Earlier last month one of our founder Tuesday Night Bloggers members, Helen Szamuely died and as a tribute to her the Tuesday Night Bloggers are featuring posts this month on some of her great interests in life: Europe, History and Russia. As with last month Moira has kindly offered to collect the posts so do remember to check out her wonderful blog. Today I am looking at a short story by the Russian author Anton Chekhov, taken from the collection: Shadows of Sherlock Holmes (1998), which focuses mostly on writers from the late 19th century, whose works had been overshadowed by the more famous Sherlock Holmes.
Chekhov’s story begins with a steward fearing his employer, Mark Ivanovitch Klyauzov, has been murdered in his own bedroom; the door locked from the inside. But when the room is broken into although signs of a struggle there is no body to be seen and it seems as though the culprits must have taken the body out of the window. Nikolay Yermolatich Tchubikov, the examining magistrate and his assistant, Dyukovsky take on the case, though it seems they are far from peaceable partners, with the magistrate deprecating his assistant’s theorising of the crime scene. The key clue for Dyukovsky is the Swedish matchstick, though Tchubikov finds it too trifling an item. It remains to be seen who will crack the case…
It’s hard not to find Dykovsky, the cleverer of the two investigators, with his explanations of clues (physical and psychological), having a definite Holmesian ring to them, even if it was four years until Holmes would come into being. I loved the dynamic between Dykovsky and his employer, which at times mirrored to an extent the relationship between Blackadder and Baldrick in the first series of Blackadder. In a way you could even say the Watson and Holmes relationship has been reversed and Tchubikov is very derogatory of Dykovsky’s ideas:
‘What powers of deduction! Just look at him! He brings it all out so pat! And when will you learn not to put your theories forward?’
Equally in an odd sort of way the depiction of Dykovsky felt like a Holmes parody. Of course I know this can’t be true as this story came first, but it got me to thinking how easily we can overly attribute the establishment of certain detective fiction tropes to Doyle’s Holmes series. I’m not saying he didn’t do a lot for the genre but this story has got me thinking that conventions such as the fallible or infallible sleuth, the sleuthing duo comprising one person more intelligent than the other, and the habit of genius sleuths to deliver elaborate deductions about objects and personages, were not only already existing (as of course Poe started many of these off), but were already being parodied and played around with long before Holmes and his fictional counterparts arrived on the scene and not just in England and the USA, but much more widely as this story testifies to.
SPOILERS – In this final section I will be discussing the ending of the book. Thankfully though the story itself is only 18 pages long and relatively accessible, so if you want to read the story before reading on, it is fairly achievable.
Although a one off story I think a follow up story would have made for an amusing read, as it would be a story that rarely gets written: the next time a detective has to tackle a case having completely muffed up a previous case. From a psychological point of view I think it would be rather interesting as I can imagine such a fallible sleuth would be feeling less than confident – or perhaps, if they are sufficiently egotistical, they might be in denial about their previous failure? I’m not sure whether this angle has been fully explored in detective fiction, (but do correct me with scores of examples if I am wrong), as although Anthony Berkeley created the frequently fallible amateur sleuth, Roger Sheringham, as far as my memory serves, his failings do not seem to bother him much or affect his sleuthing career. Equally with fallible investigators such as Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym in Miss Pym Disposes (1946), no follow up cases appear as after causing a complete travesty Miss Pym runs away from a life of sleuthing, so we never get to see what would happen if she tried again.
So apologies for this rather tangential post but these were the ideas floating around my head when reading Chekhov’s story. It has quite an amusing ending so I would definitely recommend it as a quick read.