Eley Williams included this story in her personal anthology earlier this year. It also happens to be a favourite of mine, and an apt seasonal choice, so no apologies for choosing it again. Like Eley I re-read it every year, usually on December 27th, set as it is on “the second morning after Christmas”.
A carbuncle can veer to any red gemstone, usually a ruby or garnet (and try and forget about the unglamorous medical condition of subcutaneous pus-filled boils). A blue carbuncle, doubly rare, lies at the heart of this strange tale. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The story begins with Holmes inviting Watson to speculate on the identity of the owner of a “seedy and disreputable hard-felt hat” and a plump goose, both found abandoned on a West End street corner following an altercation in the early hours of Christmas morning: “one of those whimsical little incidents which will happen when you have four million human beings all jostling each other within the space of a few square miles”. The bird has already been despatched “to fulfil the ultimate destiny of a goose” but the hat remains, an object for scrutiny and speculation.
Watson, mustering all his powers of observation, gets nowhere. Then Holmes, in a tour de force of inductive reasoning, identifies the absent owner as . . . well, I shan’t spoil the celebrated scene for those of you who don’t know it already, but needless to say the arrival of the man to collect his hat (and a replacement goose) confirms that Holmes is right in every detail.
The story expands and darkens with the sudden appearance of “a brilliantly scintillating blue stone, rather smaller than a bean in size, but of such purity and radiance that it twinkled like an electric point” – a priceless jewel found in the crop of the original goose as it was being prepared for the oven. (Conan Doyle didn’t not know, or had forgotten, that geese, unlike turkeys and chickens, do not actually possess a crop). Watson takes his cue:“Not the Countess of Morcar’s blue carbuncle!” I ejaculated. I’d love to be able to write this badly so well. Dr Watson (or, if you insist, his creator) has a keen sense of what his readers need and expect, and when best to deploy a theatrical flourish. Despite his humble expository function he is the most reliable of narrators and (more importantly) the most trustworthy. His devotion to Holmes coupled with a touching gratitude at being included in his friend’s adventures, if only as an observer and recorder, add greatly to the stories’ enduring appeal. Left to his own devices Holmes would be a cold fish; Watson has feeling enough for both of them. He is easily impressed, and constantly astonished.
The jewel has an ‘exotic’ provenance (“It was found in the banks of the [fictional] Amoy River in southern China”) and a sinister past, involving murders, “a vitriol-throwing, a suicide, and several robberies”. It’s a plot-driving Macguffin like the black statue of a bird in The Maltese Falcon, something to covet and fear.
There’s so much to enjoy and admire in this story – Holmes lounging in a purple dressing gown before a crackling fire in his untidy Baker Street quarters on a frosty morning, the windows thick with ice crystals; his uncharacteristically genial mood and Watson’s mild irritation at the aforementioned tour de force, the buttoned-up ulsters on a freezing starlit night, the exchanges with the sporting poulterer Breckinridge, the unexpectedly redemptive conclusion followed by the prospect of Mrs Hudson’s late-night woodcock supper.
One could do without the portrayal of the London proletariat as an urban bestiary – the poulterer is a ‘horsey-looking man’, the Head attendant at the Hotel Cosmopolitan “a little rat-faced fellow” – but, class condescension and snobbery aside (and Holmes is a huge snob) this is the perfect Christmas story, as rich and satisfying as a flaming plum pudding soaked in brandy.
First published in Strand Magazine in January 1892, and collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Available to read online here
Chosen by David Collard. David appears in two recent anthologies: We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Press) and Love Bites (Dostoyevsky Wannabe). You can read his full Personal Anthology and other seasonal contributions here.