It was in the summer of ’89, not long after my marriage, that the events occurred which I am now about to summarise. I had returned to civil practice and had finally abandoned Holmes in his Baker Street rooms, although I continually visited him and occasionally even persuaded him to forgo his Bohemian habits so far as to come and visit us.
The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb is a story that I tend to neglect. This is probably for no other reason than that Watson has moved out so visibly. I mean he’s moved out for most of the other stories, too, but in this one, he actually says it. For some reason, I prefer the idea of Holmes and Watson sharing digs at 221B.
However, there is something remarkable about this story, too: There is a very dark undertone to this story.
For one, we have Watson involved, no fault of his (but he’s not stopping it either), with a rather dodgy, erm, … “agent”, who brings him new patients.
One morning, at a little before seven o’clock, I was awakened by the maid tapping at the door to announce that two men had come from Paddington and were waiting in the consulting-room. I dressed hurriedly, for I knew by experience that railway cases were seldom trivial, and hastened downstairs. As I descended, my old ally, the guard, came out of the room and closed the door tightly behind him.
“I’ve got him here,” he whispered, jerking his thumb over his shoulder; “he’s all right.” “What is it, then?” I asked, for his manner suggested that it was some strange creature which he had caged up in my room.
“It’s a new patient,” he whispered. “I thought I’d bring him round myself; then he couldn’t slip away. There he is, all safe and sound. I must go now, Doctor; I have my dooties, just the same as you.”
And off he went, this trusty tout, without even giving me time to thank him.
I was seriously wondering if ACD was pulling our leg with this one, because, to me, there was a distinct hint of Burke & Hare in this, except that Watson’s patients were … alive.
Was this common practice in ACD’s day? Like a warped early version of ambulance chasing?
For another, we have the main story, which is probably more akin to a Gothic horror classic, than your typical Sherlock Holmes mystery:
A man has his thump chopped off with a meat cleaver while escaping certain death from a ceiling that has been engineered to lower and squash everything beneath it.
I had to read this twice, because I thought my mind was playing tricks on me and I had for some reason ended up with a story by Edgar Allan Poe.
I threw myself, screaming, against the door, and dragged with my nails at the lock. I implored the colonel to let me out, but the remorseless clanking of the levers drowned my cries.
And if that was not unsettling enough, the ending leaves even more room for nightmares.
Overall, this was a thrill of a story, even if I had to roll my eyes at some of the nationalist sentiments in this story, which is not something that often comes up in the Holmes canon. At least, not until the later stories…in which they are somewhat justified. Somewhat, but not altogether.
(I was glad I had a reading blanket at hand, much like Holmes above. This was an unsettling read. Did you really think I’d write this without adding a picture of JB?)