Friday, January 16, 2015

Book "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

About the Book: "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" is one of the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is one of eight stories in the cycle collected as His Last Bow. Doyle ranked "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" ninth in his list of his twelve favorite Holmes stories.

About the Author: Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born on 22 May 1859 at 11 Picardy Place, Edinburgh, Scotland. From 1876 to 1881, he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, including a period working in the town of Aston (now a district of Birmingham) and in Sheffield, as well as in Shropshire at Ruyton-XI-Towns. While studying, Doyle began writing short stories. His earliest extant fiction, "The Haunted Grange of Goresthorpe", was unsuccessfully submitted to Blackwood's Magazine. His first published piece "The Mystery of Sasassa Valley", a story set in South Africa, was printed in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal on 6 September 1879. On 20 September 1879, he published his first non-fiction article, "Gelsemium as a Poison" in the British Medical Journal. In 1882 he joined former classmate George Turnavine Budd as his partner at a medical practice in Plymouth, but their relationship proved difficult, and Doyle soon left to set up an independent practice. Arriving in Portsmouth in June of that year with less than £10 (£900 today) to his name, he set up a medical practice at 1 Bush Villas in Elm Grove, Southsea. The practice was initially not very successful. While waiting for patients, Doyle again began writing stories and composed his first novels, The Mystery of Cloomber, not published until 1888, and the unfinished Narrative of John Smith, which would go unpublished until 2011. He amassed a portfolio of short stories including "The Captain of the Pole-Star" and "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement", both inspired by Doyle's time at sea, the latter of which popularized the mystery of the Mary Celeste and added fictional details such as the perfect condition of the ship (which had actually taken on water by the time it was discovered) and its boats remaining on board (the one boat was in fact missing) that have come to dominate popular accounts of the incident. Doyle struggled to find a publisher for his work. His first significant piece, A Study in Scarlet, was taken by Ward Lock Co. on 20 November 1886, giving Doyle £25 for all rights to the story. The piece appeared later that year in the Beeton's Christmas Annual and received good reviews in The Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald. The story featured the first appearance of Watson and Sherlock Holmes, partially modeled after his former university teacher Joseph Bell. Doyle wrote to him, "It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes ... Round the center of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man." Robert Louis Stevenson was able, even in faraway Samoa, to recognize the strong similarity between Joseph Bell and Sherlock Holmes: "My compliments on your very ingenious and very interesting adventures of Sherlock Holmes. ... Can this be my old friend Joe Bell?" Other authors sometimes suggest additional influences—for instance, the famous Edgar Allan Poe character C. Auguste Dupin. A sequel to A Study in Scarlet was commissioned and The Sign of the Four appeared in Lippincott's Magazine in February 1890, under agreement with the Ward Lock company. Doyle felt grievously exploited by Ward Lock as an author new to the publishing world and he left them. Short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes were published in the Strand Magazine. Doyle first began to write for the 'Strand' from his home at 2 Upper Wimpole Street, now marked by a memorial plaque. In this period, however, Holmes was not his sole subject and in 1893, he collaborated with J.M. Barrie on the libretto of Jane Annie. Doyle was found clutching his chest in the hall of Windlesham Manor, his house in Crowborough, East Sussex, on 7 July 1930. He died of a heart attack at the age of 71. His last words were directed toward his wife: "You are wonderful." At the time of his death, there was some controversy concerning his burial place, as he was avowedly not a Christian, considering himself a Spiritualist. He was first buried on 11 July 1930 in Windlesham rose garden. He was later re-interred together with his wife in Minstead churchyard in the New Forest, Hampshire. Carved wooden tablets to his memory and to the memory of his wife are held privately and are inaccessible to the public. That inscription reads, "Blade straight / Steel true / Arthur Conan Doyle / Born May 22nd 1859 / Passed On 7th July 1930." The epitaph on his gravestone in the churchyard reads, in part: "Steel true/Blade straight/Arthur Conan Doyle/Knight/Patriot, Physician, and man of letters". Undershaw, the home near Hindhead, Haslemere, south of London, that Doyle had built and lived in between October 1897 and September 1907, was a hotel and restaurant from 1924 until 2004. It was then bought by a developer and stood empty while conservationists and Doyle fans fought to preserve it. In 2012 the High Court ruled that the redevelopment permission be quashed because proper procedure had not been followed. A statue honors Doyle at Crowborough Cross in Crowborough, where he lived for 23 years. There is also a statue of Sherlock Holmes in Picardy Place, Edinburgh, close to the house where Doyle was born.

