The Case of Lady SannoxBy 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 have:
“…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 that have.)
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 horror story!