Smacking Holmes upside the head; an analysis of Silver Blaze

Somedays you just want to smack Sherlock Holmes upside the head. Certainly that was my feeling after re-reading Silver Blaze, the first story in the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Although the story is a favorite of mine and many others, a deeper reading of it reveals some troubling choices by the great detective.

Of course, I have wanted to smack Holmes several times when reading the Canon, most notably when he sends John Openshaw to his death in Five Orange Pips. My motivation to give Holmes a Gibbs-slap in SILV, however, is quite different from the reason he deserves it in FIVE. But as usual, I first have to give a synopsis of the story. Feel free to skip if you know the story already. You may prefer the detailed plot summary at wikipedia.

Holmes finally travels to Dartmoor TWO DAYS after he is asked by Inspector Gregory and Colonel Ross to investigate the disappearance of Ross’ horse, Silver Blaze, favored to win the upcoming Wessex Cup, and the murder of the horse’s trainer, John Straker. He tells Watson he was reluctant to go because:

“The fact is that I could not believe it possible that the most remarkable horse in England could long remain concealed, especially in so sparsely inhabited a place as the north of Dartmoor.”

Holmes admits this was a blunder (first smack), especially as the horse has not been found and the police have arrested a racing tout, Fitzroy Simpson, of whose guilt Holmes has doubts. And so Holmes and Watson are racing to King’s Pyland, Ross’ stables, in Dartmoor. Holmes even remarks on the speed of their train:

“We are going well,” said he, looking out the window and glancing at his watch. “Our rate at present is fifty-three and a half miles an hour.”

“I have not observed the quarter-mile posts,” said I.

“Nor have I. But the telegraph posts upon this line are sixty yards apart, and the calculation is a simple one.”

Here Holmes deserves a second Gibbs-slap for showing off. He then relates the case to Watson and for the edification of the reader. Someone had drugged the curried mutton given to the stable boy who kept watch on the horse (Colonel Ross had worried someone would want to nobble the race favorite). The stable boy had been found insensible the next morning, the horse had been taken and later the body of trainer John Straker was found. He’d been savagely beaten and there was a long cut upon his thigh. He may have fought off his attacker with a small knife he still clutched, for his hand and the knife were bloody.

The tout, Simpson, had been seen the previous night at King’s Pyland. He had tried to bribe the stable boy for inside information, but the boy instead went to fetch the dog. Simpson, however, had fled upon the boy’s return. A maid, who’d earlier been accosted by Simpson and who had gone to tell Straker of their visitor, saw the man looking through the window through which she had earlier given the stable boy his dinner. This led to the suspicion that he had administered the powdered opium that later incapacitated the boy. It was further suspected that Simpson, who was seen carrying a heavy walking stick (a Penang lawyer) killed the trainer with the stick. Simpson’s cravat was also found besides the trainer’s body.

This seems damning, but Holmes has doubts. He later asks Gregory if Simpson had a duplicate key to the stables (to let the horse out), where he obtained the opium, why he simply did not nobble the horse in the stables and how could he know where to hide the horse. Gregory explains away these objections, most importantly the fact that Simpson showed no injury, despite the evidence of the bloody knife in Straker’s hand. Watson had earlier supposed to Holmes the possibility that Straker had inflicted the long cut upon himself during the struggle with his attacker, a supposition Holmes found likely.

Gregory agrees this is now his theory as well, and the two detectives agree that the lack of injury to Simpson is damning. It is a curious incident of British justice indeed if the lack of evidence connecting one to a fatal beating should be construed as evidence pointing to involvement in that crime.

When they arrive in Dartmoor, Holmes does not examine Straker’s body, but does ask questions of Colonel Ross and investigates the contents of the dead man’s pockets:

“There was a box of vestas, two inches of tallow candle, an A D P brier-root pipe, a pouch of seal-skin with half an ounce of long-cut Cavendish, a silver watch with a gold chain, five sovereigns in gold, an aluminum pencil-case, a few papers, and an ivory-handled knife with a very delicate, inflexible blade marked Weiss & Co., London.

“This is a very singular knife,” said Holmes, lifting it up and examining it minutely. “I presume, as I see blood-stains upon it, that it is the one which was found in the dead man’s grasp. Watson, this knife is surely in your line?”

“It is what we call a cataract knife,” said I.

“I thought so. A very delicate blade devised for very delicate work. A strange thing for a man to carry with him upon a rough expedition, especially as it would not shut in his pocket.”

“The tip was guarded by a disk of cork which we found beside his body,” said the Inspector. “His wife tells us that the knife had lain upon the dressing-table, and that he had picked it up as he left the room. It was a poor weapon, but perhaps the best that he could lay his hands on at the moment.”

“Very possible. How about these papers?”

“Three of them are receipted hay-dealers’ accounts. One of them is a letter of instructions from Colonel Ross. This other is a milliner’s account for thirty-seven pounds fifteen made out by Madame Lesurier, of Bond Street, to William Derbyshire. Mrs. Straker tells us that Derbyshire was a friend of her husband’s and that occasionally his letters were addressed here.”

“Madam Derbyshire had somewhat expensive tastes,” remarked Holmes, glancing down the account. “Twenty-two guineas is rather heavy for a single costume. However there appears to be nothing more to learn, and we may now go down to the scene of the crime.”

Next, Holmes asks Mrs Straker if he hadn’t met her at a garden party wearing “a costume of dove-colored silk with ostrich-feather trimming.” Mrs Straker denies owning such a dress.

Then Holmes examines where Straker’s body was found and does his crawling around on all fours-magnifying glass thing. Holmes behavior begins to get on Ross’ nerves. He needs to know whether to remove his horse from the race, but Holmes advises him to let Silver Blaze’s name stand.

Holmes and Watson leave Gregory and Ross and armed with a copy of one of the horse’s shoes (supplied by Gregory), they follow the horse’s trail away from the murder spot. The trail leads to Mapleton, the home of Silver Blaze’s chief rival Desborough, owned by Lord Backwater and managed by Silas Brown. Holmes has a private conversation with Brown, who is visibly shaken afterward. Watson learns from Holmes that Brown has been keeping the horse, having found the horse wandering after Straker was killed.

Holmes and Watson then return to King’s Pyland, where Holmes tells Ross that he has “every hope, however, that your horse will start upon Tuesday, and I beg that you will have your jockey in readiness.” He does not divulge where the horse is, however, or who killed Straker.

FOUR DAYS LATER Holmes and Watson return to Winchester for the race. Ross is beside himself because he still has no horse and so is very surprised when an unfamiliar horse wearing his colors is led past him to the starting gate. The horse wins the race and Holmes reveals that the winner is actually Silver Blaze, the white patch on his forehead and his mottled off-foreleg disguised by dye. He also reveals that Silver Blaze is the murderer of Straker, but it was self defense. Straker had meant to nobble the horse by nicking a tendon with the delicate knife, inducing a temporary lameness, but the horse, perhaps sensing something untoward was afoot, struck Straker and killed him.

Imagine—for four days Holmes let Ross worry about his horse, all because “the Colonel’s manner has been just a trifle cavalier to me.” At any time, Ross might have decided to scratch his horse from the race. Why he didn’t remains a mystery to me (unless I indulge in sinister speculation). Truly, Holmes deserves a smack upside the head for putting the colonel through this anguish, even if this story does show some of the detective’s finest examples of ratiocination.

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