Monday, September 12, 2011

The Adventure of Black Peter

Every month the Harpooners of the Sea Unicorn examine a different story within the Canon, with the exceptions of July and Dec. In Dec.the Harpooners always do the Blue Carbuncle, which is the only Christmas story in the works.
In July, which celebrates the anniversary of the Harpooners and their namesake, they do Black Peter.
This July, Wayne had the presentation, and with his permission it follows.
I hope it makes you think about the story, and feel free to add your comments.

The Adventure of Black Peter: Insights into Holmes’ Character
Wayne F. July 22, 2011

The year 1895 was a spectacular year around the world and especially for Sherlock Holmes.  In 1895, Alfred Nobel establishes the Nobel Prize.   We have the birth of Babe Ruth, George VI and Nigel Bruce.  It is most appropriate that we have Nigel Bruce, the man who portrayed Watson in so many movies and radio plays, an Englishman so closely affiliated with the canon, born in 1895.  However, we have barely touched the list of exciting news in this fine year.  Five Holmes adventures that Watson was good enough to commemorate for us take place in 1895: The Adventures of the Three Students, the Solitary Cyclist, the Norwood Builder, the Bruce-Partington Plans and of course, The Adventure of Black Peter.  Also published in 1895 was H.G. Wells’ story The Time Machine, which will allow us to transport ourselves back in time tonight to that year.

For Holmes, 1895 was an exceptionally productive year.  Watson begins this tale by describing for us what it is to be Holmes in 1895.  Holmes has never been “in better form, both mental and physical. “  Watson stresses the fact that Holmes was doing well financially.  This financial freedom allows Holmes to accept those cases that are of particular interest to him, accepting these little problems based on the “strange and dramatic qualities, which appealed to his imagination and challenged his ingenuity.”

Watson mentions several cases that Holmes has recently been involved in.  There was the sudden death of Cardinal Tosca, investigated at the request of the Holy See.  There was the case of Wilson the notorious canary trainer.  One can only imagine what kind of person Wilson must be to earn that kind of reputation.  Then there was the incident at Woodman’s Lee and the “obscure circumstances, which surrounded the death of Peter Carey.” Holmes was keeping very busy indeed.  Clearly at the height of his powers and practicing his skills often as noted by Watson’s list of cases or rather Holmes’ accomplishments.

Now Watson was never the interfering type.  He kept to himself and assisted Holmes whenever the opportunity arose.  Watson knew Holmes was on a case and certainly interested in the facts of the matter, but he knew the details would come later.  For now all Watson knew was “The fact that several rough looking men called during that time and inquired for Captain Basil…” which led Watson to “understand that Holmes was working somewhere under one of the numerous disguises and names with which he concealed his own formidable identity.”  Watson’s patience for Holmes is amazing to me.  Tolerating strange visitors to their residence without asking any questions or expecting answers.  Not many people would be this patient and provide the level of respect to a roommate that Watson provides Holmes.

All these items that Watson shares with us provide insights into Holmes’ methods and personality.  Perhaps Watson enjoyed unraveling Holmes’ personality and that’s what made him so tolerant in managing the comings and goings of his friend. 

For example, for most of us, some early morning exercise would mean a brisk walk, perhaps running through our neighborhood or maybe going for a swim.   Holmes has his own unusual method of exercise in this case.  Even Watson is somewhat surprised when his friend turns up for breakfast with a harpoon under his arm.  “He had gone out before breakfast, and I had sat down to mine, when he strode into the room, his hat upon his head and a huge, barbed-headed spear tucked like an umbrella under his arm.”  At this point, we do not know why Holmes is carrying a harpoon around London although Holmes explains the situation to Watson.  For Holmes, this test is the start of his usual logical process to solve one of his little problems. 

What is rather interesting is that Watson notes that Holmes stated that, “There can be no question, my dear Watson, of the value of exercise before breakfast.”  While Watson has said that Holmes takes no exercise Holmes clearly understands the benefits of exercise.  That is if exercise means boxing, stick fighting, practicing baritsu or harpooning dead pigs. Somehow Holmes worked these items into his busy schedule.  You cannot maintain a mastery of these skills without practice.

Watson soon learns that Holmes has been in contact with “Stanley Hopkins, a young police inspector, for whose future Holmes had high hopes, while he in turn professed the admiration and respect of a pupil for the scientific methods of the famous amateur.”  Hopkins has asked Holmes for assistance in resolving a murder investigation and this case has enough twists to spark Holmes’ interest.

