Sherlock Holmes: The Man with the Twisted Lip

Spoiler alert: We usually try not to give away the plots of the stories we look at, but it’s next to impossible not to with Sherlock Holmes’ short stories. I suspect most of you will have read the story. 

The Man with the Twisted Lip is one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes stories. It has a very vivid London setting and lots of those elements that plunge you back into the Victorian world of Holmes and Watson – menacing alleys, disguises, the sinister banks of the River Thames, Opium Dens etc.Twis-05.jpg

Holmes and Watson are at their best too, though I always believe the great detective is having a bit of an off day in his field of expertise, given how long it takes him to work out the only obvious solution to the puzzle – that Neville St Clair is the beggar Hugh Boone.

Who cares? Just to plunge into the murky world of Victorian London in the company of Holmes and Watson is enough for me. There is the added bonus that you get a glimpse of Watson’s home life in the company of the first Mrs Watson, though – like everyone – I’m puzzled that she calls her husband James instead of John at one point. You might like to comment your thoughts on that – whole essays have been written on what most suspect is an authorial slip.

Doyle wrote these stories for the Strand at a fair speed and such slips are not uncommon when a deadline is looming.

There is a worse slip elsewhere in the story. When Holmes and Watson visit the Kent home of Mrs St Clair, she asks that the detective tells her the worst – “I am not hysterical or given to fainting”, she says. But earlier in the tale, she has told Holmes that she fainted on  seeing blood on the window of the opium den in Upper Swandam Lane.

The Man with the Twisted Lip is one of the earliest of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, first published in The Strand magazine in December 1891. It was Doyle’s sixteenth favourite of his personal top nineteen Holmes stories. Interesting too, that it doesn’t actually feature a crime, though I suspect in reality, Hugh Boone and his alias might have been prosecuted for wasting police time and probably for begging as well.

The opium den and Upper Swandam Lane are wonderfully drawn. I once spent a happy morning in London seeking the location from the geographical details given by Doyle. Of course there’s nothing resembling the place in existence now, though not far away is a set of steps set in Victorian or earlier London Brick leading down to the swirling waters of the Thames. On finding them, my imagination swirled as much as the river.

At some point, every Victorian crime novel series should feature an opium den, and Doyle’s is one of the best in literature, menacing but quite accurate. There are, going off at a tangent, a couple of other good ones in literature. Sax Rohmer gives us a glorious one in The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu, and Charles Dickens opens The Mystery of Edwin Drood in just such a place. Opium was legal at the time – in fact the British Empire and its entrepreneurs made a fortune and fought a couple of wars out of the trade. Opium dens, which were often a front for other crimes, were perfectly lawful as well.

I like Doyle’s description of Upper Swandam Lane as a ‘vile alley’: so much atmosphere in two words. I confess to borrowing them to describe an alley in my own recent Victorian crime novel Deadly Quest. I put in an opium den for good measure as well!

Neville St Clair as Hugh Boone is not the only disguised person in the story. Holmes makes his first appearance in the Bar of Gold opium den as an addict, though he swears to Watson that he didn’t actually participate – hard though surely not to inhale in such a place.

London itself becomes almost a character in the story, the streets and alleys around the north side of the Thames vividly drawn. All the more remarkable when you recall that Doyle was a relative newcomer to the city when he penned these early Sherlock Holmes stories.

There was a silent film version of The Man with the Twisted Lip as early as 1921. More recent television versions include the BBC Douglas Wilmer version of 1964 – I almost certainly saw that as a child, as I was a fan, but I remember nothing about it.

More recently there was a very good adaptation in the Granada Television series The Return of Sherlock Holmes, with Jeremy Brett as Holmes and Clive Francis (best known as Francis Poldark in the first and superior version of Poldark) as Neville St Clair/Hugh Boone.

The latter is a superb version, even if Mrs Watson was written out of the programme concept. Upper Swandam Lane is vividly depicted, as is the Bar of Gold opium den. The casting of the small parts is very well done and Alan Plater’s script gets a real feeling for the original story.

Clive Francis makes a splendid Hugh Boone, throwing out his beggar’s repartee at the police and showing the charm that made him such a successful beggar. His quotations from Shakespeare and other poets seem so integral that I’d forgotten that they’re not actually part of Boone’s repertoire in the story. I believe the idea of having Boone acquainted with literature in this way was first trialled in the Douglas Wilmer version.

The transformation of Boone into St Clair is done to great effect. The urbane and civilised St Clair in the interview with Holmes and the Bow Street police which follows, demonstrates the considerable range of Clive Francis’ acting ability – a masterful performance.

A great Sherlock Holmes story – one I never tire of reading. A masterpiece of short story writing.

 

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