There are stories you read in childhood that you never forget.
For me, The Devil's foot is one such story.
Whenever I think of the first time I read it...a tinge of excitement passes through me.
I was about 11 years old when I first read the story - and I remember how I thought that it was indeed the devil who was responsible for what happened in the story! Horror was what I experienced, pure horror.
The mystery is mind blowing. The twist in the end and the drama as it unfolds - both are superb. If you've not read this Sherlock Holmes story (and you've liked anything about Holmes at all) - I'd say - go ahead. Enjoy it.
And did I mention that it's got one of the most intriguing names out of all Sherlock Holmes stories? I mean - the devil's foot? What on earth is that?
By the way, while we're at it, here's a fascinating list of Sherlock Holmes stories with the most intriguing names.
Well, well. It's time for my ratings now!
It all began when four people started playing cards one night...
One of them left the scene. He is Sherlock Holmes' client - Mortimer Tregennis.
One of them died in the night while playing cards - Mortimer's sister Brenda. The other two brothers went mad while playing cards.
Before he left, Mortimer had sensed some movement near the window...
But what has killed one woman and driven two men mad?
There's no mark of injury. There is no cup they drank from. No one else even entered the room - because Brenda and her two crazy brothers were found dead still playing cards - in the exact same position in which Mortimer left them.
Both Brenda and her brothers have an 'expression of the utmost horror' on their faces.
I mean, the way the death of Brenda and the sudden madness of the brothers is described, makes you wonder if...
...it was the devil himself who was involved!
But - come on. We know that's not so. Every murderer leaves at least one clue behind.
The moment Sherlock Holmes finds his first clue, he gets on the trail...The trail does not lead to the devil.
It leads to a stunning climax, however.
When the vicar of the parish tells Sherlock Holmes and Watson about that night when three people playing cards suddenly died or went mad - while still sitting and playing cards - well, that's definitely a magical scene!
I mean the situation is really mysterious.
The vicar says:
That's definitely a magical moment for me.
While The Devil's Foot has this 'aura of horror' around it, it's got its share of funny moments.
There's an explorer called Leonard Sterndale in the story and his conversations with Holmes turn into retorts a bit too often.
For example, when Holmes keeps bombarding Leonard with questions, he says:
Sherlock Holmes retorts:
Then, there's this second funny scene where Holmes tells Leonard that he followed him.
Leonard Sterndale: "I saw no one."
Holmes retorts: "That is what you may expect to see when I follow you."
For me, these moments sort of lightened up the sinister atmosphere. They'd get my vote for the 'magical moments'.
Now I've read about Holmes and Watson pursuing villains together. I've seen them hiding and waiting - waiting for the villain to appear with their revolvers ready.
But, when it comes to experiments - Holmes generally does that stuff himself.
This is the only story in which Holmes and Watson carry out a life-threatening experiment that almost kills them. They recreate exactly how Brenda died and her brothers went crazy.
The thrilling way in which Holmes 'collects material' for the experiment, then carries it forward...and is then a few minutes away from death or madness - makes this is a very special moment in the story.
Generally, Holmes is quite cold - he's not your emotional dude who expresses his feelings.
But then - any man will express his feelings when his friend and he have just been back from the jaws of death!
Here's what Sherlock Holmes says to Watson after their 'almost fatal' experiment:
These lines tell us something we don't often realize: Holmes really cares about Watson. Even more than his case-results at times. That's heartening.
Yes, he puts Watson's life in danger.
But then, he does not feel any hesitation in genuinely saying sorry.
A rare, magical moment for me.
The Devil's Foot begins in the Cornish peninsula. It's got Holmes and Watson taking walks near Poldhu Bay. Where are these places?
Here's a map that shows all these interesting locations.
Holmes and Watson visit the scene of crime in a 'dog-cart' in The Devil's Foot.
That made me think: What exactly is a dog-cart and how common was it during Sherlock Holmes' time?
Here's an illustration of a dog-cart from the 19th century.
A dog-cart was a very common horse drawn vehicle in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
It had two 'sides' -
as you can see in the picture. On one side sat the driver, and on the
other side sat the passenger/s. It wasn't a 'carriage' as you can see -
it was quite open.
And why were dog-carts were originally called "dog-carts"? Because apparently, they were first used to transport dogs. That seating area behind the cart that you see - that used to form a compartment for dogs to be kept.
By the way, the dog-cart was just one of the many types of horse carts/carriages they had in London in those days. There were hansoms, single horse pleasure carriages and more...
Interesting titbit: the word 'dog-cart' appears a total of 21 times in all Sherlock Holmes stories and novels!
The game of whist is quite important in The Devil's Foot.
After all - it is this game that the woman who died and the men who went mad - were playing, when something eerie happened!
Now, honestly, I've read the word 'whist' many times in different classics, but I really had no idea what it was. So, I decided to find out.
Basically, whist was a really popular card game in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the 1890s, people started liking another version of whist called 'bridge whist'. This thing became 'bridge' in the 1900s. Today, loads of people play 'bridge' - whist is seen as the daddy from which bridge evolved.
By the way, whist also has a daddy ;-)
It evolved from a card game called 'Ruff and Honours'. This one was played in the 16th and 17th century! And Ruff and Honours evolved from yet another game called Trump that was played in the 15th and 16th centuries...
Here's a funny picture that shows you this card-game's 'genealogy'.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle publicly published his list of 12 best Holmes stories in 1927.
The only story in the top-12 list, that's from His Last Bow is...
The Devil's Foot.
He ranked it 9th out of the 12 best Sherlock Holmes stories.
There's not much Conan Doyle said about how he made his list, but he did say this about The Devil's Foot:
'The Devil's Foot' has points. It is grim and new. We will give it the ninth place."
Devil's-foot root is the substance that kills and drives people mad in The Devil's Foot. Does it exist?
The short answer is: Nope. There's no real substance called Devil's-foot root. There's no real substance called Radix Pedis Diaboli - that's mentioned in the story - either.
But - and that's a strong but - while there's no exact substance called Devil's-foot root - there are many similar substances.
Picture by John Geiz. Thanks John!
For instance, take a peek at this one on the left - the mandrake plant.
It's roots match the description of Devil's Foot Root. Those roots do look a bit like the Devil's own foot, don't they?
The dangerous chemicals in these roots can damage the lungs, cause vomiting and diarrhea and even hallucinations!
However - you'd need a heavy dose to get these results. Can a small amount of powder cause death? Not sure...
But mandrake's not the only contender...
There's 'poison ivy' as well.
If you burn poison ivy's leaves and inhale the
smoke that comes up, rash will appear on the inner lining of the lungs
and possibly death will occur...
Then there are some not-so-harmful plants that only share their name with Devil's-foot root...
There's Devil's Claw - which is a plant that actually helps cure joint pain and has many other medicinal benefits!
There's Devil's Shoestring which is a plant used to ease menstrual cramps. It's also used to well...keep evil spirits away. Ahem.
There's Devil's hair as well - a parasitic, but non-poisonous plant.
Here's a picture of these guys!
Thanks Khalid Mahmood for that 'Devil's hair' picture!
So that's a brief history of some plants that are in some way connected to Devil's foot root.
But the final, final statement: Conan Doyle used the properties of many cool plants and mixed 'em up to create Devil's-foot root.
And - just in case you still haven't read The Devil's Foot, you can read it here: