“I have some papers here,” said my friend Sherlock Holmes as we sat one winter’s night on either side of the fire, “which I really think, Watson, that it would be worth your while to glance over.”
The Gloria Scott was a ship which gave its name to Holmes’s very first adventure. In his college days, Holmes was by his own admission a friendless sort, who spent his days in idiosyncratic study and intermittent athletic pursuits (boxing, fencing). He had already begun, however, to formalise his system of deductive reasoning; nevertheless, it had not yet occurred to him that it represented anything but a hobby, a diverting means of interpreting the world. (The glimpse this gives us into Holmes’s character, which values the intellectual worth of something over its practical value, is in itself worthy of a post.)
His one friend during this time was a young man named Victor Trevor, whom Holmes first meets as a result of being injured by his dog: Trevor takes it upon himself to visit Holmes on his sickbed daily following the incident. (Again, Holmes’s character is by his college years fully formed – it takes immobility for him to strike up personal relationships!) What is wonderful about Holmes’s description of his old friend is that it matches almost exactly to Watson’s own qualities: “He was a hearty, full-bodied fellow, full of spirits and energy, the very opposite of me in most respects, but we had some subjects in common, and it was a bond of union when I found that he was as friendless as I.” Holmes evidently has a type.
The mystery itself is, like The Stockbroker’s Clerk before it, ultimately resolved by a document the characters find when they reach an impasse in the investigation. As bald as this is, the by now familiar Doyle ingredient of a shadowy foreign past enlivens the backstory and its gruesome events make for a few memorable images: not least the moment when a murderer is found in a room with a corpse and a “smoking pistol” in his hand, making for an influential vignette.
It’s perhaps fitting that much of the story’s action – and the totality of its solution – occurs without the need for Holmes’s input, since he does appear appropriately callow here. In one passage in particular this young detective makes heavy work of the connections between two suspects, and puzzles over a cipher which in his years of practice he would cast aside as completed in seconds. Doyle is often accused of being a lazy writer, and in this very story a man writes something down when all are agreed he has not recovered consciousness; but from time to time – and usually with his central duo – he takes a little care which rewards the reader. (Sherlockians, of course, find the most reward in the impossible task of bridging the inconsistencies.)
Trevor’s father tells Holmes that he will use his remarkable powers of observation to build a career. “And that recommendation,” Holmes tells Watson, “[... was] the very first thing which ever made me feel that a profession might be made out of what had up top that time been the merest hobby.” We may have it to thank for a very storied career, but the case of the Gloria Scott is not one of Holmes’s more exciting feats of deduction, interesting like any origin story more for its foreshadowing than its foregrounds.