My Review: In this story, Holmes and Dr. Watson find themselves in Cornwall one spring for the former’s health, but the holiday ends with a bizarre event. Mr. Mortimer Tregennis, a local gentleman, and Mr. Roundhay, the local vicar, come to Holmes to report that Tregennis’s two brothers have gone insane, and his sister has died. Tregennis had gone to visit them in their village (Tredannick Wollas), played whist with them, and then left. When he came back in the morning, he found them still sitting in their places at the table, the brothers, George and Owen, laughing and singing, and the sister, Brenda, dead. The housekeeper had discovered them in this state, and fainted. The vicar has not been to see them yet. Tregennis says that he remembers one brother looking through the window, and then he himself turned to see some "movement" outside. He declares that the horrific event is the work of the devil. Mortimer Tregennis was once estranged from his siblings by the matter of dividing the proceeds from the sale of the family business, but he insists that all was forgiven, although he still lives apart from them. The doctor who was summoned, reckoned that she had been dead for six hours. He also collapsed into a chair for a while after arriving.
Holmes goes to the house in question and, apparently carelessly, kicks over a watering pot, soaking everyone’s feet. The housekeeper tells Holmes that she heard nothing in the night, and that the family had been particularly happy and prosperous lately. Holmes observes the remains of a fire in the fireplace. Tregennis explains that it was a cold, damp night.
Afterwards, Holmes lays the case out to Watson thus:

  • Quite obviously, there is no point in attributing the tragedy to the Devil; therefore, what took place can only be the work of a person.
  • Whatever happened to those people happened right after Tregennis left, for they had not moved and everything was in the same place;
  • Mortimer Tregennis went swiftly back to the vicarage where he lives (a footprint sample was obtained in the watering pot “accident”);
  • The only suggestion of an explanation — the "movement" — comes from Mortimer Tregennis;
  • Given the weather, anyone appearing at the window and doing something horrifying enough to instantly kill someone would have had to come right up to the window thus trampling the flowerbed, which is still intact;
  • What on earth could this person at the window have done to cause such horror?
None of this seems to make for an elementary case, but soon, new questions are raised.
Dr. Leon Sterndale, the famous hunter and explorer, aborts his sailing from Plymouth after the vicar wired him (as the Tregennises are Sterndale cousins) with the tragic news. He asks Holmes what his suspicions are, and is displeased when Holmes will not voice them. After Stermdale leaves, Holmes follows him discreetly.
The morning after Holmes comes back to his room, apparently none the wiser for following Sterndale, the vicar arrives in a panic with the news that Mortimer Tregennis has now died in the same way as his sister. The two men, along with Watson, rush to Mortimer’s room, and find it foul and stuffy, even though the window has been opened. A lamp is burning on the table beside the dead man. Holmes rushes about, examining many things. The upstairs window seems especially interesting. He also scrapes some ashes out of the lamp, and puts them in an envelope.
Holmes deduces how the victims died or went mad and why people present when the death rooms were first opened fainted or felt unwell in each case. He tests his hypothesis by buying a lamp like the one in Tregennis’s room, lighting it, and putting some of the collected "ashes" on the smoke guard. The smoke from this powder is so potent a poison that Holmes is immediately struck down. Watson is able to resist and drags Holmes out of the room just in time.
It is clear to Holmes that Mortimer Tregennis poisoned his siblings, but who killed Mortimer?
It is Dr. Sterndale, who left physical evidence at the vicarage clearly implicating himself. Holmes confronts Sterndale, who explains that he loved Brenda for years (but had been unable to marry her because of the current marriage laws which prevented him from divorcing his wife even though she abandoned him years ago) and killed Mortimer in revenge for the cruel murder.
The poison is called Radix pedis diaboli (“Devil’s-foot root” in Latin), Sterndale collected from Africa as a curiosity. The toxic contents of the plant root are vaporized by heat and diffuse into the local atmosphere. He once explained to Mortimer what it was and what it was capable of, who then stole some to murder his siblings by throwing it on the fire just before he left. Mortimer thought Sterndale would be at sea before news reached Plymouth, but Sterndale recognized the poison’s effects from the vicar’s description of the tragedy and deduced right away what had happened.
Holmes’s sympathies in this matter lie with Sterndale, and he tells him to go back to his work in Africa.
I recommend this book to the permanent library of all readers that enjoy a well written mystery story. They will not be disappointed!

If you read this review, feel free to leave a comment!

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