The Rabbit and the Hound

In The Norwood Builder Jonas Oldacre fakes his own death and frames the "unhappy John Hector Macfarlane" for murder.

Oldacre seems like a thoroughly unpleasant fellow. "He was a strange, little, ferret-like man, with white eyelashes," is how Macfarlane describes him. Macfarlane's mother, who once was engaged to Oldacre, gives the following description: "He was more like a malignant and cunning ape than a human being". This is the first impression Watson receives: "It was an odious face - crafty, vicious, malignant, with shifty, light-grey eyes and white eyelashes."

In his preface to my edition of The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Pan, 1979) Angus Wilson draws attention to the fact how much animal imagery there in the tales that make up this particular collection: "the world of beasts is never far away as a shadow world behind the strange or dreadful events which Holmes reduces to questions of orderly reason."

A ferret, an ape. "A little, wizened man" who darted out of his cubby-hole "like a rabbit out of its burrow."

So perhaps it's quite in order that Oldacre uses animal remains when he fakes his own death. Chicken bones? That's the way I always remember it. No. I check the story and it seems my memory is incorrect. "By the way," Holmes asks Oldacre in the end, "what was it you put into the wood-pile besides your old trousers? A dead dog, rabbits, or what?" Oldacre gives no reply. "Well, well, I dare say that a couple of rabbits would account for the blood and the charred ashes", Holmes concludes.

Still, this point has always made me wonder. Is it really viable to mistake charred rabbit bones for human remains? What medical examiner would make such a dismal error? Would Dr Watson, as a trained professional, fall for such a clumsy device? Hardly. But Watson never gets to see the remains, unless I'm much mistaken. Does Holmes see them? The story isn't entirely clear on that point.

Holmes says: "They had spent the morning raking among the ashes of the burned wood-pile and besides the charred organic remains they had secured several discoloured metal discs. I examined them with care, and there was no doubt that they were trouser buttons." So he has access to what the police found. Surely that would include a glance at the organic remains?

Now the bones are charred. Ashes really, is what Doyle writes. But is that possible? Can bones be thus annihilated in a mere wood-fire? I doubt it. It seems extremely unlikely. No, I'll venture a bold statement: It's entirely impossible.

There is absolutely no way a whole human corpse can be reduced entirely to ashes and cinder in a smallish wood-fire. The temperatures required for that are far higher. Surely Doyle as a professional medical gentleman was aware of this. Dear old Bertie Wooster is fond of quoting Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade, but unfortunately he never can remember more than "ta-dum ta-dum ta-dum - someone had blunder'd." And that someone, in this case, is Arthur Conan Doyle. He, putting it bluntly, blundered. He slipped up. He stepped into it. No two ways about it. Well, that sort of thing tends to happen when the pace one writes at is fast and furious.

The Granada television series acknowledges the problem and the script tweaks the story a bit. In the episode Oldacre lures a tramp to his house, murders him and burns his body. As the remains of the tramp are clad in Oldacre's clothes, it is naturally assumed that the dead man is Oldacre.

This is all good and well and settles the matter of the unconvincing animal remains. However. Doyle's Oldacre is clearly a timid, shifty, cunning man. A man who in cold blood frames someone and takes a sadistic pleasure from doing it. But he's a ferret, a rabbit. Not someone who would or indeed could murder a man, not with his own hands. Only cowardly by proxy. Therefore in the episode they have a big, strong and bullish Oldacre - the antithesis of Doyle's intention. It throws the whole episode off for me, as the plan is still quite clearly a timid coward's sadistic plan and therefore not at all in synch with this new he-man Oldacre.

By the way, there's a rather remarkable thing about The Norwood Builder. Doyle didn't write the story alone. This, I believe is a pretty unique occurrence in the Canon. His partner was called Fletcher Robinson, but I'm not entirely certain if Robinson ever did more than help with the plotting.

Fletcher Robinson's name is important because of another thing he did. He's the man who came up with the original idea that produced The Hound of the Baskervilles. It was originally supposed to be a collaboration between Doyle and Robinson but then somehow Holmes crept in. This is curious. Holmes was, at this point, quite dead. Doyle certainly had no intention of resurrecting him, none at all. Yet Holmes managed to worm his way into The Hound of the Baskervilles and transform the entire novel into a vehicle for himself. Now there was no turning back and it didn't take too long before the short stories started to appear once more in the Strand and Holmes was officially returned to the fold, resurrected and back in business.

When Holmes came in, Robinson was out. But how much of the story did he write? Any of it? We don't quite know. Doyle kept it pretty schtumm and Robinson himself died shortly afterwards. It surely isn't too much of a stretch to wonder if he wrote some bits of the legend of the Hound. That was after all his main contribution to Doyle - the Legend of the Hound. At least some of the plotting must have come from him. I think we may take for granted that Doyle wrote all the bits with Holmes and/or Watson in them. Or may we? What was the book to be like before Holmes stepped in? Who was to be the hero? How far did Robinson and Doyle get in their planning? They commenced the writing, that much seems certain, but how far did they in fact get? Have any parts of the book been modified and was Holmes perchance inserted into already existing scenes? I don't find it at all impossible, at least in the latter parts of the book.

Anyway, interesting fact: Fletcher Robinson was involved in the writing of two Canonical Sherlock Holmes stories. The only outsider who ever was, I believe.

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