11 Perfectly Fine Sherlock Holmes Stories

Welcome to today’s edition of The Definitive Ranking of Every Single Sherlock Holmes Story, covering #31-#41 in the rankings. Note that unless otherwise called out in advance, a story’s summary will not give away the ending; I am not a monster.

So the stories covered this week are fine. Which, for Holmes, is pretty good! I do actually think you should read these, which I can’t say for all the stories from the past few weeks. 

Here we’re just missing that certain something that could make the stories great. Some have memorable or bizarre elements but a basic-ass storyline, some of them are solid mysteries but just aren’t magical. Nobody will forget the end of The Illustrious Client, but do you remember the beginning? The Second Stain has some excellent imagery, which is important to me, but the imagery is kind of incidental to an overall meh story that’s an echo of better, similar Holmes stories. I would even say that Shoscombe Old Place and The Retired Colourman are both very serviceable mysteries – but they don’t have that magic that makes them Holmes. And some of these stories would be better if they were a smidge less racist. 

So they aren’t top-tier. That’s fine. Everyone has a solid off-day. Even Serena Williams loses occasionally. (Serena Williams > Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for the record. The criteria here are very complicated.) 

I’m pretty sure some of the stories in this post are quite popular among ~true fans~ who will be horrified at how low they’re ranked. Oh well!

41. The Problem of Thor Bridge

First published 1922. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

As both a content warning and spoiler (sorry, there’s no other way to give the content warning), this story contains a suicide.

Summary

An American gold magnate’s wife has been killed, and the American gold magnate is very concerned with ensuring that the attractive family governess is not convicted of the crime. He comes to Holmes for help. Holmes does not like him very much, but gets him to admit that he loved the governess and hated his wife, and that his wife loved him and the governess did not, and with the preliminaries out of the way Holmes heads to Thor Place to investigate. It seems hopeless, but a bit of chipped stone may give Holmes the clue he needs.

This Aged Poorly: The murdered wife is Brazilian, and is therefore a fiery, impetuous woman – “tropical by birth and tropical by nature,” as one character says, a phrase that can be applied any number of Conan Doyle women from South or Central America. The phrase “the heat of the Amazon” is also used, and the general theme continues throughout the story. 

Reader’s Notes

I was today years old when I learned that Thor Bridge was based on a true story as reported by criminologist Dr. Gross. (Aside, I highly recommend the Leslie S. Klinger annotated version of the Holmes Canon.) Anyway, it’s a decent little tale, perhaps the best actual mystery of the final collection, marred by the racist caricature of an impetuous Brazilian.

Read This Story If… You like Agatha Christie-esque twists that aren’t entirely logical (I’m looking at you, Murder in Mesopotamia).

Drink Pairing: A Gold Rush.

40. The Adventure of the Crooked Man

First published 1893. Collected in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Holmes appears on Watson’s doorstep at midnight because he is in the middle of a case and needs someone to talk to. The case in question concerns the murder of one Colonel Barclay, head of a famous Irish military regiment, who dies in a locked room after quarrelling with his beloved wife. The clues make no sense – the key to the room is missing, the footprints of a mysterious animal unknown to England are found outside, and the wife was overheard shouting “David,” a name that was not her husband’s. Can Holmes knit these clues together to track down the truth?

This Aged Poorly: Reference to “red-Indian” complexion, usage of the word “cripple” and unkind descriptions of the person in question, and reference to a “street Arab” (a class of people not actually of Arabian descent). Part of the backstory references the Indian Mutiny, including how a white man was tortured and enslaved by the Indians, and of course there is the general assumption that Britain was on the right side of that altercation. 

Reader’s Notes

This one is fine but not great. I actually find it a story better to watch than read, perhaps the Jeremy Brett version; following the story visually is more interesting than just listening to Holmes recite it, which is what 90% of the written version is. I think the main problem is that because it’s just Holmes telling most of the story, we don’t get the level of character richness that Conan Doyle is capable of.

Read This Story If… You like some military flair in your murders.

Drink Pairing: Indian tea, the comfort of an agitated woman.

39. His Last Bow

First published 1917. Collected in His Last Bow.

Summary

The Great War is nigh and Watson has deserted us for an omniscient third-person narrator who is given to dramatic scene-setting. On the eve of Britain officially declaring war, two German diplomats, Van Bork and Von Herling, are at Van Bork’s English estate musing on the British as a people. Von Herling leaves, and Van Bork settles in to wait for a traitorous Irish-American who is bringing him some stolen papers that Van Bork needs to collect before fleeing the country. Like all good Irish-Americans the man is chatty and a bit mouthy, but Van Bork gets a surprise when he opens the man’s parcel to find, not stolen government papers, but the Practical Handbook of Bee Culture.

Of Note: One of only two stories written in third-person. The voice is not jarringly different from Watson’s. Most interesting is the final exchange between the two old friends, with their country on the eve of war:

“There’s an east wind coming, Watson.”

“I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.”

“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, strong land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.”

Reader’s Notes

This is just a feel-good patriotic propaganda story. There’s no mystery, and honestly there’s very little story. This is not a favorite of mine, which I believe puts me in the minority, but then I don’t have that warm fuzzy patriotic feeling towards Great Britain as a whole. Many of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films draw from this story in tone if not in plot, updated to World War II. I believe the film Voice of Terror is based pretty directly on His Last Bow, including Holmes’s patriotic final speech. 

Read This Story If… You believe in the Union Jack.

Drink Pairing: A sweet Tokay.

38. The Adventure of the Retired Colourman

First published 1926. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Mr. Amberly’s wife has run off with his chess partner and a fair amount of Amberly’s life savings. Holmes is busy so he sends Watson to track down clues, which Watson dutifully does, though of course not to Holmes’s exacting standards. Is this, as Holmes originally posits, “the old story, a treacherous friend and a fickle wife?” Or is there a deeper, darker mystery here?

Of Note: This appears as the final story in the final collection (Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes) but was actually the penultimate story published in the Strand magazine. (I think penultimate. Maybe the pen-penultimate. Anyway, not the last, that was Shoscombe Old Place.)

This Aged Poorly: A man is referred to as having “n—-rdly ways,” a phrase which, if you are not familiar with its usage during this time period, meant he is a tightwad and a miser. It is currently, for obvious reasons, not in use.

Reader’s Notes

A good solid little mystery, but a workhorse plot with no really colorful characters to vault it higher in the rankings. It is interesting how Holmes uses Watson in this case, hiding facts from him and then relying on his upright inability to lie or bluff to manage the suspect’s movements (see also: The Dying Detective). There is none so good and pure as John H. Watson, MD, and Holmes was not above taking advantage.

Read This Story If… You know that art is the real evil.  

Drink Pairing: A Gibson.

37. The Adventure of the Second Stain

First published 1904. Collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

An important political document has been stolen out of the bedroom of Mr. Trelawney Hope, England’s Secretary for European Affairs. Holmes suspects that the disappearance is connected to a gruesome murder. The police, knowing nothing of the political angle, suspect the victim’s wife, but an oddity with the bloodstains on the carpet lead Holmes in a different direction.

This Aged Poorly: There is a woman “of Creole origin” whose temper and insanity may or may not be partially due to her heritage, and the word “Oriental” is used in a way that is no longer popular.

Reader’s Notes

A similar idea to the earlier adventure The Naval Treaty, but taken in a different direction. There are some solid elements but it’s not Holmes’s strongest outing. His detecting skills are not really on display here; most clues appear by happenstance. Lady Hilda, Trelawney Hope’s wife, is another of the strong-willed female characters that Holmes tangles with, though she falls apart a little bit at the end. She is not one for whom Holmes has a lot of sympathy, however. (For the Americans who may be wondering, she is a Lady even though her husband is not a Lord because her father is a Duke.) Some exquisite imagery bumps this up above some of the other stories in this group (you gotta love matching up bloodstains).

Read This Story If… You enjoy diplomatic intrigue and strong-willed ladies who do not care about diplomatic intrigue.

Drink Pairing: A gin and tonic, made with the eminently British Beefeater gin.

“Look, a clew!”

36. The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez

First published 1904. Collected in Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Young Stanley Hopkins, a promising young Scotland Yard Inspector (see also: The Adventure of Black Peter, below), comes to Holmes on a blustery November night with a case he can’t untangle. A young secretary of impeachable character, Mr. Willoughby Smith, has been murdered; in his hands are clutched a pair of pince-nez which were not his. Can this sliver of a clue, the gasping words of the dying man, and an excess of cigarette smoking lead Holmes to this puzzle’s solution?

Reader’s Notes

The puzzle part of this story – and how Holmes figures it out – is actually pretty cute, but the story doesn’t have any of the vivid characters or bizarre concept that would make it top-tier. I don’t not recommend it, it’s just a bit more of a workhorse and lacks heart, though it does (surprisingly) contain Russians.

Read This Story If… You are a student of Russian history. 

Drink Pairing: A shot of fine Russian vodka.

35. The Adventure of the Gloria Scott

First published 1893. Collected in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

In this story, to the delight of fans everywhere, Holmes recounts his first ever case to Watson. When his college friend Victor Trevor’s father drops dead after receiving a mysterious note about hen pheasants, Holmes rushes to his aid. The source of evil seems clear, but what hold did old Mr. Trevor’s strange long-lost acquaintance have over the old man to cause him such fear? Holmes solves a ciphered letter so slowly that Harriet the Spy would have been ashamed of him, but it kind of doesn’t even matter because the dead man left a detailed and unhidden letter explaining every last detail of his life.

Of Note/Notable Quote: This is, per Holmes’s own telling, his first ever case and is remarkable for that if for nothing else. 

Reader’s Notes

The Holmes-solving-a-mystery part of this is completely mundane – the only real action Holmes takes is to decipher a coded message that isn’t important at all. However, the dead father’s explanatory letter at the end is actually a rather entertaining adventure story, which is the only thing that saves this tale from dropping lower in the ranks.

Read This Story If… You thought Titanic had too much romance and not enough vicious murders by ex-convicts.

Drink Pairing: Brown sherry. I don’t know what this is, but it probably tastes better if you’re at sea.

Gloria Scott also gives us one of the best Sidney Paget drawings of all time. The pure drama of it all.

