Thanks to my Sherlock Holmes scion society, Doctor Watson’s Neglected Patients, I’ve recently re-read The Adventure of the Six Napoleons and have decided that it, with the Red-Headed League, deserves nomination to my personal best of the Canon list. (I’ve always had difficulty preparing a favorite list of stories and so my realization came as a welcome relief.)
SIXN really is an amazing story if we use the following criteria: there has to be a good mystery, an actual crime must be involved, Holmes’ solution of it cannot be farfetched and the criminal must be brought to justice, there should be some evolution of the characters and Holmes’ client must escape unharmed (yes, I’m looking at you, Five Orange Pips). Before we examine these criteria, let’s take a look at the story.
Holmes and Watson are enjoying a quiet evening with Inspector Lestrade, who by this point in their relationship, apparently often stops by just for a chat, a smoke and a drink. He tells Holmes of a curious incident of hooliganism four days previous at the shop of Morse Hudson on Kennington Road (south of the Thames), a purveyor of pictures and statues. While the shop was left untended, someone entered and broke a small plaster bust of the Emperor Napoleon.
At first Holmes is uninterested; it seems only the act of a disordered mind—“That’s no business of mine.” He reverses his opinion, however, when Lestrade adds that only the previous night, someone did the same to two identical busts sold to Dr. Barnicot, who lives near Hudson’s shop. In fact Dr. Barnicot bought his two busts from Mr. Hudson. During the night, someone stole the bust from Barnicot’s house and smashed it outside and also burgled Barnicot’s branch surgery two miles away and smashed the other bust kept there. The remains of this second bust, however, were found inside the surgery.
Asked his opinion, Watson suggests the miscreant suffers from idée fixe or monomania about Napoleon, but Holmes dismisses this with the observation that it seems unlikely a monomaniac would track three identical busts of Napoleon to smash.
The next morning, Holmes is summoned by Lestrade to the home of journalist Horace Harker (in fashionable Kensington, north of the river), who had been alarmed during the night by a horrible yell and discovered that his Napoleon bust was missing and that a dead man was now on his front doorstep.
The man, dead from a slashed throat, carried only an apple, a piece of string, a shilling map of London and a photograph of a “sharp-featured simian man, with thick eyebrows and a very peculiar projection of the lower part of the face, like the muzzle of a baboon.”
After Holmes’ very quick examination of the scene (the body had already been removed), Lestrade leads Holmes and Watson to a spot along the road next to an empty house where the thief (and presumably murderer) had smashed the bust.
Holmes remarks on the fact that again the thief did not break the bust inside Harker’s home—“I wish to call your attention very particularly to the position of this house, in the garden of which the bust was destroyed.” Lestrade opines that the thief chose the house because it was empty and would not be observed, but Holmes points to the fact that a street lamp is directly overhead. This leads Lestrade to recall that the bust taken from Dr. Barnicot’s house was also smashed near a lamp.
Holmes and Watson leave Lestrade. The inspector believes the solution to the crime can be found in identifying the slain man, whereas Holmes believes the solution lies in identifying the man in the photograph. Lestrade allows Holmes to keep the photo and the consulting detective and his biographer travel to the nearby shop of Harding Brothers where Harker had bought his bust. The principles of that establishment are not present, however, so then the pair visit Morse Hudson’s shop (crossing the Thames) to ask the shop owner whether he recognizes the man in the photograph.
Hudson says: “Do I know that photograph? No, I don’t. Yes, I do, though. Why, it’s Beppo. He was a kind of Italian piece-work man, who made himself useful in the shop.” Beppo, however, had left his employ two days before the bust was smashed in his shop.
Next, Holmes and Watson travel to Gelder & Co. in Stepney (north of the river but in the East End of London), from whence Hudson had purchased his busts. There they learn from the Gelder & Co. manger that all four were part of a group of six cheap casts of a marble bust copy of Devine’s bust of Napoleon, three of which had been sent to Hudson’s shop and three to Harding Brothers. The manager also identifies Beppo as an employee, but that a year ago Beppo had been arrested in the studio after having knifed a fellow Italian in the street.
Finally, Holmes and Watson revisit Harding Brothers and are able to obtain the names and addresses of the other purchasers: Mr. Josiah Brown of Chiswick and Mr. Sandeford of Reading. They return to Baker Street where Lestrade has been awaiting their return. He is excited to tell them of his news, that the murdered man was “Pietro Venucci, from Naples, and he is one of the greatest cut-throats in London.” Lestrade is somewhat dismissive of Holmes’ investigation into the whereabouts and connections between the busts and instead suggests they travel to the Italian Quarter and search for the man in the photograph.
