by James Chase
Studies of Sherlock Holmes ideally involve a balancing act between sensationalism and sobriety. But the balance is hard to keep, and many people sooner or later fall, with every sign of enjoyment, on the sensationalist side. Holmes was really a woman. Watson was really a bigamist alcoholic. Moriarty was really a vampire. Theories of this kind reduce Holmes to a slightly more plausible version of Nick Carter, and this may be enjoyable once or twice, but it palls after a very short while. The problem with sensationalist scholarship is that it floats far too free of the Canon. Effective Holmes scholarship, by contrast, grounds itself as far as possible on two certitudes: the general accuracy of Watson (events really happened the way Watson said they did), and the general infallibility of Holmes (Holmes really was an astonishing reasoner). For me, at least, the real enjoyment in this field is found in the struggle to shield these verities from the (sometimes lethal) effects of a close reading of the Canon.
On occasion, however, close reading leads to apparent contradictions or absurdities, and one or the other of the two certitudes has to buckle slightly in order for the other to be preserved. The choice here reveals the temperament of the scholar. Most seem to prefer questioning Watson's version of events. Thus Ronald Knox, for instance, famously argued from the general infallibility of Holmes to the inaccuracy of Watson's account in the Return stories. And there is good reason for taking this line: not all of the interpretative difficulties in the stories relate to Holmes, but all of them arise out of claims Watson makes as narrator. Notwithstanding this authority, I prefer the other direction in most cases. To question Watson's recollection seems to me a dangerous strategy, one which undermines the fabric of the Canon itself. By contrast, the Canon contains many recognised instances of Holmes getting things wrong, and it is strong enough to bear a few more.
‘The Reigate Squires' (a.k.a ‘The Reigate Puzzle') has always been one of my favourite Holmes stories. However, certain inconsistencies and obscurities have recently emerged in what had always seemed to me an entirely limpid narrative. I have tried to ignore them but they have redoubled, to the point where something has had to be done. In the following section I will set out the points where it seems to me that things go wrong. There are enough of these, I think, for this to count as a serious case, in which we have to impugn either Watson's recollection or Holmes's reasoning. In section III I offer a reconstruction of events which preserves consistency by finding Holmes at fault. For the reasons I have given above, I regard this as the best way to save matters, although I am aware many will take a different view. There are obstacles to any resolution of the problem; the suggestion I make decreases, rather than dispels, them.
There are at least six prima facie difficulties with the account of Holmes's work given in ‘The Reigate Squires'. Some directly involve deductions made by Holmes; others call his reasoning into question indirectly, as they suggest Holmes's solution to the case cannot be right. In the order they arise in the story, they are as follows:
(1) The point of the break-in
Buildings are broken into (and goods stolen) a number of times in the Canon, and the consequences of such events form much of Holmes's work. In fact, we can divide break-ins into four clear types, each of which finds some mention in the Canon. The first type are those break-ins where the goods stolen are obviously valuable, and their value is in fact the reason for the break-in. This is common-or-garden burglary, too straightforward to play the major plot role in a Canonical story, but occasionally present in the background explanation of matters (as in ‘The Blue Carbuncle'). The second type are those break-ins where the goods stolen are obviously valuable, but they have been taken as a blind to mask the real reason for the break-in (consider the silverware in ‘The Abbey Grange'). The third type are those break-ins where the goods stolen aren't obviously valuable, but turn out to really be so, even if only to the villain (as in ‘The Three Gables', or ‘The Six Napoleons'). Finally, we have break-ins where the goods stolen aren't obviously valuable, but have some temporary instrumental value to the burglar (such as the dumbell in ‘The Valley of Fear' and the key in ‘The Crooked Man').
Into which of these categories, however, does the collection taken from Acton by the Cunninghams fall? They allegedly take a barometer, candlesticks, a letter-weight, a ball of twine and an odd volume of Pope's Homer. The problem is obvious. If you wish to give the impression of ordinary burglary, you take something valuable (and then Holmes finds it in the duckpond where you abandoned it, if he has his suspicions). If you take something odd and not obviously valuable, it must be valuable after all or have some use for you. Taking predominantly odd things to suggest an ordinary burglary is not remotely plausible. And even if the Cunninghams thought it would be, it is hard to see how Holmes can rely as confidently as he does on their having had this unlikely view. Holmes tries to gloze over this by saying that the Cunninghams took the first things they could lay their hands on, but the heavily ransacked state of the library indicates that their hands moved around quite a bit. Surely two gentleman burglars could have taken something more plausibly valuable than an oak barometer or a ball of twine (I have always wondered, by the way, how the household knew that a ball of twine had been stolen).