34. The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place

First published 1927. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Something strange is in the air at Shoscombe Old Place, the home of Lady Beatrice Falder and her brother Sir Robert Norberton. The woman is acting strange, avoiding her favorite horse and drinking “like a fish,” and her brother has given away her favorite dog and dug up an old body in the family crypt. When a human femur is found in the home’s furnace, the worried head trainer at Shoscombe Old Place brings the strange case to Holmes. 

Of Note: The last Sherlock Holmes story Conan Doyle ever published. (And therefore the last Sherlock Holmes story that matters.)

This Aged Poorly: “In the hands of the Jews” is used multiple times to mean “in debt.” 

Reader’s Notes

If this were not a Sherlock Holmes story, it’d be a perfectly good addition to any Victorian anthology. It just lacks the spark that we want from Holmes. The lack of pizzaz as well as Holmes’s sympathetic treatment of the villain keep this one relatively low in the list, even though it is a successful mystery.

Read This Story If… You want to read a mystery and don’t really care if it’s a Sherlock Holmes story.

Drink Pairing: A nice warm whisky, preferably by the bottle. (This is a joke. Please do not drink an entire bottle of whisky, even if you’re an actor.)

33. The Adventure of Abbey Grange

First published 1904. Collected in Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Holmes drags Watson out of bed in the middle of the night and then negs his writing talents, which are not character traits that I personally look for in a friend. Together they rush off to Abbey Grange to investigate the murder of Sir Eustace Brackenstall and the alluring feminine charms of his Australian widow. Sir Eustace was a violent drunk and nobody seems heartbroken at his demise, which is believed to be the work of a well-known gang of thieves. Further investigation, however, convinces Holmes that all is not as it seems. 

Notable Quote: “The game is afoot,” Holmes declares at the beginning of this tale, a phrase ever after associated with the Great Detective.

This Aged Poorly: Use of the phrase “white man” to mean “honest.” 

Reader’s Notes

Holmes is oddly self-reflective in this one, noting earlier cases where he went off half-cocked, as it were, and maybe did more harm than good. Here, Holmes moves a bit more slowly and thoughtfully. He eventually takes the law into his own hands, nominating Watson as the British jury (“and I never met a man who was more eminently fitted to represent one”) and deciding on his own recognizance to let the killer go free. The victim, who in addition to physically abusing his wife also set fire to her dog, is not one to inspire sympathy, and I tend to side with Holmes on this one.

Read This Story If… You think some men had it coming, and only have themselves to blame.  

Drink Pairing: A vintage red wine.

32. The Adventure of Black Peter

First published 1904. Collected in Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Stanley Hopkins, an up-and-coming Yard inspector, brings Holmes in on a most mysterious case. An old sailor has been killed, a jolly man known throughout the neighborhood for doing things like “driv[ing] his wife and daughter out of doors in the middle of the night and flog[ging] them through the park until the whole village […] was roused by their screams.” We’re all #teammurderer in this one, but the police still have to do their job and figure out who ran the man through with a harpoon. 

Of Note: The first appearance of young Stanley Hopkins, one of the few members of the police force that Holmes ever expressed true admiration for (though not necessarily in this story). And this is neither here nor there, really, but in this tale Holmes uses the disguise of “Captain Basil,” 35 years before one Basil Rathbone disguised himself as Sherlock Holmes for a series of successful films. It means nothing, I just think it’s cute.

Reader’s Notes

It’s a solid little story. Conan Doyle packs a lot in – financial shenanigans, a despicable victim, clues that point to the wrong killer, and some peak Holmes nonsense (the story begins with Holmes harpooning a dead pig carcass for testing purposes). It doesn’t have quite as much ~flavor~ as some of the other stories, but it’s solid.

Read This Story If… You appreciate violent domestic abusers being run through with harpoons.

Drink Pairing: Rum, like a proper seaman.

31. The Adventure of the Illustrious Client

First published 1924. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Colonel Sir James Damery is famous in London society for “fixing problems” but now has a problem even he can’t fix – the pretty and innocent Violet de Merville has become obsessed with the villainous Baron Gruber and intends to marry him no matter how many horrible stories she hears of his past. Sir James hopes that Holmes can help extricate the beautiful young innocent before she becomes Baron Gruber’s second dead wife. Holmes enlists the help of the impeccably-named Shinwell Johnson, who produces one of the “fallen women” of Baron Gruber’s past, a Miss Kitty Winter. Holmes takes Miss Winter to see the icy Violet de Merville, but that interview ends poorly and two days later Holmes is almost murdered in the street by the Baron’s henchmen. The solution to their troubles, obviously, is for Watson to study Chinese pottery. 

This Aged Poorly: The description of Baron Gruber uses an outdated expression to refer to people of East Asian descent (which he is not, incidentally). 

Reader’s Notes

The ending of this story is unforgettable, as Kitty Winter takes her vengeance upon the man that wronged her. It’s dramatic, but troubling. Kitty Winter is very similar in temperament to Flora Miller from The Noble Bachelor; together, they give an unflattering picture of what Conan Doyle thinks of poor women who have been sexually ill-used by rich men. Holmes also makes a lot of sweeping generalizations about women generally, specifically how all women react the same way to their lovers being disparaged.

All that nonsense aside, it’s a good little story.

Read This Story If… You enjoy seeing abusive men get their comeuppance. 

Drink Pairing: A delicate Chinese tea. 

~

And that’s it for this week!

Agree? Disagree? I am always game to talk about Sherlock Holmes, so please feel free to leave a comment below!

~

Join us next week for 9 Really Quite Good Sherlock Holmes Stories! The entire series can be found here.

5 Sherlock Holmes Stories That Have a Hint of Magic, but Miss the Mark

Welcome to today’s edition of The Definitive Ranking of Every Single Sherlock Holmes Story, covering #42-#46 in the rankings. Note that unless otherwise called out in advance, a story’s summary will not give away the ending; I am not a monster.

The best Holmes stories have a bit of the weird, bizarre, or grotesque. In my opinion (welcome to my blog), Conan Doyle is at his best when he is combining mystery/adventure with bizarre/horror. 

Which makes this week’s stories all the more disappointing. There’s potential – they touch on the weird or unusual. There are vampires! How can the Sherlock Holmes/vampire crossover event be so low on my list? And yet these stories disappoint. They’re not much better than last week’s group, with a similar dullness of either plot or character, but there’s an undercurrent of oddity that makes them a little more Holmesian and therefore bumped them up in the rankings.

46. The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane

First published 1926. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Holmes is retired on the coast, raising bees, and responsible for telling his own tale. He is out for a walk with a neighbor when another neighbor, the science teacher McPherson, flings himself up from the beach gasping out his dying words: “The lion’s mane.” McPherson’s body looks like it has been flogged, and nobody can make heads or tails of the strange death – surely a murder? But who could have done such a thing? The man’s fiancée? The enemy-turned-friend-who-may-still-be-an-enemy? Holmes must find the answer before another death occurs. 

Of Note: One of only two stories narrated by Holmes himself.

Reader’s Notes

Strangely, Conan Doyle considered this one of his better stories, and would have included it in his own Top Ten list if that list had not been made prior to the story’s publication. In this judgement Conan Doyle was incorrect, as many writers are about their own work. It’s a nice little pastiche, and even a semi-clever little story if you like answers that make no sense and have nothing really to do with the clues, but overall it’s disappointing and you end it feeling like “I read all of these words for this?”

Read This Story If… Your sympathies have always been with the Sea Witch Ursula.

Drink Pairing: A Lion’s Tail.

45. The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger

First published 1927. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Content Warning: Suicidal ideation, and Holmes uses what is probably unhelpful language in addressing the topic.

Summary

Mrs. Merrilow has a strange lodger, a veiled woman who cries out about murder in the night. This lodger, a Mrs. Ronder, agrees to see the great Sherlock Holmes so that her story can be heard before she dies. She is the widow of the circus master Mr. Ronder, who was mauled to death by a lion some years ago, an incident that left her face horribly disfigured. It is to tell this tale that she summons Holmes. 

This Aged Poorly: Fat-shaming language; this is less a thing that aged poorly, because I still see similar language in modern writing, and more just a note that it was gross then and it’s gross now and everyone should just cut it out. 

Reader’s Notes

This story definitely isn’t a mystery; it’s the confessional of a woman who is planning to die. Calling it an adventure is too strong – maybe a grotesque little pastiche? It’s fine, as far as it goes, but it’s not very interesting.

Read This Story If… Your favorite part of the Batman legend is when The Flying Graysons abruptly stop flying. 

Drink Pairing: A cotton candy margarita.

44. The Adventure of the Creeping Man

First published 1923. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Spoiler alert for the story’s ending in the “this aged poorly” section, but no details are included on how Holmes gets there.

Summary

Why has Professor Presbury’s faithful dog suddenly tried to bite him? Why has Professor Presbury become sly and secretive and downright cranky? Why was he in Prague without telling his family? And what on earth is he doing crawling around the hallway at night, snarling at people? These are the questions that Presbury’s assistant (and soon-to-be son-in-law) brings to Sherlock Holmes, and the questions that bring Sherlock Holmes out to the college town of Camford. 

Notable Quote: “Come at once if convenient – if inconvenient come all the same,” Holmes says delightfully in a note to Watson.

This Aged Poorly: In a “this aged poorly” note that has a slightly different flavor than usual, the problem here is scientific rather than racist. The explanation for the professor’s strange behavior comes from an “elixir of life” that seems very questionable from what little I know of how science works. 

Reader’s Notes

This one holds a dear place in my heart because the Jeremy Brett version is the first Holmes story I ever remember seeing on screen – something about the grown man swinging through tree-tops with creepy lighting just stuck with me. That said, even the clouds of nostalgia force me to admit it’s not great. The setup is fine, but the explanation is eye-rolling, especially to a modern audience, and any mystery is only as good as its ending.

Read This Story If… You like to start your day with a smidge of pseudoscience.

Drink Pairing: Six gin and tonics, in honor of Mabel Jackson.

43. The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot

First published 1910. Collected in His Last Bow.

Summary

Holmes and Watson are in Cornwall (which Watson describes in excruciating detail) so that Holmes’s health can recuperate – and what is more restorative than a nice murder? Brenda Tregennis is dead and her two brothers raving and laughing at the table with her. Against Watson’s wishes, Holmes investigates this intriguing situation but there is an unfortunate lack of clues. When they return from brooding upon the moor about the unfortunate lack of clues, Holmes and Watson find in their rooms the local celebrity Dr. Leon Sterndale, one of the Great White Men known for killing lions in Africa. But even the great lion-killer cannot produce more clues, and it is not until a tragic second death that Holmes begins to see the light – but only after he poisons himself and Watson.

