#1024: Little Fictions – ‘A Case of Identity’ (1891) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Complete Short Stories of Sherlock Holmes, Week 2.

Sometimes revisiting a story you love can be a mistake, and it pales in reality to your memory. But how about one you thoroughly didn’t like? After a twenty year gap I return to…

‘A Case of Identity’ (1891)

The Case

Miss Mary Sutherland calls upon Holmes with a most baffling enigma: on the day she was to be married, her fiancé Mr. Hosmer Angel sent Mary and her mother to the church in a hansom cab and followed them in a four-wheeler, but when they arrived at the church Mr. Angel’s cab was empty and the man has not been seen or heard from since. Miss Sutherland is understandably worried; might Holmes be able to find out what has happened to Mr. Angel?

The Characters

Mary Sutherland, holder of purse strings; keeps her promises.

James Windibank, stepfather of the above; frequently away on business.

Hosmer Angel, affianced of the above; Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Film

The Timeline

Difficult to pinpoint exactly, but references to A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of Four (1890), and ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (1891) place us after those events and so I presume in April 1888 at the earliest.

The Tropes

More additional cases to tantalise and infuriate…!

  • “…the Dundas Separation Case…I was engaged in clearing up some small points in connection with it.”
  • A second reference — after ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ — to the aid Holmes gave to “the reigning family of Holland, though the matter in which I served them was of such delicacy that I cannot confide it even to you, who have been good enough to chronicle one or two of my little problems”.
  • “…one rather intricate matter which has been referred to me from Marseilles…”

The Holmesian standfast of deducing much about a person at first glance is brought into play here when he sees that Mary Sutherland is both near-sighted and a typist…though can long-sighted people not wear pince-nez? And the explanation of his reasoning allows us, too, to enjoy Watson trying his hardest to match Holmes for observational acuity…

“Well, she had a slate-coloured, broad-brimmed straw hat, with a feather of a brickish red. Her jacket was black, with black beads sewn upon it, and a fringe of little black jet ornaments. Her dress was brown, rather darker than coffee colour, with a little purple plush at the neck and sleeves. Her gloves were greyish and were worn through at the right forefinger. Her boots I didn’t observe. She had small round, hanging gold earrings, and a general air of being fairly well-to-do in a vulgar, comfortable, easy-going way.”

…while still missing the salient points by an almost Olympic distance.

Points of Interest

I was surprised and delighted at how much I enjoyed this second time around. My memory of it was less positive, but Holmes is on superb form and the treatment of both the villain and his unsuspecting stooge by our apparently emotionless and uncaring machine of a sleuth is by turns devious and heart-warming.

Dating in the Victorian era sounds like a breeze: you can hide your face, talk in a whisper, and only hang around for a few hours at dusk every few weeks and a woman is willing to honour a promise of betrothal to you — made upon only your second meeting — for perhaps another decade when you mysteriously vanish.

Good to see some typewriter evidence here, too. Maybe it’s the Freeman Wills Crofts fan in me, but I love a good bit of typewriter analysis — it legitimately remains one of my favourite parts of The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen.

Related to this in no way at all beyond the recycling of the name Hosmer Angel, Colin Dexter’s story ‘A Case of Mis-Identity’ (1998) is one of the very best Holmes pastiches I’ve yet encountered. I mean, I don’t read lots of them, but it’s excellent nonetheless and comes highly recommended.

This story appears second in my orange Penguin edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, above, yet was originally the third published Holmes story and seems to be the third story in other editions I have consulted online. Given that second story ‘The Red-Headed League’ (1891) contains a clear reference to this in its opening (“…the very simple problem presented by Miss Mary Sutherland…”) how, like…just how the hell does that work?


The Sherlock Holmes canon by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on The Invisible Event

A Study in Scarlet (1887)
The Sign of Four (1890)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes [ss]:

  1. ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (1891)
  2. ‘A Case of Identity’ (1891)
  3. ‘The Red-Headed League’ (1891)
  4. ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ (1891)

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)

7 thoughts on “#1024: Little Fictions – ‘A Case of Identity’ (1891) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. I don’t remember the typewriter evidence in this story… or, quite frankly, any art of this story, but I agree with you about how great the typewriter evidence is in Greek Coffin. I remember disliking this one too when I first read it… Maybe a few more years and I’ll have a similar change of heart as you did!


  2. I enjoyed this. This is the second mystery story I ever solved ahead of time in my whole life (the original being “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League”), which I’m very proud of now knowing that Holmes stories weren’t intended to be “solvable”. I think back fondly on this story, though I’m aware now that its resolution has become something of a cliche in Holmes stories involving kidnapping or disappearances…


  3. I’ve always found the ending disappointing. Faced with the necessity of bearing the bad news to Miss Sutherland, Holmes chickens out with the excuse, “There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.” He can brave violent criminals and poisonous snakes but he can’t face telling a young woman that she’s been deceived!


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