My friend Sherlock Holmes, with whom I shared lodgings and adventures, had already breakfasted and was slumped in his favorite chair when I descended to our sitting one room one November morning. From the discarded newspapers strewn about the floor, I knew that he had failed to find one of those interesting crimes which so intrigued him.
Shortly after hearing my footsteps on the stairs, Mrs. Hudson arrived with fresh coffee, some fish left over from the previous night’s meal, devilled kidneys (which Holmes despised), bacon and toast. As Holmes had rather churlishly replied to my greeting, I set to breaking my fast.
After the dishes had been cleared away and I was settled in my own chair, sorting through the post, I held a letter out towards him. “Here’s one for you, Holmes. From a “Jarvis Pendragon, DC.”
I looked at him, puzzled. “What does ‘DC’ stand for?”
He broke through the malaise enough to negligently wave a hand. “Who knows? Pray, read it. Perhaps it will enliven this otherwise intolerably boring morning.”
I have mentioned before in these recountings of Sherlock Holmes’ cases, that humility is not a trait for which he has much admiration. On more than one occasion, he has identified modesty not as a virtue, but as a distortion of the truth. And I have excluded many of his own statements about his powers of observation and deduction that were quite the opposite of ‘humble.’
Of course, his belief in his talents and abilities, which he had honed to razor sharpness, were justified. But, as his roommate, companion, and if I may add, useful assistant, on his adventures, his self-aggrandizement could be more than a trifle wearying.
So, it was with some amusement, as I was to discover, that I read aloud his letter.
But first, he forestalled me with an upraised hand. “Be not so hasty, Watson. What can you tell me from an inspection of the envelope?”
I turned it over in my hands slowly, my eyes scanning the surface for any clues or hints.
“Brighton postmark. Common envelope. Careful handwriting on the address. Clearly legible. I see nothing else of note, Holmes.”
He shook his head in disapproval, but said nothing.
I sliced it open with my penknife and slid out a letter. It was on common paper, in the same handwriting as that on the envelope. I commented on this, to no response.
I began reading.
My good Mister Sherlock Holmes,
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Jarvis Pendragon. We are kindred spirits of a kind.
I looked up at Holmes with raised brows. His face wore a smile of disdain, and I continued.
I have avidly read Dr. Watson’s accounts of your investigations. I find your methods fascinating.
This elicited a noncommittal grunt.
I noted your comment that there are many government detectives, and many private detectives. But you are the only consulting detective. I am in a similar position. For there are many detectives. And many consultants. But I am the only detective consultant.
I stopped and re-read that sentence, silently, mouthing the words ‘detective consultant.’
“What the devil is a detective consultant?” I asked aloud.
Shaking my head, I resumed reading aloud.
I read with great interest that affair which Dr. Watson titled, ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band.’ It was a most fascinating matter. And a very workmanlike job you did in solving it, no doubt.
I looked up to see a small frown of annoyance flash briefly across Holmes’ face, but he said nothing.
Of course, you initially suspected the gypsies, which was ridiculous. But you quickly realized your obvious mistake and put yourself upon the right track. Admitting when you’re wrong and turning the facts to face in the right direction is the mark of a good detective.
“What ineffable twaddle.” I ignored the interruption.
I must congratulate you on those things that you did well, such as your discoveries of the dummy bell-rope and the cross-room ventilator, which surely an ordinary police-man would have missed. Also, noting that the bed was clamped to the floor is testament to your powers of observation. And your deductions arising from the lash and saucer of milk in Dr. Roylott’s room – fine work.
Holmes gave no sign that he was listening to me.
However, your performance was not without other errors.
I heard him shift in his chair and I looked up to see him staring at me.
“Indeed?” he said, with a raised eyebrow. He sat up and fumbled for the clay pipe in the pocket of his not-so-clean mouse-colored dressing gown. I waited as he filled it. His first smoke of the morning was always composed of the dottles and remainders from the day before. It was usually a foul-smelling concoction. Today was no different.
