story, I think, is The Adventure of the Yellow Face. It's set in Norbury, which ahs changed a lot since Doyle's day, which is one point of interest, but mainly because of the insight it gives into late Victorian ideas about race. Holmes also gets the solution wrong.
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