Case of Lady Sannox
By Arthur Conan Doyle
First published Idler, November 1893, Vol. 4, pp. 331-42
Reviewed by Charles Prepolec
Whenever reading the non-Sherlockian short fiction of Arthur
Conan Doyle, I find myself drawn to his more macabre tales. I’m extremely fond
of Lot 249, The Ring of Thoth, and The Leather Funnel, but my favorite has to
be The Case of Lady Sannox. Although it contains no supernatural elements
whatsoever, it is, in my opinion, Doyle’s strongest horror story. This is not a popular selection I fear, as it
has been criticized for harshness and undue cruelty. A Sherlockian friend of
mine expressed some surprise and disgust when I declared my appreciation of the
story. Ronald Pearsall, in his book Conan Doyle: A Biographical Solution goes
so far as to describe it as:
“One of the most unpleasant non-occult nasties…”
A bit extreme in my view, as this is intended to be horror.
And what is horror, if not a sense of loathing and disgust at the exposition of
cruelty that man is capable of inflicting on another. Besides, it is a finely
written horror story at that! If that isn’t enough the story also conjures up
the shade of a classic Sherlock Holmes story, without actually being one. That
is to say that it is a tightly scripted tale that demonstrates Doyle’s deft
handling of his usual themes of sex, jealousy, revenge and horror. Having as it
does, a somewhat Watsonian toned narration, it lacks only the presence of the
great detective himself to fully complete the picture.
If you haven’t read The Case of Lady Sannox I urge you to do
so now, as my review will cover some specific and major story points. If you
haven’t got a copy handy (for shame, as it is has been reprinted numerous
times), you may click here to read it, before continuing.
Just as Sherlock Holmes was heading to a premature demise at
the Reichenbach falls in The Strand magazine, The Case of Lady Sannox saw print
in The Idler magazine for November of 1893. The Idler was similar in structure
to The Strand but designed to reflect the lighter literary tastes of its
editor, Jerome K. Jerome (author of Three Men in a Boat). Conan Doyle was very
much at the height of his popularity and enjoying the literary scene of which
he had become a major part. The circle of writers associated with The Idler
included James Barrie, Robert Barr, Israel Zangwill and of course Doyle’s
friend Jerome himself, to name but a few. Apparently Jerome had suggested to
Doyle that he might like to contribute a series of stories around a central
theme of medicine that could do for The Idler what Holmes had done for The
Strand. Doyle agreed and The Case of Lady Sannox was amongst his submissions.
Oddly enough, considering the criticism leveled against
Sannox, a number of the other stories sent to Jerome for publication were
deemed “too strong” for his readership and were consequently printed elsewhere.
The story was collected, along with 14 others and published in the 1894
collection Round the Red Lamp.
So what is it that makes this story so very pleasing to me?
To begin, we have the writing. Doyle’s ability to involve
the reader is masterfully demonstrated in the wonderfully intriguing hook in
the opening paragraph. We are immediately made aware of “…the notorious Lady
Sannox…” and the exalted social circle to which she belongs. Before we can even
begin to ponder her notoriety we are further informed, “…that the lady had absolutely and for ever
taken the veil, and that the world would see her no more.” All very mysterious,
but made positively compelling when faced with the somehow linked fate of the
celebrated surgeon Douglas Stone.
“…the man of steel nerves, had been found in the morning by
his valet, seated on one side of his bed, smiling pleasantly upon the universe,
with both legs jammed into one side of his breeches and his great brain about
as valuable as a cap full of porridge…”
By the end of the introductory paragraph we have a notorious
woman removed from society and a brilliant surgeon reduced to a gibbering wreck
without any clues as to the hows and whys of it. I defy any reader to put down
the story after reading that remarkable description. The Sherlockian tones
immediately arise, as this smacks of the sort of thing that Watson would read
from the newspapers for Holmes’ benefit. One of those outré little bits that so
captured the detective’s imagination. Considering that this story was written
parallel to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes it should come as no surprise
that Doyle is at the height of his story-telling ability.
