0 In Gems & Jewelry/ Liz Writes

Sherlock Holmes and the Blue Carbungle

What writer can resist?

I love Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries. I discovered the original short stories and novels in a massive volume on my parents’ bookshelves when I was nine, and I’ve never tired of them, from the original to all the spoofs and the multiple television and movie reincarnations. Who can tire of “Hurry, Watson! The game is afoot!” (Speaking of movie spoofs of the Great Detective, if you love these as much as I do, and you haven’t seen Without A Clue, with Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine, see it. Trust me: You owe it to yourself.)

One of my favorites Holmes stories (next to The Speckled Band and, of course, The Hound of the Baskervilles) is The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, where Holmes tracks down and retrieves a mysterious blue gemstone from the gullet of a goose. It became even more of a favorite after I became a gemologist. Because there is no such thing as a blue carbuncle.

The term “carbuncle” has traditionally been used to represent a cabochon-cut red gem—primarily a garnet, though it could conceivably apply to a ruby or red spinel. And because rubies are simply red versions of sapphires (which are most notably blue), Holmes could have made the case that this famous goose-eaten gemstone was really a blue cabochon-cut sapphire. And, being Holmes, he could have gotten away with it, because if Sherlock says it, it must be true, right?

That’s what he’d like you to believe, anyway. But Sherlock makes a number of gaffes in this story that tickle me to no end. I wish the long-suffering Dr. Watson had written a story detailing how someone at the British Museum had called Holmes out on his errors. But since he didn’t, I had to do it for him.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will lose no sleep over my parody, but I had fun writing it. I hope you have fun reading it, too.

“Just see how it glints and sparkles. Of course it is a nucleus and focus of crime. Every good stone is. They are the devil’s pet baits.”

Arthur Conan Doyle
Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle


Fog swirled outside the windows, while Holmes, curled Turkish fashion on his cushion, smoked his pipe and created a fug of his own in our room. Despite the pall, I was congratulating myself that I did not have to go out into the damp, autumn afternoon when the bell downstairs rang. Moments later, Mrs. Hudson’s steady tread on the stairs heralded her approach.

“Hullo, Watson,” said Holmes, “What’s this? A new puzzle?” He sprang to his feet, almost visibly gathering his deductive powers.

I rose as Mrs. Hudson announced a neatly dressed man in his fifties with salt-and-pepper side whiskers and stern blue eyes behind metal-rimmed spectacles.

“Cyril Hyde-White, Curator of Gems, British Museum,” said our visitor. At the mention of the man’s title, Holmes’ eyes sparkled in anticipation of an engaging problem.

“A pleasure, I’m sure,” said Holmes.

“I wish I could say the same, Mr. Holmes,” said Hyde-White, “but I’m here on a sorry business.” He pulled from his coat a copy of the small volume in which I had recently published several of Holmes’ more remarkable exploits. I was immediately filled with a sense of foreboding.

“Please sit down and tell me what brings you here,” said Holmes. Our guest took the seat I had just vacated and adjusted his spectacles. Holmes took his accustomed place by the fire. I stood near the door in the event I might want to make a hurried escape.

“I am quite used to the fact that the general public views the study of minerals and gems as a frivolous pursuit,” said Hyde-White. “However, one would think that if jewels are the ‘nucleus and focus of crime’ that you here suggest they are,” he gestured toward the book on his knee, “that you, who professes to be an expert on crime, would make it your business to be better informed about them.”

Holmes became quite still, indicating to me, who knew his moods well, the extent of his agitation. “You do not make yourself clear,” he said. “To what do you refer?”

“This, sir, this!” said Hyde-White, brandishing the book. “I refer to this history you have titled ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.’” Holmes nodded. “And I refer, sir, to the numerous of egregious errors of fact contained therein!”

Holmes shot me a look. I racked my brain for appointments I had forgotten, patients I had to see immediately. Nothing came to mind.

“Errors?” said Holmes, turning back to Hyde-White. “Perhaps you would be so good as to give me an example?”

“To start, Mr. Holmes, what kind of stone to you think you retrieved from that much-abused goose’s crop?”

“I should think that would be obvious, even to the most unimaginative of readers,” said Holmes. “It was, as the title indicates, a blue carbuncle.”

“Blue carbuncle, indeed,” snorted Hyde-White. “From what do you deduce that, sir?”

“The Countess of Morcar says it is a blue carbuncle…” began Holmes, but Hyde-White cut him off much to Holmes’ evident annoyance.

“For a man who is said to think little of mental capabilities of the fair sex, you seem oddly eager to accept the judgment of a woman like the Countess who, my dear Holmes, has far more money than good sense.”

I was becoming fascinated by the exchange. I had never, in all our years together, seen Holmes bearded in his own den. Although I knew Holmes would have sharp words for me once we were alone again, I could not tear myself away. I rather began to enjoy myself, I am ashamed to admit.

“Perhaps you would enlighten me?” said Holmes icily.

“Carbuncles, Mr. Holmes, are red stones,” said Hyde-White, “not blue. Red stones cut ‘en cabochon’—flat on the bottom and domed on the top.”

“I know what a cabochon is,” said Holmes.

“Thank heavens you know something about the subject,” said Hyde-White. “However, I beg you to remember that, in this work, you clearly state that the Countess of Morcar’s stone ‘twinkled,’ a statement that implies the stone was faceted.”

“A poetic turn of phrase, my dear sir, a tendency to which my biographer is all too often inclined.” Holmes gave me a cool glance, but I was far too intrigued by the conversation to feel cowed.

“And is the ‘crystallized carbon’ nonsense a ‘poetic turn of phrase’ as well?” asked Hyde-White.

“I beg your pardon?” said Holmes.

“Where is it?” muttered the curator, paging through the volume. “Ah! ‘This stone is not yet 20 years old…In spite of its youth, it already has a sinister history. There have been two murders, a vitriol-throwing, a suicide and several robberies brought about for the sake of this 40 grain weight of crystallized carbon.’

“Sheer nonsense,” said Hyde-White forcefully as Holmes opened his mouth to speak. “The only gemstone that could possibly be described as ‘crystallized carbon’ is a diamond. And, sir, there are damned few of those that are blue. The only one of note is Sir Henry Hope’s magnificent specimen, which blighted minds would call accursed. There are no red diamonds*. Even if there were, no cutter would be mad enough to try to cut them into cabochons. Thus, a diamond, even a blue one, could never be called a carbuncle. Your famous deductive powers should tell you that.”

Once again Holmes attempted to speak but was cut short by the indignant Hyde-White.

“And if, as I doubt, your Countess’ stone was indeed a rare blue piece of ‘crystallized carbon’, she would certainly know she had a blue diamond, and would make sure everyone else knew it as well.

“Finally, Mr. Holmes, the red stones most commonly referred to as carbuncles are garnets, semi-precious* stones worn by every shop girl in London. Not even the most determined criminal would consider them a ‘focus and nucleus of crime’. The Countess would rather die than be seen wearing one. And garnets, sir, are unknown in blue.” Hyde-White sat back in his chair, a man content that his argument could not be undone. 

Holmes, I was surprised to note, did not even try to refute Hyde-White’s arguments.

“Sir,” he said smiling coldly, “You miss the point, which was that I was able to correctly deduce the identity of the stone and its owner making it possible to effect its return. Not only that,” he added, shaking his finger in the air, “I was able to put my hands on the criminal!” Two spots of color appeared on Holmes’ normally pale countenance.

“Yes, you had him,” said Hyde-White, with a slight emphasis on the word “had.” He paused. “And you let him go.”

Holmes’ color heightened at the implied disapproval. He opened his mouth to respond but Hyde-White interrupted him again. As Holmes was a man more used to doing the interrupting than to being interrupted, I could see Hyde-White’s continued presence was doing nothing to improve my friend’s temper.

“But what is done is done,” said our visitor. “What I want to know now, Mr. Holmes,” he said, rising from his chair, “is what you are going to do to correct this misleading and downright false information you have given the public?”

“Do?” asked Holmes quietly. “My dear sir, I’m going to do nothing. The public has forgotten this small matter already in light of my more recent achievements. Why should I do anything?”

There was a deathly silence in the room while the two men faced each other unflinchingly.

“Well,” said Hyde-White at last, putting on his hat, “if you feel no responsibility for your actions there’s not much I can do to change your mind. But hear me on this, Holmes. You run a very grave personal risk here. You evidently wish your name to go down in history as the greatest detective of all time, else you would not allow Dr. Watson here to chronicle your activities.” He waved the book at Holmes. “But if you continue to make such grossly erroneous statements as you make in this history, future readers of your exploits will come to doubt your very existence. ‘Such a great detective,’ they will say, ‘would certainly never make a gaffe like that.’ They will put all of your adventures down as the imaginings of an overworked and poorly informed writer. Sherlock Holmes, the great detective will be scoffed at as a creature of fiction. Mark my words!”

With that, Hyde-White left, slamming the door behind him.

As his footsteps faded down the street Holmes burst into laughter.

“Can you believe the cheek of the man?” he asked. “Sherlock Holmes a fictional character? Details of his work read as a diversion?” He smiled that brief, singular smile of his, then suddenly he turned a humorless gaze on me.  “And as to that, Watson…” he started. But I had anticipated him.

Quickly picking up my hat and coat I reached for the door.

“Sorry, Holmes. I can’t stop now. I’m meeting a friend at my club and I’m late,” I said, as I hurried out. If I was lucky, Lestrade or someone else from the Yard would bring him a problem while I was gone. Perhaps then he would forget the morning’s unpleasant interview for which I knew he was blaming me heartily.

“Well, at least now…” I thought as I walked along Baker Street. Then I stopped stock still. No! We still did not know what the Countess’ stone really was. Hyde-White had never said.

“This won’t do,” I thought. The British Museum was not far from my club. I would just stop by and ask him. Then in future I could chafe Holmes that I knew the true identity of the Countess of Morcar’s blue carbuncle. I quickly hailed a cab and set off for the museum.

* During Holmes’ era there were no known red diamonds. Even today, they are exceptionally rare.

*The term “semi-precious” was used for decades to describe gemstones other than the “big five”: diamonds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and pearls. The term is now discouraged by jewelers and gemologists.

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