Since I can’t quite go the Full Sherlock – he’s out of my era, after all – I thought I could at least have a look at the three Arthur Conan Doyle-penned short stories that comprise the (official) entirety of his impossible crimes: ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’, ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’, and ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge’ (I’m excluding novella The Valley of Fear because it’s not technically an impossible crime, and remains a mystery for all of about six lines). It’s also a lovely excuse to get some of Sidney Paget’s gorgeous illustrations out for airing, too, and I don’t think anyone is going to mind that. So, first up going chronologically, is my least favourite of these three: nonsense-fest ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’.
Visiting Holmes and Watson early one morning, Helen Stoner tells of her sister’s mysterious death when locked in her own bedroom – their step-father keeps a baboon and a cheetah loose in the grounds, au naturel – and how before dying she gasped out the cryptic message “Oh my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!” (see also: ‘The Lion’s Mane’, ‘The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger’). Banishing all thoughts of a wedding act in questionable attire, Holmes and Watson head straight for the old ancestral house at Stoke Moran (no relation to Colonel Sebastian Moran) to find out what the deuce is going on.
The solution is bonkers, and is taken apart in quite ruthlessly entertaining fashion in Soji Shimda’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders which I reviewed last week. Nevertheless, the story presents some interesting points beyond simply the answer to its riddles, and so I thought it might be worth looking at those. Firstly don’t forget to consider that the impossible crime story was still a very callow baby when this was published in 1892 – Gaston Leroux’s liberating masterpiece The Mystery of the Yellow Room was still some 15 years away, and instead these tales relied on poisons ‘unknown to man or science’ (read: desperate authorly invention, and used in a very famous example of the form also published in the same year as ‘…Speckled Band’), hidden passages or, in one particularly irritating case, a magic gas that made everyone instantaneously lose their memory for about three minutes without realising it had happened (no, seriously; for some reason I’d hate to spoil it for anyone, but it’s genuinely the solution to a story published in the Strand).
Conan Doyle’s solution is akin to the ‘poison with miraculous effects’ (an explanation I seem to remember him using on one occasion), but crucially a shade removed: it gives something that, while utter nonsense, at least edges towards practicality. I have no desire to spoil it if you’ve not read this one, but there is arguably a set of circumstances that could – with some rather key changes – possibly be just about workable. As a step in the genre, this is of paramount importance. It would (and always will) remain central to the explanations of these sorts of stories that a certain suspension of disbelief be required – some comments on exactly this topic were exchanged recently in the wake of my review of John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge – and so penalising Conan Doyle for making a stretch seems a little harsh, because many authors in the 123 years since have done exactly that to resolve this type of conundrum. He also took a key step in establishing the hermetically-sealedness of the room in which the unfortunate lady perished: “…the flooring and walls are sound…the door, windows and chimney are impassable…her sister must have undoubtedly been alone when she met her mysterious end”. There is one slight lie in there, as you’ll be aware if you’ve read it, but the fundamental reasoning is the same (and has been reused many times, cf. Anthony Boucher’s Nine Times Time, which occurs to me purely because it’s on a shelf at eye-level). Conan Doyle can be trusted not to throw a surprise tunnel in your face after stating something this baldly.
He then goes one better, and has Holmes and Watson examine the room in person, citing the impassability of the windows (“Holmes…endeavoured in every way to force the shutter open, but without success. There was no slit through which a knife could be passed to raise the bar.”) and also drops in a clue amidst his exploration that is reasonably well-hidden and later, following all manner of other pointers that don’t count because the solution is so preposterous, shows that this was even the second time that this was mentioned – surely only Christianna Brand delighted in giving the same hint in so many different ways! But again a precedent is being established that is preserved to this day: the stage is set, the room cannot be entered, the victim nevertheless died without sign of violence or trace of poison, settle down for the denouement…
Well. The less said about the denouement, the better. It struck me as ridiculous when I read it aged 15, and many years and many, many locked room mysteries since make it no less ridiculous now. Nevertheless, rereading this story for the purposes of this post, I was heartened to see so many signs of the nascent genre I have come to know, love, and spend so much time and money on. He certainly didn’t invent the locked room story, but by beginning to nudge it in a sensible direction Conan Doyle was at least starting to acknowledge the rules it would play by.
Only two things remain: the first is to commend Leslie S. Klinger’s stupendously authoritative The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, wherein he tabulates no fewer than 11 possibilities for the murder method at the end of this story, and the second is to remind you to come back on Wednesday for a Holmes-adjacent review (SPOILERS: it’s the book at the top right of this webpage).