Twenty years ago, I had a short story published for the first time. Charles Prepolec and J.R. Campbell had not yet put out their four Gaslight collections of Holmes horror stories. Their initial book outing was a little collection called Curious Incidents. For some reason that escapes me now, I thought it would be clever to have a story in which Arthur Conan Doyle plays Dr. Watson. The part that made it really clever, was that he would be assisting William Gillette as Holmes. And they’d be solving one of Watson’s untold cases! I’ve since gone on to write ‘straight’ Holmes pastiches – several of them published. As well as short stories featuring Solar Pons, and others with Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. But getting my name in print began with a twist on Sherlock Holmes.
It was a blustery evening in the Fall of 1901 when I received an unexpected visitor to my hotel room. I had come down to London to meet with my editor at The Strand, Martin Greenhough Smith. Dining at the Westminster Palace Hotel, where the fare is always excellent, we had discussed some particulars relating to the new Sherlock Holmes story that I had, somewhat reluctantly, agreed to provide him with. Returning to my home in Southsea upon the morn, I was still debating upon the merit of bringing Holmes back to life, albeit for only one more adventure.
I arose at the knock upon my door and opened it. To my considerable surprise, I found myself gazing upon the face of Sherlock Holmes. Well, not quite Sherlock Holmes, but the man who had become most identified with him on two continents. The talented actor William Gillette had come to pay his compliments to me.
I shook his hand and relieved him of his wet coat and cap. I bade him make himself comfortable in the over-stuffed armchair by the lamp and poured him a warming glass of good brandy. William Gillette was a famous actor in America. He had starred in several plays and was quite popular. In 1899 he had rewritten an offering of my own, entitled it ‘Sherlock Holmes – A Drama in Four Acts,’ and achieved new levels of success. It had been the toast of New York City and every show had played to a full house. He had recently brought it across the ocean and presented it at our own esteemed Lyceum Theater. It came as no surprise that it was an even bigger smash here in London. Though I considered these detective stories as less important than my other writings, Sherlock Holmes was immensely popular and, I had to admit, financially profitable.
Ensconced in my own chair, Gillette regaled me with his tales of Holmes in America. He certainly made an excellent portrait of the sleuth. Of course, Sidney Paget had drawn a more handsome Holmes than I described, but that had probably been for the best, as it attracted more female readers to the stories. Gillette was tall and lean, with a very distinctive profile. His nose wasn’t quite the hawkish affair that I had pictured, but I could easily see how playgoers had come to identify his visage with that of Sherlock Holmes.
The man himself was quite jovial and we spent a pleasant evening talking of many matters, few of them about our common link, Holmes. At one point, he mentioned a case currently being discussed in the local papers. A recently retired army captain had come from the country, checked into a hotel and had, by all accounts, simply vanished. It was believed that he had been robbed and then his body disposed of.
Gillette was intrigued by the case. I told him that I had myself followed up on the matter and contacted the captain’s relatives. I then shared my theory with him. When I finished, he clapped his hands together and said, “My dear fellow, that is marvelous! I believe that you are exactly correct in your structuring of the case, and in its solution.”
We talked late into the night, eventually agreeing to meet for lunch the following day. I had enjoyed our evening conversation and looked forward to a pleasant meal the next day. I slept soundly, with no dreams of ‘hounds of hell’ chasing me upon the moor.
The following afternoon we met at Simpson’s, an establishment that had appeared in my stories. Gillette was in a fine mood, and there seemed to be a glint of merriment in his eyes. As I took a bite of the excellent roast pork, he smiled broadly at me.
“Sir Arthur, do you have a bowler with you?” With some amusement I snorted and replied, “Of course, what respectable Englishman would traverse the Queen’s city without such an item? Why do you ask?”
His smile lessened, but he had an air of mischief about him. “How would you like to do a bit of acting?” I must have given him a mystified look, as he continued, “I really do believe that you hit the disappearance of the missing captain right on the head. I have my wardrobe from the play with me here, of course.” He then proceeded to tell me of his plan. At first I was completely abashed and politely but firmly declined his offer, but over the course of the next twenty minutes, he moved me from my previously resolute stance. I will admit that his idea appealed to the more carefree spirit that had possessed me in my younger days. I finally agreed to his plan and we made our arrangements.
