Posted in Reading, Teaching, Theatre

ENG 242: Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of May the Fourth

What links English 242 to the British actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller? The answer is three characters, two that we reflected on when we moved online in March and a third that’s the focus for the final week of the course, which begins today.

Both Cumberbatch and Miller have played the role of Sherlock Holmes; Cumberbatch portrayed him in the BBC series Sherlock (2010-17), set in present-day London, and Miller played him in the CBS series Elementary, which transformed the Scotland Yard detective into an investigator in present-day New York City. In between the launches of those two series, Cumberbatch and Miller performed together in the Royal National Theatre production of Frankenstein (2011). The two actors alternated the roles of Victor and the Creature and shared the Olivier Award (the equivalent of Broadway’s Tony) for their performances. The pairs of photographs that follow feature Cumberbatch and Miller as Holmes and in their dual roles in Frankenstein.

Top: (L-R) Cumberbatch and Miller as Sherlock Holmes / CBS, BBC; Bottom: Trading the roles of Victor and the Creature in Frankenstein / Royal National Theatre

Playwright Nick Dear‘s Frankenstein and the series Sherlock and Elementary are but three of the many adaptations that attest to the enduring appeal of the narratives that bookend our semester. The popularity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s detective and his many incarnations in film and television inspired the first of three options for your blog response this week.

Option One:

Have you watched Sherlock, Elementary, or one of the Holmes films featuring Robert Downey, Jr. as the title character? If so, address the similarities and differences between the portrayal of the detective on screen and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s portrayal of him in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” If you write about Sherlock or Elementary, don’t focus on the obvious difference in the time setting, ditto for the location (New York City) of Elementary. Include both the title of the series/film and the actor’s name in your response.

Option Two:

The Adventure of the Speckled Band” belongs to the subgenre of detective story known as the locked room mystery, in which a murder occurs in a closed space where the perpetrator seemingly vanishes into thin air, and there are few, if any, suspects. Which detail about the locked room mystery of Julia Stoner’s death, or her bedroom where the murder took place, do you find most intriguing?

Option Three:

In The Norton Anthology of British Literature, the editor notes that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle named “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” as his favorite Sherlock Homes story and that “[m]any fans have agreed; readers’ polls over the years have frequently rated ‘The Speckled Band’ as the best Holmes story of all” (920). If you have you read another Sherlock Holmes story that you favor over “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” write a response that addresses its merits. If you’ve read other Holmes stories and prefer “The Speckled Band,” explain why.

Extra Credit:

It’s no mystery why the force is with us today, but how does May the fourth figure in one of the works of Victorian literature that we’ve studied? In your response, cite the two lines that together solve the mystery. Follow each quotation with a parenthetical citation.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates.

Work Cited

Robson, Catherine. Biographical Note: “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1859-1930.” The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Age. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W.W. Norton, 2018. pp. 920-21.

55 thoughts on “ENG 242: Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of May the Fourth

  1. The detail of Julia Stoner’s death that I find most intriguing is the whistle that she heard every single night. She described the whistle by saying, “the last few nights I have always, about three in the morning, heard a low clear whistle”(Robson 925). Her sister, Helen, the night she was murder ran into her room and Helen distinctly heard the whistle that her sister was talking about. A few moments after Helen heard the whistle Julia was dead. I thought that this detail of the murder was very unique and could possibly help aid them in finding the murderer.

    1. I agree with Caeley Arney that the whistle Julia Stoner heard every night was quite peculiar. It is even more peculiar that after Helen moves into Julia’s room she hears the exact same whistle. This is quite an odd detail that doesn’t seem all that helpful until we later learn about the trained venomous swamp adder.
      Alice in Wonderland was published and takes place on May the 4th 1865. In chapter 6, the Hatter asks Alice what day of the month it is and her response is she “considered a little, and then said “The Fourth.” This line in chapter 6, “the March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad–at least not so mad as it was in March.’ As she said this, she looked up, and there was the Cat again, sitting on a branch of a tree.” tells us that it is May (Carroll ch 6).

  2. I have watched Sherlock, Elementary, Sherlock Holmes, and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. My family and I love those shows and movies. Personally, I think that Robert Downey Jr. does the best job, because he naturally has the personality that is perfect for mimicking Holmes, as he naturally has a very obsessive personality that is also portrayed in his more popular role as Tony Stark in the Iron Man and Avengers movies. He also had problems with drugs in real life, and would, therefore, know exactly how to act when he has not had a fix.

