Good-night Mister Sherlock Holmes

February 27, 2009

Oh, it won’t do—really it won’t.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mark Loper @ 11:14 am
Tags: , ,

First I have to confess A Case of Identity is not one my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories.  It’s not that Holmes does anything unworthy of himself nor does Conan Doyle let us down with a weak plot line, it’s just that the story is so, so… so mediocre.  It is quite too transparent.

Could anyone – no matter how slow-witted or weak-sighted – fall for such a charade as did Mary Sutherland?  And as onerous as Mr. Windibank’s actions are, one would hardly expect Mary Sutherland’s own mother to take part.  But it could happen… I guess.

Clearly Holmes has sorted out the situation very early in the narrative but that’s what Holmes does.  Heck, I probably could have sorted this one out except I would not have suspected the stepfather.  But then again Holmes has the advantage of being familiar with two parallel cases: 

“You will find parallel cases, if you consult my index, in Andover in ’77, and there was something of the sort at The Hague last year.”

 Just a few things caught my attention in this story.  

When Holmes asked Watson to give his impressions of Mary Sutherland, Watson notices, among other things, that her right glove was torn at the forefinger but failed to notice the violet ink that was on the glove and also on the woman’s finger-tip? 

“You observed that her right glove was torn at the forefinger, but you did not apparently see that both glove and finger were stained with violet ink. She had written in a hurry and dipped her pen too deep.”

Dipped her finger too deep in the inkwell?  Think about that for a moment, what would it take to so misjudge the pen to the inkwell that you actually immerse your finger in it?  And how was it possible for Watson to notice that the right forefinger of Mary Sutherland’s glove to be torn but not notice the violet ink?  The gloves were grayish and the ink was violet, maybe not a striking contrast but a contrast nonetheless.

Also, why did Windibank type the signature instead of sign his letters to Mary Sutherland?  Holmes surmises that Mary would have recognized her stepfather’s writing , “even the smallest sample of it”, but the Hosmer Angel signature could have been nothing more than an illegible scratch which Mary could not possibly have recognized as Windibank’s.

Finally, it seems coincidental that Holmes realizes that, “The only drawback is that there is no law, I fear, that can touch the scoundrel.” And then the first thing out of Windibank’s mouth by way of defense, is that it’s not actionable (i.e. he’s broken no law).  This may just be classic Holmes; he’s two steps of me and realizes that criminal prosecution will be Windibank’s first concern.

But all is not lost!  

Holmes was never so masterful as when he confronted Windibank.  Can you even imagine being under the full scrutiny and control of Sherlock Holmes as is the criminal Windibank?  “Cat and mouse” hardly does the situation justice.

“If you can catch the man, catch him, and let me know when you have done it.” 

“Certainly,” said Holmes, stepping over and turning the key in the door. “I let you know, then, that I have caught him!” 

“What! where?” shouted Mr. Windibank, turning white to his lips and glancing about him like a rat in a trap. 

“Oh, it won’t do—really it won’t,” said Holmes suavely. “There is no possible getting out of it, Mr. Windibank. It is quite too transparent, and it was a very bad compliment when you said that it was impossible for me to solve so simple a question. That’s right! Sit down and let us talk it over.” 

We will have to assume Holmes only made a half-hearted attempt to actually assault Windibank as it is hard to imagine anyone escaping the wrath of Holmes had he genuinely been interested in causing bodily harm. 

“The law cannot, as you say, touch you,” said Holmes, unlocking and throwing open the door, “yet there never was a man who deserved punishment more. If the young lady has a brother or a friend, he ought to lay a whip across your shoulders. By Jove!” he continued, flushing up at the sight of the bitter sneer upon the man’s face, “it is not part of my duties to my client, but here’s a hunting crop handy, and I think I shall just treat myself to—” He took two swift steps to the whip, but before he could grasp it there was a wild clatter of steps upon the stairs, the heavy hall door banged, and from the window we could see Mr. James Windibank running at the top of his speed down the road. 

Windibank is clearly a bottom-feeder but I wonder does Holmes not overestimate his criminal future?

“There’s a cold-blooded scoundrel!” said Holmes, laughing, as he threw himself down into his chair once more. “That fellow will rise from crime to crime until he does something very bad, and ends on a gallows.”

No question his behavior was reprehensible but should we assume he will eventually commit a capital crime?  Maybe so, Holmes is Holmes and he knows these sort of things.

Holmes’ brilliant summation to Watson (and Watson’s concern for Mary Sutherland) go a long way toward salvaging the story.

“If I tell her she will not believe me. You may remember the old Persian saying, ‘There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.’ There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world.” 

Maybe not the best but still a little something for the Holmes aficionado.

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