So it seems that if the Cunninghams committed the burglary, it cannot have been, as Holmes seems to think, a type two burglary. Since the goods taken (with the possible exception of the plated candlesticks) were not obviously valuable, it cannot have been a type one burglary either. Either Pope's Homer et al were really useful or valuable to the Cunninghams, or the Cunninghams did not commit the burglary.
(2) Alec Cunningham's story and Holmes's deduction
Holmes, in his discussion of his reasoning with Watson and Colonel Hayter, begins by pointing out a feature of Alec Cunningham's account which had struck him as immediately suspicious:
Before going into this, I would draw your attention to the fact that, if Alec Cunningham's narrative was correct, and if the assailant, after shooting William Kirwan, had instantly fled, then it obviously could not be he who tore the paper from the dead man's hand. But if it was not he, it must have been Alec Cunningham himself, for by the time that the old man had descended several servants were upon the scene.
So Holmes's a priori reasoning, on which he suspects the Cunninghams from the very start, is based on Cunningham having said that the assailant had fled 'instantly'; that is, without having time to grab a paper in the hand of someone he is in touching range of. The trouble is that Alec Cunningham never says anything of the kind. Here is the evidence on point, from Inspector Forrester; clearly the narrative that Holmes is referring back to:
They both heard William, the coachman, calling for help, and Mr. Alec ran down to see what was the matter. The back door was open, and as he came to the foot of the stairs he saw two men wrestling together outside. One of them fired a shot, the other dropped, and the murderer rushed across the garden and over the hedge.
The narrative doesn't bear the weight of Holmes's reasoning, which is so dependent on instant flight that the word 'instantly' is italicised in Watson's account (suggesting Holmes is quoting in using it). A bare half-second's delay by the murderer would suffice to grab the paper.
One might then assume that not Forrester's account but the first interview between Holmes and the Cunninghams (which happens without Watson or Colonel Hayter present) is where the word 'instantly' was used or agreed to. But this is hard to reconcile with Holmes's later discussion, which assumes Colonel Hayter and Watson both knew the narrative he refers to. Inspector Forrester was present in the off-stage interview, and if Holmes was presenting his deductions to an audience including him, the quote above might be made sensible. But unfortunately when this conversation takes place, Forrester is himself off-stage processing the villains. So the difficulty is not so easy to fix.
Yet even if the difficulty is fixed, and we can find a way to assume Alec Cunningham had said 'instantly' in front of Holmes, Hayter and Watson, Holmes's deduction remains entirely invalid. Cunningham said that the two men were 'wrestling together'; the sheet of paper could have been snatched at any time in their struggle before the shot. Holmes has made a bad blunder. There was no reason to suspect the Cunninghams from the outset.
(3) An inconsistency in the evidence
The fake burglary at the Cunningham's is in one place referred to as involving a break-in via the pantry window, and elsewhere is referred to as involving a break-in via the back door. As different speakers make these statements (Hayter's butler, versus Forrester and the Cunninghams), perhaps one (the butler, surely) is merely misinformed. Oddly, Holmes never seems to notice the inconsistency.
(4) The letter fragment and Holmes's deductions
The deductions Holmes makes from the letter fragment are not cogent.
For a start, the 'family mannerisms' deduction Holmes makes is certainly doubtful; notoriously, people share handwriting with others in their educational cohort, rather than their family lineage. Still, grant this and Holmes's ability to detect the age of a writer for the moment. These might (like the elixir of youth in ‘The Creeping Man') be aspects of Victorian science we have since lost. The central problem is with Holmes's inference that Alec Cunningham was the ringleader of the affair.
