Sherlock Holmes and the overlooked murder

NOTE: If you have not read either The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle or The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, DO NOT PROCEED!

We all know Sherlock Holmes occasionally let criminals off scot free, most famously I think in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle when he let James Ryder free with this explanation to his biographer and friend John H. Watson: “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies … I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to gaol now, and you make him a gaol-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness.”

In this instance, of course, James Ryder had stolen a gem, the famous Blue Carbuncle, from the Countess of Morcar while that lady was staying at the Hotel Cosmopolitan. After he’d stolen it, he hid the gem by feeding it to a Christmas goose and much of the story grows out of Ryder’s efforts to retrieve the goose. Holmes lets Ryder free, even though Ryder has left another man wrongly accused of the theft.

Holmes explanation for this leniency involves the spirit of the Christmas season, but there is no such excuse for his allowing the murder of Sir James Walter in The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans to go overlooked. True, by the end of the story he has named Colonel Valentine Walter as the killer of Cadogan West, the file clerk originally accused of the theft of the plans, but if justice is to be served, Colonel Walter should also be accused of the death of his brother.

If you’re wondering what the heck I’m talking about, review BRUC. The body of Cadogan West is found beside a subway track, his head crushed and with him are seven sheets of the missing plans. The mystery is that there is little blood about the body and that West had no Underground ticket. Holmes deduces that the body had been on top of an Underground car and fell to the ground when the train went over switching points.

There is every reason to suspect that West stole the plans, but Holmes is convinced by his brother Mycroft to investigate. And during Holmes and Watson’s investigation, they pay a call to Sir James, West’s superior and the only person who held all three keys that would allow one access to the plans.

They’re met at Sir James’ house by his brother, Colonel Valentine, who tells them his brother has just died: “My brother, Sir James, was a man of very sensitive honour, and he could not survive such an affair. It broke his heart. He was always so proud of the efficiency of his department, and this was a crushing blow.”

After leaving Sir James’ home, Holmes remarks to Watson: “This is indeed an unexpected development. I wonder if the death was natural, or whether the poor old fellow killed himself! If the latter, may it be taken as some sign of self-reproach for duty neglected? We must leave that question to the future.”

Excuse me! The one person who held all three keys dies and Holmes leaves that as a question for the future? I submit this is a suspicious death, especially in light of the fact that we later learn the colonel copied his brother’s keys: “He said nothing, but he had caught me once with his keys, and I think that he suspected. I read in his eyes that he suspected. As you know, he never held up his head again.”

Argh! Of course as I said before, the colonel is caught and he does redeem himself a little in uncovering the spy Oberstein, but as a matter of justice, Holmes should have investigated the death of Sir James, at the very least to remove the suggestion that he had taken his own life.

NOTE: In the Jeremy Brett/Edward Hardwicke Granda version of the story, Colonel Walter is allowed to escape: “kept on a long lead.” So if he did murder his brother, he did go unpunished for that as well as the manslaughter of West (different from the original).

Another very odd aspect of this story is that Oberstein, who showed no compunction at killing West, allowed the colonel to convince him to leave seven of the 10 missing papers behind, only retaining the “essential” three. This was to throw suspicion upon the file clerk.

But at this point, the colonel was no longer of any use to Oberstein. Why not kill the colonel as well? Admittedly Oberstein might have found that difficult, armed with only a life preserver (a sap or small truncheon), but it had already proved effective. And wouldn’t all 10 papers be preferable?

Of course these are minor quibbles in one of the great short stories, that combines Holmes’ brother Mycroft, a Watson who’s engaged in every step (apart from a little reconnaissance, Inspector Lestrade, an intimate knowledge of the Underground and a scene that can’t help a latter-day viewer think of The Lady Killers, the 1955 Ealing Studios black comedy with Alec Guinness.

I’m also amused at Holmes’ decision/reluctance to act in the case, because he largely agrees with the assessment that West is the thief of the plans (or at least he plays a strong Devil’s advocate). Responding to Lestrade’s opinion that West’s murderer was his accomplice and took West’s Underground ticket, Holmes says: “Your theory holds together. But if this is true, then the case is at an end. On the one hand, the traitor is dead. On the other, the plans of the Bruce-Partington submarine are presumably already on the Continent. What is there for us to do?”

Mycroft replies: “To act, Sherlock—to act!” cried Mycroft, springing to his feet. “All my instincts are against this explanation. Use your powers! Go to the scene of the crime! See the people concerned! Leave no stone unturned! In all your career you have never had so great a chance of serving your country.”

In other words, if West is the thief, then there is nothing that can be done, so Sherlock might as well work under the assumption that West is not the thief. It’s almost as if we’ve turned Holmes’ famous dictum on its head. “When we cannot eliminate the impossible because it is too dispiriting to contemplate, then the impossible had better be the truth.”

There’s so much crammed into this story it’s like the ultimate Holmes drinking game: two drinks if Mycroft is mentioned, one more if he gets a raise (“occasionally he IS the British government”); three drinks if Holmes agrees with Lestrade (“Good, Lestrade, very good”); one if Holmes chides Lestrade (for not inspecting the roof of the train); one drink for every mention of the famous dictum; one drink for each widow/fiancée defending her man; two drinks for each breaking and entering; and one drink for a mention of the agony column.

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