A Study in “Sherlock” 2: The Blind Banker

This is the second installment in a series comparing BBC’s Sherlock to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. The previous article is about about S1:E1 “A Study in Pink”.

Hi again, Sherlock fans! I had a lot of fun with the close-analysis of A Study in Pink, and I hope you did too. This time around, I’m going to do things a little bit differently. You see, that first episode, which had to introduce the characters, drew closely on the scenes in Conan Doyle’s stories that first brought us Watson and Holmes. Moffat and Co. lifted a lot of dialogue pretty much straight from those few scenes, and I had fun running that dialogue side-by-side.

This second episode, however, plunges us into the world of Sherlock-in-action: introductions are in the past, and it’s time for a story! Story elements are what Steve Thompson, this episode’s author, lifted from the originals, and so story elements are what I’ll focus on. First I’ll look at the sources of the plot writ large, and then the roots of that graffiti-code at the heart of the episode.

Okay? Here we go! Once more: old’s bold; new’s askew.

I. A Brand-New Very Old Story

Thompson made a clever decision in crafting this episode: he wrote a new story, but he based it on the oldest, most common plot in the Conan Doyle canon.

Here’s what I mean. If you were to summarize one central plot of The Blind Banker, you might come up with this:

“Soo Lin Yao, formerly involved with the Black Lotus Tong in China, flees to England, but her brother tracks her down — first sending her a death threat through coded graffiti.”

Sound about right? You could add in Van Coon and Lukis, but I’ll leave it at Soo Lin for simplicity’s sake. Now, you could make a generic version of that sentence that runs like this:

[Good person], formerly involved with [Nasty Gang] in [Foreign Country], flees to England, but [Former Gang Affiliate] tracks down [Good Person]. (Optional: [Former Gang Affiliate] first sends [Good Person] a coded threat.)

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the outline of The Boscombe Valley Mystery, The Five Orange Pips, The Adventure of the Dancing Men, The Valley of Fear, The Adventure of the Red Circle, and many, many others. Fragments of this story turn up everywhere in the canon: the trope of settling old scores comes up in, among others, The Sign of the Four; the surprising appearance of an old affiliate (in a very different context!), drives The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor; and recurring painted warnings haunt a character in A Study in Scarlet.

By writing his episode around these old Holmes tropes, Thompson anchored his new story very effectively in the ol’ Holmes ethos. I don’t want to say much about all those Conan Doyle stories lest I spoil them for you, but I would like to look at two of them in more detail: The Adventure of the Dancing Men and The Valley of Fear.

II. “I am myself familiar with all forms of secret writings…”

So says Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Dancing Men. Moffat himself pointed me to this story with a tweet of his:

Cos people have asked: tonight’s Sherlock (written by Stephen Thompson, directed by Euros Lyn) is loosely based on The Dancing Men.

The Dancing Men is probably the adventure whose plot most closely matches that sample sentence:

[Good person], formerly involved with [Nasty Gang] in [Foreign Country], flees to England, but [Former Gang Affiliate] tracks down [Good Person]. (Optional: [Former Gang Affiliate] first sends [Good Person] a coded threat.)

If we plug in the story of The Dancing Men (sorry, spoilers!), this comes to:

“Elsie Cubitt, formerly involved with ‘The Joint’ in Chicago, USA, flees to England, but her former fiancé tracks her down — first sending her a death threat through coded chalk drawings.”

Those chalk drawings are of course drawings of dancing men. They’re actually drawn right into the original story, and they look like this:

In his discussion of them, Holmes remarks,

“I have here in front of me these singular productions, at which one might smile had they not proved themselves to be the fore-runners of so terrible a tragedy. I am fairly familiar with all forms of secret writings, and am myself the author of a trifling monograph upon the subject, in which I analyze one hundred and sixty separate ciphers; but I confess that this is entirely new to me. The object of those who invented the system has apparently been to conceal that these characters convey a message, and to give the idea that they are the mere random sketches of children.”

The man who drew these symbols later confirms,

“…that writing […] would pass as a child’s scrawl unless you just happened to have the key to it.”