Notable Quote: A delicious exchange in this one: 

“How do you know that?” a suspect asks.

“I followed you,” says Holmes.

“I saw no one.”

“That is what you may expect to see when I follow you.”

Delightful!

This Aged Poorly: You will, I am sure, be shocked to find that the Great White Lion-Killer refers to Africans as “savages.” This story also contains one of those mysterious African poisons that writers of this era are so fond of – untraceable and producing horrifying effects. 

Reader’s Notes

Holmes calls this the “strangest case I ever handled” – he is wrong (that is a different series of rankings) but it certainly is grotesque. Like many of the latter-day Holmes stories, this one is a decent mystery with a tinge of the bizarre, but it lacks the spirit that marks the best ones from the early Canon.

There are a few items of note here, though: First, Watson definitively saves Holmes’s life (and his own) and for once Holmes shows proper humbleness towards his friend. You love to see it.

Second, in response to an outburst from a character, Holmes says “If the matter is beyond humanity, it is beyond me.” Conan Doyle was a noted spiritualist, very into seances and fairies and that sort of thing. I always find it interesting when Holmes dismisses the supernatural – yes, authors are not their characters, but I love how completely Conan Doyle prevented any hint of spiritualism from intruding on the Holmes Canon. It would be cheating the reader, and we can’t have that.

Read This Story If… You like moors and nightmares. 

Drink Pairing: Honestly it doesn’t matter as long as it involves a smoke machine. Smoke a Sprite if that’s your preference.

42. The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire

First published 1924. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Some reputable lawyers send one of their clients to Holmes, considering vampires to be more in his line than theirs. Robert “Big Bob” Ferguson tells Holmes of a “friend” of his who married a Peruvian lady (Watson is too innocent to realize there is no friend, it’s just Ferguson, but Holmes is a sharper lad). This lady has inexplicably assaulted the man’s teenage son (by his first marriage) as well as their shared baby boy. Also she may be a vampire, and can Holmes possibly help? Holmes heads to Sussex, sure that there is nothing paranormal about the case, and his suspicions are quickly confirmed.

Notable Quotes: As a lover of vampire nonsense, this story has some delicious quotes that are probably not notable to scholars but which I greatly enjoy. Near the beginning: “The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.” And near the end: “The idea of a vampire was to me absurd. Such things do not happen in criminal practice in England.”

This Aged Poorly: The elder son is a “cripple.” The Peruvian wife is obviously described as “fiery,” because what other phrase would you use? (This is sarcasm. Fiery Latin Americans were a problematic fave of writers of this era.) The accent given to the Peruvian servant is questionable at best.

Reader’s Notes

Vampires come to 221B Baker Street! The crossover I didn’t know I needed, though of course there is a practical solution. It’s a perfectly fine little tale, though one of the many that would not have made it to Holmes if husbands and wives would just fucking communicate with each other. Honestly, the entire family should go to therapy.

Read This Story If… You suspect Holmes is a descendent of Van Helsing.

Drink Pairing: A Bloody Mary. 

A striking family resemblance, no?

~

And that’s it for this week!

Agree? Disagree? I am always game to talk about Sherlock Holmes, so please feel free to leave a comment below!

~

Join us next week for 11 Perfectly Fine Sherlock Holmes Stories! The entire series can be found here.

quick documentary review: Netflix’s Night Stalker

I am a very normal human, so I spent most of yesterday afternoon watching Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, Netflix’s recent-ish documentary on Richard Ramirez. My partner deliberately left the room for the majority of the show, but ha ha joke’s on him we live in a one-bed in a quarantine and he couldn’t escape my recap.

I’m fun at parties.

If you’re blessedly unfamiliar with Ramirez, he was a rapist, murderer, and supposed Satanist who terrorized Los Angeles (and, to a lesser extent, San Francisco) in 1985. There was no rhyme or reason to his victims; most sexually-motivated serial killers have a “type,” but Ramirez was indiscriminate, raping children (boys and girls), young women, and mature women across ethnic and racial backgrounds. His killings were even more randomized. He was a truly horrible human being, and be forewarned that this documentary goes into detail and includes many crime scene photos.

For only being four episodes, I feel like there’s a lot to dissect in Night Stalker for people who simply enjoy dissecting documentaries. It’s good, overall. I enjoyed it, if “enjoy” is the right word for this genre of media. But there are complications.

Structurally, the narrative follows the two LA County Sheriff’s Office detectives assigned to the case, Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno, as they realize that the disparate crimes across the county are related. (Carrillo is presented as the bright young hotshot, whose initial diagnosis that this is a serial killer is laughed out of the room; Salerno is the grizzled cop superstar, the detective who apprehended the Hillside Strangler(s) in the 70s. It’s made for Hollywood, honestly.) Throughout the documentary, we only know as much as the police knew at any given point. We learn Ramirez’s name and see his photo at the same point in the story the police did. It’s good drama.

I like this structure. In similar documentaries, we often follow the killer, trying to understand them, or follow the killer in tandem with the team trying to track them down. We are usually presented with the murders and then see police looking for clues that will lead to a foregone conclusion. (I’m thinking specifically about Manson family documentaries, which usually skip from the murders to apprehension very quickly, glossing over the 4 months of confusion and panic and police work. We the audience know Manson did it, so it’s only natural the police will figure it out.) The filmmakers here did a great job retaining a sense of mystery, encouraging us to feel the same horror the victims did, the same horror the whole city did as this mysterious murderer stalked LA. The victim statements are expertly integrated.

However, I felt at times like I was watching an apology piece for Carrillo and Salerno. Here are all the things we did, they seem to say, all the pieces of evidence we were tracking down, here’s how close we were—and here is how the system fucked us over. Whether it was LAPD vs. Sheriff’s office jurisdictional infighting that prevented evidence from being processed in a timely fashion, or budgetary restrictions that pulled officers from a sting the day before Ramirez returned to that location, or San Francisco Mayor Diane Feinstein’s ill-timed press conference that gave away valuable evidence—according to the detectives, they were doing great work and were victims of circumstance. They could have caught Ramirez so much earlier if, if, if. But the documentary misses an opportunity and doesn’t really press them, just letting this narrative unfold. Maybe it’s all true, but it’s hard to trust a one-sided narrative that seems to have an agenda.

The documentary also doesn’t press on a really troubling piece of police brutality that a San Francisco officer describes. When they got as far as knowing that the Night Stalker was a man named Rick, the SFPD went to talk to one of Rick’s friends to try to get his full name. When this witness was in the police car, the officer hit him, supposedly lightly. He then pulled back and told the witness he’d hit him so hard he’d rip him apart from “his head to his ass” (paraphrasing) and the man immediately folds. This is presented as if it is supposed to be a high moment—yeah, we’ve got him! We got a name! Success! But like… a white cop threatened violence against a Hispanic man in his custody and I don’t really find that to be uplifting? And the documentary just glides on by.

Finally, while I learned a lot about the investigation (which is great! I loved that tactic!) I don’t quite feel like I learned enough about Ramirez. It quickly became clear that the documentary was going to follow the classic Sherlock Holmes novel structure of 1) investigation, 2) identify/catch the killer, 3) flashback to the killer’s history, 4) denouement/trial if applicable. It mostly stayed on that track, but 3) flashback was not robust enough to really tell me much about Ramirez. For example, how did he get into Satanism? Did he actually believe it? This was the heyday of the Satanic Panic, but the documentary doesn’t really explore him within that context. I absolutely appreciated the narrative structure and minimizing the focus on Ramirez, but we needed just a bit more than we got.

Overall, the documentary just felt very slightly out of balance. I would have loved a non-police expert to weigh in on what police procedure was like in the 80s, how normal it was for that much evidence to have been messed up. I would have loved to hear from an actual mental health expert, instead of just tapes of Ramirez talking about whether a killer like him was born or made.

But I did really enjoy this documentary, in a horrified kind of way, and I’m nitpicking about documentarian choices. (Meeee?) It’s good, and tells a jaw-dropping story from an unusual perspective, and I definitely recommend it.

5 Sherlock Holmes Stories That Aren’t Unreadable, Just Kind of Dull

Welcome to today’s edition of The Definitive Ranking of Every Single Sherlock Holmes Story, which covers #47-#51. Note that unless otherwise called out in advance, a story’s summary will not give away the ending; I am not a monster.

You know how you’ll get that grocery store California Roll sushi and it’s, like, definitely sushi-shaped, and definitely has all the right ingredients in more-or-less the right order, but it’s just a sad echo of real sushi? And you are kind of sad about your life, but you eat the sushi anyway because it’s 1am and it’s what you have, but eating it just makes you remember the last time you had good sushi? And you wish you had the good sushi? So you’re unsatisfied and unhappy? You know?

#47-51 in our ranking are like that. They’re not, like, awful. They’re readable. You’ll read them and go, “Yes, that was certainly a Sherlock Holmes story that I read.” But they aren’t great. There isn’t anything magical about them. So let’s get them out of the way quickly so we can move forward into next week, when the stories will still not be great, but they’ll at least have a spark of that weirdness that makes a Holmes story special.

51. The Adventure of the Stock-Broker’s Clerk

First published 1893. Collected in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894.

Content warning: attempted suicide.

Summary

Holmes collects Dr. Watson and dashes away with him to Birmingham to investigate the case of Mr. Hall Pycroft, a stock-broker’s clerk. Mr. Pycroft is befuddled by his new employers, a disconcertingly similar pair of brothers who poached him from another company and then sent him away from London to do grunt work. When Holmes and Watson arrive on the scene, Pycroft’s manager attempts to hang himself. Holmes must unravel a mystery with broader implications than just Pycroft’s paycheck.

This Aged Poorly: An old-timey pejorative word is used to refer to a Jewish person while stereotyping Jewish features. 

Reader’s Notes

This is a weaksauce version of The Adventure of the Red-Headed League, which preceded it by two years. It’s not a bad story, exactly, it’s just that Conan Doyle already wrote it once, better, and this version doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Overall just kind of dull.

Read This Story If… You’ve lost your copy of the The Adventure of the Red-Headed League

Drink Pairing: RC Cola, the lesser version of a better drink.