Holmes reasons soundly that the darker handwriting was the first on the page (as the other, lighter, handwriting had to cramp up to fill the spaces), and then concludes that the darker handwriting belonged to the ringleader of the murder, on the principle that the deviser of the paper ruse would be the first to write on the paper, rather than ordering the other to start the letter. The principle is obviously false, and a non sequitur is the result. But suppose the principle were true. Then Holmes can only conclude that the ringleader in the plan of doing double-writing was the person with the darker hand. This person, of course, might not be the ringleader in the scheme as a whole, but with a second logical leap Holmes arrives at this conclusion.
The problem isn't just that Holmes makes leaps of this kind; it is that the principles he espouses should have lead him in the opposite direction. If Holmes is correct when he says:
Obviously the business was a bad one, and one of the men who distrusted the other was determined that, whatever was done, each should have an equal hand in it
then what follows (if his earlier logical leap is excused) is that the darker handwriting belonged to the party that distrusted the other more. But now the previous detection of age from handwriting actually works against the conclusion that the Cunninghams are involved. Holmes has character evidence that Alec is more hot-headed and erratic than his father, and less likely to keep his cool. Of the two of them, then, the father should have less confidence in the son's subsequent actions than vice versa. Holmes thus has evidence that if the Cunninghams were involved, the father was the ringleader in the matter of the note. So, by the doubtful principle above, endorsed by Holmes, the father would have written first. But (by the lost Victorian science of age detection) the darker handwriting belongs to the younger of the two writers.
(5) The point of the double-written letter
The device of the double-written letter is hard to understand at all. Why on earth would the Cunninghams do such a thing? If one is captured, the police don't have to look far for the other. Suspicion would descend on the family as a whole, given the dispute between the family and Acton. It might be understandable if they were people who were not otherwise connected, but even then a second difficulty arises. They take a huge risk that William Kirwan will smell a rat when he gets the letter, and notices that two people have written it. The double handwriting is so very marked that we have the following passage:
"My dear sir," cried Holmes, "there cannot be the least doubt in the world that it has been written by two persons doing alternate words."...
and we can see for ourselves the obviousness of it. If they want to lure Kirwan in a way that involves both of them, the Cunninghams would be better advised to have one write the letter and the other leave a thumb print on it, or something. This point leads immediately on to the next.
(6) The obtuseness of Kirwan
Kirwan is the employee of the Cunninghams. There is evidence that his family has been in their employ for a generation at least, as Kirwan, a coachman, lives in the lodge rather than above the stables, and his aged mother lives with him (additionally, there is evidence he knows the local postman well - see below). Kirwan has presumably grown up with father and son Cunningham, and perhaps the grandfather too. He is not illiterate (he reads notes) and must surely be familiar with the writing of each of the Cunninghams. This could be not only in his job as a coachman, but also as a lodgekeeper, a position that would involve some estate paperwork. Kirwan may not be the lodgekeeper, but then the fact he lives in the lodge with his mother suggests that his father was lodgekeeper before him, in which case he would have grown up around samples of writing from the Cunningham family. This point is strengthened if Holmes's 'family mannerisms' inference goes through, as then there is the evidence of the Cunningham grandfather's handwriting to his father as well.
That the Cunninghams have not disguised their hands is clear from Holmes's other sample of the father's writing (the correction on the reward note), and from his ability to use the 'family mannerisms' inference at all. Now, all of this suggests that the Cunninghams have every reason to think Kirwan can tell their handwriting. Why did they then send him the note in undisguised handwriting? Why, receiving it, did he not suspect it? His employers, who he was apparently blackmailing, wanted him to meet them alone at night, and had sent him a note via the village post-office; certainly suggestive of an attempt to deceive him. And why on earth did he bring the letter with him to the meeting place, after going to some trouble, as we learn from Forrester, to destroy the envelope? If Holmes is right then Kirwan's actions make no sense.
These problems, left unanswered, seem to me to make a nonsense of Holmes's reasoning. On some points he certainly makes bad inferences ((2) and (4)); elsewhere his reasoning implausibly assumes the villains and their victim to have behaved like idiots. The fact that the Cunninghams behave in a guilty manner once accused certainly suggests Holmes has caught the right people, but no more. So Holmes seems to have caught the right people for the wrong reasons. But what then is the real story behind the shooting of Kirwan?