These dancing men have a lot in common with the Tong’s yellow graffiti. In both cases, the code isn’t obviously a code: it looks like random drawings or vandalism. As well, it’s a multi-purpose code that the gang uses for all sorts of communication, rather than just threats. (In this respect, it’s different from the five orange pips in the story of the same name, which are specifically a threat.)

There’s even a cute visual reference to the dancing men at one point in the episode, when we look over Sherlock’s shoulder at his notes on the Tong cipher. Take a look at the stick figure on the sheet he’s holding:

(Looks like he had Futhark on his mind, too! That aside –)

There is one big difference: each dancing man stands for a specific letter. That’s quite different from the complex system the Tong use of suzhou numerals referring to pages of the London A to Z. Where did that come from?

For that, we turn to the last full-length Holmes novel in the canon, The Valley of Fear. I mentioned this adventure earlier in my list of “shady past” stories. I won’t give a [Good Person] [Nasty Gang] summary for this one — the story’s too complicated and too good to spoil — and, as it turns out, the secret code here has nothing to do with the [Nasty Gang] plot. It turns up at the very beginning of the book, in the characteristic section before the plot gets going where Conan Doyle shows off Holmes’ talents. Almost every Holmes story opens with one of these scenes, usually with Holmes “reading” someone or something. In The Blind Banker, it’s the sequence where he deduces Sebastian’s recent travels from the state of his wristwatch. In The Valley of Fear, though, Conan Doyle has his detective break a code.

Chapter 1 of Valley sees Holmes receive a brief, enigmatic letter from a criminal contact of his — “The Warning” for which the chapter is named. The scrap of paper bears the following message:

534 C2 13 127 36 31 4 17 21 41 [etc…]

The analogue in Sherlock is the wall covered in graffiti John photographs out by the train tracks:

Or, in other words (er, numbers):

112-1 103-75 36-37 70-95 [etc…]

Here’s the conversation Holmes and Watson have in Valley of Fear. Holmes is at his most acerbic here — actually more like the BBC’s Sherlock than usual:

Conan Doyle:
Holmes: “It is clearly a reference to the words in a page of some book. Until I am told which page and which book I am powerless.” […]
Watson: “Then why has he not indicated the book?”
Holmes: “Your native shrewdness, my dear Watson, that innate cunning which is the delight of your friends, would surely prevent you from inclosing cipher and message in the same envelope. Should it miscarry, you are undone.”

In The Blind Banker, after Soo Lin reveals that the Tong use a book code, Sherlock and John have a similar conversation:

Thompson:
Sherlock: “So the numbers are references.”
John: “To books.”
Sherlock: “To specific pages, and specific words on those pages.”
John: “Right, so, fifteen and one, that means…”
Sherlock:”Turn to page fifteen and it’s the first word you read.”
John: “Okay, so what’s the message?”
Sherlock: “Depends on the book. That’s the cunning of the book code.”

In Valley, Holmes’ undercover contact is interrupted before he can send the name of the book under separate cover, so Holmes has to work it out himself. He quickly declares that 534 is the page, that ‘C2’ indicates ‘column two’, and that the book must be very common — since his contact only planned to send the name of the book, he must have thought Holmes would already have a copy. In other words:

Conan Doyle:
“Our search is narrowed down to standardized books which anyone may be supposed to possess.”

Thompson:
Sherlock (to himself): “A book that everybody would own…”

Holmes considers but quickly eliminates the Bible (too many different editions) the dictionary (artificially limited vocabulary on any given page), and a few others. Finally, he settles on Whitaker’s Almanack, an annual reference book still published in Britain today. Setting to work, still in his remarkably sarcastic mood, this is what he finds:

Conan Doyle:
“Here is page 534, column two, a substantial block of print dealing, I perceive, with the trade and resources of British India. Jot down the words, Watson! Number thirteen is ‘Mahratta.’ Not, I fear, a very auspicious beginning. Number one hundred and twenty-seven is ‘Government’; which at least makes sense, though somewhat irrelevant to ourselves and Professor Moriarty. Now let us try again. What does the Mahratta government do? Alas! the next word is ‘pig’s-bristles.’ We are undone, my good Watson! It is finished!”