50. The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb

First published 1892. Collected in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892.

Summary

When Dr. Watson tends a patient whose thumb has been cleaved down to a bloody messy stub, he immediately takes him to see Sherlock Holmes. There, the hydraulic engineer tells them the fantastic tale of his night’s adventures and how he came to be running from a mysterious German with a large meat cleaver.

Reader’s Notes

This one starts with promise but there isn’t really a mystery, and nobody gets any comeuppance. The only literary achievement is some mildly spooky atmosphere.

Read This Story If… You want to be vaguely disappointed while desperately trying to discover an interesting story, somewhere.

Drink Pairing: Just take a shot of jager to numb the pain. (Of the story, I hope your thumb is OK.)

49. The Adventure of the Three Students

First published 1904. Collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1905.

Summary

In this low-stakes case, one of three students has cheated on a college exam and for some reason Holmes agrees to investigate. (I mean, the honor of the college is at stake, but honestly who cares?)

The dramz.

This Aged Poorly: One of the three suspects is Indian, which is excellent for showing both the diversity of Fake Oxford/Cambridge as well as the stereotypes of the time. Thankfully, Holmes is in better form than he was in The Three Gables, defending the character against Watson’s charge of “slyness.” Overall I would characterize the man’s treatment as “surprisingly not as bad as it could be,” which I realize is giving credit for sailing over a very low bar.

Reader’s Notes

A perfectly fine little puzzle, though a modern reader might immediately latch onto the least likely suspect as the inevitable culprit. It’s also one of the stories where the culprit, upon exposure, is like “well yes I was going to confess here’s the letter I wrote” so Holmes isn’t really necessary at all. Meh.

Read This Story If… You yearn for your college days.

Drink Pairing: A nice Greek wine.

48. The Adventure of the Red Circle

First published 1911. Collected in His Last Bow, 1917.

Summary

Mrs. Warren finds her new lodger a bit odd, and asks Holmes to figure out why. An odd lodger himself, Holmes at first shows little interest, but when Mrs. Warren’s husband is roughed up in the street Holmes’s interest is piqued and he sets out to investigate. He quickly discovers secret codes, Italian ruffians, and a lodger who is certainly not what they seem.

Of Note: The only story in which Holmes works with the famed American detective agency, the Pinkertons. (Though Detective Leverton seems to do very little.) 

This Aged Poorly: The Italians are very dramatic and are obviously all part of the Mafia.

Reader’s Notes

This one is fine – the concept of the mystery lodger has promise, but the unraveling of the mystery is a bit lackluster. Holmes’s presence isn’t really required to ensure that everything ends up OK, and any story where the hero doesn’t really need to be there should maybe be reexamined. The secret cipher sounds like one of the most tedious things ever, but honestly that aligns with what I think of most ciphers.

Read This Story If… You wish the Godfather movies had more Sherlock Holmes. 

Drink Pairing: A nice Italian wine, red like blood and drama. 

47. The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone

First published 1921. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, 1927.

Summary

Watson, currently living in his own quarters, gets the run-down from Billy the Page: Holmes is on the trail of the missing Crown diamond, “the hundred-thousand-pound burglary” which has brought the Prime Minister himself to 221B Baker Street. Holmes appears fresh from a nap to cheerfully declare that his life is in danger, but even he is surprised when the man he knows to have stolen the diamond sends in his card. Holmes sends Watson for the police and lays a trap for the evil-sounding Count Sylvius, using the magic of the modern gramophone and a dummy of himself.

Check yourself before you wreck yourself, Count Sylvius.

Of Note: One of only two stories written in third person, which makes sense both from a narrative standpoint and when you get to the next paragraph and learn that this is adapted from a stage play.

Reader’s Notes

This story appears late in the Canon and seems to pull elements from a few earlier stories (including The Empty House and The Naval Treaty). It is adapted from a stage play, The Crown Diamond, which may account for some of these references and definitely accounts for it taking place in a single room. It’s a perfectly fine little tale, though not exemplary. 

Read This Story If… You are academically interested in theatrical adaptations or you enjoy watching villains hoisted by their own petard. (I just had to look up how to spell petard.)

Drink Pairing: A French 75, a drink that is yellow like the Mazarin stone and not actually French, like the French Cardinal Mazarin.

~

And that’s it for this week!

Agree? Disagree? I am always game to talk about Sherlock Holmes, so please feel free to leave a comment below!

~

Join us next week for 5 Sherlock Holmes Stories That Have a Hint of Magic, but Miss the Mark! The entire series can be found here.

Finally, the Definitive Sherlock Holmes Ranking You’ve Always Wanted, Beginning With the 5 Worst Sherlock Holmes Stories Ever

Click here to view every post in The Definitive Ranking of Every Single Sherlock Holmes Story.

It finally happened. It took two years, but I finally convinced my book club that we should read a Sherlock Holmes story. Flush in my moment of triumph, however, I immediately fell into what I can only describe as nervous, writhing convulsions as I found myself assigned the daunting task of picking just one story for us to read.

“Grace, stop overthinking this,” everyone said.

“Ha!” I said. “Overthink? Me? Ha! Ha ha!”

I love the Sherlock Holmes Canon with a fiery passion, and I have very definite points of view on many Holmes-related topics. I stan Sidney Paget, Jeremy Brett, and William Gillette. Holmes and Watson are not lovers. Violet Hunter is a legend, and Toby is the greatest dog in the history of Western literature. These are just off the top of my head. Suffice to say, Sherlock Holmes is a topic on which I can quickly become insufferable.

One of the greatest men to ever wield the pipe.

So when faced with the prospect of picking just one story for us to read, I immediately started trying to pick the best one, but what did I mean by best? Most fun? Containing a classic character? Best mystery twist? And as I flailed about in my feels I said, “This is going to lead to me ranking every single story, isn’t it?”

“Please do this on your own time,” said my book club, and then my partner used the phrase “wine pairing” and my fate was sealed.

So here we are. Please enjoy this definitive and not-at-all biased ranking of all 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories (novels are an entirely different animal and are excluded). And obviously, because just a simple ranking is not enough, I have included short summaries, notable moments, drink pairings, and suggestions for picking which Holmes story is right for you

Yes, I have been accused of being ~extra~. Why do you ask?

(And to answer what I am sure is the primary question on your mind, my book club ended up with A Scandal in Bohemia due simply to its being the first, and excellent, and also because I needed to make a decision before I could reread everything. We are pairing it with the first Arsène Lupin story, if you care about that level of detail, but that’s another blog post.)

On what criteria are these stories ranked?

A good question, and I’ll tell you, there is a very extensive set of criteria being used, it’s very complicated and you probably wouldn’t understand it all, but – 

Oh who am I kidding, it’s all based on gut instinct, kiddo. These are ranked in order of which stories bring me, personally, the most joy. To make sure we’re all on the same page about my standards, some of the things that bring me joy are:

  • An odd or bizarre setup (The Red-Headed League)
  • When Holmes and Watson get extra Holmes and Watson-y (The Musgrave Ritual)
  • Mycroft Holmes (The Greek Interpreter)
  • A memorable bad guy (Charles Augustus Milverton)
  • A good tricksy mystery plot (The Bruce-Partington Plans)
  • Horrifying or otherwise remarkable imagery (The Cardboard Box)

So this means there are some stories that are ~important to the Canon~ that may not rank particularly high here, and some stories that aren’t as ~good~ that hit my Top 20. If you disagree with me, that’s fine, I hope we don’t need to fight about it. We’re all on the same team here. 

So with that, let’s begin with…

The 5 Worst Sherlock Holmes Stories Ever. 

It is a shame that a ranking of Sherlock Holmes stories means following up the fanfare of the kickoff with the five worst stories in the Canon, but that’s how rankings work and here we are. These five stories are bad. I’m sorry. 

Coincidentally, in addition to just generally being bad, four of these five stories are also among the most problematic in the Canon. (Maybe it’s not a coincidence.) Liking Victorian literature while disliking racism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny can prove a challenging balancing act; a reader comes to expect a constant low-level simmer of problematic language and ideals. Throughout this series I’ll call out things that might be especially jarring or unwelcome to a modern reader; for today’s selections, these notes will be a bit more robust. Victorian racism and ableism, specifically, are on stark display here.

In general throughout this series I will not spoil the endings without explicit warning. Consider yourself warned here; I wish to complain about these stories in their entirety. Therefore the endings of The Missing Three-Quarter, The Yellow Face, and The Blanched Soldier are fully disclosed while Wisteria Lodge is hinted at.

#56. The Adventure of the Three Gables

First published 1926. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, 1927.

Summary

A “huge negro” barrels into 221B Baker Street, disturbing Holmes and Watson’s morning reverie. He makes vague threats but is immediately cowed by Holmes’s non-vague threats and runs away. This interlude convinces Holmes to take a case he was wavering on, and he and Watson head out to the town of Harrow Weald. There, Mrs. Maberley tells them a remarkable story: a man has tried to buy her house and everything in it – everything, down to her furniture and personal effects. Holmes suspects something nefarious is afoot, a suspicion confirmed when the house is later burgled. 

This Aged Poorly: Let us just say that Steve Dixie, the Black man who opens the story, is not handled particularly well by either Conan Doyle or Holmes himself. The character is thoroughly a Victorian caricature – in addition to various descriptors (“wooly” hair, references to “a mad bull”), he uses “Masser” to address Holmes. And his treatment by the other characters only exacerbates the problem. One minor character straight-up used the N-word, but perhaps worse is that our beloved Holmes is at his most racist here. Regardless of what Conan Doyle gets up to, Holmes is usually a gentleman, his comments and actions no worse (or better) than any other mid/upper-class Victorian male. Not here. He refers more than once to how badly Dixie smells, and is generally dismissive and poorly-behaved.

Foreigners are often handled in a stereotypical way by Conan Doyle (and many other Victorian writers, he ain’t special) and you’ll be shocked to learn that The Three Gables is not going to be an exception. This story gives us a celebrated Spanish beauty of fiery temper and ill repute but honestly, her treatment in the narrative seems downright godly next to Dixie’s. Finally, I personally take offense at the line “It was as if the air of Italy had got into his blood and brought with it the old cruel Italian spirit,” but it’s not the worst thing that has been said about my people and is by far the tamest thing said about a foreigner or minority in this particular story.

