#1060: Little Fictions – ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ (1891) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sometimes revisiting the classics is a real chore, y’know? And sometimes, like today, it’s a complete delight.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the utter joy that is:

‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ (1891)

The Case

At the request of an acquaintance of his wife’s, Dr. John Watson travels to an opium den to return an errant husband to his own wife…only to discover Sherlock Holmes there on a case: Mr Neville St. Clair was seen in the upper window of this house by his wife a week ago, but, when she forced entry with several policemen, only bloodstains, her husband’s abandoned clothing, and a hideously-scarred beggar were in evidence. Might a coat weighted down with coins and sunk in the adjacent Thames provide some indication of what happened to Mr. Sinclair?

The Characters

Neville St. Clair, respectable businessman; incurious of wife.

Mrs. St. Clair, wife of the above; psychic when it suits her.

Hugh Boone, beggar; scarred of face, dirty of aspect.

Inspector Bradstreet, Scotland Yard; big on personal hygiene.

The Timeline

Doyle is very precise in his dating of this one — these events take place on the evening of Friday 19th June and the morning of Saturday 20th June 1889 — which makes it all the more baffling when you realise that 19th June 1889 was a Wednesday. Seriously, this guy and his timelines.

The Tropes

Holmes’ facility for disguise comes to the fore again when Watson first identifies him in the opium den as “a tall, thin old man, with his jaw resting upon his two fists, and his elbows upon his knees” who is the very picture of “doddering, loose-lipped senility”.

I also feel that Holmes’ dismissal of the very good envelope deduction — “It is, of course, a trifle, but there is nothing so important as trifles” — is something of a feature of these stories, and the phrasing has, if my faulty memory may be trusted, been used more than once, I am sure, since it is so familiar to me.

Points of Interest

Not just an enjoyable mystery, ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ might be one of the best-written of the Holmes tales. The opening paragraph, detailing the sinking into opium addiction of Mr. Isa Whitney, demonstrates exemplary concision and mood, and Watson’s exploration of the den is again impressively atmospheric without ever dawdling over needless detail.

And even away from the scene-setting and atmospherics, lines like “Folk who were in grief came to my wife like birds to a lighthouse” are just exquisite. When you really pay attention to Doyle’s prose, you begin to appreciate why he didn’t just want to be remembered for these tales, whose function was always going to take precedence in the consciousness over the excellent form in which they are conducted at their best.

I blame this story — and perhaps its adaptation for the opening of the Sherlock episode ‘His Last Vow’ (2014) — for my persistent confusion between Holmes’ actual cocaine habit and my own mistaken impression that he (also…?) has an opium habit. And Holmes, anticipating this, is quick to chide me: “I suppose, Watson, that you imagine that I have added opium-smoking to cocaine injections, and all the other little weaknesses on which you have favoured me with your medical views.” Sorry, Sherlock, I shall attempt to do better in future.

Holmes also demonstrates that he is not quite the misogynist he has been suspected of being, not pouring scorn that some might feel is deserved on Mrs. St. Clair’s claims of intuition where her husband’s well-being is concerned:

“I know that all is well with him. There is so keen a sympathy between us that I should know if evil came upon him. On the very day that I saw him last he cut himself in the bedroom, and yet I in the dining-room rushed upstairs instantly with the utmost certainty that something had happened. Do you think that I would respond to such a trifle and yet be ignorant of his death?”

“I have seen too much not to know that the impression of a woman may be more valuable than the conclusion of an analytical reasoner.”

The modern eye might choose to see a certain archness or facetiousness in Holmes’ reply there, but to hell with the modern eye. Read it like it was written in the 19th century and have a little humanity in your husk of a soul, eh?

For some reason, I’m greatly amused by Holmes’ assertion that “[w]e should be rich men if we had a thousand pounds for every poor devil who has been done to death in that den.” They’d be rich men if they had a thousand pounds full stop — that’s about £165,000 in today’s money — somewhat undermining the point Holmes is making about how murderous the people who run the den are suspected of being.

But then, might this be an updated value in my text? A later line reads “It was a long fight between my pride and the money, but the dollars won at last…” — would an Englishman in 19th century London really talk of material gain in dollars? If anyone doesn’t have the Penguin edition above and is able to share what their own versions say on these two points I would be legitimately interested.

And is “James” an affection rendering of “John”? Watson’s wife Mary comforts Kate Whitney in the opening sequence, saying “Now, you must have some wine and water, and sit here comfortably and tell us all about it. Or should you rather that I sent James off to bed?” — and receives the reply “Oh, no, no! I want the doctor’s advice and help, too”, implying that “James” means Watson himself rather than any children in the room. I’m aware of Johns being called “Jack”, but never James before now. Any thoughts?


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)
  5. ‘The Five Orange Pips’ (1891)
  6. ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ (1891)
  7. ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ (1892)
  8. ‘The Speckled Band’ (1892)
  9. ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’ (1892)

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)

9 thoughts on “#1060: Little Fictions – ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ (1891) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. The John/James debate has been going on for decades. It is commonly accepted now that it’s an unusual pet name derived from Watson’s middle name, Hamish, whose own Gaelic derivation I believe originally meant James. The one and only Dorothy L. Sayers was among the first to put forth the theory and it’s stuck.


    • I love these little weirdnesses that have sprung up in Sherlockiana over the years; part of me wants to dismiss it all as over-thinking it in a way Doyle never intended, and part of me just loves that people got this involved on so many minor points of so little importance.


    • It’s worth a great deal — thank-you for letting me know. I intend to keep an eye out for this in any editions I stumble across.


      • In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Henry says “House, land and dollars must go together.” I noted this down last week, but as I started typing realised that he has spent a long time in the States, so this would be a more natural usage than that by St. Clair.


  2. “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is Doyle’s second use of the “breakdown of identity” plot device, beloved of Golden Age writers, whereby two characters in the story are really one, or vice versa. (Christie’s “The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim” uses a similar device to “Twisted Lip”.) Possibly Doyle was dissatisfied with his first outing for the device in “A Case of Identity”, because “Twisted Lip” is a more competent piece of misdirection.

    Dorothy L. Sayers’ essay “Dr. Watson’s Christian Name“, published in Unpopular Opinions (1946), discusses the question of whether Watson’s name is “John” (as it is in A Study in Scarlet) or “James” (as Mary Watson calls him in “Twisted Lip”). The essay is thoroughly tongue-in-cheek, humorously applying the exegetical methods of the “higher criticism” to the Holmes stories, for example: “Mr. T. S. Blakeney behaves still more absurdly. Postulating a composite James-John authorship, he calls for a J. M. Robertson to “sift the accretions of the pseudo-Watson from the core of matter deriving solely from the hand of the veritable John Henry” — forgetting that John Henry Watson is even more conjectural than Jesus Barabbas.” (Here Sayers likens the dispute over Watson’s name to that over the variant reading in some manuscripts of Matthew 27:16.)


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