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Look carefully at ‘The Speckled Band’ and ‘The Engineer’s Thumb. ‘ How does the writer create mystery and suspense in these stories? Explain how he uses language to create character and atmosphere. What does this tell about the conventions of the Victorian short story? The two stories that are referred to in this essay are, ‘The Speckled Band’ and ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’, both are written by Arthur Conan Doyle and describe two of the many adventures of Sherlock Holmes. ‘The Speckled Band’ was set in early April 1883, however it was not published until February 1892.
‘The Engineer’s Thumb’ was set slightly later in the summer of 1889, though again it was also published in 1892 just a month before ‘The Speckled Band’. Both short stories contain the main characteristics of the Victorian short stories. In ‘The Speckled Band’ Dr Roylott murdered his stepdaughter and, two years on, history is repeating itself, at the family home in Stoke Moran. Holmes discovers the daughter was murdered by a snake, through Dr Roylott’s intricate and sinister methods, and prevents this from happening again.
In ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’ a young engineer is hoodwinked into helping an illegal money laundering operation. When he becomes aware of the true nature of his employment, he finds himself in a life-threatening situation. Again Holmes in his inimitable style helps to solve the mystery. Although both are mystery stories, they evolve in slightly different ways. ‘The Speckled Band’ creates a mystery that is only solved at the very end with a dramatic revelation through Holmes’ brilliant reasoning power, as he deducts all the correct conclusions from small observations.
However, in ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’, the mystery element develops as the story goes on, and therefore there is no major revelation at the end. Personally I felt that ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’ was exciting throughout, whereas ‘The Speckled Band’ was slow until the very end. In both stories Sherlock Holmes emerges as the hero. Particularly in ‘The Speckled Band’, where even after the mystery has revealed itself, he has to explain all the details to Watson, who is a clever man and has seen and heard all the same things as Holmes.
Conan Doyle uses a combination of melodrama, vivid descriptions of atmosphere, setting and character along with language and various literary devices to build up a sense of mystery and suspense. Firstly the social and historical context of these short stories is very important. The Victorian morality was very judgemental. The criminals were often foreigners or social outcasts, as the British Empire was riddled with double standards. Sherlock Holmes was an extremely popular character as he embodied everything that the British people thought was good.
He was a cultured, intelligent gentleman who was strong, both mentally and physically. Holmes believed in class and ‘good breeding. ‘ However there also had to be certain elements, which give the stories a sense of realism and excitement. One of the first things that made the books populart as that Holmes had an archrival, Professor Montriak. Although he is not mentioned in either ‘The Speckled Band’ or ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’ he was a part of Holmes’ character, and an important one. Like most popular heroes Holmes had his own vices.
He was a drug addict. Along with all the qualities that made Holmes’ character so popular and successful, he also exposed the seedier side of Victorian society, and dealt with it. He made society safe for everyone. Holmes was the first fictional detective. Conan Doyle’s books were also the first of their genre and of the short story genre. Most heroes have an accomplice and Holmes was no exception. Dr Watson, the accomplice, was used as a narrative technique to explain to the reader what was going on.
At the time these books were both set and written, Jack the Ripper was loose in London. London was riddled with slums, prostitution, corrupt police and drugs. Holmes personifies the public’s opinion of what the police force should be like. Holmes was first introduced to the public in 1887, and was seemingly loved by everyone. When after six years Doyle killed him off to focus on writing other things, there was public outrage. Arthur Conan Doyle received death threats, and ended up having to invent a way of bringing him back.
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