Sherlock Holmes and The Scene of the Crime
The autumn of 1897 presented such an array of singular cases that to pen any one of them seems unjust to those excluded. Clients from all walks of life brought their seemingly insoluble problems to my friend for resolution. There was the case where Holmes vindicated a hapless fellow named Sedgington, whose lascivious pencil sketchings of Queen Victoria fell into the hands of the nefarious blackmailer Reginald Quigg. My sleep is still plagued with nightmares of the Horace Bellefonte dental floss affair, as shocking a tale as The Giant Rat of Sumatra or The Monster Anchovy of Crete. It was also during this period that Holmes found my scarf under the sofa. However, complete written accounts of these and other adventures will never reach the public eye, the unfortunate result of my having rammed my case notes so tightly into my desk drawer that I can’t pull it open.
There is one case that I feel competent to chronicle entirely from memory, so deeply are its details etched in my mind. It all began early in October on a chilly Sunday afternoon during a lull in my friend’s casework. Holmes was deep in the sway of a cocaine-induced stupor as was his habit when no interesting cases occupied his intellect. He had been curled up in a chair by the window all morning with his violin, his incoherent state evident in his effort to coax a tune out of the instrument by licking it. I myself was engrossed in a philosophical treatise concerning man’s pursuit of perfection, which I took to be an allegory of a whale hunt.
The silence was interrupted by the sound of footfalls on the stairs leading up to our flat. Seizing the moment to inject some spirit into my friend, I quickly adopted his deductive methods to describe our visitor in advance.
“Your next client is a man,” I confidently proclaimed. “Rather tall and quite sturdily built, no doubt a logger by trade.”
I succeeded in getting Holmes’s attention, if not his enthusiasm, so I continued.
“Despite the capabilities of his stride, he ascends the stairs one at a time. This, in addition to a slightly perceptible limp, tells me he incurred a leg wound while serving in the army, possibly in Afghanistan.”
Undaunted by my companion’s sardonic grin, I confidently swung the door open to admit Mrs. Hudson, delivering our morning tea. On her way out she mentioned that we had a visitor waiting downstairs and asked whether she should show him up.
“By all means,” I replied on behalf of Holmes, who was too convulsed in laughter to speak. “Anything to relieve the monotony.”
I greeted our visitor at the door and offered him the seat across from Holmes. He was quite young, handsomely attired in the manner of a genteel aristocrat. Once comfortable, he lost no time in beginning his narrative.
“My name is Ichabod Thortonshire. I live with my father and younger brother on a modest country estate in Kent, a mere stone’s throw away from here, provided you can throw a stone about 20 miles. My mother died shortly after my brother, Rodney, was born and Father took it upon himself to raise us on his own, choosing not to remarry.
“Despite his family responsibilities, my father developed a fine career as a physician. Perhaps you’ve heard of him, Dr. Watson, Dr. Osgood Thortonshire?”
“Why, yes, “ I replied. Dr. Thortonshire was the author of many a medical treatise and had caused quite a stir in the profession some years ago when he advocated closing surgical incisions not with suture but through the use of huge styptic pencils.
“Well,” Mr. Thortonshire continued, “about five years ago, my father left a thriving practice for academic life. He had been offered a chair at Cambridge and six months later a file cabinet, but after a while he grew listless in his teachings and eventually had to surrender his chair and was forced to stand. Not the ambitious sort, he elected to retire to Kent and manage a gentleman’s farm there; you know, the type where all the crops get cultivated but somehow no one ever gets their hands dirty.
“The three of us led a comfortable, sedentary life until last week when tragedy struck. I awoke one morning to find my father slumped in a chair in his study, dead of a broken neck. Naturally I called Scotland Yard at once but as yet they’ve no clue to the identity of the murderer. I’ve no one else to turn to, Mr. Holmes, and your reputation for divining solutions in matters like these is widely known. I beg of your help.”
