Back to SherlockPeoria front page

The View from the East End (39)

By Inspector Hopkins

May 21, 2006

A Three Pencil Problem

by Inspector Hopkins

As I had mentioned recently, it always amazes me that no matter how many times I read the stories in the Canon, there’s often an interesting point I seem to miss.

But fortunately, I have surrounded myself with capable and knowledgeable Sherlockian friends who help to guide me through the maze!  Take for example the case of “The Dying Detective”, where Holmes feigns a fatal illness in order to bring Culverton Smith to justice.  I have read this story many times and discussed it several times, but there was always something nagging at the back of my brain about it.

Spurred on by a question asked by David Richardson at our last chat room meeting of the Scandalous Bohemians, I finally realized what it was: Mrs. Hudson was in on it!

That is, Holmes had taken her into his confidence beforehand in order to successfully carry out the sting.  The more I pondered it, the more I realized it had to be that way. Think about it for a few moments. The whole case hinges on Sherlock Holmes convincing Smith that he was indeed on his deathbed.  In turn, Holmes knew that unless Watson could convince Smith that he was dying, Smith wouldn’t come to Baker Street. Recall that it was vital to Holmes’s plan that Smith thoroughly and totally believe he was going to die at any moment so that he would make his gloating confession (with Watson as a hidden witness).

But first of all, Holmes had to convince Watson himself, a general practitioner, that he was deathly ill beyond any and all doubt.  Setting aside arguments against Holmes’s rationale that he couldn’t trust Watson to be convincing if he really knew the plan, let’s just assume that was true. So then Holmes had to fool Watson, who in turn had to fool Culverton Smith. Holmes took an extremely large risk that Watson might ignore his orders to follow his every instruction. But what would stop Watson from doing that?  Why wouldn’t Watson immediately seek out the very best medical minds in London at that time in order to save his friend?  If Watson was not completely faithful to Holmes’s instructions, the whole sting would collapse, and the Villain would get away.

Enter Mrs. Hudson.

She was the one who convinced Watson to see Holmes. Taking the original plot a step further, it would seem incredulous that Holmes would also keep Mrs. Hudson in the dark. The same arguments could apply to her as well. What would stop her from ignoring Holmes’s instructions and making her own well-meaning efforts to save his life? Holmes would have to fool her, then she would have to fool Watson, then he would have to fool Smith.  That’s three in a row.  To illustrate the depth of this problem, consider my following analogy: clear your desk off and get three brand new unsharpened pencils and a small object such as a box of paper clips.  Put the box of clips on the desk, and lay one pencil down on its side. Aim for a spot on your desk to move the box to. You can easily push the box of paper clips to it with the single pencil. That’s Holmes convincing one person he was dying. Now line up two pencils end-to-end and try to push the box of clips to the same spot with them. It can be done, but it’s a lot more difficult. The box moves in different directions, and the pencils often don’t stay in a straight line. That’s Holmes convincing two people he was dying by using one to convince the other.

It’s impossible to push the box of clips where you want it to go using three pencils end-to-end. And that’s my point.

Holmes obviously had Inspector Morton in on the plan. All Morton had to do was wait for the signal to come in and make the arrest.

But if either Mrs. Hudson or Dr. Watson strayed one step out of line with Holmes’s wishes, the entire sting could be jeopardized. Holmes just could not take the chance of fooling more than one person, and so I believe that Mrs. Hudson assisted him in this case. She was able to convince Watson that Holmes was dying, and basically stayed out of the way after that. Besides, it would probably be more convincing to Smith to be approached by a doctor for help rather than by Holmes’s landlady. Further still, Mrs. Hudson could have acted as a “lookout” for Holmes and informed him if Watson deviated from following his instructions . . .

Now why didn’t I think of all that before?

Until next time, and encouraging you to come up with your own Canonical theories, I remain,

Yours faithfully,