So. I griped about an episode of Sherlock two years ago, because goodness gracious me what a lousy episode that was. This past week’s episode (The Sign of Three) (whoops, I think that may auto-play, curse it) (whoops again, as it’s now week-before-last’s because it takes me so long to write these things) was not a lousy episode at all, but quite fun, other than the way that cinematographers hate YHB and my Best Reader. But Benedict Cumberbatch is extraordinary at both line delivery and a certain TV-friendly physical quirkiness; Martin Freeman is of course the most likeable man in the world; and Rupert Graves is really unfairly handsome. And much of the dialogue was good. So that’s all right, d’y’see?
So the thing I’m going to be talking about here—and full and total plot spoilers, OK?—is not intended as a criticism of the episode. It’s intended to be an observation about the genre, and a genre convention. I have talked before about the danger of reading mystery novels frontwards rather than backwards; the excellent backwards explanation for the evidence that we find becomes an utterly perplexing and implausible sequence of choices for a murderer to create that evidence. And The Sign of Three may be even worse than the one with the banker who pretends to be a dentist and then leaves a loaded gun in the hedge.
So. Here’s the thing forward from the (attempted) murderer’s point of view.
Jonathan Small grieves for his brother’s death in combat under the command of Major Sholto. The Major, it seems, had led a group of raw recruits into an ambush; they all died and the Major was injured, with facial scars and evident trauma. It isn’t clear whether he was invalided out, was cashiered or chose to retire; at any rate, there was a major media kerfuffle at the time, followed by death threats, after which the Major… retires to a country estate? Is he remarkably wealthy? Anyway, he becomes a paranoid recluse, rarely emerging from his undisclosed secure location in the middle of nowhere. So, when Mr. Small decides to kill Major Sholto, he has set himself a difficult task.
Step One: he finds and seduces at least five women who work for the Major or have recently worked for him. I don’t know how he finds them, but he does. He finds them and seduces them in hopes of getting information that will help him in his murder. Only, when he seduces them, he first looks in the obituaries, picks a recently deceased man, gains access to the dead man’s apartment and then picks up the woman and brings her back to that apartment to winkle her employer’s secrets out of her. Five times. With five different dead guy’s flats. Until he finds out that the Major will be leaving his secure undisclosed location to attend the wedding of John Hamish Watson. Success!
Step Two: Mr. Small spends several days observing one particular Grenadier on parade, doing so clumsily enough that the Grenadier sees a consulting detective about being stalked. Then he finds or creates or has made a very thin, strong, long knife. Long enough to puncture the internal icky stuff; strong enough to be stuck in through the high, wide, tight belt of a Grenadier’s or Fusilier’s uniform (because the point is that he wants it to work with the Major; the Grenadier is for practice) (let’s grant that Mr. Small would surmise that the Major would attend the wedding in uniform rather than in a suit, because character and so forth) and thin enough that it would not cause bleeding when the aforesaid belt was holding the torso together. I don’t happen to have such a knife around the house, but maybe it’s a thing professional photographers have? I dunno. Anyway, he then attempts to murder the perfectly innocent Guardsman for whom he has no animosity, just as practice, you know, and stabs him in front of Sherlock Holmes and John Hamish Watson, the latter of whom is the groom at that wedding we were talking about before. But why not? Because of course the blade is so good that the Grenadier barely feels it until he takes off belt, at which point he nearly bleeds to death.
Step Three: Mr. Small somehow gets the job as wedding photographer at that wedding. I think that he is referred to as the ’substitute’ photographer at some point, but I’m not absolutely certain about that. Anyway, he gets that job and then carries out his plan, stabbing the Major through the belt again, in front of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson and then continuing to photograph the wedding.
There are other plenty of other questionable plot points—the Major is a security-obsessed recluse who the would-be assassin cannot reach, but who hires a succession of people for a variety of temporary jobs around his house and grounds; the woman who leaked the wedding info was sufficiently concerned about her patient’s confidentiality to lie to the consulting detective she hired, but spilled the beans to some guy she met at a bar; the photographer, after having stabbed the Grenadier for rehearsal, carries on with his plan despite the Grenadier’s recovery. None of those plot holes (if they are holes, because arguments) are read-it-forward problems, though, as they make as much or as little sense in either direction. No, these are the ones that make sense backwards—Why were five women seduced in dead men’s apartments? To try to get information about Major Sholto out of them—but not forwards—How do I get information about Major Sholto? Pretend to be a bunch of dead guys and seduce his employees.
I do want to emphasize again that it didn’t ruin the episode for me. It was a good episode. I enjoyed it. I didn’t enjoy the Hound one, but I enjoyed this one. It’s just a thing about mysteries, is what it is.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,