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The 17 Steps: The Devil’s Foot

The 17 Steps: The Devil’s Foot

Seventeen thoughts for further ponderance of the case at hand – The Devil’s Foot (DEVI)

We ascended the stairs and viewed the body. - Illustration by Gilbert Holiday in The Strand Magazine December 1910
We ascended the stairs and viewed the body. – Illustration by Gilbert Holiday in The Strand Magazine December 1910

Watson begins this tale with: “In recording from time to time some of the curious experiences and interesting recollections which I associate with my long and intimate friendship with Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I have continually been faced by difficulties caused by his own aversion to publicity.”

Why would Holmes give Watson problems just “recording” his cases, when at times, Watson almost seemed to be recording for Holmes himself? Wouldn’t the publishing be what Holmes gave him problems with?

Did Holmes always have an aversion to publicity, or was that just something that came along after The Strand Magazine tales?

“It was indeed this attitude upon the part of my friend and certainly not any lack of interesting material which has caused me of late years to lay very few of my records before the public.”

Let’s see: four in 1903, nine in 1904, two in 1908, and then Devil’s Foot in December 1910. Holmes’s attitude doesn’t seem to give Watson problems in these “late years” until Holmes is in Sussex. Why should the detective care when he’s off in the country where no one can find him?

“I have no idea what backward sweep of memory had brought the matter fresh to his mind, or what freak had caused him to desire that I should recount it …” Watson writes.

Ah, but he’s just good old Watson. Surely the deductive powers of one of my fellow Hounds can solve the mystery of why Holmes went for DEVI in 1910. Any speculations? Why the words “Why not tell them …” like Watson will know just what “them” Holmes is speaking of after two years without publishing?

Watson gives us a mini-tale in his description of Mounts Bay, “with its fringe of black cliffs and surge-swept reefs on which innumerable seamen have met their end. With a northerly breeze it lies placid and sheltered, inviting the storm-tossed craft to tack into it for rest and protection.

“Then come the sudden swirl round of the wind, the blustering gale from the south-west, the dragging anchor, the lee shore, and the last battle in the creaming breakers. The wise mariner stands far out from that evil place.”

How does Watson know so much of the sea? Is this totally based upon reading sea stories, pub crawls with Cornwall seamen, or what?

Watson also writes of Cornwall’s “sinister atmosphere of forgotten nations.” How many nations and peoples preceded Holmes and Watson to this rocky shore? How many periods are represented in the earthworks, the burial mounds, the old world village remnants, and other stone monuments Watson writes of?

While we’ve come to think of Watson as the charming friend of friends, the Vicar Roundhay might disagree. Upon meeting him, Watson “glared at the intrusive vicar with no very friendly eyes.” This poor nervous fellow seems lucky the doctor isn’t giving him the bum’s rush. If Watson is that worried about Holmes’s health, why isn’t he discouraging the detective from an after-breakfast pipe? Or is there another reason Watson doesn’t want to see the vicar? Something against clergymen?

Murder mysteries and ghost stories love to have corpses with looks of terrible horror frozen upon their faces. But in this tale we get a new wrinkle: “the two brothers sat on each side of her laughing, shouting, and singing, the senses stricken clean out of them,” and yet they also “retained upon their faces an expression of the utmost horror–a convulsion of terror which was dreadful to look upon.”

Okay, I’m confused. How do you laugh and sing while holding a look of horror upon your face? I can’t do it. Any actors or actresses among us that can pull off such a bizarre combination?

“My elder brother George proposed a game of whist afterwards. We sat down about nine o’clock. It was a quarter-past ten when I moved to go.”

What kind of game of whist only takes an hour and a half? How many hands can four people get in? Does anyone consider this a reasonable time for playing cards or is this Holmes’s first clue that something wasn’t right with this card party?

Mortimer Tregennis asks “Something has come into that room which has dashed the light of reason from their minds. What human contrivance could do that?”

As a medical man, shouldn’t some sort of poison immediately suggest it to Dr. Watson? Does Watson downplay his own thoughts and instincts in narrating these tales to achieve the desired effects? Or was his mind that romantic?

“They are taking them to Helston,” Mortimer Tregennis says upon seeing his brothers hauled away in a black carriage.

Given the chemically induced nature of the madness involved, did Mortimer’s brothers stand any chance of one day leaving Helston? Did many people leave such Victorian asylums?

“Her dark, clear-cut face was handsome, even in death, but there still lingered upon it something of that convulsion of horror which had been her last human emotion.”

If Brenda Tregennis was dead with an expression of horror when first found in the morning, wouldn’t that expression still be on her face? Could someone have tried to rearrange her features, or might she have not been completely dead? Could a comatose Brenda have had a premature burial?

“There is a three-foot flower-border outside this window . . .”

It’s mid-March in Cornwall. How soon do we expect to see flowers in that border? While it does depend upon what kind of flowers they were, what might have been expected surrounding a Cornish villa?

“… all these were as well known in London as in Africa, and could only be associated with the tremendous personality of Dr. Leon Sterndale, the great lion-hunter and explorer.”

Lion-hunter Sterndale and tiger-hunter Sebastian Moran take us back to another time by their very presence. Both are celebrated for their adventures, and Watson knows of Sterndale long before he ever meets him. Do any of their equally celebrated contemporaries remain well known for having hunted the great felines? When did the age of big game hunting finally end?

“I was shaving at my window in the morning when I heard the rattle of hoofs …”

Watson seems to be using his window to get the best light for his morning shave. If that’s the case, why does the doctor only hit half his face in June, as he does in “Boscombe Valley Mystery”? Shaving at the window, wouldn’t you turn your head when you got ready to do the other side?

