In choosing a few typical cases which illustrate the remarkable mental qualities of my friend, Sherlock Holmes, I have endeavoured, as far as possible, to select those which presented the minimum of sensationalism, while offering a fair field for his talents.
The Cardboard Box, which starts with so obvious a lie, is a very naughty story. So naughty, in fact, that I’m not even reading it when I should have done. My American copy of the canon places the story, as most American copies do, in His Last Bow; originally, however, the story was placed with the Memoirs, to which position it has been restored in most British collections. Originally withheld from the earlier volume because of its controversial subject matter (adultery with the in-laws, no less), the story also features an episode which was taken verbatim and placed in the more proper Resident Patient, in which Holmes uses his deductive powers to pretend to read Watson’s mind.
So there is much deja vu about this tale. Not only does it feature a scene we’ve read before (delightful though it is); it recalls the sprightlier stories of the early collections. These are undoubtedly at odds with the often longer, certainly more considered, stories of the later years. It sits oddly after Wisteria Lodge; Holmes’s more playful aspect reminds us that, despite accusations to the contrary, Conan Doyle did practice character development: Holmes and Watson both get older, more sober, as the years go on.
The story also has that other characteristic of Holmes’s callow period: the memorable central image which seeks alone to power an otherwise second-hand story. The pair of ears in a yellowed cardboard box is undoubtedly one of the grislier images in the canon, and the solution Holmes arrives at for their turning up at the home of Miss S Cushing is appropriately ghastly (and ultimately the reason this story was withdrawn on the grounds of taste). Otherwise, however, the story is communicated through newspaper articles and letters, telegrams and lectures from Holmes. We are routinely asked to marvel at Holmes’s deductive powers, but left in the dark as to what he has discovered until later, when we are presumably meant to be amazed as the mystery is unravelled, whole, before us.
Still, the mind-reading episode sits far better here than in its later makeshift home because in The Cardboard Box it works thematically: the story, as distanced as we are from it, asks questions about reason, on the one hand miraculous and yet on the other thoroughly insufficient. Holmes solves the crime (all too easily – “I choose to be only associated with those crimes which present some difficulty in their solution” he informs Lestrade tartly), but in a larger sense there is no reason to it. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear?” Holmes asks gravely at the close of the story. “It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”
The story is weakened by its structure, but in that final question reveals its more thoughtful, and darker, heart. For those reading the stories in an American order, it is therefore an enjoyable trip back to an earlier time.