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Friday
Jan252008

Silver Blaze

Although this marvelous story derives its name from this lordly animal set to race in this region of England, its most famous line involves another four-legged friend who "did nothing in the night–time."  My edition boasts that this line is the source of the expression, "the dog that didn't bark."  If this is truly the origin (I will not even dignify it with a search, either online or off), then the future of mankind is indeed in troubled hands.  It would be hard to believe that, after thousands of years of cohabitation, we would need an emaciated and neurotic sleuth to tell us that there is something amiss about a guard dog who chooses not to fulfill his duties.  Wait until someone publishes a story featuring a cat who doesn't sleep (again no search, this cat must be out there somewhere) and decides to watch over its owner, and we may coin an even more telling idiom about human nature.  In Silver Blaze, a beautiful silvery steed from this legendary British stock is missing and its trainer John Straker is dead.  Since the horse can rightly be viewed as a sort of piggy bank – or as we say in our waggish slang, a cash cow – it seems logical to assume that the horse has vanished for the sake of the money that will be earned betting against it. 

This gambit has long since been one of the favorites of sports stories: it is just before the biggest competition of the horse's or athlete's career that the prize participant either gets injured or disappears without too much of a trace.  The team or trainer cannot believe the poor timing with which all this has occurred (although, if you're a betting man, this is the only time for this type of thing to occur; we are witnessing this even now before the largest American sports event of the year), and panic and goldfeverish speculation set in.  The investigation, narrated by the faithful and jubilant Dr. Watson (one of the steadiest and most optimistic narrators in literary history), has all the usual components for a great Holmesian tale.  There is the unique locale, either Victorian or early Edwardian London or one of England’s innumerable moors, tors, or hamlets; the somewhat overtasked police force; a handful of potential culprits who all immediately respect or fear the legendary detective; and the impossible crime itself, which in this case begets one of Holmes’s more ingenious solutions.  Apart from the missing horse, the dead trainer, a band of gypsies, a rival stable, a curious late–night visit, some curried mutton, and a set of diverging tracks, the clues are more than peculiar: a box of matches, two inches of a tallow candle, a brier–root pipe, a pouch of sealskin with that particular cut of tobacco called Cavendish, a silver watch with a gold chain, a fistful of dollars (that is to say, these products from the Royal Mint), an aluminum pencil case, a few papers, and a small, delicate knife with an ivory handle.  “A very singular knife,” remarks Holmes.  His medical companion agrees: apparently, such knives are only used for the finest of surgical incisions.  But such a knife could not possibly have been employed as a murder weapon, since Straker was bludgeoned by nothing less than a large blunt object. 

Unlike other adventures in which Holmes abandons Watson for a few pages to gather data or question informants offstage, very little detail is not made available to the reader.  Holmes’s people skills, which he can turn on and off like electric current, are displayed in their fullest form, and his charm and patience have never proven to be more effective.  And there is also that now–immortal dog who decides not to bark on the night of the murder, even though we suspect he might have every motivation to do so.  Had he barked, of course, we would hardly know of him now.  Yet perhaps one day we will instead remember Silver Blaze for Holmes’s revelatory statement that it was, “in the carriage, just as we reached the trainer’s house, that the immense significance of the curried mutton occurred to me.”  Surely, we think, there must be some aspect of human nature that can be embodied by the spiced meat from two-year-old ewes.

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