So, it was the next day that I was walking a step behind Gillette as we entered the local police house. You might not find that particularly odd, but I should add that Gillette was wearing his deerstalker and Inverness cape. I myself was clad in one of my conservative medical suits and wearing a black bowler on my head. Approaching the front desk, Gillette rapped his walking stick on the counter-top and asked to speak to the man in charge of the Langham Hotel disappearance. I believe that every eye in the place had been turned upon us. The startled sergeant in front of us finally recovered his senses and said, “And who might you gentlemen be?”
Gillette, in his masterful voice replied, “I am Sherlock Holmes, and this is my friend and associate, Dr. Watson. We are here to assist The Yard in this disappearance matter.” My friend was absolutely amazing. Anyone who has not seen him perform his play has missed an experience of seeing the true Sherlock Holmes.
The officer was certainly confounded. I’m sure that he knew Sherlock Holmes was only a fictional detective. But there could be no doubt that the genuine article stood before him, with his faithful Boswell at his side. The poor man’s brain and eyes were certainly engaged in some kind of debate. I believe one of Holmes’ axioms won him over: ‘Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’
Still off-balance, he escorted us to a small office where a rather harried-looking inspector was sitting behind a desk piled high with papers and files. “Who the bleedin’ hell are you?” he greeted us.
Gillette again made his introductions. The inspector, whose name was Gregory, eyed us coldly. “Sherlock Holmes, eh?”
Feeling that it was time for me to play a more active role in the proceedings, I spoke up. “Yes, Inspector Gregory, Mister Holmes has thought about this matter and wants to offer his assistance to the constabulary.” I sensed that the officer was caught between tossing us into the street and listening to us as a humorous diversion. Apparently he chose the latter.
“Well gentlemen, never let it be said that The Yard refused to hear out industrious citizenry such as yourself.” With a grin he leaned back in his chair and waited for us to speak.
Gillette had removed his cap and was facing the inspector with a serious expression. “Let me lay the facts out as we know them, so that you might correct us to any errors we have gleaned from the press. Jonathon Grimshaw withdrew his bank balance of forty-one pounds on a Tuesday and came to London by rail immediately afterwards. He registered at The Langham Hotel, under his own name. That evening he attended a show at St. Michael’s. He returned to his room and changed out of his evening clothes, which were found the following morning in the room. He then utterly disappeared. No one saw him leave, though a man in the room next door said that he heard Grimshaw moving about in the room during the night. That is the case as we sit here today.”
I truly admired Gillette’s performance. His recitation of the facts was succinct and his tone of voice seemed to be exactly as I imagined Holmes’ would sound. Gregory merely nodded his head at the recounting. “Yes Mister…Holmes, it is as you say. We believe that he was abducted and robbed then the body was disposed of somewhere in or around the city. You know that undesirables watch the better hotels, looking for marks that are traveling alone and would not be missed.”
Gillette nodded his head thoughtfully. “Yes, that is one of the more unfavorable characteristics of the city. But why did the villains not abduct him on his way back from the music hall, when he was dressed in his formal clothes and likely had the money about him? And how is it that he left the hotel the following morning without anyone noticing him?”
I sensed that Gregory was no longer viewing us as some comedy pairing and was willing to seriously discuss the case. “I can’t answer those questions yet. I will admit that we are stumped at the moment. We have talked with the captain’s family and they did not have much helpful information. He had mustered out of the service about three months before and came to London to visit some former army mates. They have not heard from him.”
“Inspector Gregory, in light of the evidence before us, I think it is important that we separate what is known for certain from that which is merely conjecture.”
The policeman looked blankly at Gillette. Since the actor was in fact stating my own theory of the case, I knew what was to come next. “What Holmes is saying, inspector, is that we can’t assume that everything we think we know is actually a fact.”
“Exactly Watson,” Gillette said, nodding in my direction. Then he looked back to Gregory. “There is one item that cannot be proven, and I assert, is wrong. The fellow lodger who heard movement in Grimshaw’s room: How could he be certain? This is a very large hotel. The sounds could have come from any room. It’s also possible that he only thought he heard noises.”
Pausing for effect, he now added, “So let us suppose that Grimshaw was not heard moving about in the room during the night. Since he was not seen leaving, it is possible that he left the hotel anytime after changing out of his evening clothes.”
