“My dear fellow.” said Sherlock Holmes as we sat on either side of the fire in his lodgings at Baker Street, “life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.”
A Case of Identity is a relatively short and decidedly simple little case: if the title doesn’t give the reader clue enough about its solution, the very bald description of the case by the unusually dim Miss Sutherland, Holmes’s client, should tip the wink. The case ultimately rests on the differences between two types of typewriter, and it is an ingenious way for Holmes to confirm his hunch, but the hunch wasn’t that difficult to have in the first place.
Of most interest in this story, then, are the exchanges between Holmes and Watson, as if already Conan Doyle is aware that his characters are what make his simple mysteries tick. Holmes declaims at length about the oddness in the quotidian, and we begin to add a further facet to that restless curiosity we observed in the case of the Red-Headed League: even in a case without a crime, or indeed a formidable adversary, Holmes finds fascination in the curious details. He’s almost childlike in his eagerness to discover, and this urge drives him as much as ego.
Watson, on the other hand, is attentive but impatient: he finds Miss Sutherland’s ramblings frustrating, and is surpirsed to find Holmes all ears. When she leaves Holmes’s rooms, Watson can describe Miss Sutherland’s appearance to a tee, but is no closer to comprehending her person. It is Holmes, with his attention to detail, his love for the quirk, who is of course the master observer.
Still, few of his powers are needed here – he shows more interest in some tantalising cases of which he can share no detail, and the qualities of bisulphate of baryta, than in the particulars of the mystery Watson is writing up – and his boredom becomes something like detachment: he toys with the villain, laughs about his escape, and decides to withhold his solution from Miss Sutherland. He rationalises all of this, but ultimately it’s hard not to conclude that, by the close of the story, he loses interest in it.
Were it not for the detective himself, so too might the reader.