  3. Extra Credit: Alice in Wonderland refers to the date of May the Fourth. The first line says, ““I’ve seen hatters before,” she said to herself; “the March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad—at least not so mad as it was in March”'(VI). This means that the Month is May. Further down in the writing it says, “What day of the month is it?” he said, turning to Alice: he had taken his watch out of his pocket, and was looking at it uneasily, shaking it every now and then, and holding it to his ear. Alice considered a little, and then said “The fourth”‘(VII). This means that the date that Alice is referring to is May the Fourth, which is also today.

  4. I’m a fan of BBC’s “Sherlock”, and in reading “The Adventures of the Speckled Band”, I marked a few differences between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s, and Steven Moffat’s rendition and Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal. The largest and overarching difference is that 1892 Holmes in “The Adventures of the Speckled Band” is kind and compassionate. In “Sherlock”, 2010 Holmes is very scathing and doesn’t understand human emotions. 1892 Holmes is very well-spoken during his deductions, politely asking questions and elegantly voicing his thoughts, while 2010 Holmes rushes through his words faster than the mind can comprehend or falls entirely silent when deducing. If present-day Holmes were to ask questions, they would not be polite, but rather sarcastic and insulting. 1892 Holmes understands that people around him do not have the comprehending capability he posses and kindly explains his thought process behind his deductions. 2010 Holmes won’t explain anything until someone asks him, and even then, he’ll ask something along the lines of “Isn’t it obvious?” before launching into his justification for his conclusion. In short, 2010 Holmes is a high-functioning sociopath, while 1892 Holmes is not.

  5. I found the bell-rope to be the most intriguing detail of the locked room mystery of Julia Stoner’s death. It is the most intriguing detail to me because it was possibly the most obvious detail of them all, and the fact that it went unnoticed for two years without it ever being pulled on to see if there was an actual bell attached to it is absurd. Holmes ends up discovering that the bell-rope was used as a bridge to lead the poisonous snake to the bed of where Julia Stoner slept.

    Extra Credit: May the fourth is tied into Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as it appears to be the date that the Victorian work takes place in. The first clue is found when Alice states, “I’ve seen hatters before,” she said to herself; “the March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad—at least not so mad as it was in March.”, indicating that it is May (Carroll ch. 6). The next clue is found when the Hatter asks Alice, “What day of the month is it”, in which Alice responds, “The fourth” (Carroll ch. 6). Therefore, at the time of the setting, it was May the fourth.

  6. What I find most intriguing about Julia Stoner’s death is that she and her sister lock their rooms every night, but when her sister heard her scream she ran to her room. Julia’s sister noticed that the door was unlocked and was slowly revolving. Which I found to be interesting because either Julia unlocked the door herself, but I did not think she could do that by the way her sister described the state she was in. Or something or someone just left the inside of the room right before they got there since the door was still moving.

  7. My favorite story by Sherlock Holmes is “The Empty House”. This is my favorite because of how much mystery and suspicion it brings. In this story Holmes returns from the dead to solve a murder case. The killer also wants to kill Holmes so he must and set a trap in order to catch the killer. I would compare “The Speckled Band” to “The Empty House”, also by Sherlock Holmes. I think that “The Speckled Band” would be my second choice because it also brings suspicion and mystery but in my opinion, the events of The Empty House are more interesting.

  8. In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” I personally find most intriguing is the bell-rope in her room. It just blows my mind that no one seemed to care enough to pull the bell-rope to see if it would ring. Also, the fact that Sherlock Holmes was able to figure out that it was a bridge leading a poisonous snake to Julia Stoner is pretty cool. If I would’ve conducted the investigation I would’ve assumed someone climbed up and down it.

  9. I have watched all three variations of the Sherlock Holmes movies and shows that were listed. I think that the biggest difference is that Benedict Cumberbatch’s focuses on the story and adventures of Sherlock Holmes, while Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes focuses more on him and his struggles in life with addiction.

  10. What I find most intriging and most suspicous is that Helen had to run through a corridor to get to juila’s room and juila was able to point to the doctors room. Helen could hear juila screaming down the hallway, but the doctor didn’t hear it as well. Don’t you think one, a step father and two, a doctor, and three the next door over will run to see if their step daughter or patient or neighbor is alright if you hear that loud scream? Very suspicious to me.

  11. I agree with Madison. My favorite story by Sherlock Holmes is “The Empty House”. I agree with Madison when he says, ” This is my favorite because of how much mystery and suspicion it brings.” In this story we see Holmes return from the dead to solve a murder and then find out that the killer Holmes is trying to catch is also trying to kill Sherlock Holmes.