“But then how come no one saw him leave?” asked Gregory.
“Because he did not wish to be seen. Let us recount our ‘facts’ now. Grimshaw draws a large sum of money from his bank, comes to London alone, then sneaks out of the hotel and vanishes. Are those not the actions of a man who wishes to disappear?”
Grimshaw looked thoughtfully at both of us. “Yes, that would certainly fit the pattern of events. It would be much easier for him to lose himself in the city, rather than in the confines of his hometown. But again, I must ask how he left without being seen?”
Here Gillette looked at me. This was my cue. “You see inspector, the entrance to The Langham is closed at midnight. This is well after the theater-going crowd has returned, generally between eleven and eleven-thirty. Anyone entering or leaving after that must have the door opened by the night-porter.”
Gillette picked up the tale. “Grimshaw returns to the hotel immediately after the performance, which would have been about 10:30. He changes his clothes and waits in his room until approximately eleven. With his bag in hand, he enters the lobby, which is crowded with people in conversation. No one notices him quietly go out the door. If he had left any later, certainly a lone man with a bag, requesting that the door to be opened, would have been noticed by at least one person, if not more.”
Gillette leaned back in his chair and lit a cigarette. I was impressed with his masterful acting. Had I written up this story for Dr. Watson, it would have gone exactly as Gillette played it in the inspector’s office.
Grimshaw was now a policeman caught up in the unraveling of a case. “Your story is quite sensible Mister Holmes, but what about motive? Why would Grimshaw have done all this? Why would he disappear just at that late hour from a London hotel?”
I knew that Gillette was now going to reveal the solution to the case.
“We can accept the premise that he wished to disappear, based on the preceding. So you have hit at the key question remaining: why just before midnight?” What is the link to his presence in London and leaving the hotel when he did?”
“Simply, he had to be leaving London. If he were going to stay in London, he would not have needed to conceal himself at all. He could merely have walked out the following morning and have hidden anywhere in the city. So we can infer that he was going out of town, using a transport of some type. What transport out of London leaves around or after midnight?”
Gregory sat quietly, thinking about the question. It was once again my turn. “Holmes, I believe the Scottish Expresses leave at midnight and beyond.”
“Yes Watson. A perusal of Bradshaw’s; a resource that no criminologist should be without, inspector; shows that the Edinburgh and Glasgow trains begin departing a little after twelve o’clock. We can assume that he went to a major city. Why? Because a man departing at a provincial stop at such an early hour is bound to be noticed, and once word spread of his disappearance, someone would speak up about him. But if he stays on the train to its major destination, he can disembark with his fellow passengers and go unnoticed. I believe that if you start your inquiries at those two rail terminals, you may find his scent, though a week has passed.”
Gregory stood up, excited, totally forgetting any doubts he may have had about us. “Mister Holmes, I believe that you have hit upon it. I shall start my investigation immediately. Thank you.”
“Think nothing of it, old man. It was purely an elementary exercise in deductive reasoning. As a further clue, I would suggest that since he left his evening clothes behind, his ultimate destination involved the sort of social life where such amenities are not needed.”
“Watson and I are going to be out of town for some time. If you should find a successful conclusion to the case, I would be most grateful if you could pass the information on to Arthur Conan Doyle, Watson’s publisher, in care of The Strand magazine.”
Shaking both of our hands, he assured us that he would do so. We then departed, while the inspector rushed off to start posting telegrams.
I continued to see Gillette occasionally while he was in London performing in his play. He would inevitably greet me with “Hello Watson, how are you today?” followed by his charming laugh. Eventually he returned to America, from where he remained in periodic contact. I am happy to relate that I did receive an update from Inspector Gregory. They had caught up to the man in a small village in the Scottish highlands. It turns out that the man had indeed retired from the military, but quickly grew weary of the sedate life in a small town, and apparently the constant nagging of his rather shrewish wife did not help his disposition any. So, he decided to simply disappear and start life anew. When I passed this information on to Gillette, he congratulated me on my solving of the case. He added that I should write it up as a case for Dr. Watson some day, and suggested the title of “The Adventure of the Tired Captain.” I never did tell the tale, but I also never forgot the enjoyable day I had as a supporting actor to William Gillette, the great Sherlock Holmes.
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.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI and XXI.