He drew on it and blew a cloud of oily smoke towards the ceiling. I began again:
Rather, I should say that you could have handled a few things better. What I do as a detective consultant, is offer advice and suggestions to detectives, to make them better at their jobs. I show them actions they could have taken, or how a different decision might have been better, or things that they should have seen. They lay the facts before me, and I give them advice. It may involve a specific case. Or maybe how they examine a crime scene, or their method of asking questions. My services are all but guaranteed to make you more successful and generate more customers. Which we know means more money!
Holmes sniffed disdainfully as I continued.
I have taken the liberty of providing you some examples of such, from the affair at Stoke Moran. I think you’ll agree with me that I can help you to be a better detective. And for a very reasonable fee. After you read this letter, I am sure I will be hearing from you. I look forward to it. Ever so respectfully yours, Jarvis Pendragon, DC.
I admit that I could not keep a smile from my face as I waited for Holmes to respond.
Looking at him puffing slowly on his pipe I could not tell if he was annoyed, amused, or dismissive. Possibly, a combination of all three. I was not in doubt after he spoke, however.
“By all means, Watson. Let us hear what brilliant insights the esteemed Detective Consultant Pendragon can offer. Perhaps I can become a somewhat competent detective with his sound advice.” He inhaled deeply and blew out a great cloud of blue-black smoke.
Mister Holmes, these are the kinds of things I can help you with. If you hire me, these are the types of mistakes I can help you avoid.
An early mistake, which precipitated those that followed, was in your sending Miss Stonor back to her home. When Doctor Roylott ‘bearded you in your den,’ as it were, his intentions were clear and a rookie Scotland Yard Man would have realized she was in danger.
Doctor Watson’s description of Dr. Roylott’s visit to your lodgings at Baker Street was excellent reading. – pure melodrama!
I would have bent the poker back into its original shape in front of Roylott – rather than after he was gone. But that’s just a matter of style.
You dismissed him out of hand, treating him like some kind of minor nuisance. Which only inflamed his red temper (How’s that for some good description, Doctor Watson? Maybe I should write up some of my own consulting cases!)
I ignored Holmes’ bark of laughter, which was certainly at my expense.
Your client, Miss Stoner, was clearly scared to death when she learns that her step-father had followed her to Baker Street. Your failure to take him seriously only makes him angrier with her. That is not very smart on your part.
“He mixes his tenses, Watson. At least you are better than that in your overly-romantic writings about my cases.”
My various experiences with Sherlock Holmes have taught me the true meaning of Thomas Paine’s phrase, ‘these are the times that try men’s souls.’ I continued reading.
She is worried about his return to Stoke Moran. I don’t see how you decided that ‘he must guard himself’ when he got home. He was certainly going to be in a foul mood, and he was a man of violent action. She was clearly in danger. But you dismissed this in a lazy manner.
I am sorry if I seem harsh, but I have found it’s best to be blunt, so that my client will do things right the next time.
He knows that Helen has been to visit you – it didn’t matter that you refused to admit it. I don’t understand why you are not worried for her safety. You tell her that if he gets violent with her, he will take her to her aunt’s home.
That’s reactive Mister Holmes. A good detective acts, rather than reacts. I made that up myself. Pretty good, eh? Were you my client, I would tell you that you were not properly safeguarding her welfare. And I would give you no less than three suggestions on what you should have done. I came up with five, just like that, while writing this letter.
You did move her into another room, while you and Doctor Watson stayed in the dangerous room, so you did get that right.
I stopped reading and looked at Holmes, who gave no sign of being awake. “What do you think so far?”
He opened his eyes but moved not any other muscle. “The man is clearly a fool. We both know that Grimesby Roylott was not going to confront his daughter. He was a brute, but he was playing a long game. He could bluster with us, hoping to frighten me off. But he could not have Helen Stoner’s death point towards him. He was not going to simply accuse her directly.”
I pondered this for a moment. “That’s certainly true, Holmes. Thus, the speckled band.”
His eyes took on a faraway look. “Yes, the deadly swamp adder. He was a most cunning and evil man, Watson.” Then he refocused his gaze and looked at me.