  12. I have seen Elementary starring Johnny Lee Miller and I have also seen sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch and there is one main difference between the sherlock from the show’s and the sherlock from the book. In the book Sherlock is quite polite; he apologizes to Watson for waking him and comforts his client. In Elementary Sherlock never shows such emotion except under particular circumstances. In the show Sherlock Benedict’s Sherlock might have apologized to watson for waking him but Millers never would have. Actually there are many episodes in elementary that begin by Sherlock making a lot of noise and waking watson and never apologized to her. (watson’s character is a female in elementary)

  13. In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” I find the bell-rope in her room very intriguing. I agree with Ruben that it was strange how no one seemed to care. They didn’t even think to pull the bell-rope to see if it would ring.

  14. I have watched the show Elementary featuring Johnny Lee Miller. I must say, I felt that the individual character of Holmes portrayed by Miller was very similar to the Holmes from “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” written by Arthur C. Doyle. Both the character from the book and Miller’s portrayal have a very intelligent man who is messy, struggled with addiction at some point, and pays attention to the tiniest of details. One difference I feel there is between the characters though, is that the original Holmes is more humble compared to the Elementary Holmes. Doyle’s portrayal of Holmes states that his talents are “elementary” while Miller’s Holme’s is much more aware of how special his abilities are.

  15. Guy Richie’s 2009 film, Sherlock Holmes focuses on the story of a detective, who goes by the name of Sherlock Holmes and his partner John Watson. They are on a mission to solve a string of murders occurring in London. Guy Richie’s movie is an adaptation of the novel called The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Authur Conan Doyle, which has some similarities and differences when it comes to the portrayal of the main character. Robert Downy Jr’s portrayal of the character was done and pleasing. The character in the novel is an eccentric man who is well dressed, but messy at home. While the film shows him as being an untidy man anywhere he is. Downy Jr’s version of the character is impulsive and at times aggressive, and at times impatient. This is shown when he would blurt out things that would come to his find in the film. In the novel is shown as being dispassionate and cold, but respectful and calm. The similarity is how the character is shown as being well-spoken in both the film and novel. Sherlock Holme’s character in both the novel and film is highly intelligent, extremely observant, and perceptive of detail. Though Sherlock Holmes is shown slightly differently in the film, it is still a great film that captures the story.

  16. I have watched a few episodes of Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. The main difference I see between the tv portrayal and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s portrayal of him in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” is personality mostly. While in the show, Sherlock seemed more human with issues of communication and relationships with people of society while the book character seemed more likeable and his thoughts were more in depth than what is shown in the tv series.

  17. I agree with Caeley Arney and Breanna Bowman that the whistle was the most intriguing part of the murder. After Julia heard the whistle, Helen still decided to move into her room even though she heard the whistle too. When Helen hears the whistle, she finds that Julia is dead. This could be a factor to figure out who the murderer is.

  18. Similar to what Caeley Arney said about Julia always hearing a whistle, I feel that is the most interesting detail. Why would she be the only person that heard it, considering that they all live rather close to each other? It is kind of like Julia was meant to hear that whistle. It makes me think that there was an underlying reason why she was the only one who could hear it. I also liked the detail about the swamp adder being trained. I feel that is suspicious. Why would someone train a poisonous snake? What would someone need it for?

  19. I agree when Luke noble by saying that I found the fact that when Helen ran to Julia’s room to check on her after the scream, the door was unlocked. This is peculiar because mentioned earlier was that she and her sister always kept their doors locked as they “had no feeling of security” (ch. 8). This would have been Julia opening her own door and running out or someone breaking the lock. I think if they could find out which of these situations it was, the killer could have been revealed.

  20. I agree with Caeley in that the detail that I found most intriguing about Julia Stoner’s death was the whistling noise. I did not think too much of this detail until reading where Julia’s sister stated that she had begun hearing that same whistling sound after moving into her sister’s old room, revealing that whoever murdered her sister might be targeting her next.

  21. The detail about the locked room mystery of Julia Stoner’s death that I find most interesting is the fact that Dr. Roylott was able to train a snake to kill her through his complex whistling. This requires a lot of practice and expertise which really demonstrates the talents of this remarkable yet misguided man. It is quite impressive that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was able to come up with such an unusual murder method. I definitely could not have seen this outcome which highlights the originality of this work. I believe the hallmark element of a good murder mystery is an unpredictable surprise at the end, and Conan did not disappoint with this one!

  22. Options Two:
    The thing I find most particular about Julia Stoner’s death is how unlikely it is to happening. It is all most impossible to happen or for her to be killed.

