Long before Elizabeth Shue was having her Adventures in Babysitting, Violet Hunter was a pioneer of the strange tales of a nanny. Asked to babysit a child for an exorbitant sum, she feels something is amiss and seeks the advice of Sherlock Holmes. Initially lamenting the loss of all the great cases, Holmes soon realizes that there are strange things afoot at The Copper Beeches.
It occurs to me that many of these stories are very weird. Holmes might call them grotesque or outré, but it speaks volumes about the ideas Doyle came up with; they were hardly common and not often reproduced. This story supposedly was an idea proposed by his mother.
This is a rare case in that we don’t know that a crime has been committed until the very end. Up until that point, the entire event just seems to be about getting a woman to behave strangely at the request of her employers. Mr Rucastle, played by Joss Ackland, hires Violet for a lot of money (to the comment upon seeing her, “that will do” before ogling her and touching her hair…) explaining that her task will be to wear “any dress that we might give you”, and sit around the house in odd places. By today’s standards, these qualifications would set off alarm bells, hinting at a far different nature of job! Even watching this, I could not help but think the whole thing had a very dark feel to it indeed. Of the child, during the interview, Rucastle says that his son is so fast at killing cockroaches with a shoe, one should wonder about the nature of the house she’d be asked to live in. Nevertheless, as outré as all of this is, the real crime is not revealed until later: Rucastle has his daughter locked up, and Violet is a stand-in, designed to make her lover think she has lost interest in him. He shows up in the background and when Violet does spot him, Mrs. Rucastle makes her shoo him away dismissively. (There’s also a crime of treating a pet badly, but we’ll talk about that in the mistakes section.)
Not unlike the villain Dr. Roylott from The Speckled Band, it’s all about money. If his daughter marries, Rucastle will lose access to her money. Mind you, one must question the logic here considering he’s blowing a huge amount of money on Violet just to get her to wave away her lover. (Perhaps he knew he wouldn’t have to employ her for long and feels the promise is all he really has to give; at most he loses a small amount.)
As mentioned above, the mistake is how they treat the pet dog. They keep a vicious mastiff on the grounds to guard the place at night. Alas, the groundskeeper fails to feed it for two days and when Rucastle realizes Holmes and Watson have entered his house, he goes to release the dog, intent on having it attack the intruders. The dog turns on his master and mauls him instead. Watson puts the poor creature down to save Rucastle, though I didn’t feel it was worth it.
As a side note: fans of the Lethal Weapon series will recognize Ackland as the “Diplomatic Immunity” shouting villain of the second movie in the franchise; it was a tough role to forget. There was a part of me… a rather large part… that was against Rucastle from the start. I also wish he had been trying to stop the dog by yelling “diplomatic immunity” over and over, as if the dog should care…
One of my favorite quotes in the canon comes up in this story. “Data, data, data! I cannot make bricks without clay!” This leads to a latter moment where Hunter asks what something means and Watson, quick to impress his friend, says “We cannot theorize without data.” Brett plays the part of Holmes marvelously (as usual) and he conveys everything he needs to with the slightest glance, all done in the background of the scene.
I also think a line worthy of note emerges when Holmes and Watson discuss life; a comment that is all too accurate even today: “Crime is common, logic is rare!”
When I read the book, I was fascinated by something Holmes said in response to Watson’s admiration of country beauty. The scene is recreated: “You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.” Perhaps not the well known quote that it deserves to be, but one I felt obligated to mention.
This is a good episode but I was utterly confounded at the start. Violet is asked to cut her hair; a stipulation of the job. She turns down the job as a result but rethinks it after the offer is made again. What I struggled with is this: doesn’t hair grow back? She wasn’t asked to shave it off! She even goes so far as to save the cuttings. As for Rucastle’s actual daughter, I love how people in the 1800’s are always accused of having suffered “brain fever”.
Regardless, this is a most unusual tale and Holmes effectively plays protector of a young woman. It is another excellent portrayal of the great detective. Natasha Richardson, daughter of Vanessa Redgrave, plays Violet perfectly. She emotes terror convincingly and sells the character in all respects. A class act indeed. (Although she does push a housekeeper down the basement steps. Admittedly it was the only way she could get the woman out of commission and let Holmes into the house to help figure out what was going on, but still a bit harsh!) This may truly have been the first Adventures in Babysitting… ML