It was a dark and steamy night.
I don’t care much for action films. I don’t mind the odd one, but I don’t seek them out, either. They’re usually full of gears and gadgetry, strong on political intrigue or the perpetration of perfect crimes, weak on interesting stuff like interpersonal relationships or pets.
Besides, I’m onto these films. Every one of them, whether light-hearted or dark and dangerous, puts the pedal to the metal at least once. Wake me up when the car chase is over. Or the plane chase, or the motorcycle chase, or the school bus chase, or whatever — it’s all the same conceit. Why can’t modern movies come up with something a little more innovative? Give me an old book anyday, when the climax didn’t involve mechanical speed.
Imagine my surprise.
I was reading “The Sign of Four” last night. It’s Arthur Conan Doyle’s second-ever Sherlock Holmes mystery, published in 1890. Resembling a Robert Louis Stevenson novel, the plot includes an old captain with a wooden leg, a treasure, and a dwarf with poison darts.
Holmes has figured out where the villains are, and awaits them with Watson and the police in a police boat on the River Thames, guessing that they will attempt to board a ship bound for the Americas.
Will the evildoers take a hansom cab to get them to the quai on time? Oh no, they’ve hired a private launch, the Aurora. Read on:
“And there is the Aurora,” exclaimed Holmes, “and going like the devil! Full speed ahead, engineer. Make after that launch with the yellow light. By heaven, I shall never forgive myself if she proves to have the heels of us!”
She had slipped unseen through the yard-entrance, and passed behind two or three small craft, so that she had fairly got her speed up before we saw her. Now she was flying down the stream, near in to the shore, going at a tremendous rate. Jones looked gravely at her and shook his head.
“She is very fast,” he said. “I doubt if we shall catch her.”
“We must catch her!” cried Holmes, between his teeth. “Heap it on stokers! Make her do all she can! If we burn the boat we must have them!”
– “The Sign of Four”, chapter X.
Holmes, of course, is not far off from being literal. These were steam launches, powered by coal; the stokers are the guys shoveling it into the furnace. At full velocity, these amazing boats would be speeding along at about 15 kilometres an hour. Wow, a whole mile in just under eight minutes! Doesn’t the thought leave you breathless?
And yet it works. The “car chase” conceit, I learned last night, predates the car. The convention is an oldie, and still a goodie, and won’t be retiring any time soon.
Today’s photo is of a steam launch from the turn of the Twentieth Century. If you click on the photo, you will get the web picture showing the entire boat. And if you’re planning a vacation in the Argyll region of western Scotland, you might want to visit the website of Avich and Kilchrenan, from which I scoffed the photo. The website comprises information on the two tiny villages of Avich and Kilchrenan, and their surrounding countryside. Besides its page on the history of the local steamships, the website features gorgeous photos of the lochs and hillsides themselves — which, personally, I find far more breathtaking than the thought of vehicular pursuits at whatever speed.