“I daresay our ‘consultant’ would not have come to the same conclusion which I did. You hold more pages in your hand. What else can our insightful consultant ‘straighten me out’ on?”
I scanned the next paragraph. “It would seem that both your tactics and your strategies have been found lacking, Holmes.”
This earned no reply at all. I cleared my throat and continued.
Mister Holmes, you and Doctor Watson hid yourselves in the bedroom of death (I really do have a trick with words. Maybe I should start a second career as a writer). You waited until then to tell Doctor Watson that ‘the least sound would be fatal’ to your plans.
Doctor Watson, in uncharacteristically perceptive fashion, nodded in return. But surely you wouldn’t have been surprised if he had said out loud, ‘Right, Holmes’ or something like that.
I glared at the paper. He made me seem like some bumbling fool. I looked over to see Holmes smiling at me. “So, what do you think of our expert now, Watson?”
I ignored the remark.
Why in the world didn’t you tell this to Watson while you were at the Crown inn? Or on the walk from the village to Stoke Moran? Or any time before you entered the room for your silent wait? Really, this was a totally inexcusable and preventable risk. And exactly the kind of thing you could use my help with.
“You see how your embellishments…”
I was still mildly annoyed at the comment about me, and was not going to listen to a lecture on Holmes about my ‘dramatic liberties.’
“Yes, Holmes, you’ve made it perfectly clear that my accounts of your cases should be dry, stultifyingly dull reading. You did, in fact, tell me several times (ad nauseum, even, I muttered under my breath), of the need for silence at Stoke Moran. However, the narrative flow was better, and the suspense heightened, the way I told it in the story. I stand by my decision.”
Perhaps sensing that he had ruffled my feathers, when we had a common enemy to focus our barbs on, he nodded noncommittally. When I saw that he had nothing to add, I silently looked at the next paragraph.
Holmes snapped impatiently, “Go on, Watson. What’s my next failing?”
I cleared my throat again and pondered calling Mrs. Hudson for a glass of water. I decided to go on.
“Well, Holmes – it seems he takes issue with the position you took during our wait in Miss Stonor’s room. He writes:”
“I really think that you have to consider yourself very lucky that the snake did not bite you, Mister Holmes. You sat on the edge of the bed, and you waited for the snake to hiss before you struck a match. Which allowed you to see and attack it with your cane. Wasn’t that putting yourself in grave danger? There you are, sitting near the place where the snake was headed, in the dark. And you didn’t even hear it until it prepared to strike.
Based on Doctor Watson’s narrative, the snake was released into the ventilator about a half hour earlier. Certainly, it could have struck before you heard it and lit the match! You were reckless and foolhardy. Just as you unnecessarily put your client in danger, you did so for yourself. And Doctor Watson as well.
“I see. Is that all, or does he have even more suggestions for me?” There was ice in his tone.
I had seen Holmes far more upset with the official police force before, but he clearly he did not like that this unknown man had the effrontery to criticize his performance on a case.
I internally debated some line such as, “You know, Holmes, he has a point. The snake could have struck before you lit the match.” But he may well have taken the letter from my hand and torn it to bits. I decided the wisest course was to simply continue reading.
“Well, let’s see. He thinks that you might have handled your lighting of the match differently.”
His voice was metallic flat as he said, “Do tell.”
“He explains that the room was in darkness for over three hours before you lit a match and struck at the snake.”
I shifted in my seat. “He says that the flash of the match should have been nearly blinding to eyes accustomed only to deep dark. It’s unlikely that you would immediately recognize the snake and accurately lash it.”
“And yet, I did exactly that, Watson. What do you think is his presumption?”
I continued scanning the letter. “He says that I must have changed what actually happened for dramatic effect. It could not have occurred exactly as I wrote.”
“Ha!” Holmes’ sense of glee was obvious.
“I have explained to you many times that a dry recitation of facts will never get printed. The wider public won’t know of your talents and skills, because it will never have the opportunity to read about them. I have to establish a compelling narrative.”