Reader’s Notes

Racism aside (momentarily, we’ll circle back) the story itself is rather dull. There’s no drama, there’s no fun background element (like rugby or horse-racing), there’s no magic. They mystery is rather hum-drum in its setup and its solving. The characters aren’t memorable except with a wince. So when we add the virulent racism on top of all that blah, this story drops straight to the bottom of the list. It truly has no redeemable qualities.

Read This Story If… You think the racism of the Victorian/Edwardian eras is quaint. 

Drink Pairing: A glass of red sangria.

#55. The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier

First published 1926. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, 1927.

Summary

A Watsonless Holmes takes on the case of Mr. James Dodd, who is worried about his missing friend and Boer War comrade-in-arms Godfrey Emsworth. Godfrey’s father claims he is sailing around the world in perfect health, but a visit to the family home shows Dodd that Godfrey is alive and not-too-well in England. Holmes agrees to meddle and quickly arrives at the solution. Holmes and the reader both regret the absence of Watson, as Holmes goes out of his way to give the reader incomplete information so that the big reveal can remain revealing.

Of Note: One of only two stories narrated by Holmes himself, and not improved by it.

This Aged Poorly: Spoiler alert – Godfrey has leprosy. The descriptions of the leper colony where he contracts it are not kind.

Reader’s Notes

Reminiscent of the earlier story The Yellow Face (see #54) in that Holmes is aggressively poking into a family matter that could be avoided if there wasn’t a ~horrible secret~ the family was trying to conceal. Like The Yellow Face, the secret within is handled in a problematic way by Conan Doyle, though not by Holmes.

The story’s also just not that good. Aside from Holmes’s subpar narrative technique and the rather dull mystery, it ends with a clunk – spoiler alert #2, it’s not actually leprosy. When Holmes gets a specialist to examine Godfrey Emsworth it is discovered that he actually has something called ichthyosis, which mimics leprosy’s symptoms but is harmless, therefore giving this story a happy ending that it does not deserve.

Read This Story If… I mean, honestly, don’t.

Drink Pairing: Jenever, a Dutch spirit distilled from malt wine.

#54. The Adventure of the Yellow Face

First published 1893. Collected in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894.

Summary

If you guessed by the title that this one would be ~problematic~ boy were you right. 

Grant Munro of Norbury arrives at 221B Baker Street with a problem: his wife is acting weird. (Women, amirite?) She’s being edgy and secretive and sneaking about, and he can’t figure out why. She was a rich widow when they married; her first husband and child died of yellow fever in Atlanta (this is a clue). When she married Munro, she signed her whole fortune over to him but she’s recently asked for some of the money back and won’t tell him why. Seemingly related, somehow, the empty house next door has been rented, and Grant Munro saw a face in the window that was so terrifying, so unnatural, and so strangely yellow that he is overcome with horror. Holmes comes up with a robust and completely incorrect theory about the woman’s first husband blackmailing her. When he is proven wrong, he tells Watson to just whisper “Norbury” at him if he’s ever getting too full of himself, to put him in his place.

Notable Quote: This isn’t a particularly famous line but I fall over laughing every time I read it so I have to include it. Watson, on Holmes: “Save for the occasional use of cocaine he had no vices.” Oh is that all Watson? Just the cocaine??

This Aged Poorly: Well. In additions to variations of “yellow,” “unnatural” and “livid,” the word “creature” is also used to describe (spoiler) the biracial child living secretly in the little house next door. Yes, at some points she is wearing a mask as a disguise and we are to understand that these descriptors perhaps are meant to refer to the mask and not the girl’s own face, but the narrative does not clearly differentiate. And if we layer in our understanding of the phrase “high yellow,” an outdated and offensive term for people with mixed Black and white ancestry, there’s really no way to read this language with a kind eye. (When they finally figure out that the girl is a person, Watson switches to “Negress,” which for the era is an upgrade.) 

Perhaps most damaging of all, because it’s that insidious “I’m one of the good whites” racism, the girl’s white mother loves her but regrets that she takes after her father’s “people.” This is a sentiment that I’m sure will do no damage to the young girl’s mental health.

Reader’s Notes

This story reads to me, a white person, as Conan Doyle trying to do something woke and failing. We end with the white Grant Munro telling his wife, “I think that I am a better [man] than you give me credit for,” implying that her fear was misplaced and he will adopt her biracial child. In 19th-century England, that action was noble and notable (the bar for white men was even lower then than it is now). But while that final moment is poignant, it follows an entire story filled with damaging descriptions of a biracial girl, and there’s not really any coming back from that. 

Read This Story If… You are scientifically interested in white Victorian wokeness.

Drink Pairing: A shot of peach vodka in honor of Atlanta. 

#53. The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter

First published 1904. Collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1905.

Summary

If you know anything about rugby, you will begin this story less confused than Sherlock Holmes. Cyril Overton, a man “more accustomed to using his muscles than his wits,” is distraught – his star rugby player has disappeared and they have a match the next day. The missing man’s uncle is the richest man in England, but ransom doesn’t seem to be the motive – so what is? 

Reader’s Notes

This one starts kind of fun, with the rugby and the Scroogelike uncle, and ends very decidedly Not Fun. The backdrop of rugby is quickly discarded, leaving us with a rather ordinary disappearance. I think one of this story’s crimes is the disappointing jerk away from rugby – it could be a cool and vivid backdrop for the tale; instead it just kicks us off and is almost instantly dropped, a broken promise in the wind.

But it’s the ending that sinks it. (spoiler) Holmes and Watson, ignoring warnings to the contrary, break into a house where they aren’t welcome to discover the missing man distraught on his secret wife’s deathbed. I want to shake Holmes – just let the man live his life, get out of this room where you don’t belong and let him grieve. I always end this story feeling actively negative about my beloved Holmes and his masculine Victorian self-righteousness; I am inclined to agree with Dr. Grimesby Roylott who, in The Speckled Band, calls Holmes a meddler and busybody. (You never want to agree with Dr. Grimesby Roylott.) It’s also an abrupt tonal shift that Conan Doyle doesn’t really pull off, made more awkward when the apparent antagonist Dr. Leslie Armstrong, who has been telling Holmes to scram for the entire story, suddenly does an about-face to tell Holmes how great he is. It’s all just rather poorly done. Dr. Armstrong himself is a well-drawn and complicated character, but even that is not enough to save this story from its ignominious place on our list.

Read This Story If… Saturday’s a rugby day, but also you like to be unhappy.

Drink Pairing: As much cheap beer as you can drink in one afternoon. (Can you tell I played rugby?)

#52. The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge

First published 1904. Collected in His Last Bow, 1917.

Summary

A solid upstanding British citizen, John Scott Eccles, spends the night at the very odd house of his new acquaintance, Mr. Aloysius Garcia. When he wakes up the next day, everyone is gone, from the servants to the master. When Scott Eccles comes to consult Sherlock Holmes, the police arrive on his heels to inform everyone that Mr. Garcia has been violently murdered. Scott Eccles is far too upstanding a (white) British citizen to be a suspect, but it’s all very peculiar. Holmes and Watson traipse to the country to investigate, where a winding road of clues leads them to a dramatic conclusion.

This Aged Poorly: This whole story is a problem. A person of mixed race is referred to by a number of unpleasant terms, including “half-breed” and “hideous mulatto,” and his face is so horrible that a constable describes it as the most terrible thing he’s ever seen (this is similar to descriptions of the biracial character in The Yellow Face). Other notes are made about his person and his behavior that are challenging to read, including descriptions of his savage, cannibalistic Voodoo ceremonies. Aside from him, most of the characters of note are from Central America and are described in ways that make assumptions about their Latin temperament while using words like “chocolate” to refer to their appearance. It is obvious that the murderer is associated with the victim because, despite an absence of all other clues, they are all foreigners. 

Overall, not Conan Doyle’s best day. 

Reader’s Notes

This is a pretty good mystery that is completely marred by its racism. And this one isn’t just mildly racist, with a few outdated terms used in passing. Racism is completely embedded into the way this story is put together and the way characters interact – the way the characters simply exist. The biracial cook’s Voodoo accoutrements (including an entire bucket of blood) provide the primary red herring for the tale. It’s a shame, because the twists of the mystery have potential.

In a way it breaks my heart to rank this story so low because it has one of my favorite minor characters, the local policeman that Holmes is working the case with. Inspector Baynes is the only member of the police force that we ever see actually keep pace with Holmes, coming to the same conclusion by a different route – even Young Stanley Hopkins, who shows so much promise, cannot do so much. “Why Mr. Holmes,” Baynes says, when explaining himself, “when you were crawling in the shrubbery … I was up one of the trees in the plantation and saw you down below.” It’s always fun when Holmes is matched or bested.

Which brings me to our place in the ranking. One of the criteria I didn’t even realize I was using at first was “how excitedly would I recommend this story to a friend” and… honestly, despite the things I like about it, I just can’t. The racism here is ingrained so deeply that it can’t be disconnected from the story. This one nudges out some of the other unflinchingly racist Holmes stories because of the richness of the mystery and supporting cast, but it must still be cast here among the worst. Sorry, Inspector Baynes. You deserved better, but so did the biracial cook.

Read This Story If… You want to appreciate the full force of Victorian racism.

Drink Pairing: A brandy and soda to calm your nerves.

~

And that’s it for this week!

Agree? Disagree? I am always game to talk about Sherlock Holmes, so please feel free to leave a comment below!

~

Join us next week for 5 Sherlock Holmes Stories That Aren’t Unreadable, Just Kind of Dull! The entire series can be found here.

NXIVM Explained: Bonus Post

Click here to view all posts in this series.

Content Warning: Since this post is more of a recap of other resources, I only mention some of NXIVM and Keith Raniere’s negative activities in passing, but general sexual assault, eating disorder, and overall mental/emotional abuse warnings apply to this post and definitely to the resources linked. Do not watch either the HBO or STARZ documentaries mentioned unless you are in a good mental headspace.

The Story of the NXIVM Story

There is a lot of information about NXIVM out there. I wrote this blog series because no single source seemed to have everything as part of one narrative. That’s not necessarily a critique – “everything” is so many things! But for example, I managed to spend like a whole week learning about NXIVM before I found out about Daniela being locked in a room. People who are big pieces of one narrative will just disappear into background shots in other media. 

