Sherlock Holmes


Title:                  Sherlock Holmes

Author:                 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle (2001). Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Illustrated Novels. London: Chancellor Press

LCCN:    2002437324

PR4621 2001c

Subjects

Date Updated:  April 29, 2015

Sherlock Holmes is a fictional detective created by author and physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A London-based “consulting detective” whose abilities border on the fantastic, Holmes is famous for his astute logical reasoning, his ability to adopt almost any disguise, and his use of forensic science skills to solve difficult cases.

Holmes, who first appeared in publication in 1887, was featured in four novels and 56 short stories. The first novel, “A Study in Scarlet”, appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887 and the second, “The Sign of the Four,” in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890. The character grew tremendously in popularity with the first series of short stories in Strand Magazine, beginning with “A Scandal in Bohemia” in 1891; further series of short stories and two novels published in serial form appeared between then and 1927. The stories cover a period from around 1880 up to 1914.

All but four stories are narrated by Holmes’s friend and biographer, Dr. John H. Watson; two are narrated by Holmes himself (“The Blanched Soldier” and “The Lion’s Mane”) and two others are written in the third person (“The Mazarin Stone” and “His Last Bow”). In two stories (“The Musgrave Ritual” and “The Gloria Scott”), Holmes tells Watson the main story from his memories, while Watson becomes the narrator of the frame story. The first and fourth novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear, each include a long interval of omniscient narration recounting events unknown to either Holmes or Watson.

Doyle said that the character of Sherlock Holmes was inspired by Dr. Joseph Bell, for whom Doyle had worked as a clerk at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Like Holmes, Bell was noted for drawing large conclusions from the smallest observations. However, some years later Bell wrote in a letter to Conan Doyle: “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it.” Sir Henry Littlejohn, lecturer on Forensic Medicine and Public Health at the Royal College of Surgeons, is also cited as a source for Holmes. Littlejohn served as Police Surgeon and Medical Officer of Health of Edinburgh, providing for Doyle a link between medical investigation and the detection of crime.

Explicit details about Sherlock Holmes’s life outside of the adventures recorded by Dr. Watson are few and far between in Conan Doyle’s original stories; nevertheless, incidental details about his early life and extended families portray a loose biographical picture of the detective.

An estimate of Holmes’ age in the story “His Last Bow” places his birth in 1854; the story is set in August 1914 and he is described as being 60 years of age. Commonly, the date is cited as 6 January.

Holmes states that he first developed his methods of deduction while an undergraduate. His earliest cases, which he pursued as an amateur, came from fellow university students. According to Holmes, it was an encounter with the father of one of his classmates that led him to take up detection as a profession, and he spent the six years following university working as a consulting detective, before financial difficulties led him to take Watson as a roommate, at which point the narrative of the stories begins.

From 1881, Holmes was described as having lodgings at 221B, Baker Street, London, from where he runs his consulting detective service. 221B is an apartment up 17 steps, stated in an early manuscript to be at the “upper end” of the road. Until the arrival of Dr. Watson, Holmes worked alone, only occasionally employing agents from the city’s underclass, including a host of informants and a group of street children he calls “The Baker Street Irregulars”. The Irregulars appear in three stories: “A Study in Scarlet,” “The Sign of the Four,” and “The Adventure of the Crooked Man”.

Little is said of Holmes’s family. His parents were unmentioned in the stories and he merely states that his ancestors were “country squires”. In “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”, Holmes claims that his great-uncle was Vernet, the French artist. His brother, Mycroft, seven years his senior, is a government official who appears in three stories and is mentioned in one other story. Mycroft has a unique civil service position as a kind of memory-man or walking database for all aspects of government policy. Mycroft is described as even more gifted than Sherlock in matters of observation and deduction, but he lacks Sherlock’s drive and energy, preferring to spend his time at ease in the Diogenes Club, described as “a club for the most un-clubbable men in London”.

Holmes shares the majority of his professional years with his good friend and chronicler Dr. John H. Watson, who lives with Holmes for some time before his marriage in 1887, and again after his wife’s death. Their residence is maintained by the landlady, Mrs. Hudson.

Watson has two roles in Holmes’s life. First, he gives practical assistance in the conduct of his cases. He is the detective’s right-hand man, acting variously as look-out, decoy, accomplice and messenger. Second, he is Holmes’s chronicler (his “Boswell” as Holmes refers to him). Most of the Holmes stories are frame narratives, written from Watson’s point of view as summaries of the detective’s most interesting cases. Holmes is often described as criticizing Watson’s writings as sensational and populist, suggesting that they neglect to accurately and objectively report the pure calculating “science” of his craft.

Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it (“A Study in Scarlet”) with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story … Some facts should be suppressed, or, at least, a just sense of proportion should be observed in treating them. The only point in the case which deserved mention was the curious analytical reasoning from effects to causes, by which I succeeded in unravelling it.

Nevertheless, Holmes’s friendship with Watson is his most significant relationship. In several stories, Holmes’s fondness for Watson—often hidden beneath his cold, intellectual exterior—is revealed. For instance, in “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs”, Watson is wounded in a confrontation with a villain; although the bullet wound proves to be “quite superficial”, Watson is moved by Holmes’s reaction:

It was worth a wound; it was worth many wounds; to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.

In all, Holmes is described as being in active practice for 23 years, with Watson documenting his cases for 17 of them.

To me, the most interesting of the Holmes stories is “The Case of the Dancing Men,” because it involves cryptography.

Mr. Hilton Cubitt of Ridling Thorpe Manor in Norfolk visits Sherlock Holmes and gives him a piece of paper with this mysterious sequence of stick figures.

The little dancing men are at the heart of a mystery which seems to be driving his young wife Elsie to distraction. He married her about a year ago, and until recently, everything was well. She is American, and before the wedding, she asked her husband-to-be to promise her never to ask about her past, as she had had some “very disagreeable associations” in her life, although she said that there was nothing that she was personally ashamed of. Mr. Cubitt swore the promise and, being an honourable English gentleman, insists on living by it, which is one of the things causing difficulty at Ridling Thorpe Manor.

The trouble began when Elsie received a letter from the United States, which evidently disturbed her, and she threw the letter on the fire. Then the dancing men appeared, sometimes on a piece of paper left on the sundial overnight, sometimes scrawled in chalk on a wall or door, even a windowsill. Each time, their appearance has an obvious, terrifying effect on Elsie, but she will not tell her husband what is going on. Holmes tells Cubitt that he wants to see every occurrence of the dancing men. They are to be copied down and brought or sent to him at 221B Baker Street. Cubitt duly does this, and it provides Holmes with an important clue. Holmes comes to realize that it is a substitution cipher. He cracks the code by frequency analysis. The last of the messages conveyed by the dancing men is a particularly alarming one.

Holmes rushes down to Ridling Thorpe Manor only to find Cubitt dead of a bullet to the heart and his wife gravely wounded in the head. Inspector Martin of the Norfolk Constabulary believes that it is a murder-suicide, or will be if Elsie dies. She is the prime suspect in her husband’s death. Holmes sees things differently. Why is there a bullet hole in the windowsill, making a total of three shots, while Cubitt and his wife were each only shot once? Why are only two chambers in Cubitt’s revolver empty? What is the large sum of money doing in the room? The discovery of a trampled flowerbed just outside the window, and the discovery of a shell casing therein confirm what Holmes has suspected — a third person was involved, and it is surely the one who has been sending the curious dancing-man messages.

Holmes knows certain things that Inspector Martin does not. He seemingly picks the name “Elrige’s” out of the air, and Cubitt’s stable boy recognizes it as a local farmer’s name. Holmes quickly writes a message — in dancing men characters — and sends the boy to Elrige’s Farm to deliver it to a lodger there, whose name he has also apparently picked out of the air. Of course, Holmes has learned both men’s names by reading the dancing men code. While waiting for the result of this message, Holmes takes the opportunity to explain to Watson and Inspector Martin how he cracked the code of the dancing men, and the messages are revealed. The last one, which caused Holmes and Watson to rush to Norfolk, read “ELSIE PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD”.

The lodger, Mr. Abe Slaney, another American, unaware that Elsie is at death’s door and quite unable to communicate, duly arrives at Ridling Thorpe Manor a short while later, much to everyone’s astonishment, except Holmes’s. He has sent for Slaney using the dancing men, knowing that Slaney will believe that the message is from Elsie. He is seized as he comes through the door. He tells the whole story. He is a former lover from Chicago and has come to England to woo Elsie back. She originally fled his clutches because he was a dangerous criminal, as Holmes has found out through telegraphic inquiries to the US. When an encounter at the window where the killing happened turned violent with Hilton Cubitt’s appearance in the room, Slaney pulled out his gun and shot back at Cubitt, who had already shot at him. Cubitt was killed and Slaney fled. Apparently, Elsie then shot herself. Slaney seems genuinely upset that Elsie has come to harm. The threatening nature of some of his dancing-man messages is explained by Slaney’s losing his temper at Elsie’s apparent unwillingness to leave her husband. The money found in the room was apparently to have been a bribe to make Slaney go away.

Slaney is arrested and later tried. He escapes the noose owing to mitigating circumstances. Elsie recovers from her serious injuries and spends her life helping the poor and administering her late husband’s estate.

How did Holmes crack the code?

What would most people make of this childish-looking scrawl: a piece of useless junk drawn by a primary school pupil? Or is it actually a secret code?

…or more to the point, what does Sherlock Holmes make of it?

The little dancing men are at the heart of a mystery which seems to be driving his young wife Elsie to distraction. He married her about a year ago, and until recently, everything was well. She is American, and before the wedding, she asked her husband-to-be to promise her never to ask about her past, as she had had some “very disagreeable associations” in her life, although she said that there was nothing that she was personally ashamed of. Mr. Cubitt swore the promise and, being an honourable English gentleman, insists on living by it, which is one of the things causing difficulty at Ridling Thorpe Manor.

