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The View from the East End (64)

By Inspector Hopkins

May 6, 2007

That Brazen Cylinder

by Inspector Hopkins 

When I was a kid in Parochial school, the nuns used to call me a “brazen article”.  Well, this article is about a “brazen object”, specifically a shell casing from a handgun.

Picking up where we left off last time with Hilton Cubitt, every time I read The Dancing Men I was always bothered by that spent shell casing. Recalling the basic elements of the case, we have a married couple that was being stalked by a gangster from Chicago named Abe Slaney. Elsie was an American lady trying to keep her past hidden from her husband Hilton, an English gentleman. As Holmes deciphered the coded messages left by the gangster, it became obvious that murder would be committed and he rushed to the scene, but alas, too late.

After an exchange of gunfire, Elsie and Hilton were found on the floor, each with a gunshot wound. Hilton was killed and Elsie was very seriously wounded. Although the servants heard two gunshots, Holmes discovered a third bullet hole in the window frame, plus a spent shell casing outside the window, and determined that three shots were actually fired. He concluded that two shots were fired simultaneously, thus explaining what the servants heard. At the end of the story, the villain verified what happened. All well and good. The case was closed, and Holmes chalked up another victory. But there is a problem. Why was a spent shell casing left in the flowerbed under the window?

Even worse, recall that Sherlock Holmes seemed to expect to find it. Abe Slaney supposedly fired a shot at Hilton Cubitt through the window from outside the house. At that same instant, Cubitt fired at Slaney from inside the house, but supposedly missed and hit the window frame instead. Recall that Cubitt’s revolver was found with two spent shell casings left inside it. Now, if Slaney had used an automatic pistol (which ejects a shell casing each time it is fired), it would account for the presence of the casing found in the flowerbed.

After a thorough search on Yahoo, Wikipedia and Google, it appears that automatic pistols only began to appear after the turn of the century. German weapons manufacturers did have some prototypes available as early as 1896, such as the Mauser C96  “broom handle” automatic pistol. The Luger 7.65mm parabellum was not manufactured until 1898. Since it is generally agreed that this case took place in July 1898, it is at least theoretically conceivable that Slaney used the Mauser. However, it seems highly unlikely that a Chicago gangster would go to the lengths it would have taken to procure such a weapon and its specialized ammunition. Also, this weapon was a foot long and much too large and heavy to carry around concealed. Because six-shot revolvers were quite commonplace, it would only make sense to conclude that Slaney had one also.

But then, if that were the case, why in the world would Slaney have taken the time to eject a single spent cartridge from his revolver after shooting Hilton Cubitt?  To reload?  In the dark?  In a flowerbed?  It would seem much more logical for him to run away as fast as possible from the scene of the crime, and reload some other time.

I am a great fan of the Granada Film series, and have noted that many times they actually improve on some aspects of the original stories.  Not so in this case. In the Granada Film version of DANC they have both characters inside the house shooting at each other. Slaney stood inside the window with the window to his left. The camera is on Cubitt as he was shot, so we do not see what kind of weapon Slaney used. Even if it was an automatic pistol, the ejected shell casing would have stayed inside the house because it would have ejected from the right side of the weapon.  Yet during his investigation, Holmes still finds it outside, right under the window and directly next to the house, a most vexing situation that still left this question unanswered.

Speaking outside the Game, I would have to postulate that ACD left that brazen cylinder as proof positive that Holmes was correct about a third shot being fired. He didn’t consider the technical difficulties with this device. Setting aside forensic evidence and analysis of the fired bullets, it could have been possible that the bullet hole in the window frame had been made by someone else and had been there for years. Finding a fresh cartridge casing hammers home the point that three shots had indeed been fired, and proves Holmes was right.

All that being said, it turns out that the answer is right here on!

Yes folks, nine years ago Brad Keefauver and John Holliday wrote an absolutely brilliant article in The Holmes and Watson Report  to explain this problem. Not only does it make perfect sense and accounts for all the facts, it also stays well within the Game. Go to the H&W article archive and look up “The Single Cartridge Problem” and see if you don’t agree with their explanation.

But in spite of all that, I still can’t see why Slaney got penal servitude due to the “certainty that Cubitt fired the first shot”.  How can that be?  Slaney was out to kill Elsie. Besides, we know for sure that they both fired simultaneously.  Sherlock Holmes himself determined that!   Oh-oh, looks like I’m being “brazen” again  . . .

I guess those nuns were right.

Until next time, and thanking you for your attention, I am,

Yours faithfully,