  23. As Caely Arney stated the strangest yet most intriguing was the whistle Julia Stoner heard every night, This was strange beacause her sister, Helen heard the whistle her sister mentioned, thus showing that it may be a clue in finding the murderer.

  24. In “The Adventure Of The Speckled Band,” I find the detail about that Julia Stoner’s bed attached to the floor most intriguing. The bed was strategically placed so that, as Sherlock Holmes says, “the lady could not move her bed. It must always be in the same relative position to the ventilator and to the rope” (Doyle ch. 8). The arrangement of the room was very strange and framed, and yet, no one seemed to question it. Consequently, knowing that Julia locked her door at night, Dr. Grimesby Roylott created a room with such a setup as to trap and kill his victim, Julia, with a poisonous serpent.

    1. Lauren, I like what you pulled from the text to support the points that you made in the post. I never looked at the text this way until you pointed it out.

  25. Probably the craziest part of the locked room mystery in The Adventure of the Speckled Band is that only Helen came to Julia’s rescue whenever she heard her scream. You’d think that if the scream could’ve been heard over a thunderstorm a few more people would’ve attempted to come to the rescue. Maybe the twin intuition would’ve lead to Helen getting there first, but it’s suspicious that the doctor or the stepfather weren’t close behind.

  26. I agree with Madison and Ashton. My favorite story by Sherlock Holmes is “The Empty House”. It is my favorite because of how much mystery and it brings. In this story Holmes returns from the dead to solve a murder mystery.

  27. I agree with Caeley Arney and Breanna Bowman. I believe that the whistle heard by Julia Stoner is the most intriguing detail surrounding her death.The whistle itself is very strange, indeed. But, it is even more strange that it was heard by both Julia and Helen. The whistle ultimately becomes a detail that allows the reader to discover Julia’s killer.

  28. I chose to write about Julia’s death. There were a lot of weird things that happen leading up to her death. Her room was very strange, she locked her door every night and her bed was unable to be moved. Even though she had a bellrope in her room, no one ever made sure it worked so there was no point in having it in there. I also found it very interesting that he chose to kill her with a snake. There must have been an easier way to kill her than training a snake.

  29. For me, the most intriguing part of Julia’s death was the way in which she was found: with a burned-down match in one hand and a matchbook clutched in the other. While I know her sister found her right before she died, how, in her state of shock, did the fire not set her housecoat ablaze- especially when the fell to the floor? Another shocking part of her death was the complete lack of visible external injuries as well as a negative toxicology report. Had Sherlock and Watson not been on the case, this would have likely been enough to fool law enforcement into actually thinking “that she died of pure fear and nervous shock” (Doyle ch. 8).

  30. I agree with Caeley in saying the most intriguing detail is the whistling heard at night. Many good murder mystery stories have a little detail that sets them apart and sticks in the reader’s mind. The whistling detail is that for me and most likely many others. This chilling sound created in the reader’s mind also builds tension.

  31. The place in the room that I feel most intriguing about “The adventure of the speckled band”, is that the entire room was like a fortress, soundproof, and dark. Just like what is commonly known as a sensory deprivation chamber. I think that she either killed her self, or unlocked her door and died from anxiety. On the other hand, this is a time where inheritances are very big, and reading along in this book, the stepfather seems to want their inheritance. One other hypothesis that I have is that he killed her and took her inheritance.

    1. I agree with Gabe, I love the intuition and thinking beyond the box, it seems impossible initially for the suspects to get into a ¨fortress¨ of sorts. Sometimes our worse enemy can be ourselves, and if we delve deeper, can we find evidence of possible mental illness in Stoner?

  32. The most intriguing thing about Julia Stoner’s death to me is the noises she hears and she got murdered even though her and her sister locks their doors every night. However, when Julia heard the screaming she noticed the unlocked door and the handle was rotating.

  33. Unlike the unique ¨whistiling¨ and clanging noise to be heard every night in the bedroom, I found the fact that Stoner is about to be married and is sleeping in the same room as the other murder victims to be very suspicious. Not to mention that the murderer in the beginning, slipped into a locked room, killing her without a trace.

  34. I chose to write about option two. The one thing that intrigued me is when Helen explains the story to Sherlock, she says she didn’t hear a whistling at night, but her sister Julia described that she did. Later on, she explains the night that Julia was murdered, she heard the faint whistling. This whole time, Roylott was training the snake to climb up and down the vent with the whistle. It intrigues me how Julia never noticed before the night she died that the snake was present. Also, something that intrigues me but was not initially a concern to Helen is her sister pointing her finger toward Roylott’s room as she was dying. She wasn’t able to speak because she was choked on her words, but she pointed her finger to Roylott. To me, that seems like an immediate clue that he is guilty.