My series doesn’t get into everything either, of course. You may have noticed a few times I’ve said something along the lines of “I can’t wait for someone to write the book on this subtopic” – and I think that’s the problem with trying to put together a singular NXIVM narrative. There is so much and each tendril is a full, fascinating story in itself. I did the best I could. 

This post will collate and review some of the resources I’ve utilized, with the goal of helping you decide which if any are of interest to you. Here’s a table of contents if you want to jump around:

DOCUMENTARIES

The Two Documentaries: The Vow and Seduced

Probably coincidentally, HBO and STARZ released their two documentaries on NXIVM within a few weeks of each other. (They were released right before Raniere’s sentencing, so maybe not super coincidental. I’m not sure how far in advance sentencing hearings are announced.) This obviously led to a lot of comparisons between the two, most of which decided that Seduced was the better of the two because The Vow kind of sugarcoats things. I fully understand and acknowledge the issues with The Vow, but I think they are both valuable resources, giving different pieces of the same story. 

Here is one of the better articles I read about the two documentaries:

The Vow (HBO)

The Vow is a (so far) 9-part series produced by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer. It uses as a frame the story of Sarah Edmonson (former DOS member, and main face of the NY Times exposé) and her husband Anthony Ames; Catherine Oxenberg (actress, mother of victim India Oxenberg); and Mark Vicente (filmmaker) and his wife Bonnie Piesse (actress) as they try to blow open the story of NXIVM.

One of the things I liked most about The Vow is how much source material there is, video footage and audio recordings of all of the major NXIVM leaders. Straight from the horse’s mouth. Much (all?) of it came from Vicente, from his years as NXIVM documentarian. 

However, watching The Vow feels like going on an oddly peaceful journey through the history of NXIVM. The Vow is slow and meandering and calm, taking its time to wrap the story of NXIVM around you. You kind of slowly realize how terrible everything is as they peel back layers, episode by episode, introducing people in a kind of normal way and then hitting you later with why they are important. This is very different from how Seduced tells the same story, and it’s the main critique of The Vow – compared to the directness of Seduced, it seems almost apologetic. It’s all a very definitive narrative choice. I decided I didn’t mind it, but many people do mind. I also think, content aside, the whole thing could have could have been tighter; the 9 episodes don’t quite have 9 episodes worth of content.

There’s also a lot of Keith Raniere, but they mostly show the calm, insidious, rational-sounding Raniere. (Read below about Seduced to see what’s missing.) One person I know stopped watching the first episode just because they were tired of listening to him. Totally valid. Again, I didn’t mind, but you might.

The other main critique of The Vow is that it really does seem like a hero/redemption arc narrative for the aforementioned former NXIVMers. This is, again, something I decided to accept as part of the documentary. I think watching with your eyes open, reading for that redemption arc, can add an interesting perspective. But Seduced doesn’t allow people like Vicente a redemption arc. 

The end of the 9th episode teases Season 2. It appears that we will hear from Keith Raniere in prison, and, what I’m more interested in, Nancy Salzman. There are many who don’t want to hear any more from those assholes, and I totally get it. They’ve had a lot of airtime. I don’t disagree, but I’m definitely going to watch.

Seduced (STARZ)

This documentary is hosted by India Oxenberg, a victim of NXIVM, and it focuses a lot on her story. There’s a way that makes it similar to The Vow, in that it is partially an answer to the question “how could people get involved in this?” This is Oxenberg showing us how she got involved. But there’s a way in which it feels less like a justification than The Vow, and bolder in directly and immediately blaming Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman. (Not to say that there aren’t some narrative choices that are defensive, but it is overall more aggressive, narratively.)

Seduced is very good. Oxenberg is a little stilted sometimes, she’s reading her lines I think, or they’re rehearsed, but that’s a minor stylistic issue. Seduced goes in hard in showing us the horrors of NXIVM, and showing us the harshest of Raniere’s rhetorical manipulations. In the first like 10 minutes, we get footage of Raniere calmly saying, “Do you understand how you could rape a baby? I could make it a baby that’s very rape-able.”

A lot of the “how Keith Raniere thinks about the world” quotes and recaps I pulled were from Seduced. You’ll spend a lot of time slack-jawed, going “did he really just say that?” Yes, yes he did.

The biggest thing that I appreciate about Seduced is that it interviews a broad range of victims. Where The Vow focused mostly on Vicente and Piesse and Edmonson and their stories, Seduced has more of the “every woman,” non-Hollywood victims. It also uses some choice quotes and comments that put Mark Vicente on blast, for lack of a better phrase. Whether they were included as a direct response to the HBO documentary or not, they sure do read as Seduced making a statement to show that Vicente was more complicit than he tries to let on.  

So Seduced is very good and I recommend it, but be forewarned that some portions are incredibly difficult to watch. And on top of a general content warning, I will caution that in Episode 3: Enslaved, Oxenberg goes into detail about the sexual abuse she experienced. It is the only episode across both documentaries that I have not been able to rewatch during the writing of this series, and probably never will.

I do think, even though it is a lot of content, the two documentaries work well in tandem. 

Other Documentaries

There are a few other documentaries about NXIVM. I’m sure this number will increase.

NXIVM is the topic of the first episode of A&E’s Cults and Extreme Belief series. It’s a perfectly fine hour, kind of a general recap, but obviously can’t get into everything. If you just want to dip your toe in, it’s a good start. (Also, it was released in 2018, before some of the final chapters of this story had become public.)

I have not watched Investigation Discovery’s The Lost Women of NXIVM. I looked it up and saw the victims listed, and I saw that it was based on Frank Parlato’s journalism, and I suspected that a) it would not provide me with much new information and b) it would be a little schlocky and in-your-face, which isn’t a vibe I’m interested in. I fully admit that skipping this documentary is due to my own biases, and I may watch it eventually.  

(I’ve written more about Frank Parlato below.)

FURTHER READING

The Albany Times-Union

I’m giving the Times-Union their own section. They’re the first ones who reported on Keith Raniere in 2003, well before he was even a blip on the national radar. It’s dogged, impressive journalism. If you’re interested in NXIVM, I’d start with them. I’ve listed a few top stories of interest here, and will include some more in the next section. I’ve also done a quick review of their trial podcast.

Podcast: NXIVM on Trial

I listened to this podcast retroactively, but it was initially released week-by-week during Raniere’s trial. Each week, an editor in Albany interviews the Times-Union court reporter who spent the week at the courthouse in Brooklyn. 

I found it really interesting, but there were definitely some issues. All of the presenters are men. They do acknowledge this in a later episode, when a female listener calls them out on it. A woman was initially on their reporting team and helped break the NXIVM story in 2012, but subsequently left the newspaper. But it is a bit disconcerting to hear all of this sexual abuse against women reported on and discussed by an exclusively male crowd.

There’s also a way in which, to them, this is just another case, another job. They’re court reporters, they’ve seen some shit. And it’s partially a fascinating take, because there’s so little emotion in it, but it also leads to a tinge of voyeurism. The phrase “pass the popcorn” is used at one point, and in the episode where they’re recapping testimony about the items NXIVM tried to buy from an online sex store they’re a little too excited about going into all that ~weird sex stuff.~   

The audio quality is touch-and-go; Episode 3’s quality is terrible, because a change in court schedule means they had to interview the reporter while he was literally on a train. There are also a few behind-the-scenes things that are left in that I think someone was supposed to cut.

But, with those caveats, I do recommend the podcast if you’re at the level where you’re interested in the court proceedings but don’t want to read court transcripts. Listening to the in-the-moment commentary was especially interesting because they were speculating as they went. They’d discuss the laws and court precedent, and what options the prosecution and defense each had going forward. They debated whether egotistical Raniere would do his own closing statement, a la The Fountainhead (of which Raniere was a fan). If you’ve always liked the & Order half of Law & Order, give this podcast a shot.

Recommended Articles

I’m going to call this the “if you only read a few articles, pick from this list” category.

The Corporate Feminism of NXIVM (The Paris Review, October 2020)
If you only read one article, pick this one. It’s a shorter, more intelligent overview than mine, intersecting with feminism and current events in a valuable way.

Inside a Secretive Group Where Women Are Branded (The New York Times, October 2017)
This is the article, the one that blew the top off NXIVM and sent Raniere on the run.

Ivy Nevares’s Blog
One of Raniere’s victims, Ivy Nevares, provided a statement to the court at his sentencing and has posted that and some other personal narratives regarding Raniere and NXIVM to her blog. This links to all of her NXIVM content

The Heiresses and the Cult (Vanity Fair, October 2010)
I enjoyed this article about the Bronfmans because it was written before “everyone knew” about NXIVM, before Allison Mack had even joined NXIVM and well before DOS. Stuff was already weird, and people already knew about it!

From Heiress To Felon: How Clare Bronfman Wound Up In ‘Cult-Like’ Group Nxivm (Forbes, May 2019)
And then this one is a similar topic, “how did this rich girl with a perfect life get caught up in this?” but it came out after the news broke, after shit hit the fan, after Clare Bronfman pled guilty.

How to Tell the Story of a Cult (The Atlantic, November 2020)
Comparison of the two main documentaries. If you didn’t click on this when I posted it up under documentaries, now’s your chance. But yes it’s the same article.

Other Good Articles

And we’ll call this the “if you want to keep going down the rabbit hole” category. Not everything is technically an article, but I had to call this section something.

the NXIVM case (subreddit)
If you want to keep up with the latest twists and turns, this is where I get most of my updates now. These people are fast with the news and almost always provide sources. This is how I learned Allison Mack filed for divorce.

What Did NXIVM Want in Mexico? (Slate, May 2019)
Overview of NXIVM’s history in Mexico – one of the few.

Former NXIVM member “Jane Doe” reveals identity: “I finally felt like I was ready” (CBS News, December 2020)
This is a very recent addition to the victim narratives, which in some ways contradicts the narrative of India Oxenberg (who was this woman’s “Master” in DOS).

Actually, the Cultiest Part of The Vow is the Night Volleyball (Vulture, September 2020)

[A Cappella] A cult tries to ingratiate itself with the a cappella community (Reddit, October 2020)
I am obsessed with the subreddit r/hobbydrama. This particular post recaps the moment when an a cappella message board had some questions about an a cappella festival hosted by NXIVM. Mark Vicente, Clare Bronfman, Nicki Clyne, and Lauren Salzman show up to defend NXIVM. It also links to the original message board thread if you want to go deep down the rabbit hole and see some original writings of the aforementioned members.