Hopkins describes the case for Holmes.  However, Hopkins has jumped to a conclusion that led him away from the solution of the crime.  Hopkins’ first mistake was to assume “It was the man’s own pouch, sir.  His initials were inside it.  And it was of sealskin-and he an old sealer.”  However, we know the man did not smoke a pipe, so it was unlikely he would own a tobacco pouch.  Hopkins assumes Peter “might have kept some tobacco for his friends.”  Hopkins has molded the facts to fit his theory.  From our previous experience we know that Holmes is taking in data and waiting to find a logical answer.  Holmes can be very patient while gathering the facts of a case. 

Hopkins provides some background on Peter Carey.  He tells Holmes about Carey’s adventures at sea, how he retired and spent time travelling and that Carey finally settled down, building a house where his wife and daughter live and a cabin for himself.  You do have to wonder why Carey married, as we know he does not like people and has beaten his wife and daughter.  We know that Carey clearly longs for his previous life at sea.  He surrounds himself with logs books and rum in his “cabin”. 

While reviewing the facts of the case Hopkins mentions the small notebook found at the scene.  The notebook has the initials J.H.N.  Holmes immediately identifies the symbols in the notebook as representing investments.  Holmes asked only one question about the notebook.  He wants to know where the notebook was found.  Hopkins replies that it was found next to the blood on the floor.  Holmes immediately surmises that this means the notebook was dropped after the murder.  With Holmes’ question concerning where the notebook was found, I find myself realizing just how patient and methodical Holmes is as an investigator.  He is assembling the facts first and will determine what the clues mean when he has all the available data.  We know Holmes to be curt with some people and I have always understood this to be impatience.  Yet, Holmes will mull over the details of a problem for hours if necessary to bring a case to its logical conclusion. 

During their investigation of the cabin, Hopkins notices that someone trying to enter the cabin has scratched the door. Holmes again goes full speed suggesting that the culprit, not being able to access the cabin will return to try again.   What an opportunity this presents to our investigators.  Once inside the cabin, Holmes notices that something is missing from the bookshelf. “Something has been taken.  There is less dust in this corner of the shelf than elsewhere.”  Every pertinent detail is noticed and recorded by Holmes.

Once the investigators are finished with the cabin, Holmes suggests to Watson that they take a walk “and give a few hours to the birds and the flowers.” Watson revealed a side of Holmes that we rarely see.  Holmes has a love of nature.  His interest in flowers will certainly come into play later when he retires and takes up beekeeping.  However, I think the real reason Holmes heads into the woods is to spend some quiet time thinking to sort through the facts and determine his next steps. 

Later that evening, Holmes and company wait outside the cabin to better observe anyone approaching.  Late into the night, they surprise a young man trying to enter the cabin.  John Hopley Neligan tells his story and Holmes acknowledges that he is familiar with the matter of the West Country bankers.  Holmes knows the facts behind the failed bank, which indicates that Holmes, not up to date on the workings of the universe, has had reason to improve his knowledge of the financial system of England.  Watson again provides some insight into Holmes personality and lifestyle brought about by his improved social standing and financial status.  Is it possible that Holmes was hired to investigate the case of the Country Bankers and realizes this connection may give him a chance to complete that investigation?  Why else would Holmes take off for Norway if not to attempt to track down some of the remaining securities and solve a second puzzling case as well?

Holmes has explained to Hopkins that he has the wrong man in custody while setting up the finale to his investigation.  Holmes starts with a few telegraphs, one to Hopkins to come to breakfast and another telegram from Captain Basil recruiting men for an arctic journey.  Patrick Cairns walks into Holmes’ trap and is handcuffed and in police custody within minutes.

While Hopkins has provided his explanation of how he thought Neligan perpetrated the crime, he learns that Holmes has gone beyond the facts presented to him.  Holmes tells Hopkins that his solution has “only one drawback, Hopkins, and that is that it is intrinsically impossible. Have you tried to drive a harpoon through a body? No? Tut, tut, my dear sir, you must really pay attention to these details.”  Holmes went the extra step and wired Dundee for a list of crewman aboard the Sea unicorn and in that way, obtained the name of Patrick Cairns, the actual culprit in this investigation.  Although Hopkins shows promise he never delved into the details according to the methods of his instructor, Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes knew through his own experience that Neligan was incapable of driving a harpoon through Peter Carey. Holmes took nothing at face value, not the use of a harpoon as a murder weapon, not the initials on the tobacco pouch, nor the fact that whiskey and brandy were available in the cabin.

Holmes tells Hopkins, “One should always look for a possible alternative and provide against it.  It is the first rule of criminal investigation.” Looking deeper into Watson’s account of The Adventure of Black Peter we realize that Holmes has spent most of this case schooling young Hopkins in the methods of deductive reasoning. Holmes may be looking for a protégé to carry on his practice or a partner at Scotland Yard to collaborate with him. Once again, we need to thank Watson for providing us with some keen insight into the character and personality of Sherlock Holmes and most importantly for giving us another of Holmes’ adventures.

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