From that amazing hook, Doyle starts setting the stage by
describing his players. He fills in the character of Douglas Stone. He begins
by building-up the surgeon’s success in a glowing Watson-like manner, at times
sounding as though he were describing the detective himself. For instance, we
“…famous as he was…he might have succeeded with even greater
rapidity in any of a dozen lines of life. He could have cut his way to fame as
a soldier, struggled to it as an explorer, bullied for it in the courts, or
built it out of stone and iron as an engineer. He was born to be great, for he
could plan what another man dare not do, and he could do what another man dare
not plan…His nerve, his judgement, his intuition, were things apart.”
Just as we come to think that Stone is a paragon of human
virtue, we are hit with the contrast that “His vices were as magnificent as his
virtues…” with Lady Sannox numbered amongst the former. After elaborating on Stone’s sensualist
nature we learn something of the character and background of Lady Sannox. It is
here that we have the ever-popular and sordid element of sex introduced. Doyle
is surprisingly straightforward, in a distinctly un-Watson-like manner, of
elaborating on her notoriety and her relationships with Stone and her husband.
“She was the loveliest woman in London, and the only one to
him. He was one of the handsomest men in London, but not the only one to her.
She had a liking for new experiences, and was gracious to most men who wooed
her. It may have been cause or it may have been effect that Lord Sannox looked
fifty, though he was but six-and-thirty.”
Doyle then paints a little picture of a drab cuckolded
husband whom at one time demonstrated a fondness for acting, but is now “…happier
with a spud and a watering-can among his orchids and chrysanthemums.” He also
specifies the scale of the scandal, detailing the openly brazen way in which
Stone and Lady Sannox carry on. He finishes populating his story and informs
the reader that the plot in earnest is about to begin.
“There was not an attempt to on either side to conceal their
relations; but there came at last an incident to interrupt them.”
In the very next paragraph we surely drift into Holmes
territory. The next few lines are as Watsonian as any to be found in the Canon.
Although the narration is in the third person, one can almost visualize Watson
sitting at his writing desk, warmly commenting on Holmes activities.
“It was a dismal winter’s night, very cold and gusty, with
the wind whooping in the chimneys and blustering against the window-panes. A
thin spatter of rain tinkled on the glass, with each fresh sough of the gale,
drowning for an instant the dull gurgle and drip from the eaves. Douglas Stone
had finished his dinner, and sat by his fire in the study, a glass of rich port
upon the malachite table at his elbow. As he raised it to his lips, he held it
up against the lamplight, and watched with the eye of a connoisseur the tiny
scales of beeswing which floated in its rich ruby depths. The fire, as it
spurted up, threw fitful lights upon his bald, clear-cut face, with its
widely-opened grey eyes, its thick and yet firm lips, and the deep, square jaw,
which had something Roman in its strength and its animalism. He smiled from time
to time as he nestled back in his luxurious chair. Indeed, he had a right to
feel well pleased, for, against the advice of six colleagues, he had performed
an operation that day of which only two cases were on record, and the result
had been brilliant beyond all expectation. No other man in London would have
had the daring to plan, or the skill to execute, such a heroic measure.”
Substitute Holmes for Stone, a chemical experiment for the
port and a triumph over Scotland Yard detectives rather than medical colleagues,
and you have a fairly distinct facsimile of an extremely typical opening to a
Sherlock Holmes story. The similarity carries even further when in the next
paragraph we have this tranquil scene disturbed by a knock at the door by a
mysterious and distraught client. The client relates a tale of woe and off they
go in a waiting cab. Sounds like Holmes to me! As a matter of fact, although I
have no evidence whatsoever to support the idea, it is no real stretch to
imagine that this story was quickly adapted from an outline or notes that might
once have been earmarked for a now unnecessary Holmes story. At this point, one
assumes that Doyle had already written the detective’s demise, as it would see
print a month later in the Strand.
