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Monday
Feb072011

Black Peter

It is hardly happenstance that the greatest novel ever composed takes place at sea: once upon a time most of us had some relationship to what comprises the majority of the earth's surface – but these times are gone.  The sea has been replaced with an even more mysterious place, the sky.  While our oceans at their deepest stretch to about five miles our heavens go well past our knowledge of space and time.  It is then with some nostalgia that we review old stories of sailors, squalls, and krakens in their various guises, and most conclude that this was a stage of human development best left unbelabored now that we have metallic birds roaring above us.  Beautiful at moments, loud at others, they are not nearly as enchanting as the vessels on which Melville, Poe, and Stevenson moored our imaginings.  For that reason alone is it worth casting our minds back to this fantastic tale.

The year is 1895 and the Peter in question is fifty-year-old Captain Peter Carey, "a most daring and successful seal and whale fisher."  Carey left the endless cascading foam of the white waves, the brittle patches of life beneath the surface indifferent to his hulking presence, and retired with his wife and daughter to a small place near Forest Row, in Sussex.  Here Carey found little time for anything except drink and terrorizing his family.  Inspector Hopkins, a local official, would describe Carey as such:

He has been known to drive his wife and daughter out of doors in the middle of the night and flog them through the park until the whole village outside the gates was aroused by their screams.  He was summoned once for a savage assault upon the old vicar, who had called upon him to remonstrate with him upon his conduct.  In short ... you would go far before you found a more dangerous man than Peter Carey, and I have heard that he bore the same character when he commanded his ship.  He was known in the trade as Black Peter, and the name was given him, not only on account of his swarthy features and the colour of his huge beard, but for the humours which were the terror of all around him.  I need not say that he was loathed and avoided by every one of his neighbours.

Fiends like these do not last long, at not least in fiction.  And sure enough, not four pages into the narrative, we find our captain on the wall of his small, reclusive cabin at the end of his estate, "pinned like a beetle on a card."  What kind of weapon could make this barbarian into a mere insect?  That which has slain countless other oceanic predators: the brutal thrust of an iron harpoon.  As much as his wife and daughter would have liked to provide his end – his daughter even prides herself on not mourning her father's death – there is no way on earth or beyond that they could have possibly made use of the murder weapon in the manner described.  Are we looking for a man of gargantuan strength or is the puny fellow that Holmes, Watson, and Hopkins see breaking in Carey's cabin the real perpetrator?  Our clues include a tobacco bag, a tin containing some rather eccentric documents, a drab-covered notebook with the initials J. H. N., a bottle of rum and two dirty glasses, and a filthy wealth of coincidence that all lead the investigators to employ some most unusual methods.

Holmes has a hunch that requires research only mentioned towards the end of the story, which is a typical conceit.  But the hunch is more than facile intuition or, as in some of the less endearing Holmes outings, so abstruse as to seem grounded in processes and patterns of data collection that would baffle even more devoted readers.  As good as the story is and as satisfyingly as Holmes's deductions are maintained, the premise was clearly nourished working backwards.  That is to say, Conan Doyle had an image – the same image that "gets between" the murderer and his sleep – of Black Peter impaled upon the symbol of his exploitative trade and devised a scenario of which such a murder could be a plausible result.  Perhaps if you've read Black Peter as many times as I have, you begin seeing the cracks, retracing the story's development, and contemplating the details that are ostensibly far less important than the underlying moral fabric.  Holmes himself has been on a streak of unusual cases, and his motives have been as noble as the weirdness in his work:

So unworldly was he or so capricious that he frequently refused his help to the powerful and wealthy where the problem made no appeal to his sympathies, while he would devote weeks of most intense application to the affairs of some humble client whose case presented those strange and dramatic qualities which appealed to his imagination and challenged his ingenuity.

As is often pointed out by Holmesians, our detective never really accepts any monetary compensation for his work (with the exception of one story previously reviewed on these pages, which for the time being shall remain nameless), so his militant hatred for the whining of the rich and privileged is hardly surprising.  Thankfully, Holmes is neither uppity nor squeamish enough to help with the most macabre of investigations and expect nothing more than sustained praise of his genius.  Too bad Black Peter simply liked to get paid.

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