Compare Sherlock’s progress in The Blind Banker once he figures out he’s looking for a common book. He walk over to his bookshelf and takes down the Bible, a dictionary, and an old medical textbook. (That’s two out of three taken from Valley of Fear!) Searching for “15-1”, i.e., fifteenth page, first entry, he finds “I” in the Bible, “Add” in the dictionary, and, best of all, “nostrils” in the medical text. Pig’s-bristles indeed. In the end, things work out in both version: Valley‘s Holmes realizes his contact must be using the previous year’s Whitaker, Banker‘sSherlock runs headlong into a pair of tourists holding a London A-Z, and everything falls into place.

So that’s how Thompson crafted the code at the heart of The Blind Banker: he made the dancing men point to Whitaker’s Almanac! It’s a nice example of how Sherlock‘s authors have woven new stories from Conan Doyle’s threads. And you can take it as a clue in your own sleuthing for story-seeds: if you go back and read The Adventure of the Dancing Men and The Valley of Fear, you’ll find that the Black Lotus tattoo, the bullet shot out Van Coon’s window, the murder that looks like a suicide, even Moriarty’s role in sneaking the killer into Britain — all of these plot elements were plucked from those two works and planted into this new story in clever, original ways.

Oh. Did I say Moriarty? I guess all we see this time around is an “M.” Not to jump the gun on the next episode…

(Script of “Sherlock” transcribed from the episode’s closed captioning. Still frames taken from the episode are the property of Hartswood Films. The original novels can be found at Project Gutenberg; alternatively, I’ve grown quite fond of this Kindle edition.)

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8 thoughts on “A Study in “Sherlock” 2: The Blind Banker

  1. Pingback: A Study in “Sherlock” « "Oh, Something Arty…"

  2. Michael H.

    Not to mention that the plot of “A Study in Scarlet” is just another version of this archetypal plotline, with the clever thing being that “good” and “bad” are reversed:

    “[Bad person], formerly involved with [Nasty Gang] in [Foreign Country], flees to England, but [Former Affiliate] tracks down [Bad Person].”

    Translated into “A Study in Scarlet” terms, that’s

    Joseph Stangerson and Enoch Drebber, (now fleeing but) involved with the Mormons in Utah, USA, flees to England, but Jefferson Hope tracks down Strangerson and Drebber.

    Yup, the Mormons were invariably stock villains in 19th-Century literature!

    Reply
  3. MyrtleMartha

    Thanks for this very interesting analysis! I have one addition: Sign of the Four seems to me to be a major source for the story.
    In addition to its sharing parts of the plot line that runs through Dancing Men and a number of other ACD stories, in Sign of the Four we have the minor point of an intense sibling conflict (Soo Lin Yao struggles against her brother, not a lover as in Dancing Men) and a number of major points;
    1) the villain coming from a made-to-seem-very-exotic eastern country
    2) the villain comes to England for the disguised, but specific, purpose of retrieving stolen jewels,
    3) the clue of the small feet and hands,
    4) the crime scene(s) that reveal the murderer is an acrobat of sorts who enters through the upper stories of buildings,
    5) the subordinate thief who steals from the original thieves,
    6) the jewel(s) from the stolen hoard being given to a woman who doesn’t know its original source,
    7) the climactic chase through a dark, isolated, and dangerous part of London (in the original the river, which would have been very expensive to film), resulting in the death of the actual murderer though not of everyone involved in the crimes,
    8) the coded warning that death is coming (in Dancing Men the code announces the arrival of a would-be lover, not an intent to murder)
    9) the use of a tube device to deliver a killing projectile,
    10) John’s infatuation with a woman who is in some way involved in the excitement and danger,
    (11) the scene where John and the woman first draw together physically by clinging to each other in a moment of dangerous-seeming excitement.
    (12) John’s declaration that he intends to continue the relationship with the woman, and the fact that she does indeed show up in a later episode still in a close relationship with him (both true of the woman in Sign of the Four, though the relationship there is wife, as would have been the main practical possibility in the Victorian period, rather than girlfriend).

    Reply

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