“In publishing these short sketches, based upon the numerous cases which my companion’s singular gifts have made me the listener to, and eventually the actor in some strange drama, it is only natural that I should dwell rather upon his successes than upon his failures.”
The Yellow Face may well have a lot to answer for: a comment from Watson is partly the source of Guy Ritchie’s conception of Sherlock Holmes as a bruiser par excellence. (“He was undoubtedly one of the finest boxers I have ever seen.”) But this reference aside, Holmes is in fact curiously passive in this story, which (controversially perhaps) Brad Keefauver places as the third proper adventure of the duo.
The bulk of the story is the narration by Grant Munro of a strange secret kept by his wife. Mrs Munro, who spent the years of her youth in America and who, before leavin istraughtdg for England, had a child with a husband who later died. After three years of happy marriage to Munro, however, she begins to visit the sinister denizens of the house next door – one of whom peers from the window with the hideous yellow face of the story’s title. She leaves the house at 3am, demands a hundred pounds of her husband, and generally acts in a suspiciously furtive fashion.
Of course, all this gets too much for Munro, who asks for Holmes’s help more in the way of a confidant than a detective: “I want your opinions as a judicious man – as a man of the world,” he says, and proceeds to impart a story with precious little of the hard data on which Holmes thrives. Consequently, Holmes’s theory is by story’s perfunctory end proved to be wholly spurious. “Watson,” he opines when the truth becomes clear, “if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.”
The Norbury house does indeed hold a drama beyond Holmes’s ken; but, as in A Scandal In Bohemia, it is simply a case of Holmes not being given the full facts by his client – indeed, the full facts emerge as so obscure and unguessable that deductive reasoning is understandably useless in diving them. One might go so far to say as this is Conan Doyle writing by numbers: the American past, the unexplainable by terrifying vision, the secretive family member are all present. The only missing ingredient is the mystery, leaving Holmes’s presence decidedly perfunctory.