Holmes, however, promises that there are two-to-one odds of apprehending the murderer if they travel to Chiswick (west of London; Reading is much further west of London) that night. Lestrade agrees to this and Holmes suggest they eat and perhaps catch some sleep before they leave for Chiswick. Holmes also occupies himself by rummaging through old newspapers and sending an express messenger.
At eleven o’clock, they leave for Chiswick and wait outside the home of Josiah Brown. Holmes warns that they might have to wait some time, but almost immediately they see “a lithe, dark figure, as swift and active as an ape” enter the garden and then the house. A short while later, the figure emerges from the house and “with the bound of a tiger Holmes was on his back, and an instant later Lestrade and I had him by either wrist, and the handcuffs had been fastened.”
They return to London with Beppo, although Lestrade does not yet know the man’s identity. Holmes, however, promises that if Lestrade will come to Baker Street the next evening, all will be revealed.
The next evening, Lestrade joins Holmes and Watson. The inspector tells him that he has learned the suspect is named Beppo—“a well-known ne’er-do-well among the Italian colony.” Further talk is interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Sandeford of Reading, who had received a telegram from Holmes promising to pay £10 to buy Sandeford’s bust. Sandeford is eager to sell the bust, although he does admit he’d only paid 15 shillings for it. Holmes has Sandeford sign a paper affirming that Sandeford “transfer every possible right that you ever had in the bust to me.”
After Sandeford leaves, Holmes dramatically smashes the bust before Watson and Lestrade and shows them the Black Pearl of the Borgias, which had been concealed within.
Holmes tells Watson and Lestrade that Lucretia Venucci, a maid in the employ of the Prince of Colonna, the owner of the pearl, had been suspected in the theft of the pearl, and Lucretia is the sister of the murdered man. “I was myself consulted upon the case, but I was unable to throw any light upon it.”
Holmes surmises that Beppo had in some way been involved in theft, perhaps as a go-between, and that he had been in possession of the pearl at the time of the stabbing outside Gelder & Co. (From his newspaper research, Holmes had learned the theft of the pearl occurred just two days before the stabbing.) In a hurry to hide the pearl before his arrest, Beppo had entered the workshop and inserted the pearl into one of six busts left out to dry. After Beppo had been released from prison in the matter of the stabbing (his victim had not died), he took a position with Morse Hudson in an effort to track down the busts.
After his explanation, Lestrade offers his congratulations:
“Well,” said Lestrade, “I’ve seen you handle a good many cases, Mr. Holmes, but I don’t know that I ever knew a more workmanlike one than that. We’re not jealous of you at Scotland Yard. No, sir, we are very proud of you, and if you come down to-morrow, there’s not a man, from the oldest inspector to the youngest constable, who wouldn’t be glad to shake you by the hand.”
Holmes’ reaction to this is to me, one of the most touching passages* in the Canon:
“Thank you!” said Holmes. “Thank you!” and as he turned away, it seemed to me that he was more nearly moved by the softer human emotions than I had ever seen him. A moment later he was the cold and practical thinker once more. “Put the pearl in the safe, Watson,” said he, “and get out the papers of the Conk-Singleton forgery case. Good-bye, Lestrade. If any little problem comes your way, I shall be happy, if I can, to give you a hint or two as to its solution.”
So let us return to those criteria I mentioned before the lengthy synopsis: there has to be a good mystery, an actual crime must be involved, Holmes’ solution of it cannot be farfetched and the criminal must be brought to justice, there should be some evolution of the characters and Holmes’ client must escape unharmed. This story meets those criteria and more.
The story is a good, but not outrageous mystery—no spectral hounds or speckled bands—and the real mystery is that Holmes is at first uninterested, until Lestrade adds that the hater of Napoleon has resorted to burglary.
But by far the most compelling aspect of this adventure is the workmanlike way Holmes solves it. Holmes requires no specialist knowledge, no 140 types of ashes or distinctive red clay or lying on the floor peering through his magnifier this time. Instead he simply observes what others don’t. More than with most stories, I think the reader really identifies with Holmes’ thought process as the story practically leads us by the hand. Of course most of us are so familiar with the story that we can’t remember a time when we didn’t know it, but still I think newcomers appreciate Holmes’ chain of logic, even if that dullard Lestrade doesn’t.