Holmes, who had been listening intently throughout, now leaned forward. “Was your brother at home at the time of your father’s death?”
“Yes, he was. I awakened him with the awful news that morning. He’s a bit simple-minded and quite harmless, though as a child he tended to be rather cruel. I can remember times when he would lay his pet chameleon on plaid surfaces and watch it go crazy trying to blend in. He keeps mostly to himself nowadays, a voracious reader though he ignores the words and reads only the punctuation. Surely you don’t suspect him, Mr. Holmes?”
“Any conjecture I could make at this point would be premature,” assured Holmes. “I suggest that if it is at all convenient, I accompany you back to Kent for a thorough examination of the scene of the crime.”
“Excellent,” Mr. Thortonshire exclaimed. “I can’t tell you what a relief it is to know you’ll be working on the case. You’ve certainly set my mind at ease!”
“I only hope I can live up to your expectations,” my friend modestly replied as he donned his overcoat and deerstalker. Within minutes they left and I decided to take advantage of the solitude to return to my reading. My volume of philosophy in hand, I situated myself comfortably in the easy chair and was asleep in no time flat.
An hour or so later, I was awakened by the creak of a floorboard to find a hobo-like character fumbling through our belongings near the desk. It was obviously Holmes, attired as he was in order to blend in with the London lowlife. He often did this to ferret out clues for a case and took great delight in tricking me with his impressions, but this time I refused to be duped. When he first noticed I was awake, he feigned alarm but I quickly dismissed his anxiety, detailing the whereabouts of certain valuables and chuckling all the while he collected them. After he scurried out the door with a sack full of plunder and a perplexed look on his face, I resumed my nap, confident I had gotten the better of my friend.
Holmes had still not returned that evening when I retired, but early the following morning I awoke to the smell of Mrs. Hudson’s breakfast and putting on my robe, I walked into the living room to find my comrade reading the morning paper while eating.
“Ah, Watson,” he said without even lifting his eyes. “Come and enjoy this marvelous meal Mrs. Hudson has prepared for us.” There was an uplifted tone in his voice that I assumed was attributable to the Thortonshire case, so I sat down to eat and asked him about it.
It’s finished,” he said glibly. In contrast to Holmes’s nonchalance, I reacted to the news with noticeable startle, flinging a forkful of scrambled eggs with such force that they stuck to the ceiling.
“Finished?” I cried, regaining composure. “But it was only . . . “
“The good doctor’s death was accidental,” he murmured, oblivious to my amazement.
“But a broken neck! How, in a chair?”
“Dr. Thortonshire suffered from a rare combination of narcolepsy and insomnia. When the narcolepsy seized him, he would begin to nod off, only to jerk back, unable to sleep. Over time, this presented such stress to his neck that the break was inevitable.”
“But surely his son Ichabod was aware of his father’s condition. Why didn’t he proffer this information to Scotland Yard?”
“I suspect that Ichabod was reluctant to share his father’s inheritance with his brother. Since the death could easily be misinterpreted as foul play, Ichabod concealed this detail, allowing the authorities to draw conclusions implicating Rodney, who was too simple to defend himself. After the dust settled and his brother was institutionalized, the entire estate would accrue to Ichabod.”
“Of all the brazenness!” I exclaimed. “Deliberately submitting the case to your purview and expecting to deceive you!” Holmes characteristically shrugged off the compliment and resumed his meal.
“One thing puzzles me,” I continued. “Why was the disguise necessary?”
“What?” Holmes replied, his face now straight.
“You know, the riff-raff garb.” I proceeded to outline the episode of the previous day while Holmes listened with a blank stare on his face. When I finished, Holmes paused a full minute and then handed me his dinner knife handle first, stood up, turned with his back facing me, and his arms raised, crying “Go ahead then. Finish the deed!”
I wrote off his overreaction to tension and fatigue, although even after a good night’s rest it was weeks before he deigned to acknowledge my presence.