Somewhere in the vaults of the bank of Cox and Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch-box with my name, John H. Watson, M.D., Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid.
The Problem of Thor Bridge is remarkable for that tin despatch box, the first mention of an item which would become a thing of lore in Sherlockian circles, and indeed in the fiction that would be written about Holmes by others. This interest in the Holmesian legacy lends the story from the off a more substantial character than that of many of the other stories in the Casebook. It reads in several ways like the earlier adventures – exciting, evocative and adroit.
The central mystery revolves around the marriage of the American gold millionaire Neil Gibson, perhaps the richest of all Holmes’s clients, to a Brazillian woman, Maria Pinto, whom he has come no longer to love. (What is this interest in mysterious South American women so late in Conan Doyle’s career?). The arrival at Gibson’s Hampshire estate of a beautiful new governess, Grace Dunbar, breeds resentment in Gibson’s wife, whom he treats brutally in an attempt to kill the love she still holds, unrequited, for her husband. (“If I have been harsh to her, even brutal as some had said,” Gibson says, “it has been because I knew that if I could kill her love, or if it turned to hate, it would be easier for both of us.” It’s not a defense Holmes has much time for.)
The distinctiveness of this set-up – and of the crime scene itself, a lonely patch of woodland with that memorable bridge, deserted except for the body of the lady of the manor – lends the story a richness, as does the excellent characterisation: Gibson, if in some ways a stereotypically brash American, is given a real ebb and flow of (a not entirely likeable) character; Sergeant Coventry, the local policeman Holmes allows to manage the case, is one of the canon’s more memorable incompetents; and the battle of wits between the story’s two women is striking.
Unfortunately, the women remain defined principally by their beauty. Watson, as ever the ladies’ man, is struck somewhat dumb by the sight of the governess: “I can never forget,” the good doctor breathes, “the effect which Miss Dunbar produced upon me.” The principal matrimonial failing of Maria, meanwhile, is to age and lose her looks: “It was only when the romance had passed,” sighs Gibson, “that I realized we had nothing – absolutely nothing – in common.” D’oh! Holmes’s hope at the end of the stort that a man who has driven his wife to insane jealousy “has learned something in that schoolroom of sorrow”, and will come to marry the lovely and faultless Miss Dunbar, rings a little hollow.
Still, if the women revolve around their man, their personal affiliations form the bedrock of the case – unusual in a Holmes story, which more ordinarily revolves around the type of dirt encrusted upon a man’s shoe. “We’ve got to understand the exact relations of those three people if we are to understand the truth,” Holmes insists, and perhaps his usual aversion to such psychoanalysis is the reason for, as he berates himself, his “wanting in that mixture of imagination and reality which is the basis of my art.” Whatever the cause, that feeling of the investigation being stretched just enough is a tricky one to evoke – more often a story will be overly drawn out or too easily resolved. This successful balance, and the emphatic manner in which Holmes ultimately tips it, is what makes The Problem of Thor Bridge, its Victorian sexual politics aside, a late mini masterpiece.