The trouble began when Elsie received a letter from the United States, which evidently disturbed her, and she threw
the letter on the fire. Then the dancing men appeared, sometimes on a piece of paper left on the sundial overnight, sometimes scrawled in chalk on a wall or door, even a windowsill. Each time, their appearance has an obvious, terrifying effect on Elsie, but she will not tell her husband what is going on. The first message brought to Holmes is the one above.

Holmes tells Cubitt that he wants to see every occurrence of the dancing men. They are to be copied down and brought or sent to him at 221B Baker Street. Cubitt duly does this, and it provides Holmes with the most important clue in the whole mystery.

Collecting all the messages that were shown to Holmes we get:

Criminal message 1.

Criminal message 2

Elsie’s Reply

Criminal’s message 3

Holmes quickly realizes that it is a substitution cipher. Through much brainwork, he cracks the code. How does he do this? Manipulating the dancing men characters is a nuisance. It is much easier if we assign each character a letter from a random alphabet. We choose a random alphabet so we are sure we do not put any patterns in place that might mislead owing to an artifact. The random alphabet I chose is

G  W  U  C  B  H  O  P  Q  X  A  Z  D  J  L  T  V  R  E  M  F  Y  K  S  N  I

However, before assigning letters to the men we note that in message 1, 2, and 3 some of the men are identical except that they are holding flags. Also note that there is no indication of word breaks in any of the messages. I will assume that the characters with flags and without, otherwise identical, represent the same letter, and that the flag represents a word break. Now I can assign letters to each of the figures.

G         W #        U           C       B        C #    G       O      C #    P         Q       G      X      C      A

Z       D        J       C  #    C      Q       P        L       C

X     C       T     C      B

C       Q      P        L       C #     T     B      C      T      G      B      C

V      D #      J       C      C      V #    V      U      A #    M    D       F

Simplifying we have the cryptogram

G     W      U  C   B   C      G  O   C     P  Q  G   X  C  A

Z    D    J    C            C   Q    P    L    C

X     C       T     C      B

C   Q   P   L   C            T   B   C   T   G   B   C                V    D         J    C    C     V        V   U   A         M  D  F

Where the word breaks are indicated. Now we can do a frequency analysis.

C is by far the most frequently appearing letter. We assign C = e and we find

G     W      U  e   B   e      G  O   e     P  Q  G   X  e  A

Z    D    J    e            e   Q    P    L    e

X     e       T     e      B

e   Q   P   L   e            T   B   e   T   G   B   e                V    D         J    e    e     V        V   U   A         M  D  F

Holmes knows that the girl’s name, Elsie, probably appears in the message since she reacted to each message so strongly.  The group e   Q    P    L    e is the only one that fits the name Elsie so we find Q = l,    P = s, L = i. Making these changes we get

G     W      U  e   B   e      G  O   e     s  l  G   X  e  A

Z    D    J    e            e   l    s    i    e

X     e       T     e      B

e   l   s   i   e            T   B   e   T   G   B   e                    V    D         J    e    e     V        V   U   A         M  D  F

The first group on the second line is a four letter word ending in “e” so we can guess it is “come.” Thus    Z = c, D = o, J = m and we get

G     W      U  e   B   e      G  O   e     s  l  G   X  e  A

c    o    m    e            e   l    s    i    e

X     e       T     e      B

e   l   s   i   e            T   B   e   T   G   B   e                    V    o         m    e    e     V        V   U   A         M  o  F

Trying U = h, B = r we get

G     W      h  e   r   e      G  O   e     s  l  G   X  e  A

c    o    m    e            e   l    s    i    e

X     e       T     e      r

e   l   s   i   e            T   r   e   T   G   r   e                      V    o         m    e    e     V        V   h   A         M  o  F

“V” occurred 4 times so we try V = t (third group, last line)

G     W      h  e   r   e      G  O   e     s  l  G   X  e  A

c    o    m    e            e   l    s    i    e

X     e       T     e      r

e   l   s   i   e            T   r   e   T   G   r   e                      t    o         m    e    e     t        t   h   A         M  o  F

Now it looks like A = y, X probably is n, and T = v (although this is inconsistent with the last line where T clearly is p.

a     m      h  e   r   e      a  O   e     s  l  a   n  e  y

c    o    m    e            e   l    s    i    e

n     e       v     e      r

e   l   s   i   e            p   r   e   p   a   r   e                      t    o         m    e    e     t        t   h   y         g  o  d

We can get everything except the name in the first line. It could be Ace or Abe – we have no way of knowing from the given information. Holmes seems to know of the person and gets it as Abe. Thus the messages are

a     m      h  e   r   e      a  b   e     s  l  a   n  e  y

c    o    m    e            e   l    s    i    e

n     e       v     e      r

e   l   s   i   e            p   r   e   p   a   r   e                      t    o         m    e    e     t        t   h   y         g  o  d

This solution shows the cryptographers problems (errors in encrypting) and missing information that can be obtained only by more traffic or other information (such as knowing a sender’s name, etc.)

If the solution isn’t clear (I’ve omitted some graphics) post a note and I can send you a WORD file tht has all graphics in it.

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