‘Playing With Fire’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

It was John Moir (the well-known senior partner of Moir, Moir, and Sanderson) who had originally turned our attention to occult subjects. He had, like many very hard and practical men of business, a mystic side to his nature, which had led him to the examination, and eventually to the acceptance, of those elusive phenomena which are grouped together with much that is foolish, and much that is fraudulent, under the common heading of spiritualism. His researches, which had begun with an open mind, ended unhappily in dogma, and he became as positive and fanatical as any other bigot. He represented in our little group the body of men who have turned these singular phenomena into a new religion.

I’m a sucker for a séance scenes. I admit it. I’ve written them as often as John Ford filmed gunfights, and this story is the culprit, I think. The theatricality of it. The absurdity of it. The deep emotion of what is at stake, contrasting with the naff nature of the human contraption purporting the deliver the miraculous. I love those contradictions. Comic, tragic, unbelievable – but at the same time aching to be believed. I saw a televised version of ‘Playing with Fire’ way back in 1967, part of the Tales of Arthur Conan Doyle series, directed by Piers Haggard and adapted by John Hawkesworth, a steady hand on the Sherlock Holmes tiller. Of course, Holmes had been the supreme rationalist, dismissing Sussex vampires and phantom hounds in his casebook. Doyle himself proved not so dismissive. He became embroiled in the Cottingly Fairies fiasco, insisting fairies really did exist, opening himself to accusations of gullibility (and worse) ever since. In the 1920s he toured the USA as an evangelist for Spiritualism, even converting his fictional character Professor Challenger, of Lost World fame, to the cause. But before that he was keenly interested in occult fiction, and it is interesting to see, given his later faith, that in this story, from 1900, he is wise enough to employ scepticism as an element. Believers and non-believers gather in an artist’s studio to sit with a medium. A spirit is contact and unearthly energy made manifest, with catastrophic and shocking results. It’s notable that Doyle, at the end of the tale, chooses to give us the opportunity to wonder if what happened was real, rather than accepting it as fact. It’s a fascinating glimpse not only into the séance room he knew so well but also into his avid interest in the hidden mysteries of science, nature and, in this case, the creative process – how the imagination, his own imagination, makes a thing, a thing in the mind’s eye, real and tangible.

First published in The Strand magazine March 1900; collected in The Conan Doyle Stories, John Murray 1929) It can be read online here

‘The Adventure Of The Blue Carbuncle’ by Arthur Conan Doyle

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.

‘The Adventure Of The Blue Carbuncle’ by Arthur Conan Doyle

“The roughs had also fled at the appearance of Peterson, so that he was left in possession of the field of battle, and also of the spoils of victory in the shape of this battered hat and a most unimpeachable Christmas goose.

Which surely he restored to their owner?”

“My dear fellow, there lies the problem.’”

This Conan Doyle story is not one of the detective’s most high-stakes adventures, but hits all the right Holmesian buttons: disguises, esoteric ‘deductions’, intrigue, put-out members of London-based aristocracy and thwarted fowl play. The relationship between arrant HoImes and his chronicler is pitched perfectly and has a real brusque sweetness, while the ‘Cuvier’s feather’-style extrapolation of details to further the plot makes this a sheer pompy, almost-pulpy joy. I read it every Christmas and use the phrase and notion of disjecta membra with horrid vigour.

First heard as part of the BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of the Sherlock Holmes canon starring Clive Merrison and John Williams, broadcast between 1989 and 1998. Originally published in the Strand Magazine, January 1892.