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Monday
Aug292016

The Devil's Foot

Many moons ago, while leisurely sifting through tome after tome at a beautiful foreign language bookstore, I happened to meet a young man who taught this now-extinct language at a nearby university. That Cornish would be at all offered did not surprise as much as the fact that its enrolment was greater than that of Danish – and I think we’ll all get hungry if I keep talking in this vein. The last native speaker of Cornish, he informed me, died in approximately 1937 (a search online will yield dates going back to 1890), but was cajoled into recording numerous tapes for posterity. More lonely a task I could not imagine. In any case, there has been more than a bit of interest in preserving the rudiments of Cornish, even if conversation will be necessarily limited to prattling about everyday subjects with other enthusiasts. Whatever the case, the preservation of ancient languages is always a noble deed, especially if its original speakers are, as the hero of this tale suggests, descended from one of the oldest languages of the Ancient World.

Holmes, we are told, is in particularly bad physical condition owing to his usual schedule of nonstop work and ordered to convalesce as far away from London as he might hope to venture in his state. The selection falls to this beautiful region, at the time one of the more mysterious in Britain. Holmes’s philological interests in the roots of the language are quickly shelved for a rather fabulous crime: round a card table three siblings, Owen, George, and Brenda Tregennis, are found one early spring morning (seventy-eight years exactly before my first morning) in various stages of hallucinatory angst. While Owen and George are now stark raving mad, soon to be deposed in the local sanatorium, Brenda did not survive the night. The first person to report this tragedy was allegedly the last person to have seen them alive and well, their brother Mortimer. Mortimer is the only one of the four not to reside in the grand villa with his siblings, electing or being obliged to keep house with the local vicar. When questioned about the implication of such a divide, he admits to Holmes:

The matter is past and done with. We were a company of tin-miners in Redruth, but we sold out our venture to a company, and so retired with enough to keep us. I won’t deny that there was some feeling about the division of the money and it stood between us for a time, but it was all forgiven and forgotten, and we were the best of friends together.

He left them all “without any premonition of evil,” although George did espy someone or something jouncing about the window in the middle of the relentless storm. That is a lead that the Londoners decide to follow, which brings them to another character of an era long gone, the great lion-hunter and explorer Dr. Leon Sterndale.

I’m afraid I should not reveal more than this. In my long consideration of the Holmes tales, The Devil’s Foot has almost always been one of the finest, and its screen version is no less sensational. The tale itself was likely based on this fantastic event, never resolved to anyone's satisfaction, and so odd as to have inspired even in our most skeptical times a recent film (whose plain plot and macabre violence exclude it from these pages). And if you understood the reference in the title to begin with, a reference that practically no one would have seized upon in 1910, you might find the exercise a bit tepid. There is also one other major, gaping flaw in this story that often cannot be amended because of its length: a paucity of suspects. Should you be accustomed to a Poirotian sleuth walking into a parlor full of equally indignant personages, explaining the crime down to the minutest detail as if he had been there himself, and then asking the perpetrator sitting quietly through the exposé whether he has left anything out, some of Conan Doyle’s dénouements will seem less elegant, but they are no less enticing, nor the solutions less ingenious.  Nor is the evil perpetrated by evil any less terrifying.   

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