An illness prevented me from attending the most recent Outpatients’ Meeting of Doctor Watson’s Neglected Patients, which disappointed me because I wanted to discuss The Adventure of the Crooked Man. This is one of the stories that from an objective view, doesn’t seem as if it has much to offer, but when you contemplate why the story is in the Canon, you realize it’s one of the most touching stories of all.
One evening Holmes calls on Watson some few months after the doctor’s marriage to talk about a case. Colonel James Barclay is dead, and his wife Nancy is the prime suspect. The sounds of their argument alerted the servants and after she screams, the servants discover the door to the morning room is locked from the inside. Gaining entrance from the outside, they find the colonel dead, his face distorted in terror, and Mrs. Barclay insensible from “brain fever.”
Holmes has been asked whether he can shed any light on the case. He tells Watson that he learned from a friend of Mrs. Barclay, who had accompanied the lady earlier in the evening of the tragedy, that Mrs. Barclay had met a disreputable looking, deformed old man who engaged in conversation with the colonel’s wife. She asked her friend not to speak of it, but the friend tells Holmes of the encounter in hopes the information will shed some light on the mystery.
Holmes further tells Watson that he has ascertained the name of the man—Henry Wood—and that he intends to question the man as to his knowledge of the death of the colonel, and he would like Watson to accompany him as a witness.
You can see from this synopsis that Holmes has practically solved the case. He had already deduced that another person was in the room, for the key to the locked door could not be found, either in the room or on the person of the colonel or his wife. He also found footprints of an animal in the room and thinks that what could be the murder weapon did not belong to the household.
Watson and Holmes leave for Aldershot Camp, the home of the Royal Mallows regiment to which the colonel belonged, the next morning. They have no trouble finding Wood—one of the Baker Street Irregulars has been keeping a watch on the man—and they learn the history of Wood, the colonel and Nancy Devoy that was.
Wood and Barclay were both serving in India as enlisted men, and both men were in love with Miss Devoy, the daughter of the colour-sergeant. Wood was a corporal and Barclay a sergeant. During the Sepoy Mutiny, their regiment was besieged, and Wood volunteered to leave the camp to get help. But Wood is soon captured by the mutineers because Barclay, jealous of Wood’s attentions to Miss Devoy, has betrayed Wood’s mission to the enemy.
Wood is taken away and repeatedly tortured. And although his original captors are later killed, he does not return to the regiment because of the pitiable state in which his privations have left him. Nor does he return to England until shortly before he met Mrs. Barclay with her friend, the night the colonel died. (Assuming Watson to be married to the former Mary Morstan, this story must have happened after events of The Sign of Four in 1888. The mutiny occurred in 1857.)
Wood confirms that he was present when Mrs. Barclay confronted her husband with the story of his infamy and that he rushed to her defense. His presence so surprised the colonel that he fell dead from the shock of it and hit his head on the fireplace fender. He said his first thought was to get help and began to unlock the door that Mrs. Barclay had locked, but he realized he might be accused of the murder and left the house, with the key. All this Wood is prepared to admit if it will absolve Mrs. Barclay, but the offer goes unclaimed. An inquest has determined that the colonel died from apoplexy and Mrs. Barclay is no longer a suspect.
As summarized, the story seems to present few of those little points of interest that delight us. Holmes has, to all intents and purposes, already solved the case before he calls on Watson. Most of the story is told by Holmes in flashback to Watson as his audience, so we don’t even get the joy of their camaraderie. True, this story is remarkable in that it is the closest we ever get to Holmes saying, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
“I have the advantage of knowing your habits, my dear Watson,” said he.
“Excellent!” I cried.
“Elementary,” said he.
Other notables: The story has a mention of Simpson, a Baker Street Irregular, and in the mongoose, this story has one of the more notable red herrings. The animal footprints Holmes observed were made by Wood’s pet mongoose, a detail that plays absolutely no part in the crime—well, there isn’t even a crime—although it certainly made identification of Wood much easier. This is also one of the few stories in which we have no idea of the aftermath, although some have speculated from Wood’s appearance that he has not much longer to live. Another red herring is the supposed murder weapon, which was actually Wood’s crutch that he’d left behind.
There are two troubling aspects to this story: The first is Barclay’s motivation in betraying Wood to the enemy. If you’re fearing for your life and someone offers to undertake a dangerous mission to get help, are you really going to betray that man? Secondly, should it not have occurred to Wood that if he might be suspected of the colonel’s death, that Mrs. Barclay would fall under the same suspicion? But these are trifling points.
So what makes this such a touching story? Well it’s obvious from the beginning that Holmes has missed his Boswell. Watson, who had been a fixture at Baker Street, has been busy in his practice and no doubt still in the raptures of newly wedded bliss. Holmes calls late enough that Mrs. Watson has gone to bed and then keeps the doctor awake all night relating the details of his investigation. He clearly doesn’t need Watson’s help in apprehending Wood, who offers no resistance, and he could have taken anyone else as a witness (including Major Murphy, who had requested Holmes’ assistance). And despite Holmes calling the mystery “one of the strangest cases which ever perplexed a man’s brain,” I can’t help but think the case is not really that perplexing. And Holmes really should have surmised the presence of the mongoose after learning that Wood had paid for his lodgings with an Indian rupee.
Now I’m not one of those who suspect there were any sexual or romantic relations between Holmes and Watson, but clearly Holmes enjoyed Watson’s company and sorely missed him. He’s pretended that a simple case he’s already essentially solved requires the assistance of his friend. His conversation at the beginning of this story, asking about the drains and asking whether Watson smoked the same tobacco, is clearly an excuse to spend time with his friend. Anyone who suspects Holmes of being an emotionless machine should consider The Crooked Man.