  35. I agree with Paige Lewis when she points out the difference in the compassion between the 1892 Holmes verus 2010 Holmes. In 1892 Holmes was shown as kind and compassionate while in 2010 he was shown as emotionless and not understanding emotions. To me that was the biggest difference in the two.

  36. I find the most intriguing part of Julia Stoner’s death is how the “perpetrator” was able to getaway. How they were able to just disappear into the air. Or get out of the closed-off room.

  37. The difference’s between the show Sherlock and Arthur Conan’s portrayal is quite substantial. However, with that, there are astounding similarities portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch compared to Arthur Conan’s.

  38. The most intriguing part of Julia Stoner’s death, to me, was the last words she mutter, before she died. Furthermore, her last words related to a speckled band, which every last word before death are always interesting to me.

  39. In my opinion, the most intriguing thing about Julia Stoner’s death was that after she was murdered her sister ran to her room, which the door was unlocked and the door handle was rotating. This is mainly intriguing as they both locked their doors every night, and then after the murder her door was unlocked.

  40. When reading about the death of Julia Stoner, I was most perplexed by the detail that her bedroom door was locked when she died. This is strange because she was murdered and it leads the reader to wonder how she was killed. This detail provides intrigue for the reader at the beginning of the story.

  41. Something that intrigued me in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” was, like Emma said, the whistling at nighttime and how it helps Sherlock discover that Julia’s sister died from snake poison. Julia’s sister hears the whistling nights before she died. As soon as Julia starts to hear the same low whistle, she is worried that she is going to die. As is turns out, Dr. Roylott, a harsh man, had trained a poisonous snake with his whistle.

  42. I agree with Caeley Arney in that I found the whistle that Julia heard for several nights in a row quite intriguing. Also, it was intriguing to me that her sister, who was sleeping only a room over, didn’t hear the whistle at all until the night that Julia was murdered. I was also intrigued that Julia and Helen’s stepfather would plan to murder his step-daughters right before they got married. Lastly, I found it intriguing that their stepfather’s snake betrayed him and killed him when the intended target was Helen.

  43. In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” I find the bell-rope to be the most intriguing detail of the locked room mystery of Julia Stonre’s death. It is surprising to see that no one seemed to care enough about the bell-rope to see if it would ring.

  44. I will have to agree with Caley Arney that the most intriging detail of Julia Stoner’s death would have to be the whistle that she heard every night until she died. I find it even stranger that the night she was murdered her sister Helen heard the exact same “low clear whistle” (Robson 925). Just moments after Helen heard the whistle, she found her sister dead.

    Extra Credit:
    The specific date of May the fourth correlates with The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. In chapter 6, the Hatter asks Alice what day of the month it is and she “considered a little, and then said “The Fourth.” A line in chapter six tells us that the month is May. It says, “the March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad–at least not so mad as it was in March.” (Carroll ch 6)

  45. I agree with Gabe; the room was very soundproof and also dark, so if the door wasn’t open then her sister couldn’t have heard Julia scream. I believe she had to have either killed herself or unlocked the door and died from anxiety consider that she had stated that even when her door was locked she still had “no feeling of security”.

  46. I have watched all of the Sherlock Holmes movies and shows. I think that the biggest difference is that Benedict Cumberbatch focuses on his story and the things he did as sherlock holmes, but Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes is more focused on Holmes as a character and the problems he faces.

  47. I have watched the show “Sherlock” featuring Benedict Cumberbatch. With Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, the story begins with the Character Helen talking to Holmes and Watson. In the show, it begins with the death of Helen’s sister. The similarities are that in the show, the show captures the similar ways of Sherlock being himself with his ways.

  48. I agree with Allison Lasher. The significant detail of the whistle could be viewed as a turning point in the plot. Without this key detail, the murder may have not been exposed or at least not had been exposed in this manner

  49. I have watched the 2009 rendition of Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. I believe that the similarities are quite accurate. I believe that Downey Jr. could play the role quite well both because of his acting experience in multiple other triple A films, but also because of his real life experiences.

  50. The part that I found most interesting about Julia Stoner’s death is that both her sister and her would lock their doors each night. Whenever she would scream her sister would come to see if she was okay but no one else. Also, she was “murdered” despite the fact that she locked her door each night.

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