There are several questions which arise from the report of Dr. Watson on the activities of Sherlock Holmes in connection with the case that grows out of the death of “Black Peter” Carey.
First, Watson tells us that at the time of this case Holmes had “an immense practice.” However, the facts appear otherwise. If Holmes had an immense practice, why did he spend most of a week investigating this case when he was not employed to do so and before he was ever consulted?
We know he was brought into the case by Insp. Stanley Hopkins a full week after Peter Carey (aka Black Peter), a retired sea captain, was found dead, impaled to his cabin wall by a steel harpoon. But before Holmes even met with Hopkins he had already begun, and partly completed, his investigation.
We are compelled to ask why Holmes, if he had such an immense practice, found time to undertake an investigation in a case in which he had not been employed or consulted. His investigation must have begun several days before he was consulted by Stanley Hopkins. We are told that, following an evening telegram, Hopkins met next day with Holmes to discuss the case. The death of Black Peter had occurred seven days prior.
Hopkins told Holmes: "... and there he died just a week ago to-day."
Holmes did not begin his investigation at the request of Stanley Hopkins. Holmes had begun working the case several days before Hopkins contacted him. Apparently, he had been working the case since shortly after the crime was committed. After the homicide and before the meeting with Hopkins a week later Holmes had accomplished these things:
(1) He had adopted a disguise under the name of of Captain Basil;
(2) He had visited the waterfront sufficiently to be well known there as Capt. Basil;
(3) On the waterfront he had so firmly established the false identity that "several rough-looking men had called" at 221B to inquire for Captain Basil; and
(4) He had identified Sumner Shipping Agent as a source of further leads.
In addition, before he met with Hopkins:
(5) He had "read all the available evidence, including the report of the inquest";
(6) He had obtained a "huge barbed-headed spear";
(7) He had made arrangements with Allerdyce, the butcher, to visit his shop in the early morning hours before his breakfast meeting with Hopkins; and
(8) He had carried out a senseless and bizarre experiment at the butcher shop.
Holmes had done all of this before Hopkins invited him into the case. --- Why?
Well -- It wasn’t to save the innocent John Hopley Neligan. This was all done before Neligan was discovered at the scene and mistakenly arrested by Hopkins who made unfounded assumptions. Also, it is certain that Holmes was not brought into the case by Mrs. Peter Carey or the daughter (or the two female servants). They were all glad to see the end of the evil Black Peter.
There seems to be but one reason for Holmes to have engaged himself upon this case before he was consulted. It is simply that Holmes had nothing else to do. He would not have done all of this, of his own initiative and at is own expense, if there had been anything else for him to put his time on. He was out of cases, bored, killing time and willing to jump at anything. Rather than having an "immense practice" at this particular time, as Watson would have us believe, Holmes was out of work, idle, desperate and up against it. He needed the work, and he jumped at the case with the hope that someone, anyone, would call him in.
It was very fortunate for Holmes’s mental well-being that young Hopkins called on him when he did. Otherwise — possibly, the needle.
If Holmes was not as busy as Watson leads us to believe, we must question Watson’s credibility on other matters. Has Watson, in other reports, painted a false picture of the wealth of clients and the demands on the time of the great detective? Falsum in uno, falsum in omni. But enough of that. We must now look to the next question.
The next question delves deeply into the psyche of Sherlock Holmes. At the beginning of the tale, Holmes returned to 221B from a visit to the backroom of Allerdyce's butcher shop where he has been engaged in one of the most irrational and ludicrous scenes in all of literature.
Holmes had spent the early morning hours at the butcher shop "furiously stabbing" with a harpoon at the carcass of a pig. But the pig was freely swinging from a hook in the ceiling. This was not a fixed carcass that might have been impaled by a stab. It was a free-swinging pig high overhead which "swung from a hook in the ceiling."
Picture this: Holmes, running around frantically, with harpoon in hand, furiously jabbing and poking, while the carcass of the pig overhead was gently swinging and swaying, back and forth, away from each successive blow. Is it possible to imagine a more ridiculous exercise in futility or more bizarre behavior of an acrobatic clown in a butcher shop ? We think not.
Such an experiment with a harpoon and a pig could have told Holmes nothing about the death of Black Peter. It is a matter of simple mechanics that a harpoon jabbed repeatedly at a free-swinging object can shed no light on the death of a human being who was trapped against, and then spiked into, an unyielding cabin wall. Black Peter was pinned to the wall “like a beetle on a card". The pig was swinging freely in the breeze. Holmes apparently did not have even a rudimentary knowledge of the fundamental principles of dynamics or kinetics.
Why did Holmes engage in this senseless and grotesque exercise? Is it possible that he was still driven to satisfy those appetites of his earlier years that had caused him to beat with a stick on dead bodies in the dissecting rooms of the students at St. Bart's Hospital?
The final question is one that possibly would be best left un-asked and with certainty is best left un-answered. Watson excites our curiosity, then fails to satisfy it, when he tells us that Holmes " had at least five small refuges in different parts of London, in which he was able to change his personality." --- Change his personalty?
Watson does not say that Holmes used these refuges to don disguises and change his appearance. Nor does he say that Holmes used these refuges to transact business under an assumed identity.
What Watson does say, and it is said with brutal frankness, is that when Holmes takes refuge in these retreats: "he was able to change his personality." The un-answered question: What kind of transformation does Holmes undergo that changes his personalty? Watson does not answer the question, and it’s best that we not speculate.
(Jody Baker is a Chattanooga attorney, who specializes in Sherlock Holmes lore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)