80 people have signed onto a lawsuit claiming NXIVM cult leaders exposed them to ‘human fright’ experiments, forced labor, and human trafficking (Insider, January 2020)

I Tried to Make Sense of the Alleged Sex Cult NXIVM’s Bizarre Health Claims (Vice, May 2018)

Nxivm Trial Witness: We Hacked Billionaire Edgar Bronfman Sr.’s Email (Forbes, May 2019)

From Adolf Hitler to Herman Goering, NXIVM sex-cult leader Raniere told followers they were ‘Reincarnated Nazis’! (Artvoice, April 2018)
I realized I mentioned this in passing in my first post and never returned to it. Here’s yet another bizarre thing Raniere did, this time with added anti-Semitism. 

Keith Raniere Trial: Links to Available Transcripts (Reddit)
Blessings upon this Redditor who is gathering all available trial transcripts.

Lawsuit: NXIVM leader recruited Asian women, sorority members for sex (Albany Times-Union, February 2020)

Raniere, facing possible life sentence, wants judge to know ‘he’s being watched’ (Albany Times-Union, August 2020)

BOOKS

I have not read any of these books. Who has the mental capacity to read books in 2020/21? But these are the notable books about NXIVM, so far.

PODCASTS

There are a lot of podcast episodes about NXIVM now, with more coming out. Here are a few. 

Cults (Parcast) 4-Part Series
Anyone who has gotten this far will not be surprised to learn that I love Cults. Their four episodes are a good general overview. This should link directly to the first NXIVM episode.

NXIVM on Trial (Albany Times-Union)
Full review above, including it here out of an overabundance of thoroughness. 

Uncover Season 1 – Escaping NXIVM
Produced after the NY Times exposé but before The Vow aired, this series recounts Sarah Edmonson’s journey to get out of NXIVM.

The Vow and Seduced: Two NXIVM Docuseries (NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour)
I haven’t listened to this yet because I wanted to write my own version of “comparing the two documentaries” before consuming something similar. I expect it to be good!

DISHONORABLE MENTION: THE FRANK REPORT

I’ve been promising to talk about Frank Parlato for a while, guess the time is now. Parlato worked for NXIVM and the Bronfman sisters briefly; like many who left, he ended up entangled in lawsuits. He also started a blog called The Frank Report, which utilizes a lot of exclamation points and became the place on the internet to go for anti-NXIVM information. The Frank Report was posting about DOS before the New York Times

Parlato’s a colorful character, who you can see in Episode 7 of The Vow. “The greatest chess people, including myself, we don’t need a board,” he says. His colorfulness, and his deep hatred for NXIVM, make me dubious of anything that can just be sourced to The Frank Report. He is not unbiased. (I mean, who is honestly, but he is really biased.) He’s also pretty misogynistic. As far as I can tell, Parlato is the primary source for the “Raniere slowly poisoned Pam Cafritz” story as well as the “Sara Bronfman slept with the Dalai Lama’s assistant” story. He goes for the jugular, the dramatic angle, whatever will get the most hits and hurt NXIVM the most. Is what he writes true? Possibly, some of it. But the style of journalism just hits me the wrong way, and I can’t help but be dubious.

The Frank Report, for better or for worse, is colored by the colorful character behind it. Basically, I just don’t like the vibe. Am I prejudiced? Maybe. The great thing about Frank Parlato is I’m sure he doesn’t give a crap what I think of him.

CODA

So these were some of the many sources I used in putting together my series. (I have 22 pages of sources and notes. You don’t want all of them, I swear.) 

I hope this provides a jumping off point for anyone who wants more information, but just know that there will always be more. Feel free to drop additional resources in the comments!

~

If you enjoyed this series, please consider “leaving me a tip” by donating to one of the domestic violence organizations listed here or to a similar organization in your area. Thank you.

Disclaimer: Before the remnants of NXIVM sue me, I wish to clarify that the items covered in this post are allegations. I am merely recapping and collating the reporting done over many years by other media sources, including highly credible publications and media organizations that I trust to both fact-check their work and who also ran their articles or documentaries through their legal department. That’s all that is happening here. A simple recap of allegations.

NXIVM Explained, Part 8

Previously: The Fright Experiments and the Beginning of the End
Click here to view all posts in this series.

Content Warning: Please ensure you are in a good mental headspace before reading this, regardless of whether you consider yourself to have any specific triggers. This post is mostly about Raniere’s comeuppance and has very little details about his crimes, but note that suicide is mentioned briefly.

On the Run and On Trial

Whatever else you want to say about the New York Times, it’s amazing what can happen when you hit their front page. 

The Albany Times-Union had been reporting on NXIVM for literally over a decade. Former NXIVM members, including legit famous people, had gone to the NY Attorney General and the FBI to try to get NXIVM investigated. But finally, when the NY Times published their October 2017 article about branding women in a secret society, public outrage was kindled and authorities began to properly investigate. 

In November 2017, Raniere casually moved to Mexico. 

There is a massive story about NXIVM’s presence in Mexico just waiting to be uncovered. (One of Mark Vicente’s documentaries was about all the great things NXIVM could do for Mexico, but that’s not what we want). At some point, partially or totally or at least initially due to the influence of Edgar Bronfman, Sr. (before he dramatically split from NXIVM) NXIVM became connected to the Mexican elite, including the son of former President Carlos Salinas and the daughter of a Mexican media mogul. The number of high-powered Mexicans in the inner circle can seem surprising considering how little the media has covered the Mexican connection, but many of Raniere’s close associates and about half of the first-line DOS members were Mexican. Raniere had them convinced he could solve all of the Mexico’s problems, and the country’s rich and powerful loved him, truly considering him a genius and guru. So Raniere went to Mexico.

Law is not my strong suit, but I’ve watched enough crime shows to understand that when you cross state lines in commission of a crime, your crimes become Federal crimes and not State crimes. It was the Feds who chased Raniere to Mexico. 

Some of Raniere’s female inner circle joined him near Puerto Vallarta, including Nicki Clyne, Allison Mack, and Lauren Salzman. Raniere talked about having a “recommitment” ceremony with his women that would involve a group sex ceremony. Before this could happen, Nicki Clyne posted some ill-advised photos on Instagram of herself climbing one of Puerto Vallarta’s most famous landmarks, giving police their location. Raniere’s Mexican residence was raided and he was arrested.

Those of you who haven’t consumed as much cult-related media as I have may be unaware that when the police arrived to arrest Charles Manson, they found him hiding in a kitchen cabinet. Raniere, like that great leader who came before him, was hiding in a closet until one of the women gave away his presence.

This is what started to break Lauren Salzman. (Also maybe the possibility of a plea deal, but what do I know?) Per Salzman’s testimony, Raniere had spent decades preaching that men were supposed to stand up and take responsibility for their actions and supposed to protect women, the weaker sex – he literally named his mens’ group the Society of Protectors, after all. And seeing him hide in a closet, she saw him for what he was – a hypocritical coward. 

Raniere’s inglorious return to New York was in March 2018. Allison Mack was arrested in April and placed under house arrest on a $5 million bond. NXIVM the organization moved briefly to New York City, but officially suspended operations in June 2018. 

Nancy Salzman, Lauren Salzman, Clare Bronfman, Allison Mack, and Kathy Russell, a NXIVM bookkeeper, were indicted on July 24, 2018.

Nancy Salzman was the first to plead guilty, in March 2019, which was apparently a surprise to her co-defendants. Over the course of the next month, the other four women also plead guilty to their charges, which range from visa fraud (Russell) to identity theft and immigration fraud (Bronfman). 

Why were these women charged but not the others? No clue. Some people you might expect to face charges, like Mark Vicente, turned witness for the prosecution, but that’s not everyone. I have no idea what happened to Sara Bronfman, or why Nicki Clyne hasn’t been charged with anything.

Raniere’s trial began in May 2019 in Brooklyn, NY.

I really enjoyed and (with a few caveats, which I’ll go into in my next/final/bonus post) recommend the Times-Union’s podcast series covering the trial, where their court reporters dissect the logistical details of the case. There’s a bizarre way in which, to these reporters, this is just another case in their long careers, but I liked how they’d come at the topic from the direction of “what does this legally mean for the ongoing case?” One thing I learned was that apparently one of the benefits of charging someone with racketeering is that you can charge them with literally everything you want to, regardless of the statute of limitations. However, in a move that sounds pretty standard, prosecutors also kept a few items as separate charges in case racketeering didn’t stick. Who knew? Lawyers, that’s who, and court reporters.

Among the primary witnesses for the prosecution were Mark Vicente, Lauren Salzman, and Daniela. Text messages between Raniere and then-underage Camila were read aloud, including his callous, narcissistic response when she admitted that she’d thought about taking her own life: “Do you have any idea how bad that could have been for me?” Recordings of Raniere himself were played for the jury, his own words about the branding ceremony used against him.

The defense called no witnesses, and the jury deliberated for four hours before finding Raniere guilty of all charges. 

Raniere was set to be sentenced in early 2020 but the pandemic kept pushing it back. The Times-Union court reporters stressed that sentencing delays are generally expected – the defense obviously has a lot of delay tactics at their disposal, such as filing motions they know will be eventually rejected – and the pandemic exacerbated but did not create these delays. 

In July of 2020 a group of mystery people who claimed to have nothing at all to do with NXIVM started dancing outside of the New York jail where Raniere was being held. The dancers who had nothing to do with NXIVM included Nicki Clyne (actress, Allison Mack’s wife), Danielle Roberts (doctor who used a cauterizing pen to brand women in DOS) and Marc Elliot (NXIVM’s “we cured Tourette’s” poster child). They call themselves “We Are As You” (?) and posted all over social media under the #BLM hashtag (??). 

They eventually admitted that they started as a tribute to Keith Raniere but they “grew” to become a tribute to all those incarcerated at that facility. 

Those of you who haven’t consumed as much cult-related media as I have may be unaware that when Charles Manson was in jail, his female followers would sing and perform outside the courthouse where he was on trial. I’m just saying, even in defeat there’s nothing original about Raniere. 

