The View from the East End
L.E.S.K. for TWIS
by Inspector Hopkins
A favoured story in the Canon, this one combines suspense, danger, foggy underworld glimpses into an opium den, and a classic “locked room” type mystery just waiting to be solved by the world’s greatest consulting detective! Finally concluding with Holmes’s dramatic exposure of the culprit, this tale also has a little bit of everything for everyone. Let’s take a quick look at some “Loose Ends and Story Killers” (L.E.S.K.) for the tale of The Man with the Twisted Lip.
This one seems simple enough. If Neville St. Clair had just kept quiet when he looked out the window and saw his wife below, she would not have noticed him. Thus, he would have returned home as usual, and Sherlock Holmes would not have been called in.
But of course, there would be no story to tell, either.
This story has quite a few Loose Ends, some of which seemingly could be corrected by omitting some extraneous phrases. Here are just a few:
1) “James” Watson: A classic Canonical crux, this one’s been analyzed to death! But no self-respecting Sherlockian commentator would let an opportunity pass to remark upon it. I have heard and read a number of explanations for Mrs. Watson referring to her husband as James. These include a printer’s error, misreading the original handwritten manuscript of the story, Mrs. Watson referring to their child names James, and so forth. Speaking inside the Game, possibly the very best explanation was provided by Dorothy Sayers when she suggested the “H” in John H. Watson’s name stood for Hamish, the Scottish version of James. Thus, Mrs. Watson was referring to Watson by her “pet name” for him. This has been so well established in the Sherlockian community that it is now the accepted explanation. After all, it does account for all the facts! Speaking outside the Game, I suggest that Conan Doyle was in too much of a hurry in writing up this story and simply goofed. This is evident in one or two other loose ends also, as we shall see below.
2) The “mystery” visitor: If “it was not the first time that she had spoken to us of her husband’s trouble”, as Watson says, then why didn’t his wife immediately recognize Kate Whitney? Recall that Mrs. Watson said, “I had not an idea of who you were when you came in”. This remark seems vague, contrived, unnecessary, and contradicts Watson’s previous statement. Watson’s literary agent could have simply left that remark out of the story and no one would have been any the wiser.
3) Fainting spells: Recall that Mrs. St. Clair “fainted at the sight of the blood upon the window”, but later claimed to being “neither hysterical, nor given to fainting”. This introduces yet another contradiction in the story. Once again, Watson’s literary agent could have caught this and substituted another word in place of “fainting” (such as “screaming” or “crying”), or he could have simply rephrased her remark to Holmes. And, once again, perhaps he was under pressure to get the story out to Strand magazine, and missed this.
4) Opium Den etiquette: I just love the opium den scenes! Ahhh . . . the dark, murky atmosphere, the steps “worn hollow in the centre by the ceaseless tread of drunken feet”, etc. Watson does an absolutely outstanding job in his descriptions, wouldn’t you agree? Now, although I have never been to an opium den, there has been much written about them. And, according to a column written by Rosemary Michaud a few years back, she mentioned that the “proper” way to smoke opium was in a reclining position. She thus wondered if perhaps Sherlock Holmes was taking unnecessary risks by drawing attention to himself, since he was sitting in an upright position in the center of the room. Indeed, Watson’s description of the den included the berths lining the walls, much as in the forecastle of a sailing ship. In these, the opium smokers reclined whilst inhaling the fumes from their dream-pipes. My take on this is twofold: first, that Holmes was sitting in the middle of the room so as to be in a better position to hear some of the ramblings from the addicts, which was his goal; secondly, his sitting in an upright position would enable him to make a rapid escape should it become necessary. Recall that he pointed out his life would “not be worth an hour’s purchase” had he been recognized. Thus, if he HAD been recognized, and was RECLINING in one of the berths along the walls, he would have been fatally trapped.
5) Rich man, Poor man: Holmes stated that “we should be rich men if we had a thousand pounds for every poor devil who has been done to death in that den”. Well, yes . . . I suppose so! But remember, in those days, an income of 50-60 pounds a year for the average man was considered adequate, and an income of 100-200 pounds was comfortable. So, even if only ONE person was murdered in the den, Holmes and Watson could have been quite well-off for a year or two. Here is another example of a slip-up by Watson’s literary agent. Holmes might have made his point more clearly by saying “a hundred” rather than “a thousand” pounds. I suppose it all boils down to what your definition of “rich” is.
6) Throwing money away: And, speaking of money, recall that Neville St. Clair (alias Hugh Boone) stuffed his jacket with 421 pennies and 270 half-pennies before tossing it out the window into the Thames. As I calculate in my Database, that amount of coinage was worth 2.3 pounds or about $243 in today’s money which is quite a bit of cash to just throw away! This amount corroborates his statement that “it was a very bad day on which I failed to take two pounds”. This would imply that he was taking in something like 500 pounds per year. Indeed, Mr. St. Clair would have been very comfortable on that sort of income, and it is difficult for me to imagine throwing so much money out the window. But if my life was at stake, perhaps I would think differently. I have always wondered whether or not Boone could have used something else to weigh down his clothing, but once again, two issues come to my mind. First of all, he probably thought that if many hundreds of coins were found in his room, it would appear suspicious. Secondly, he was running out of time, and probably envisioned recovering them later on, so it didn’t matter to him. Nonetheless, he might have hidden Mr. St. Claire’s more “respectable” clothing simply by turning it inside out and stuffing it inside a drawer which would take less time. Indeed, in his haste to hide both money and clothing, he forgot to hide the building blocks intended as a toy for his child. I invite further comments on this issue from our readers.
Admittedly, the sorts of loose ends that I point out here consist mostly of trifles, but then again . . . Mr. Holmes pointed out there is nothing so important as them. ;-)
Until next time, and thanking you so much for your attention, I remain indeed,
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