Good-night Mister Sherlock Holmes

March 4, 2009

I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data.

The Adventure of the Copper Beaches is a run-of-the-mill Sherlock Holmes story.  That is not to say it is not a good story, it is, but it doesn’t stand out among Holmes’ exploits. There are, however, several distinctly Holmes traits that make the story worthy of note.

Specifically I refer to Holmes interview with Miss Violet Hunter. Hunter has just shown Holmes the letter from Mr. Rucastle where he offers her a job as governess.

“That is the letter which I have just received, Mr. Holmes, and my mind is made up that I will accept it. I thought, however, that before taking the final step I should like to submit the whole matter to your consideration.”

“Well, Miss Hunter, if your mind is made up, that settles the question,” said Holmes, smiling.

“But you would not advise me to refuse?”

“I confess that it is not the situation which I should like to see a sister of mine apply for.”

“What is the meaning of it all, Mr. Holmes?”

“Ah, I have no data. I cannot tell. Perhaps you have yourself formed some opinion?”

“Well, there seems to me to be only one possible solution. Mr. Rucastle seemed to be a very kind, good-natured man. Is it not possible that his wife is a lunatic, that he desires to keep the matter quiet for fear she should be taken to an asylum, and that he humours her fancies in every way in order to prevent an outbreak?”

“That is a possible solution—in fact, as matters stand, it is the most probable one. But in any case it does not seem to be a nice household for a young lady.”

“But the money, Mr. Holmes, the money!”

“Well, yes, of course the pay is good—too good. That is what makes me uneasy. Why should they give you £120 a year, when they could have their pick for £40? There must be some strong reason behind.”

“I thought that if I told you the circumstances you would understand afterwards if I wanted your help. I should feel so much stronger if I felt that you were at the back of me.”

“Oh, you may carry that feeling away with you. I assure you that your little problem promises to be the most interesting which has come my way for some months. There is something distinctly novel about some of the features. If you should find yourself in doubt or in danger—”

“Danger! What danger do you foresee?”

Holmes shook his head gravely. “It would cease to be a danger if we could define it,” said he. “But at any time, day or night, a telegram would bring me down to your help.”

Sherlock Holmes answers her questions precisely and succinctly avoiding any conjecture. He only answers the questions he is asked, not reading any more into the question than is there, which is a uncommon trait when talking with people.

When Miss Hunter asks, “What is the meaning of it all, Mr. Holmes?”, he answers, “Ah, I have no data. I cannot tell. Perhaps you have yourself formed some opinion?” In other words, he resists the temptation to be sucked into useless conversation, conversation not supported by data. He only answers the question as asked and only based on the data he actually had.

He then goes onto do something only the most confident professional is willing to do: he asks Miss Hunter her opinion. It is unlikely that she will suggest anything Holmes has not already considered but she might reveal some information that she has, for whatever reason, failed to disclose.

The mystery itself is quite transparent to Holmes once he has the facts and he demonstrates some acute psychological insight that is rare even today:

“The most serious point in the case is the disposition of the child.”

“What on earth has that to do with it?” I ejaculated.

“My dear Watson, you as a medical man are continually gaining light as to the tendencies of a child by the study of the parents. Don’t you see that the converse is equally valid. I have frequently gained my first real insight into the character of parents by studying their children. This child’s disposition is abnormally cruel, merely for cruelty’s sake, and whether he derives this from his smiling father, as I should suspect, or from his mother, it bodes evil for the poor girl who is in their power.”

By the way, you will notice that the motives of the father, Mr. Rucastle, is identical to the motives of Mr. Windibank in The Case of Identity.

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