In September 2020, the first NXIVM-related sentencing occured. To the surprise of everyone involved, the judge handed down a sentence for Seagram’s heiress Clare Bronfman that was significantly longer than the prosecution had requested – 81 months (6 years, 9 months). Previously, the judge had denied a request from Clare Bronfman to loosen the restrictions of her house arrest. This had seemed like a bad sign to the Times-Union reporters, an indication that the judge was going to be harsh and attempt to make a statement with Bronfman’s sentencing – and he was. 81 months is the type of sentence that is not just meant to affect the defendant; it’s a warning for any other gazillionaires that they will be punished, too.

The judge in question overseeing the case is a Nicholas Garaufis, who seemed to have zero percent patience for Raniere and NXIVM through the entirety of Raniere’s trial. At one point he informed Raniere’s lawyer, as he was executing a particularly rough cross-examination of a victim, that “this is not DOS, not in my courtroom.” We stan a legend.

Raniere obviously hated Judge Garaufis. He not only accused Garaufis of corruption but also wanted his followers to “get scrutiny” on him and make sure he knew he was “being watched.” Definitely good things a defendant should say about the judge in charge of his case. Raniere also tried to get Jeffery Epstein’s lawyer involved somehow.

In addition, a group called “Make Justice Blind” presented an affidavit to the court alleging prosecutorial misconduct. This is signed by many people who have nothing to do with NXIVM, including Amanda Knox. They’re also planning to launch a podcast (?) which will host an “Innocence Challenge” (???) with a cash prize for anyone who can poke holes in the prosecution’s evidence. As far as I know the challenge is not yet accepting submissions.

On October 27, 2020, Keith “Vanguard” Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison. 

Raniere still has many supporters. The most vocal of these are Marc Elliot, who is now a motivational speaker, and a group of DOS members who recently started something called the DOSsier Project. Some of the more notable DOSsier Project members include Nicki Clyne and Danielle Roberts. Their general thesis seems to be that the “salacious” media and general public are deciding on their behalf that they are victims, and they decline that label. If DOS were a group of men branding themselves, they say, would we all be screaming abuse? (I mean, yes? I would?) I’ll just point out again that Raniere has a long history of teaching people that they decide whether or not they are a victim, and if someone “chooses” to be a victim they are mostly damaging the person they accuse of victimizing them. So just because these women are choosing not to be a victim doesn’t mean I agree with them.

Aside from Clare Bronfman and Keith Raniere, no other defendants have been sentenced as of this writing. Allison Mack is on house arrest but continuing to live her best life, taking online classes at UC Berkeley (where she is not particularly popular among fellow her fellow students). She also, very recently, filed for divorce from Nicki Clyne and was seen out having a pleasant pandemic afternoon with a friend. But stay tuned for her sentencing, as well as Nancy and Lauren Salzman’s and Kathy Russell’s.

So this isn’t over, and there will be appeals, obviously. More will come out, more victims, more horrors. There are things I didn’t even cover in this sixteen thousand words of NXIVM content that I’ve somehow written – NXIVM tried to purchase items for a sex dungeon, for example. There is just so much. I hope this series helped provide a single overarching narrative for anyone who was like “I keep hearing about this, but what was it really?” but I want you to know that there are still so many layers. 

NXIVM was a web of manipulation, with Keith Raniere sitting in the middle as master puppeteer. The scope is impressive, but at the end of the day Raniere is just a man who wanted to have lots of sex and thought he was smarter than everyone around him… but wasn’t quite smart enough. 

Many blessings on his 120 years in prison.

~

And that’s it, thanks for reading. If you want more, there will be a bonus post about the different ways the NXIVM story has been told across different media, along with some reviews and recommendations for future reading and watching. But this is, thankfully, the end of the official NXIVM narrative.

If you enjoyed this series, please consider “leaving me a tip” by donating to one of the domestic violence organizations listed here or to a similar organization in your area. Thank you.

Disclaimer: Before the remnants of NXIVM sue me, I wish to clarify that the items covered in this post are allegations. I am merely recapping and collating the reporting done over many years by other media sources, including highly credible publications and media organizations that I trust to both fact-check their work and who also ran their articles or documentaries through their legal department. That’s all that is happening here. A simple recap of allegations.

NXIVM Explained, Part 7

Previously: From “Empowering” Women to Branding Them
Click here to view all posts in this series.

Content Warning: Please ensure you are in a good mental headspace before reading this, regardless of whether you consider yourself to have any specific triggers. Specific topics mentioned in this post include: physical harm (branding) and mental torture/trauma.

The Fright Experiments and the Beginning of the End

Great, I hear you say, we finally got to DOS, the Hollywood sex slave part of the NXIVM story. That’s it, right? 

Oh, friend. We have one more detour to take before we reach the end, one more in the long list of “this is batshit crazy but also incredibly awful” NXIVM stories.

In 2016, the year after DOS was created, a group of NXIVM members agreed to participate in a research study run by a Dr. Brandon Porter. He’d joined NXIVM supposedly to study how effective their methods were overall. (Their methods were all so scientific, remember.) The origins of this particular study seem to be a patent filed by Keith Raniere in 2007 called “Determination of Whether a Luciferian Can Be Rehabilitated.”

One thing I learned while researching NXIVM was that anyone can file a patent, and once you’ve filed the patent you can then call whatever the it is “patent-pending.” Sure, your patent might eventually be rejected, but then you can refile it, or something similar, and then you’re patent-pending again. Sure does make you sound smart to have a lot of patents pending, huh? Raniere had a lot of patents pending at any given time. Most if not all of them were eventually rejected. (Maybe this con was common knowledge for everyone except me.)

Anyway.

The “study,” and I use the term loosely, run by Brandon Porter in August 2016 would later be referred to as The Fright Experiments. Subjects were seated in front of a screen or TV, hooked up to a “brain cap,” and made to watch increasingly horrifying films that culminated in an actual, non-fictional mass beheading of women by (alleged) members of a drug cartel.

One of the horrified victims, Jennifer Kobelt, would tell herself, in the middle of the experiment, “I’m not going to be shown to be weak. I’m not going to be weaker than every other woman you have had in here. I am a strong woman. I have character. I have discipline.”

Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman’s coaching at work. 

After each film, Porter would ask the subjects what they were feeling. The answer was that they were experiencing trauma. Jennifer Kobelt initially filed a complaint against Porter in 2017, which was dismissed on the technicality that he was not “her” doctor, but Porter eventually got his license revoked in 2019. Apparently it is illegal to do a research study of this kind without being affiliated with a research institution. It is apparently also illegal, when you are a medical professional dealing with a 300-person outbreak of a mysterious illness at an adult summer camp that might hypothetically be called Vanguard Week, to not report said outbreak to local health boards. These kinds of details didn’t seem to be Porter’s strong suit.

The Fright Experiments were only one of NXIVM’s forays into medical “research.” Nancy Salzman and Keith Raniere also created a cure for Tourette’s. (According to the Mayo Clinic, Tourette’s can be managed, but not cured.) They were so proud of their cure that they – sorry, Clare Bronfman – would produce a documentary to showcase their success. This is a very good, comprehensive article about the Tourette’s situation.

So here we are, late 2016, everything is going swimmingly for Keith Raniere. He’s pulling science out of his ass to great applause, he has a cohort of women who have his initials burned into their hips who will have sex with him on command, he has the Bronfman money backing his every move. The 2016 election has actually benefited NXIVM and DOS recruitment – (liberal, white) women are feeling powerless and looking for something they can throw themselves into that will make them feel in control. NXIVM is there to prey on the surge of white female guilt that followed the election. NXIVM is there to help.

Then we get to 2017, and Lauren Salzman makes the mistake that will end NXIVM. 

Lauren Salzman, daughter of NXIVM’s president Nancy “Prefect” Salzman, was a “first-line” DOS member, aka she reported directly to Keith Raniere. In January 2017, she recruited as her Slave the high-performing NXIVM recruiter and former actress Sarah Edmonson

In March 2017, Sarah Edmonson was inducted into DOS (branded) in Allison Mack’s home in Albany, NY.

In June 2017, Sarah Edmonson and her husband Anthony “Nippy” Ames left NXIVM. 

There’s a disturbing conversation, recorded, between Sarah Edmonson and Lauren Salzman where Edmonson is sharing her concerns about the brand – it’s larger than she thought it would be, and how will she explain it to her husband? Lauren Salzman responds, “I don’t think it’s bad for you to have something for you without Nippy. A lot of your self-esteem has been wrapped up in him.” 

As always, the skillful push for a woman to reject the guise of male authority in favor of actual male authority. (Remember that Vanguard Keith Raniere is the head of DOS.)

2017 is where HBO’s The Vow picks up, so I won’t go into excruciating detail here. Suffice to say that in addition to Sarah Edmonson and Anthony Ames, there’s one other major defection: documentary director Mark Vicente. 

Mark Vicente had been one of Raniere’s right hands for over ten years. In addition to being de facto NXIVM documentarian, he ran the company’s “news integrity” organization The Knife, which was basically NXIVM’s way to rhetorically tear apart media stories that they disagreed with. Very helpful for any cult. But by 2017, not only had his wife Bonnie Piesse already bailed on NXIVM, he’d started to hear rumors about DOS and the sexual abuse Raniere was perpetuating. He officially left NXIVM in May 2017. (There is a lot of discussion on the internet about whether we, as a people, like Mark Vicente. The Vow sure does read as him trying to get out in front of a story and start his apology tour. He was a top recruiter whose income was based on NXIVM, he was right there in the Jness/SOP training abusing those women, and for a while after “leaving” NXIVM he insisted the organization did good things and it was just Raniere that was bad. But this also wasn’t his first cult, so he’s obviously susceptible. Drawing the line between victim and abuser in this sort of situation is a tough one and I abstain from judgment.)

Having Hollywood people in your cult is great when they’re in, famous and happy and good for publicity. But when they’re out, they’re dangerous, because they know how the PR machine works. 

In the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s arrest and with the #MeToo movement picking up steam, Edmonson, Ames, Vicente, and Piesse would team up with actress Catherine Oxenberg, who was distraught about what was happening to her daughter India. After months of working the story, on October 17, 2017 they landed on the front page of the New York Times

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Up Next: On the Run and On Trial

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Disclaimer: Before the remnants of NXIVM sue me, I wish to clarify that the items covered in this post are allegations. I am merely recapping and collating the reporting done over many years by other media sources, including highly credible publications and media organizations that I trust to both fact-check their work and who also ran their articles or documentaries through their legal department. That’s all that is happening here. A simple recap of allegations.