McMurdo’s Camp

The Season of Forgiveness, by M. Vernet

The Season of Forgiveness – M. Vernet

The gem that was seen

Was as small as a bean,

Yet hark to the quivering Ryder:

The jittery clown

Said he felt it go down

As the bird took the jewel inside her.

—Professor Jay Finley Christ—

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle is Sherlock Holmes’ and Dr. Watson’s Christmas story. It begins as Watson calls on Holmes “With the intention of wishing him the compliments of the Season.” He finds Holmes busy deducing the character of a man from his lost Billycock (hat). The good Doctor joins in the fun, but they are interrupted by Peterson the Commissionaire, who has found something incredible inside the crop of the goose, that had been lost with the afore mentioned Billycock. A goose that was at the moment being devoured by Peterson’s family.

A Blue Carbuncle! A shimmering blue ruby. The same Carbuncle stolen from the Countess of Morcar on her visit to the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Sir Arthur could not have picked a more unusual, confusing and surprisingly controversial gem. A carbuncle has an interesting etymology; it’s meaning has changed over time. A carbuncle at first was the name given to a lump of coal that is burning so brightly it looks like a glowing red eye. So it was used to describe evil eyes like a monster would have, “glowing with a red fire within.”

Carbuncles are mentioned in the Bible and the term describes a ruby of unusual brilliance. In Biblical times gems were held up to the Moon or a bright star to test their brilliance and worth. For instance, in a Star Sapphire the blue disappears on a dark night when held up to starlight and it shines and glistens like it’s a star itself. Rubies likewise when held up to moonlight, have an inner fire of exquisite red. The best of these were called Carbuncles, “a small burning coal.”

Medieval Craftsmen began mounting jewels and changing their shape. The

first gem cut was called a Carbuncle or En Cabochon cut. The stone was a

large oval and had a smooth dome top. They mounted many kinds of gems this way. So an ancient stone might be a carbuncle, but not a ruby.

So over the years, Carbuncle came to mean either a red stone or a domed cut

stone, or the embers of coal in a hot fire. In Holmes’ time the Victorian Rose cut was invented and is very similar to the cuts we have today. The Carbuncle, or En Cabochon was still popular.

In the 1909 Sears Roebuck and Co. catalog Carbuncle rings were sold by mail order. A man’s Carbuncle ring was listed for $.57 among the “Rubies.” A ladies version was listed for $.95 among the Turquoise rings. Unfortunately, it is not a color catalog and it’s not clear what color these stones were and the low price indicates they were not true rubies. But it does show at the time that carbuncle had become a colloquialism for a large oval domed stone and not just a brilliant ruby.

Antique dealers today use Carbuncle to mean any stone mounted in the En Cabochon style and they use it most often to describe Jade, Garnet, Almandines, and Rubies.

In BLUE, Holmes contemplates Countess Morcar’s Blue Carbuncle and expresses his musings to Watson:

When the Commissionaire had gone, Holmes took up the stone and held it against the light. “It’s a bonny thing,” said he. “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. In the larger and older jewels every facet may stand for a bloody deed. This stone is not yet twenty years old. It was found in the banks of the Amoy River in Southern China and is remarkable in having every characteristic of the Carbuncle, save that it is blue in shade instead of Ruby Red. In spite of it’s youth, it has already a sinister history. there have been two murders, a vitriol-throwing, a suicide, and several robberies brought about for the sake of this forty-grain weight of crystallized charcoal. Who would think that so pretty a toy would be a purveyor to the gallows and the prison? I’ll lock it up in my strongbox now and drop a line to the Countess to say we have it.”

It amazed me (and not in a good way) how vehement some of the articles written about this passage were. ” No such stone exists!” they cry. “The Amoy River is wrong!” “The stone would be the size of a large Lima, not a bean!”

Although I also like to get lost in the London that is always 1895 and wander the streets searching for clues to fill in the gaps in Holmes and Watson’s life, I refuse to attack the writing skills of Sir Arthur. As the creator of the boys, he had every right to do with them as he saw fit. Create for them an amazing, if not quite perfect world. He has created characters that have in turn created a life of their own. You still hear of people writing for help to Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street. This is a skilled and powerful creation, leaping off the constraints of the pages of the stories and becoming “real” to generations of men and women. That is great writing!

That being said, I’ll turn my attention to Holmes’ statement and try to uncover what may be lurking between the lines!

“Just see how it glints and sparkles.”

This is the whole idea of a Carbuncle. It’s a stone with extraordinary brilliance.

“In the older and larger stones every facet may stand for a bloody deed.”

This chilled my heart as I thought of “Blood Diamonds” today. How little things have changed in the human condition in 126 years.

“They are the Devil’s pet baits.”

Crime based on greed, how greed corrupts even a normally honest man. I think this is Sir Arthur’s main point in this story. There was another story “The Great Carbuncle” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was a moral tale of eight people searching for the priceless Ruby placed in the eye of a statue. Each character was a symbol of the motivations of greed. Each received a fitting end and Innocence won out, and the Ruby was left as it was.

In BLUE the thief was overcome with greed, even though it was the Christmas Season. He was a good man, but he was tempted and succumbed. Greed and crime have no season.

“It was found on the banks of the Amoy River.”

The river that runs through the city of Amoy is called the Kiulung River. One Sherlockian was outraged about this oversight. Really? Most people would not know this and it may have been called “The Amoy River” by Englishmen of that time, Especially since there was mining and a gem trade in Southern China.

