One summer night, a few months after my marriage, I was seated by my own hearth smoking a last pipe and nodding over a novel, for my day’s work had been an exhausting one.
The Crooked Man is another of those Holmes stories which finds its answer in an exotic clime. In this case, the mystery finds its solution in the events of the Indian Mutiny, amongst the soldiers and caravan of an elite troop of Irish soldiers. When events three decades old return to cause havoc in Victorian Aldershot, Holmes is of course called in.
Indeed, by the time Watson is involved, much of the story has already happened. The reader is likewise filled in by Holmes’s narration, and though they, too, are merely waiting for the exposition to end and for their part in the investigation to begin, Holmes’s characteristically clear recapitulation of events gives a good picture of his methods: he digests the facts he’s given, questions the protagonists again to question those facts again, examines the scene to verify those facts a second time, and then, as most notably in Silver Blaze, begins to hypothesise, creating his own lid image of a puzzle missing its pieces.
This makes for a fairly humdrum structure – Holmes tells Watson the story, and then takes him to see someone who tells the rest of it. Doyle once again saves himself with those exotic details – and if the exotica is thoroughly Victorian in its impressions and assumptions, it’s still enough to catch the imagination. (Nevertheless, the modern reader catches Doyle calling a London urchin a ‘street Arab’ and the sudden conflation checks their uncritical pleasure.)
The conclusion of the story is unsatisfying – a high-ranking officer’s reputation is saved by Holmes’s keeping dirty secret safe. Holmes’s justice has always been idiosyncratic and even abitrary, but here it also seems coloured by class: it’s not the first time that Holmes has ruled that raking up ancient history helps no one, but here his justifications and consolations seem less convincing.
One more thing: Holmes bursts in on Watson at an unsociable hour, clearly following the renewal of their acquaintance after the doctor’s marriage, imposing his command of the environment with a virtuoso performance of his methods upon the stage of his friend’s own house. Declaring these deductions ‘elementary’, and merely based upon data unavailble to the observer, he goes on to say: “The same may be said, my dear fellow, for the effect of some of these little sketches of yours, which is entirely meretricious, depending as it does upon your retaining in your own hands some factors in the problem which are never imparted to the reader.”
As literary criticism, this is spot-on, and as wry characterisation it is delightful. Holmes as Doyle’s writerly conscience? Perhaps.