It was in the year ’95 that a combination of events, into which I need not enter, caused Mr Sherlock Holmes and myself to spend some weeks in one of our great university towns, and it was during this time that the small but instructive adventure which I am about to relate befell us.
The Three Students is a very minor mystery, perfunctory and under-written. The Return is a strong collection early on, but this is the latest in a series of stories which send it into something of a nosedive in quality. Still, Watson’s introduction of the story is not without its accuracy: he admits the story is small, but he’s not misleading us to say it contains some instructive moments. Most memorable is Holmes’s examination of the “crime” scene, and the deductions he arrives at from some pencil shavings. It’s silly stuff, but not without its charms.
Holmes seems aware of how trifling the matter is, offering a run of tart quips in the way he does when he needs only engage half his brain. When his client admits he has been lost by Holmes’s reasonings, he turns to his old friend and says, “Watson, I have always done you an injustice. There are others.” There’s a little relish in teaching the academics here: “Soames will be in a dreadful fidget,” Holmes says, perhaps rolling his eyes, about the nervous tutor who has engaged his services.
The mystery deserves this flippancy: essentially, it is the tale of a cheating student and a careless tutor who’s dismayed by the consequences of going to tea when he should be at work (a common enough event in the halls of our universities). And yet the story is very coy: “it will be obvious,” Watson remarks in his preamble, “that any details which would help the ready exactly to identify the college or criminal would be injudicious and offensive.” Heaven forfend, after all, that aspersions be cast at Oxbridge! “When once the law is invoked,” Soames insists, explaining his need for Holmes over a police detective, “it cannot be stayed again, and this is just one of those cases where, for the credit of the college, it is most essential to avoid scandal.” Watson has treated royal families with less circumspection.
Of course, Conan Doyle always drags out the anonymity clause when he needs an excuse for being a bit lazy, and this story is marred, too, by his increasing habit of eschewing action and letting dialogue refer to it. Holmes orders people to and fro, and the quote marks are never closed – this makes for a tiresome, bloodless read. It would be nice to suppose that the college in question was Holmes’s, and that everyone’s delicacy stems from this fact (and certainly The Three Students offers Sherlockians a number of such puzzles – why were Holmes and Watson in the university town to begin with, for instance?); but in the dialogue-heavy, detail-light narration of the tale, we see the real reason for the nods and winks. Even the story’s ending is limp, finishing off with a whimper a mustery which no one’s heart was really in from the off.