Let us start our inquiry about what really happened by noting that a great deal of the final account is dependent on the say-so of father Cunningham, after his capture. If we can find good reason for him to have lied, then we may well be justified in departing from his version of what happened. If, additionally, doing so can repair any of the above difficulties, then we are better off, I argue, taking that course.
Consider the character of the victim, William Kirwan. What do we know about him? Forrester says that he has the reputation of an honest man, and describes him as a faithful fellow. True, father Cunningham says he is a blackmailer, but then he is charged with Kirwan's murder, and it is in his interest to blacken the man as much as possible. Forrester's disinterested appraisal seems more likely to be true then a self-interested account of this kind.
This exhausts direct character testimony, but we can draw some inferences beyond this. As noted in (6) above, Kirwan's family seem to be old retainers of the Cunninghams. He can read, which, given that he is from the village and not a town, is an accomplishment of sorts (he would have learned his letters in the 1870's or early 1880's). He does not go out drinking, but is in bed by ten most nights, making his late appointment most out of character. He lives alone with his mother.
What else do we know? Here I draw your attention to the following very remarkable part of the account:
"The note was sent to William. The man who wrote it could not have taken it; otherwise, of course, he might have delivered his own message by word of mouth. Who brought the note, then? Or did it come through the post?"
How is it known that Kirwan destroyed the envelope? Twice in the story it is mentioned that they can get nothing out of Kirwan's feeble-minded and distraught mother. Holmes mentions the postman as the source of Forrester's general information here, and Forrester does not contradict him. I think we can conclude that the afternoon postman knew Kirwan destroyed the envelope, and that Kirwan was home at the lodge when he arrived. Kirwan 'destroyed' the envelope - presumably, he did not merely discard it, then. How can you destroy an envelope? If he had cut it to pieces, or eaten it, the postman would presumably have mentioned such an odd event. Fire is the only obvious alternative. Hence Kirwan had a fire going in the afternoon, and the postman (presumably well-known to them, since the Kirwans are local people) being invited inside, saw him toss the envelope, but not the letter, onto the fire. This is the only way we can get the postman, the fire and Kirwan together at once.
Now, two things are odd about this. First, ‘The Reigate Squires' commences narration on 14th April 1887, although by my count (and consulting a calendar reckoner) the murder happens on the night of Tuesday 25th April- Wednesday 26th April 1887. Hence the postman's visit occurs in the afternoon of Tuesday, 25th April, a week before May day. Could there be need for a fire in the afternoon of such a day? The average temperature on April afternoons in Reigate these days is around 10 degrees Celsius; certainly, a fire wouldn't be unreasonable. But 1887, the year of ‘The Reigate Squires', happened to be an unusually warm year: the fourth warmest day in January in Britain since records began happened in 1887 (on the 29th of January 1887, at Montrose, Tayside it reached 17.6'C). That certainly suggests April 1887 was not at the tail of a cold winter. In fact, an early spring seems much more likely. The second odd thing is that, the day being a Tuesday, Kirwan presumably ought be at work in the stables in the afternoon. Yet he is home. A natural conclusion from Kirwan's being home with a fire in the afternoon of a work day is that he might be unwell. Taken with what we know of Kirwan above (an early sleeper, needs a mother's care, etc) we form the image of a reasonably fragile young man, perhaps with some constitutional defect; certainly not an adventurous man. So it is difficult to believe that, as Cunningham claims, Kirwan would have secretly followed his employers late the previous Monday to see their actions at Acton's. As an early sleeper, why would he have been up to notice their movements? And if he was up and did notice them, would such a man go out across miles of country behind them, more or less on a whim?
Assume, then, that Cunningham is trying to save his neck when he calls Kirwan a blackmailer, and that Kirwan is in fact innocent of that charge. We know he would recognise the Cunningham family handwriting, and thus there is no reason or sense in him having received the double-writing letter from them. Yet he received something in the mail. It is admittedly conjecture, but it does save the difficulties about the note in (5) and (6) above if we assume that Kirwan received a note from a third party - call him X - enclosing the double-writing letter, and asking him what he thought about it. Kirwan then would have recognised the handwriting of his employers, and realised that his friend X was being set up. Being an honest man, he went to the rendezvous himself to upbraid his employers and confront them with the note, and was shot by mistake for X. The Cunninghams, realising what they had done, snatched the note from his hand, and frantically followed their previous plan of disguising murder with burglary.
