#1030: Little Fictions – ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ (1891) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Ahh, the comfortable middle ground.

The 56 short cases featuring Sherlock Holmes inevitably vary in quality from the masterpiece to the poorly conceived and best forgotten. And so, by the Intermediate Value Theorem, there must be some solidly forgettable stuff in there somewhere. Welcome to…

‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ (1891)

The Case

Charles McCarthy, tenant of landowner John Turner who he has known from the days the men emigrated from Australia, is seen arguing with his son in a local copse and then discovered shortly thereafter bludgeoned to death. The son seems to accept his arrest as inevitable, and Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard is convinced of an easy conviction. So when Turner’s daughter, convinced of McCarthy, Jr.’s innocence, calls on Holmes to investigate the matter, it seems to be a waste of everyone’s time. Right?

The Characters

Charles McCarthy, once of Australia; carked it.

James McCarthy, son of the deceased; a fair dinkum bloke.

John Turner, land-owner; too grieved to answer questions.

Miss Turner, daughter of the above; probably called Sheila.

The Timeline

Holmes refers to the murder as having happened “on June 3rd — that is, on Monday last” which means we’re probably in 1889 — though it could be 1895, 1901, 1907 or 1918 to choose just a few of the possible years that Holmes and Watson worked in. I’m inclined to plump for 1918 for reasons I’ll outline below, but I imagine it’s more likely intended to be 1899.

The Tropes

Probably the most famous here is the “little monograph on the ashes of 140 different varieties of pipe, cigar, and cigarette tobacco” Holmes makes reference to. An infinite capacity for taking pains, for sure.

As in ‘The Red-Headed League’ (1891), Doyle expertly juxtaposes the thinker and the instrument of action sides of Holmes’ operation beautifully. I don’t know if it’s a trope, but certainly much is made of Holmes’ devastation on both sides of this coin and it’s another wonderful piece of description from the canon:

Men who had only known the quiet thinker and logician of Baker Street would have failed to recognise him. His face flushed and darkened. His brows were drawn into two hard black lines, while his eyes shone out from beneath them with a steely glitter. His face was bent downward, his shoulders bowed, his lips compressed, and the veins stood out like whipcord in his long, sinewy neck. His nostrils seemed to dilate with a purely animal lust for the chase, and his mind was so absolutely concentrated upon the matter before him that a question or remark fell unheeded upon his ears, or, at the most, only provoked a quick, impatient snarl in reply.

The mystery is less developed than in other places, but you feel Doyle really coming to terms with his creation and the world he inhabits in not trying to dazzle you with insight here. Everyone needs a week off now and again, after all.

Points of Interest

Holmes refers to himself and Watson as “two middle-aged gentlemen…flying westward at fifty miles an hour instead of quietly digesting their breakfasts at home”, yet in A Study in Scarlet (1897) he’s potentially young enough to still be studying medicine at university…which is why I’m inclined to 1918 as it would allow enough time to pass for Holmes and Watson to qualify as middle-aged. I’m over-thinking it, you say? Huh. How unlike me.

This was very much the idiom of Holmes tale that I found so hard to like on first reading of the canon: one man has been killed, another is suspected of the crime and therefore innocent, and a third is just…hanging around for no particular reason and so will turn out to be guilty in a ‘surprise’ finish. I didn’t appreciate that Doyle wasn’t writing whodunnits as I knew them to this point, but even with an increased appreciation of his writing — see below — I still can’t get too excited about this one.

In all the enthusiasm over his creation of a new subgenre of fiction, it’s possible to overlook just how damn fine a writer Doyle was. There are two exchanges in this which I love — the first being:

I shook my head. “Many men have been hanged on far slighter evidence,” I remarked.

“So they have. And many men have been wrongfully hanged.”

…and the second:

“We have got to the deductions and the inferences,” said Lestrade, winking at me. “I find it hard enough to tackle facts, Holmes, without flying away after theories and fancies.”

“You are right,” said Holmes demurely; “you do find it very hard to tackle the facts.”

That ‘demurely’ is just a chef’s kiss of adjective placement.

Holmes seems to have broadened his reading matter beyond the sensational literature that so dismayed Watson in their early encounters, as he breaks out his “pocket Petrarch” — presumably a portable version of the Italian writer Francesco Petrarca. From one extreme to the other! And apparently Sherlock Holmes believes in god, telling our murderer he that he’ll “soon have to answer for your deed at a higher court than the Assizes”. Maybe all that Petrarch really was rubbing off on him, after all.

Just because a stone has been moved, it doesn’t have to have been involved in the crime, right? There are no marks upon it to indicate it might have been involved in violence…so why couldn’t someone have just kicked it there, or dropped it when passing, or thrown it at a bird only for it to fall coincidentally close to the scene of the murder ahead of time? And why didn’t Doyle put a few drops of blood on the thing to seal the deal?

Also, call me old-fashioned, but if you commit a murder, under any provocation, then you really do rather rescind your rights when it comes to where you’d prefer to spend the last few weeks and months of your life. Holmes is far more understanding here than I feel I would be, but that’s maybe one of the reasons why I’m not the world’s favourite fictional detective.


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)

3 thoughts on “#1030: Little Fictions – ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ (1891) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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