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Tuesday 4/28/20

Arthur Conan Doyle rated "The Five Orange Pips" as one of the best Sherlock Holmes stories that he wrote. The plot is simple. A man in his early twenties named John Openshaw arrives at 221B on a fall evening with a gale blowing. He's looking for help. His uncle has died mysteriously, and his father, too, after both received letters in the mail containing five pips from an orange, with instructions to put various papers out where they can be collected--on a sundial by the woods, as it were. The uncle had lived in the American south and traded guns and slaves, returning to England after the Civil War. Openshaw lived with him for a while as a boy, because the uncle wanted the young man to be his heir and to show him how to run an estate first. With his uncle and father dead, Openshaw receives the same letter in the mail with the pips and the instructions. He doesn't have any idea what these papers are. The initials KKK are on the letter. Someone who had been a client of Holmes recommends the detective, so Openshaw seeks him out. Holmes understands that the Klan is behind what is happening, as the uncle must have had some compromising documents, presumably because he was a member of the group himself. The Klan people assume that the papers are somewhere in the Openshaw family. Holmes advises Openshaw to write a note, being as clear as possible, that he has no papers, and to leave this note on the sundial and maybe that will spare his life. With that, Openshaw departs.

Watson is reading a book of nautical fiction by Clark Russell (which I actually have) when the story starts, and Holmes is organizing some folders. It's two buddies hanging out, not talking. Doing their thing in the same space. The rain is pounding, which Watson likes, because the water against the window makes him think of the swash in the Russell novel, enhancing his enjoyment. When the bell rings, Watson says to Holmes that maybe it's a friend of his, to which Holmes replies that he doesn't have any other friends save for Watson. He says it matter-of-factly. Just a telling little thing. It's neither sad nor not sound--simply the truth. The bell-ringer is Openshaw, who comes in, is told to sit by the fire and given some brandy, and he tells his family story, taking his time--or being thorough, anyway.

And these three guys all have this connection. There's nothing like what occurs with this client in the rest of the Holmes canon. People like each other, what have you, but right away these three men become tight. You can just tell. Openshaw is really smart, he has tact, he's a very sincere young man. It's so homey. The rain outside, the friends within. When he has finished his account and Holmes tells him what to do and waste no time doing it, Openshaw leaves. Back into the rain. Holmes is going to do some legwork to figure out exactly what's going on and who is sending these letters, and they'll meet up the next day. Then Openshaw is killed. Just like that. On his way back to his come in the country. In a deserted, dark, rainy London. Like ten minutes after being by the fire. It happens so fast. Everything in the story. The bonding. Which is totally believable. Then he dies. Completely innocent guy, great guy.

There's a radio adaptation from the 1990s and I can listen to that first part--the comfy fireside portion--over and over again. Conan Doyle didn't do this kind of thing anywhere else. There's no death quite like it in the canon. Yes, there are painful deaths. Watson loses a wife, for instance. But nothing that features the cold hand of fate, or the caprices of the universe, like this. Shows you how fast things can change. I try to look at it as a lesson in how fast things can change not just in a bad way, but a good way. I invert it, I guess, you could say, to have it resonate with how I am hoping my life will turn. While using it to keep me mindful to be prepared, to take care, to make sure to try and be safe and strong and healthy in the meanwhile, because you don't know.

In terms of the ruthlessness of fate--or whatever term you'd like to use--it's suggestive of 1942's The Mummy's Tomb, a sequel to 1940's The Mummy's Hand. The latter film featured two garrulous, likable buddies as the heroes. With the sequel, it's thirty years later, they're these sweet avuncular types, and the mummy shows up in their homes and kills both of them. And it's like...WTF. Shocking. That didn't happen. These were supposed to be fun pictures. Scary, yes, but super likable heroes weren't supposed to appear, briefly, in a follow-up film to be bumped off right away. Plot-wise, it's maybe the most shocking turn in the entire history of Universal horror. I think this was only able to go down because the studio wasn't paying that much attention to its monster films by this point. They wanted them to make some money, but they weren't vetted as they had been the previous decade with the Karloff Frankenstein films, say. So somebody pushed an envelope.


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