Great scot, Holmes! That was meant for us.

Sun 11 Jun 2006 08:14 PM

Here is a puzzle about the interpretation of ficition. As I have discussed elsewhere, I recently discovered an oddity in the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Dancing Men. Holmes inspects the scene of the crime and finds a spent shell casing in the flower bed. "I thought so," he says. "The revolver had an ejector, and here is the third cartridge."

Revolvers, unlike semi-automatic pistols, do not eject shell casings when they fire. The ejector is a manual mechanism that is used when the revolver is emptied and reloaded; an ejector makes emptying easier, but it is of course possible to empty a revolver that does not have an ejector. So why is there a shell casing in the flower bed, and why does Holmes say that the revolver's having an ejector made a whit of difference as to whether the gunman left a shell behind?

My interpretation of this passage is that Conan Doyle either did not understand how ejectors work or made a careless mistake. Call this the Authorial Blunder interpretation. The demerit of my interpretation is that it refuses to take the story seriously as a story. When we interpret fiction, we try to figure of what sort of world the story describes. My interpretation refuses to say what sort of worlds Holmes-worlds are, because it gives an explanation in terms of facts about the author rather than facts about Holmes.

If we try to interpret the story while explaining the puzzle of the cylinder in the flower bed, what are our options? Some authors say that the gunman crouched down in the flower bed after firing the fatal shot, emptied his pistol, and reloaded. Call these Reload interpretations. These require either that the gunman was obsessive compulsive (so that he felt the need to reload even though he had five bullets left in his gun) or that he was carrying a single-shot pistol (rather than a revolver, as Holmes suggests). Moreover, Reload interpretations do not explain why Holmes' mentioning the ejector is anything but a non sequitur. The relevant thing to have said would have been: "I thought so. The gunman reloaded."

Since the Holmes stories are presented as Doctor Watson's recounting the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, we could say that Watson misreported Holmes' utterance. Call this a False Watson interpretation. According to such an interpretation, there are many different Holmes-worlds in which Holmes says something a propos of finding the cartridge; in all of them, Watson misreports Holmes' utterance as the one given in the story. This maneuver seems too slick. First, it opens the way for Holmes-worlds in which Watson makes up all the details of the stories. Second, there is no interpretive payoff. The stories are no richer if we attach an explicit "or so Watson says" to every sentence in them. Third, we are left wondering why Watson misreported Holmes' utterance. If it was a blunder on Watson's part, then False Watson is just a variant of Authorial Blunder.

There is another option: Given that Holmes said what he said and that Holmes is clever, then the revolver's having an ejector must be relevant to the cartridge's being in the flower bed. This would all make sense if revolvers kicked out spent cartridges in Holmes-worlds, much in the way that rifles and semi-automatic pistols do in the actual world. Watson would not remark on such a fact, because it would be perfectly ordinary in his world. This interpretation solves the problem at hand without any of the problems that faced Reload and False Watson. Call this the Alternate Revolvers interpretation.*

I find this final interpretation wholly unappealing. I presume that Conan Doyle intended for Holmes-worlds to be like the actual world. He meant for there to be differences, like the existence of a brilliant detective at 221B Baker Street, but he did not intend far-reaching and subtle differences like this one. If revolvers are different in Holmes-worlds, it was due to a mistake by Conan Doyle.

As such, Alternate Revolvers must agree with Authorial Blunder that Conan Doyle goofed.** Conan Doyle's goof does not make the story incoherent, and so we can still ask what Holmes-worlds must be like. Alternate Revolvers does this, plowing ahead to consider revolvers and ejectors in Holmes-worlds. Thus, it continues to take the narrative seriously as a story. Authorial Blunder refuses to do so. It uses the goof as a reason to overlook this passage when thinking what Holmes-worlds must be like. Is my resistance to Alternate Revolvers just an instance of the Problem of Imaginative Resistance?

* The Alternate Revolvers interpretation might be weakened so as to describe some Holmes-worlds. Other interpretations, like the Reload interpretations, might be true in some other Holmes-worlds.

** One might use this as part of an argument for Authorial Blunder on grounds of parsimony. If we use Ockham's razor to shave off the revolver's ejector, however, we might just as well use it to shave off the whole discussion of Holmes-worlds. In the actual world, there are just words on a page.


from: Derek

Mon 12 Jun 2006 07:15 AM

Maybe Holmes was being wry or ironic (not sure what the proper word would be.) Perhaps everyone implicitely assumed that a revolver was used, but then Holmes, who knows that revolvers don't have ejectors, states that it had one, thus implying that a revolver was not used.

Here's an example to make myself less unclear: say Holmes was investigating a princess. At one point he says, "look, the princess wore a jock strap!" Which means that the princess was actually a man.

Maybe revolver should have been in quotes to indicate the tone of voice: 'The "revolver" had an ejector.'

from: André Kesteloot

Sun 24 Jan 2010 06:48 PM

Elementary, my dear Magnus.

Cubitt told Holmes that he came to London on the occasion of the Queen's Jubilee (1887), when he met Elsie. Hence the drama took place in 1888.

The first semi-automatic pistol made its public appearance in 1894. The wicked Abe Slaney, however, a powerful member of the Chicago mob, had --with all his connections in the underworld and all the mob money behind him-- obtained an early version (we would say today, a Beta version) of the pistol.

Holmes said "the revolver had an ejector" since Holmes did not know yet the proper name for a semi-automatic pistol.

Watson mistakenly used the word "revolver" when he, afterward, transcribed his notes.