Humor me for a moment and picture this story in a somewhat
different light and perhaps you’ll see what I mean. Take the “Baker Street
moment” above as the opening. The knock
at the door is not Sannox, rather it is Stone’s valet or some relation that
come to enlist the detectives aide in unraveling the circumstances of Stone’s
madness. The valet relates or Watson reads of the situation as noted in the
newspaper, this is the opening bit about notoriety and brains like a cap full
of porridge. Holmes agrees to do what he can and goes about some off-screen
sleuthing. He comes back with Lord Sannox in tow. Sannox then relates the rest
of the story pretty much as it was published. Holmes then turns him over to the
Police; or some other finish occurs that reinforces the more morally correct
ending that Holmes stories demand. Bingo…a minimum of restructuring with an
additional “detecting” bit and you have a perfectly acceptable Canonical tale,
written at a time when Doyle was creating some of his very best Holmesian work.
Anyway, enough fantasy. Once Doyle has laid the groundwork,
he quickly introduces the fly in the ointment, which shatters Stone’s shallow
existence. Hamil Ali, the Turkish merchant, provides this interesting exotic
element that re-ignites the readers curiosity. Very much a case of “Now where
is this heading?” Of course the reader has already worked out that something
nasty is afoot, and anyone that noted the reference to Lord Sannox’s early
interest in acting has worked out that a grim deception is being played out, but
just how it unfolds is the key to sustaining interest.
And so, for the love of money he permanently disfigures his
lover while her husband looks on, gloating all the while. The cuckold has had
his terrible revenge and the story concludes with a lasting sense of
reprehensible moral ambiguity.
So, how can I justify the sordid and nasty tone?
Well, quite frankly, I don’t find it any more sordid or
nasty than most of Doyle’s other writings that deal with infidelity and
violence. Is this story any worse than many canonical ones? Surely, the grisly
cutting off of the lip is no nastier than the removal, by axe, of an engineer’s
thumb? Or the severing of an unfaithful wife’s ears by her jealous husband? Or
the slow suffocation of an unfaithful butler by his jilted lover? Or the
“accidental” skull crushing death of an abusive husband at the hands of his
wife’s lover? Time and again Doyle meted out equally horrid “justice” to other
characters in other stories yet the accusation of “nastiness” or cruelty is
rarely leveled against them. With the exception of The Engineer’s Thumb, the
others all touch on illicit love, jealousy and to some degree revenge. These
themes are also evident in The New Catacomb and The Winning Shot to add a
couple more non-canonical examples. Of course the subject makes for good drama,
but it still surprises me when I realize just how often Doyle utilized the
theme of infidelity and its effects. Clearly it is a subject that interested
him a good deal.
While Lord Sannox has definitely gone beyond the pale in his
revenge, we cannot but appreciate his cold cunning and method of executing that
revenge. It is a demonstration of the “charm of evil” concept. It is that
principal that makes horrific figures in horror books and films so appealing.
Readers and filmgoers know that Hannibal Lecter is a twisted killer, yet we are
thrilled nonetheless by his gruesome escape from custody in The Silence of the
Lambs. In much the same way, we detest
what Sannox has done, but we have next to no sympathy for his victims either.
Had Doyle made Lady Sannox or Douglas Stone more discreet, or intimated that
Lord Sannox was a particularly abusive or cruel husband, the story would have a
completely different tone.
At the climax, Stone is given an opportunity to redeem himself
in the reader’s eyes. When faced with the drugged woman and her injury, Stone
momentarily hesitates. This gives the reader a chance to exhale and hope that
this shallow surgeon has a vestige of conscience remaining, but the idea is
shattered when he decides that returning the fee would be the result and
proceeds against his better judgement.
Having mentioned films, I’m surprised that The Case of Lady
Sannox has only been dramatized for television on one occasion, as it is a
natural for those half hour Tales of the Unexpected type shows. John Hawksworth
adapted the story for the BBC’s Late Night Horror lineup in 1968. It was broadcast under the rather more
sensational name The Kiss of Blood and starred Diane Cilento as Lady Sannox,
Roy Dotrice as Douglas Stone and Charles Workman as the vengeful Lord Sannox.
(Having never seen this program myself, I’d be pleased to hear from readers
In the end, my little Holmesian fantasy aside, all that
matters is that Doyle has told a gripping and clever tale that not only shocks
the reader with a grisly climax, but also exposes the depth of emotion and
horrific deeds that man is capable of when driven by jealousy. In that sense, I
think Doyle achieved precisely what he intended, which was to craft a particularly
effective (and yes, ghastly) little