We were seated at the breakfast one morning, my wife and I, when the maid brought in a telegram. It was from Sherlock Holm es, and ran in this way: “Have you a couple of days to spare?…”
‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery‘ acts as an antidote to the story immediately preceding it. If ‘A Case of Identity’ feels narrow and slight, this story sets Holmes free in a variety of ways: it further expands our understanding of his methods, adds some real and passionate human feeling to the characters around him, and, crucially, gets him out of Baker Street.
If Conan Doyle mines the ‘shady foreign past’ trick of his own ”A Study in Scarlet, he at least does so with a new bravura. When a murder takes place in rural Herefordshire, and Holmes is called in to exonerate the at first glance hopelessly guilty accused, he and Watson travel to Ross and seem infused with the energy of country air: “Sherlock Holmes was transformed when he was hot upon such a scent as this. Men who had only known the thinker and logician of Baker Street would have failed to recognize him. ” If Sidney Paget gave us in this story Holmes’s deerstalker, Conan Doyle gave us his famous physicality, which would so influence the protrayals of Rathbone and Brett and endow Holmes with the vitality and dynamism which is such a part of his longevity.
As Holmes bounds around the countryside searching for the footprints and cigarette ash which will solve the case, Watson, too, shows his mettle. In a lovely scene, alone in a room Watson reenacts the murder and makes some useful conclusions on the basis of his own medical training. It is a shame that, in a story so influential on screen adaptations, it is this evidence of Watson’s intelligence and perspicacity which went unmined for so long. (Not until the Granada adaptations starring Jeremy Brett did Watson truly get his due. More recently, in two adaptations for the BBC, Ian Hart has also done sterling work with the character.)
There’s some great sparring with Inspector Lestrade, a character who will recur throughout the canon, and which really highlights Holmes’s position as an unofficial agent. There are also some wonderful instances of Holmesian impatience (“Oh, tut, tut! I have no time.”), and, as in The Blue Carbuncle, a welcome grace note of humane mercy at the close (though here, perhaps, the culprit is more wronged than wrong-doing). Holmes complains at the start of the story that his method, being based on the unusual, suffers in cases without surface wrinkles, but his skill is shown to be to unearth them. “I find it hard enough to tackle facts, Holmes,” exclaims the less energetic Lestrade, “without flying away after theories and fancies.” If Conan Doyle habitually renders Holmes amazing by not clueing us into his thinking until the last minute, this technique is held together by the fact that the reader colludes by being more like Lestrade than his better: we are happy for Holmes to do the work for us, to find the details the newspaper reports miss.
“I watched my friend with the interest which sprang from the conviction that every one of his actions was directed towards a definite end.” Watson time and again the voice of the reader. If we too develop such faith in the great detective, we do so in no small part because, here and elsewhere, Conan Doyle was game to expand him ever outwards. ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ serves a grand purpose.