Who was X? Note, first, that it is most unlikely that the Cunninghams were the actual burglars of Acton's house (on pain of (1) above). They certainly knew enough of the world to know that the collection of objects taken were not valuable enough to serve as a blind, and in any case old Cunningham seems an unlikely burglar. Moreover, there is no evidence that more than one person burgled Acton's - indeed, the objects taken seem about the right amount of booty for one to carry. Hence one person carried out the burglary as an agent of the Cunninghams. The simplest explanation is that this person was X, and that the Cunninghams, by the ruse of the letter, were trying to get rid of X to avoid future blackmail. Had X found the document, of course, Acton's claim would have been crippled, and the Cunninghams would have been rich men, able to recompense X; his failure to find the document left them poor, and unable to meet the ongoing demands of a blackmailer in the future. X clearly lives in the district (he's a friend of Kirwan, he knows the 'east gate' referred to in the letter, and he's interested in the presumably local Annie Morrison), and is not especially well educated about the value of a volume of Pope's Homer, ivory letter-weights and oak barometers (his burglary lapse). I think we can uncover X if we consider one final piece of information.
Remember difficulty (3) above. Hayter's butler gets the entry point of the mock burglars wrong (pantry window instead of door). Moreover, he knows that Kirwan never spoke after being shot, whereas the best evidence available then was Alec Cunningham's statement that Kirwan never spoke again after Alec had run up to Kirwan. The butler seems to know more than he ought. Following historical precedent, I conjecture that the butler did it. Hayter's butler is X, and followed behind Kirwan (no doubt at Kirwan's suggestion) to listen to Kirwan talk to the Cunningham's, and to come out if all seemed all right. Horrified, he saw Alec Cunningham murder Kirwan in mistake for himself, and die without saying a word. Moreover, he could overhear the Cunningham's frantic deliberations about the mock burglary. His early escape back to Hayter's explains why he thought the pantry-window was the entry point for the mock burglar - the Cunninghams had hastily considered a plan of changing to the window, before deciding to stick with the door. Presumably they equivocated between setting things up such that Kirwan was shot as a suspected burglar (in which case the pantry window would be more appropriate, as Kirwan would know it to be more vulnerable to entry than the solid back door), and the scheme they eventually settled on, in which a suspected burglar shot Kirwan.
Reflecting that night on the event, the butler surely realised it was in his interests to keep quiet, and to escape at the earliest possibility from the region. This escape turned out not to be necessary, as Holmes captured the Cunninghams almost immediately. Moreover, it is easy to see why the role of Hayter's butler was never mentioned subsequently by old man Cunningham. Cunningham doubtless calculated that his chances of avoiding hanging were greater if he agreed with Holmes's mistaken deductions than if he brought the butler into it, as on either account he could be charged for the breaking and entering of Acton's (once as a principal, once as an accessory), yet only on Holmes's account would he be charged with murdering a loathsome blackmailer instead of the upstanding man Kirwan actually was.
The reconstruction given above does away with problems (1), (3), (5) and (6). The other two difficulties, being logical errors Holmes makes in front of us, seem to me impossible to save. Yet we are bound to look for mitigatory evidence, as we know Holmes to have been, in general, an amazingly capable reasoner. And in this case, the obvious explanation is close at hand. We know that the entire episode took place while Holmes was in an invalid state, and that his association with the case was frowned on by Watson; it is only to be expected, therefore, that although right in general, Holmes muffs the details. Moreover, although the evidence available to him could not have supported the reasoning he used, surely the double-writing letter gave Holmes some assurance that the Cunninghams were not telling the truth, and from that point he could let his own reputation, and the nervousness of the Cunninghams, lead them to an obviously guilty act. The explanation to Watson and Hayter is then presumably a piece of showmanship, in which Holmes attempts, on the fly, to preserve his reputation for brilliance.
Still, the whole incident confirms that Holmes was culpable indeed in not following up the 'Annie Morrison' clue. A few minutes work would surely have revealed that she was 'walking out' with Hayter's butler, and not with William Kirwan.