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Written by Timothy Sexton
The Dancing Men
“The Dancing Men” is a tragedy stoked in the fires of irony in which one woman’s actions intended to prevent consequences instead becomes a primary contributing factor. While it is the Chicago gangsters whom Elsie Cubitt fears as a threat to her marriage and husband who do actually act upon that threat, it is Cubitt’s lies and deceptions that work to put her husband directly in the line of the bullet. Cubitt’s intentions are not malevolent; she believes she has broken away from her past and will not be tracked down. Fully confident that whatever dark untold associations she may have experienced in the past will not sully his glowing reputation, Elsie’s husband makes a pact to never ask for details. This pact should have been broken immediately when the chalked code of “dancing men” began showing up, but instead Elsie remains committed to keeping it secret, thus fomenting suspicion within her husband that awakens jealousy. And it is jealousy that drives him toward the ironic fatal encounter with a bullet that likely could have been effective stopped beforehand merely by bringing his wife with him when he first met with Holmes.
The Priory School
A rather ugly sort of irony intrudes the legal, ethical, familial and class-conscious intricacies driving the mysterious goings-on in “The Priory School.” When Holmes eventually works his way through the labyrinthine trail, it leads directly to one of the most ambiguous centers of any Holmes adventure. A distant father pitted between the rights of a legitimate younger son and a vengeful older illegitimate son seeking his due a member of England’s titled nobility whose actions stimulate a more than deserving outburst from Holmes: “To humor your guilty elder son, you have exposed your innocent younger son to imminent and unnecessary danger.” The irony is that in addition to taking this high moral ground, Holmes also takes a bribe from the very same individual in order to keep the details from becoming public and sullying his name and his family’s reputation.
The Second Stain
“It’s lucky for you, my man, that nothing is missing, or you would find yourself in Queer Street,” Inspector Lestrade warns a young constable who admits to allowing a young woman into a home he was supposed to be guarding against all entry earlier. This is an example of pure dramatic irony. The reader has enough information to guess the identity of the woman who managed to charm her way past the constable and, more importantly, the reader also knows that Holmes and Watson had just themselves been inside the house expecting to find evidence hidden in some secret compartment beneath a rug only to be meet with stunned disappointment that while the compartment is there, it is empty. So, Lestrade’s words become ironic to the reader who knows that the constable’s luck is utterly beside the point because even though he doesn’t know it, something actually is missing.
Holmes the Lawbreaker
In a number of the stories in this collection, the great detective who has committed himself to maintaining law and order by solving crimes to mete out official justice behaves in just the opposite fashion in order to mete out person justice. This ironic inversion of the expected behavior of Holmes has already been mentioned in the case of his acceptance of a doubling of his expected payment as an unofficial but clearly evident bribe. In “The Abbey Grange” he makes a deal with the man he knows should by all rights at least face trial despite the evidence pointing clearly to self-defense to go free on condition that no innocent person is ever charged with the crime in the interim. The most ironic moment in the entire Holmes canon, however, probably occurs when Holmes and Watson—hiding in the shadows—watch as the “master blackmailer” is cold-bloodedly shot to death by one his victims and allowed to go free without knowledge of her crime being witnessed. The two then conspire to burn all the blackmailer’s paperwork and lie to the police about their whereabouts at the time of the murder. The weight of irony in the latter story depends heavily on the reader’s conception of the difference between what is the law and what is justice.
The Norwood Builder
“The Norwood Builder” is a classic example of detective story irony in which that knowledge which criminal depended upon as the foundation for carrying out his deeds without detection turns out to be the very thing that leads to his undoing. This is yet another story with an intricately knitted revenge plot in which all the clues seem to lead beyond a doubt to the very client whose innocence Holmes is charged with proving. There is even a fingerprint of his client found in the home of the victim—a man found burned almost to a cancer—incriminating evidence proving he was inside that home. But Holmes knows something the police do not: the fingerprint had not been there when he inspected the home between the murder and the print’s discovery. Jonas Oldacre unwittingly takes a step too far in trying to make the evidence against his victim overwhelmingly based upon the confidence that everyone thinks he is dead and therefore not suspicious at all that he might be actually hiding right a secret room he built into the home. The discovery of the fingerprint that was that was not before is the stimulus Holmes requires to examine more closely the architecture of this builder’s home and it is the architectural inconsistencies required to carry out the criminal’s plan that leads to his literally being “sniffed out” by the clever Holmes.
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