“Save it is blue in shade instead of Ruby red.”

Rubies are a form of Sapphires, composed of the mineral corundum, or chrystalized aluminum oxide, but when chromium is present it lends a red color. Other sapphires gain their color from different trace elements. Could a Ruby be blue? Not likely, and most Sherlockians agree that the Countess Morcar’s Blue Ruby was just a figment of Sir Arthur’s colorful imagination… But I, of course, have a different theory.

There is a gem that has been confused with Ruby and Sapphire for a thousand years. Ruby Spinel (Magnesium Aluminum Oxide,) also known as “Mother of Ruby” or “The Impostor Stone,” has the same red and blue colors as Rubies and Sapphires. It is found in the same rocks, the same geological conditions.

Ancient gem traders thought these colorful stones were Rubies and Sapphires. They made their way into “Crown Jewels” and jewelry of

significance. “The Black Prince’s Ruby” is a 170 carat bright red Spinel and is mounted in the UK’s “Imperial State Crown” immediately above the famous Cullinan Diamond.

“The Timur Ruby”, a 352.5 carat bright red Spinel is embedded in a necklace given to Queen Victoria in 1853.

In Europe, Spinel continued to be misidentified as Ruby until the turn of the last Century.

In 1887 Ruby Spinel, “The Impostor” had yet to be uncovered and identified. Blue Rubies at the time, would have been accepted as real. Ruby Spinel came in many colors.

So, I theorize that the gem Sherlock locked in his strongbox was a brilliant blue Ruby Spinel cut En Cabochon, which he gave back to the Countess Morcar with the utter confidence that Blue Carbuncles do exist! Good show, Sir Arthur! The Blue Enigma is solved!

And poor Mr. Ryder, he unknowingly risked his reputation and prison for a Blue Ruby that would soon be found to have little value! Crime really doesn’t pay.

This is what I personally love about Sir Arthur’s writing. Even when he seems to be careless in his details, there is a muse, an inspiration in his writing that has a force of it’s own. His little mistakes tend to work themselves out if we add a pinch of Sherlockian Madness and a dash of lighthearted fun.

“For the sake of this forty-grain weight of crystallized charcoal.”

Sir Arthur was criticized for calling a Ruby “charcoal. “That would more correctly be a Diamond. But looking at the etymology of Carbuncle, it could be said ( with my certified Poetic License,) that Sherlock could be thinking of the original meaning of Carbuncle as a “Glowing coal”, Blue in this case. Could Sherlock Holmes be waxing poetic? Could he be alluding to literature and a knowledge of the etymology of Carbuncle? Could he be smarter than the critics? I tend to think so.

At the end of BLUE, the true thief, James Ryder, begs Holmes for mercy. Holmes decides to let him go, while Watson’s silence speaks of his approval of his friend’s decision. Holmes, taking up his clay pipe, says, “I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This man will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness.”

In MAZA and 3GAB, Holmes agrees to compound a felony. In Blue he supposes he is commuting a felony. The difference being that commuting means exchanging, in this case banishment for jail time. In Victorian England, commuting a crime is a prerogative of the crown and may not be delegated to a mere subject. Could Holmes be hinting here that he is of royal blood?

Hmmmmmm, well let’s just say for now he’s certainly the King of Consulting Detectives.

In 14 of the 60 stories of the canon, Mr. Sherlock Holmes took the law into

his own hands and freed the guilty person. It seems his merciful and forgiving heart is not seasonal, but a permanent fixture.

I’d like to end with a very moving tribute written by Edgar W. Smith

(1894-1960) a member of the Sherlockian Hall of Fame.

“Why is it that we love Sherlock Holmes?

“He is the personification of something in us we have lost, or never had. For it is not Sherlock Holmes who sits in Baker Street, comfortable, competent and self-assured; it is ourselves who are there, full of a tremendous capacity for wisdom, complacent in the presence of our humble Watson, conscious of a warm well-being and a timeless imperishable content. The easy chair in the room is drawn up to the hearthstone of our very hearts- it is our tobacco in the Persian slipper, and our violin lying so carelessly across the knees- it is we who hear the pounding on the stairs and the knock upon the door. The swirling fog without and the acrid smoke within bite deep indeed, for we taste them even now. And the time and place and all the great events are near and dear to us not because our memories call them forth in pure nostalgia but because they are part of us today. That is the Sherlock Holmes we love- the Holmes implicit and eternal in ourselves.”

During this coming Season of Forgiveness, dear readers, I wish you and your loved ones, peace of mind, a forgiving heart, and a joyful Spirit.

Merry Christmas!+++++++++Happy Holidays!

from M. Vernet


  1. What a wonderful piece. A plausible interpretation of Conan Doyle’s creative process in selecting the blue carbuncle as the object of a “festive crime”, couched in a broader discussion of the benefits of digging beneath the surface with Holmes (especially at this time of year!). A very enjoyable read – thank you. Rosie.x

    Comment by Roseanna R. — December 23, 2013 @ 8:43 pm

    • Thank You for your kind comments. I hope the New Year brings you love and luck and lots of Sherlockian fun. Watch for a new article at the end of Jan. “The Battle of Maiwand.”

      Comment by M. Vernet — January 12, 2014 @ 11:43 pm

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