The sixth story in my Sherlock Holmes reading challenge sees the Baker Street detectives leave the confines of London Town for rural Herefordshire to investigate the murder of Mr Charles McCarthy – this time though, they are there not only to catch a murderer… but to save a man from the threat of the hangman’s noose. The man – McCarthy’s son, James.
After five adventures within the confines of London, it was time for Conan Doyle to allow his literary creations to stretch their legs a little, after all Holmes has been gaining a reputation “offstage” within three continents for his powers of observation and detection.
The change of location isn’t the only change for the tale as the main purpose for Holmes’ investigation isn’t to catch the perpetrator of a crime, but to get a man acquitted despite an overwhelming amount of evidence against him. (The person employing Holmes, via Inspector Lestrade, being James’s childhood friend Alice Turner whose father shares land with McCarthy Sr.).
Another change is that Watson, whilst still being steps behind Holmes as far as being a consulting detective is concerned, is becoming more interested in the art of deduction, specifically when an article about the murder piques his medical interest.
Despite the changes, this is still early days in the Holmes canon and whilst continuity is well known and accepted nowadays, whether it be in literature or on film or television, it isn’t a modern day trend as this story employs several strands of continuity to link it in with what has gone before.
Watson’s wife, Mary, features at the start of this story, albeit that she is not mentioned by name, only as “my wife” (which feel a little like Arthur Daley of “Minder” talking about “‘Er indoors” – which is a little strange when you think about it considering that she is written very much as the love of Watson’s life in “The Sign of Four”). As with the “Sherlock” incarnation of Mary, she actually encourages Watson to participate in the investigation.
Yet again, Sherlock employs his powers of deduction upon Watson as a demonstration of his method. This time, the demonstration revolves around the fact that Watson uses natural light as his method for seeing whilst shaving. Unlike the previous story, “A Case Of Identity” where you never see Holmes leave Baker Street, he also manages to display his deductive powers during the investigation. Conan Doyle is clever in making his reasoning seem like a sleight of hand trick, but pay attention to the clues as they are there. I have to admit that I felt like Watson when Holmes pieces the clues but when the eventual perpetrator comes to light, you do have a “lightbulb” moment which makes you think “Ahhhhhh, now I get it”… especially as the perpetrator explains their motive for the crime.
Lestrade makes a small “guest” appearance as part of this story, but this seems to be very much in the manner of scoffing at Holmes’ method of investigation – very much in the manner of Athelney Jones of “The Sign of Four – by dismissing him as a theorist, which is strange given the fact that Holmes ran rings both around him and Gregson in “A Study In Scarlet”.
As with the previous Holmes short stories that I have read, this story is the Victorian equivalent of a police procedural story – maverick detective included. (Think “CSI: Baker Street”). That said, it’s a clever little story which manages to fit in a clear beginning, middle and end that flows better than “A Case of Identity”, if only for the fact that you actually see Sherlock actually do some investigating.
I don’t think that there is a “Sherlock” equivalent to this story (If somebody knows of an equivalent, please feel free to let me know). However, this story has featured several times on television and radio, most prominently in 1991 as part of Granada Television’s long running Sherlock Holmes series with a young James Purefoy, now known for portraying serial killer Joe Carroll in hit US television series “The Following”, in the role of James McCarthy.
For anybody who is following this reading challenge, the next story that I’ll be reading will be “The Five Orange Pips” – which I know will have a passing relevance to fans of “Sherlock”.