On Hiding Things From The Reader

I took up reading “the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” via the Kindle App because I haven’t read very many of them.  Overall, the experience has been fun so far.  I expected some dated language and whatnot, considering its status as a classic, but what I’ve really noticed is the difference in storytelling.

Some of it just plain wouldn’t fly today.

The biggest thing that jumped out at me was one case of hiding stuff from the reader–blatantly.

Spoilers ahead.

During “The Red-Headed League,” the long and short of it is that Holmes suspects a ruse to provide cover for digging a tunnel between a pawnbroker’s shop and the cellar of the bank next door. Yet we, along with Watson, are left in the dark.  While a missing-most-of-the-pieces narrator is a common ploy, the author needs to be careful, because the narrator is our sole window into the story.  We see what he sees and we know what he knows and that is all.

Lets go to the beginning.   Holmes is in front of the pawn broker’s place of business where (as we eventually learn) the tunnel originates.  Then:

“Finally he returned to the pawnbroker’s, and, having thumped vigorously upon the pavement with his stick two or three times, he went up to the door and knocked.”

They then go to the street behind the pawnbroker’s, where Holmes recounts with Watson the layout of the street they’re on:

“There is Mortimer’s, the tobacconist, the little newspaper shop, the Coburg branch of the City and Suburban bank, the Vegetarian Restaurant, and McFarlane’s carriage-building depot.  That carries us right on to the other block.  And now, Doctor, we’ve done our work […]”.

So imagine my dismay when at the end of the story, during Holmes’ debriefing, I read this:

[Holmes speaks]: ‘The only remaining point was what they were burrowing for.  I walked round the corner, saw the City and Suburban Bank abutted on our friend’s premises, and felt that I’d solved my problem.”

So we get the hint that there’s a bank in there somewhere, but never are we shown that there is a bank right next door to the place in question until it comes up in the grand end-of-story revelation.

I felt robbed. I likely would have hit upon bank robbery had Doyle include the extremely important piece of data that there was a bank right next door to the location in question.  As far as best storytelling practices go, he should have done more to throw me off the trail of the bank instead of hiding it, so that I could look back and say, “wow, the bank was right next door the whole time and I didn’t even think of it.”

It ruined the story.  I was prepared and look forward to the “shoot!  I should have seen that!” revelations at the end, but that was just cheating.

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