“The lamp, which was an ordinary standard, he examined with minute care, making certain measurements upon its bowl. He carefully scrutinized with his lens the talc shield which covered the top of the chimney and scraped off some ashes which adhered to its upper surface, putting some of them into an envelope, which he placed in his pocketbook.”

The ashes we come to understand as the case winds up, but what about Holmes’s measurements of the bowl? What purpose could they possibly have had, especially if the lamp was a “standard”?

“The result seems to indicate that it was so, since in the first case only the woman, who had presumably the more sensitive organism, was killed . . .”

Saying these words, Holmes soon conducts a airborne poison test upon himself and Watson. Holmes, it will be remembered, was just coming back from near-total collapse. Knowing that he’s “the more sensitive organism,” and knowing Watson would never permit him to conduct the experiment upon himself if the doctor knew, he kept his friend in the dark. Was Holmes banking on the fact that his own weakness left him much more susceptible to the poison than Watson?

Was his judgement very far off? If so, why?

“Vague shapes swirled and swam amid the dark cloud-bank, each a menace and a warning of something coming, the advent of some unspeakable dweller upon the threshold, whose very shadow would blast my soul.”

Watson’s darkest nightmare seems to be brought forth in this story, a horror he can’t define for us, except that its shadow would blast his soul with its darkness. Is it that he can’t define it, or won’t? Might he have known exactly what was on the threshold, but didn’t want to let the readers in on his private nightmare? What might Watson have feared more than anything else?

The Seventeen Steps originally appeared on the Hounds of the Internet e-list from September 2000 to October 2001 and later on the Sherlock Peoria blog.

Brad KeefauverBrad Keefauver, the 41st Garrideb, is the author of The Elementary Methods of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock and the Ladies, and The Armchair Baskerville Tour. Former publisher of The Holmes & Watson Report, The Dangling Prussian, and a whole lot of obscure, collectable little things on our boy Sherlock. Keefauver is a member of the Baker Street Irregulars and the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes.


The 17 Steps: The Engineer’s Thumb

The 17 Steps: The Engineer’s Thumb

Seventeen thoughts for further ponderance of the case at hand – The Engineer’s Thumb (ENGR) WATSON VERSUS JOURNALISM Watson writes of ENGR: “The story has, I believe, been told more than once in the newspapers, but, like all such narratives, its effect is much less striking when set forth en bloc in a single half-column… Continue Reading

The 17 Steps: The Red-Headed League

The 17 Steps: The Red-Headed League

Seventeen thoughts for further ponderance of the case at hand – The Red-Headed League (REDH) WHO GETS THE SETTEE? As Holmes interviews Jabez Wilson, Dr. Watson wanders in. The courteous pawnbroker, Wilson, half-rises. He looks at somebody with a question in his “fat-encircled eyes.” Next Holmes utters the words, “Try the settee.” In every previous… Continue Reading

The 17 Steps: The Beryl Coronet

The 17 Steps: The Beryl Coronet

Seventeen thoughts for further ponderance of the case at hand – The Beryl Coronet (BERY) THE FINE ART OF PAVEMENT-SCRAPING Watson writes: “Down the centre of Baker Street it had been ploughed into a brown crumbly band by the traffic, but at either side and on the heaped-up edges of the foot-paths it still lay… Continue Reading

The 17 Steps: The Crooked Man

The 17 Steps: The Crooked Man

Seventeen thoughts for further ponderance of the case at hand – The Crooked Man (CROO) HOLMES STOPS BY FOR AN OVERNIGHT Holmes’s overnight stay is an item that it is almost too easy to breeze over in The Crooked Man. The detective shows up on Watson’s doorstep at 11:45 at night, asks if he can… Continue Reading

The 17 Steps: The Retired Colourman

The 17 Steps: The Retired Colourman

Seventeen thoughts for further ponderance of the case at hand – The Retired Colourman (RETI) AND NOW, THE END IS NEAR . . . Sherlock Holmes begins this last tale with a sad soliloquy: “But is not all life pathetic and futile? Is not his story a microcosm of the whole? We reach. We grasp.… Continue Reading

The 17 Steps: Silver Blaze

The 17 Steps: Silver Blaze

Seventeen thoughts for further ponderance of the case at hand – Silver Blaze (SILV) HIS OWN PERSONAL CNN “Fresh editions of every paper had been sent up by our news agent,” Watson writes. We all know London had a lot of papers in those days, but did everyone have a newsagent to deal with their newsprint… Continue Reading

The 17 Steps: The Yellow Face

The 17 Steps: The Yellow Face

Seventeen thoughts for further ponderance of the case at hand – The Yellow Face (YELL)   THE STORY THAT COMES WITH A DISCLAIMER The bracketed paragraph that introduces this story is an interesting commentary on what Watson thought of this story. The good doctor had published tales of Holmes failing before now (A Scandal in Bohemia… Continue Reading

The 17 Steps: A Scandal In Bohemia

The 17 Steps: A Scandal In Bohemia

Seventeen thoughts for further ponderance of the case at hand – A Scandal In Bohemia (SCAN) THE RETURN OF DOCTOR WATSON After two novels worth of nursing his wounds, John H. Watson suddenly has a home, a wife, AND a job, all his own. But the doctor’s exact words are “I had now returned to… Continue Reading

The 17 Steps: The Dying Detective

The 17 Steps: The Dying Detective

Seventeen thoughts for further ponderance of the case at hand – The Dying Detective THE INVASION OF MRS. HUDSON’S FLAT We are given a few examples of Mrs. Hudson’s long-suffering nature in this tale, the first of which being: “Not only was her first-floor flat invaded at all hours by throngs of singular and often… Continue Reading