He eyed me, unconvinced as ever.
“So, in order to compose a more readable story, I made a few adjustments. Nothing significant.”
He sniffed in disdain. “They were apparently significant to Jarvis Pendragon.”
I waited, but there was nothing more forthcoming. I moved on to what appeared to be his last major point.
Mister Holmes, didn’t you take a huge risk in reaching out and grabbing the dog-whip from Roylott’s lap? Doctor Watson has just stated that the adder had reared up in Roylott’s hair.
I spoke first. “Well, blast it, Holmes. It was wrapped around his head like a band, and then it stuck its head up. It’s a fair description.”
I continued before he could disparage my writing yet again.
What made you think it wouldn’t strike, killing you with its deadly poison? Are you trained in snake handling?
I admit I smiled at this, but I didn’t pause.
Have you perhaps received some kind of special training, which allowed you to safely collar the snake and throw it in the safe? Because, if you do have special skills in that regard, we can take advantage of them in getting more clients. We can bill you as The Snake Detective.
I could not contain my laughter this time and I guffawed. ‘Sherlock Holmes: the Great Snake Detective,” I said aloud.
There was no laughter other than my own, as Holmes did not see the humor. I regained control of myself.
One of the valuable services I provide is a summation of the identified problems. Because of your actions, Helen Stonor could have been physically abused by Dr. Roylott. He could have heard you and Watson talking in the very room next door. And as I’ve shown, you could easily have been bitten by the snake yourself. In addition, it’s a miracle that you weren’t blinded by the light of your match, which would have caused you to not see the snake. And you could have been bitten not only when you grabbed the dog-whip, but also when you collared the snake.
Really, Mister Holmes, a man as intelligent as yourself has to admit that you were very lucky to avoid a fatal snake bite. You cannot count on that kind of luck again and again.
“Ha!” His laugh was like the crack of a pistol shot. “Luck, indeed!”
I can certainly help you become a more effective detective, surely leading to more cases and more money. My first session is free. We can discuss this comprehensive analysis, with some suggestions for improved actions in the future. I look forward to hearing from you….
“Yours very sincerely, and so on.”
“What do you think, Watson? Should we spend some of our hard-earned income on Mister Jarvis Pendragon’s keen insights and suggestions?”
“Really, now Holmes. I don’t see that the matter is worth going on about. Clearly he fancies himself some kind of expert in a field of his own creation, and thinks he knows more than his prospective clients. Your actions saved Helen Stonor’s life and made a bully and a villain pay for his crimes. Reading this letter was a bit of fun, but nothing more than that.”
He eyed me contemplatively and set about sending clouds of foul-smelling smoke to the ceiling. “”You speak the truth. Roylott was as great a bully as I have ever met. To see him suffer the same death he intended for both of his stepdaughters, does not cause me any great sorrow.”
“Hoist on his own petard, eh Holmes?”
He frowned. “You know I dislike casual quotations of Shakespeare, Watson. Though, in this instance, I believe it is an apt usage of the phrase. Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4, as I recall.”
More blue smoke.
“We shall put our would-be-savior out of our minds. I doubt that we shall hear from him again.”
Holmes then treated me to his further thoughts on my stories of his investigations, and the error I was in not making them scientific accounts of his work. But I was only half listening. For I had not read him the last item addressed in the letter.
I can’t help but wonder, Mister Holmes. You were clearly upset by Dr. Roylott’s abuse of his stepdaughter. Did you take his threat in your rooms as a direct challenge? Looking at all the circumstances of the affair, did you decide that you would end the contest by claiming the ultimate victory? These points I’ve made to you: were you exercising poor judgement, or did you take each action in such a cunning way that it was highly probable that Roylott would be dead when the affair was ended?
I stuffed the letter back into the envelope and put it in my pocket. I would toss it into the fire upon the next available occasion.
For I, too, had wondered if Holmes had engineered events that the ultimate conclusion to the case involved Grimesby Roylott falling prey to his deadly adder.
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance!).
He organized ‘Hither Came Conan,’ as well as Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.