56 Stories in 56 days – The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot

It’s 1897, Holmes is exhausted again and goes off to Cornwall for a rest, but, coincidently, a double murder ends up occurring in the vicinity, writes Charlotte Anne Walters.

People of Victorian England beware – if Sherlock Holmes comes to stay in your area, trouble won’t be far behind him.  Holmes must be the unluckiest person in history when it comes to holidays as yet again a break is interrupted by tragedy. But this is certainly a queer one.

With the help of an early start I was able to read the story and make some notes before starting work and intended to type things up on the train traveling home, as I had other commitments this evening.  Well, the train was absolutely packed, people jammed into every corner and no chance of even a seat, let alone a table.  I ended up having to sit on the dirty floor with people standing all around me and type with the laptop balanced precariously on my knee.  Someone trod on my foot and another thrust their bag in my face – suffice to say I was pretty grumpy but did manage to type this up and load it onto my site at the usual time.  Holmes and Watson didn’t have to contend with all this on the steam trains of Victorian London did they? And I bet the trains were never late either…

Anyway, back to the story. A local man is apparently devastated and mystified when his sister dies and his two brothers are driven insane by a sudden, unknown horror.  Then we have a distant relative from overseas (Yes, I know, yet another culprit from distant shores) who turns up acting very suspiciously.  The local man is also murdered mid-investigation prompting Holmes to test out his theory on both himself and poor, loyal Watson.

Holmes suspects that an air-born poison is responsible for what has happened after finding traces of it around a lamp which had been used as a combustion device. Things then take on an unexpected turn when he sits with Watson in a room, lights the lamp and lays the powder upon it.  Watson is given the option to back out of this risky experiment but stands fast and Holmes affectionately sates – ‘I thought I knew my Watson’.  Dangerous mental terror grips them both as poison fills the room and it is Watson, sitting furthest from the lamp, who grabs Holmes, drags him free and out into the fresh air before it is too late.

Whilst lying on the grass, Holmes makes a very heartfelt apology to Watson for what he has just put him through causing Watson to remark that he had never seen so much of Holmes’ heart before.  What a lovely line, and a reminder that a great heart really does beat within the reasoned and clinical exterior. In response to this apology, Watson replies – ‘It is my greatest joy and privilege to help you.’  Gosh, not sure if I could be quite that forgiving myself.

The story contains one of my favourite exchanges:

“I followed you,”

“I saw no one,”

“That is what you may expect to see when I follow you.”

There is also a less-famous but very significant line in this tale which I think explains so much about Holmes mental processes – ‘To let the brain work without sufficient material is like racing an engine. It racks itself to pieces’.

This is it; this is the truth about Sherlock Holmes to me.  He uses work not to stimulate his great brain, but to channel it, control it. Without work his mind races away full of compulsions and overwhelming ideas, a torrent of mental processes. He uses drugs and music not to stimulate but to subdue. And when he has nothing professional to focus on, he has to have something to distract and control this flood of mental activity so conducts intense studies into things like music of the middle-ages or chemical experiments. It’s not that he wants to keep his brain active, more that it overwhelms him without an outlet, a pressure-valve.

Holmes admits he has never loved in this story. I have always found this somewhat unrealistic – a man of that age who has never experienced love. But I suppose we have to take it as true considering that he tells us so himself.  Or does he have secrets which he wants to keep hidden?

Yet again, Holmes lets the culprit escape justice even though a murder has been committed. He listens to the man’s story and decides that his actions were justified.

I’m not terribly taken with the story itself but it certainly is a revealing one, packed full of insight into the character of Sherlock Holmes – therefore I have to give it 8 out of 10.

* Agree with me? Post your own review using the comment section below.

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About barefootonbakerstreet

Author from Shropshire
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6 Responses to 56 Stories in 56 days – The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot

  1. Ali says:

    what about Irene Adler ?
    I think he was somehow attracted to her , but what kind of attraction ?

  2. Frankly, I think he just wanted a momento and that was what was available.

  3. For a variety of reasons, DEVI is probably my favorite Holmes story. I won’t dispute your 8 out of 10 ranking (obviously I would give it an 11) but I would argue that the structure of the narrative, the moral quandaries, the decisive insights in Holmes’ character, the racing engine metaphor (and your ‘subdue’ theory which you used to excellent effect in ‘Barefoot on Baker Street’ when Holmes admits as much), the choice line about what to expect when Holmes follows you, Holmes bearing his emotions (if only for a sentence) to Watson, and much much more make DEVI one of the most complex and exciting pieces in the canon. I’ve always been deeply interested/mystified/bemused by the very cryptic reference to Holmes and his relationship with one Dr. Moore Agar of Harley Street along with Holmes’ “occasional indiscretions” (what were they c. 1897?). And why a telegram was sent out of the blue (and on a Tuesday) from Holmes to Watson suggesting that Watson “tell them of the Cornish horror – strangest case I have handled”? Finally, the penultimate statement by Holmes that he has never loved and what this means re: his ability to empathize (so he’s not a sociopath or even a high functioning [insert pop-psych term])…. OK, I’ll stop myself here but I often imagine that DEVI is the type of story that is easy to dismiss out of hand as an average/OK story until you stop to really question certain aspects of what’s actually going on at various points, which then gives rise to deeper and deeper questions. Lastly that sounds like a horrible train ride and considerably less than ideal circumstances in which to work.

    • Yes, my train journey is a nightmare and I have to try and write on the way home from work as I have family commitments once I get home – like preparing food, washing up and spending time with my husband. But, I guess it’s all part of the challenge of the 56 in 56 adventure. Your comments about the story are excellent and you have made me re-read it in light of them. It is indeed complex and revealing and I really don’t think that Holmesian scholars talk enough about that ‘racing engine’ metaphore. I have tried to tackle Holmes’ mental processes in Barefoot but in a sensitive way which I hope I have achieved. He really is one of the most fascinating characters in English literature for me and it has been a pleasure to delve into his world during both the writing of my novel and this blogging exercise.

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