Speaking of Lestrade, however, it’s worthwhile to note that his methods are hardly ineffective. Here Lestrade explains how they identified the dead man:
“We have an inspector who makes a specialty of Saffron Hill and the Italian Quarter. Well, this dead man had some Catholic emblem round his neck, and that, along with his colour, made me think he was from the South. Inspector Hill knew him the moment he caught sight of him. His name is Pietro Venucci, from Naples, and he is one of the greatest cut-throats in London. He is connected with the Mafia, which, as you know, is a secret political society, enforcing its decrees by murder. Now, you see how the affair begins to clear up. The other fellow is probably an Italian also, and a member of the Mafia. He has broken the rules in some fashion. Pietro is set upon his track. Probably the photograph we found in his pocket is the man himself, so that he may not knife the wrong person. He dogs the fellow, he sees him enter a house, he waits outside for him, and in the scuffle he receives his own death-wound. How is that, Mr. Sherlock Holmes?”
It’s possible that if his officers had the photograph of Beppo to show in the Italian Quarter, they could have identified the suspect and apprehended him. Without his inexplicable loan of the photograph to Holmes, however, there would have been no story for us to read.
It is the evolution of the characters in this story that also make it one of the best. Watson does not evolve here, of course. He has few lines in the story other than to demonstrate his knowledge of current psychological thinking. There’s not even any gushing praise of his friend’s abilities, apart from his description of Holmes bounding like a tiger.
Holmes, however, shows a great deal of character development. I think we have here the hint of a man contemplating retirement. The Holmes of old would have jumped upon the idea of a madman smashing busts of Napoleon without the added inducement of burglary ( “Burglary! This is more interesting. Let me hear the details.”) The Holmes of old would have lain upon the floor with his magnifier, he would have gone to the morgue to see the body and he would not be so inclined to spend chatty evening with Lestrade.
This sentence from the opening paragraph of the story really suggests an armchair detective who doesn’t go out much:
In return for the news which Lestrade would bring, Holmes was always ready to listen with attention to the details of any case upon which the detective was engaged, and was able occasionally, without any active interference, to give some hint or suggestion drawn from his own vast knowledge and experience.
Lestrade also shows considerable character development in his touching praise of Holmes. It’s obvious their professional relationship has become a personal one, even if Lestrade can’t help but be skeptical of Holmes’ methods.
So I add SIXN to my personal list of best stories, joining the Red-Headed League and the Blue Carbuncle. There are other stories that are also favorites, of course, but only a very few meet the requirements I mentioned. I think my select best list indicates I prefer the stories that begin with the odd little occurrences in that teeming metropolis that from time to time find their way to Baker Street.
Things to note: Despite my affection for this story, Arthur Conan Doyles’ description of Beppo is uncomfortable to read, no matter how many of Beppo’s former employers concede: “he was a good workman—one of the best.”
Also, this must be one of earlier instances of a detective planting a false impression in the newspapers. Holmes asks Lestrade: “Tell [Horace Harker] for me that I have quite made up my mind, and that it is certain that a dangerous homicidal lunatic, with Napoleonic delusions, was in his house last night. It will be useful for his article.” This false impression allows Beppo to believe that the police remain unaware of his identity.
It’s also very odd that Morse Hudson at first does not recognize Beppo from the photograph, despite the man’s singular appearance. Also that no one seems to know Beppo’s last name, neither his employers nor the police, despite Beppo having served time.
I’m also quite worried that even though Holmes suspected Beppo would burgle Josiah Brown’s house, his only efforts to protect the Brown household was to warn them. As Mr. Brown relates: “I had the note which you sent by the express messenger, and I did exactly what you told me. We locked every door on the inside and awaited developments.” I think it would have been advisable had Holmes suggested they leave the house and have Lestrade place constables inside.
And a final item to note: Why wasn’t Holmes able to solve the case the first time round? Didn’t Beppo’s arrest at Gelder & Co. come to his attention? Admittedly it might have come under the heading of petty crime, but wasn’t that Holmes’ specialty?
Other cases mentioned: “the dreadful business of the Abernetty family was first brought to my notice by the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day” and the Conk-Singleton forgery case.
Next up: DWNP meets again at Pints Pub, 12:30 p.m. Feb. 2 to discuss The Adventure of the Three Students.