My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A very mysterious story of my most favorite fictitious character of all time, Sherlock Holmes.
Watson takes Holmes to a friend's estate near Reigate in Surrey to rest after a rather strenuous case in France. Holmes finds that his services are needed here, but he also finds that his recent illness serves him well. His host is Colonel Hayter.
There has recently been a burglary at the nearby Acton estate in which the thieves stole a motley assortment of things, even a ball of twine, but nothing terribly valuable. Then one morning, the Colonel's butler tells news of a murder at another nearby estate, the Cunninghams'. The victim is William Kirwan, the coachman. Inspector Forrester has taken charge of the investigation, and there is one physical clue: a torn piece of paper found in William's hand with a few words written on it. Holmes takes an instant interest in this, seeing something that Forrester has missed: it is quite clear to Holmes that the fragment of a note was written by two men, each writing alternate words. One man is young, and the other rather older. Moreover, they are related. Holmes, an expert at studying handwriting, does not voice this or any other observation or conclusion until the end of the story. He also observes that one line says "quarter to twelve", coincidentally the time of William's murder.
One of the first facts to emerge is that there is a longstanding legal dispute between the Actons and the Cunninghams involving ownership of about half of the estate currently in the Cunninghams' hands.
Holmes spends quite a bit of time investigating and interviewing the two Cunningham men, young Alec and his ageing father. Alec tells Holmes that he saw the burglar struggling with William when a shot went off and William fell dead. The burglar ran off through a hedge to the road. The elder Cunningham claims that he was in his room smoking at the time, and Alec says that he had also still been up. Holmes knows that they are lying. No burglar with any sense would break into a house when he could see by the lit lamps that someone was still afoot. Also, William's body has no powder burns on it; so he was not shot at point-blank range as the Cunninghams claim. The escape route also does not bear their story out: there is a boggy ditch next to the road that the fleeing murderer would have had to cross, yet there are no signs of any footprints in it.
Holmes knows that it would be useful to get hold of the rest of that note found in William's hand. He believes that the murderer snatched it away from William and thrust it into his pocket, never realizing that a scrap of it was still in the murdered coachman's hand. Unfortunately, neither the police nor Holmes can get any information from William's mother, for she is quite old, deaf, and somewhat simple-minded.
Holmes puts his recent illness to use and fakes a fit just as Forrester is about to mention the one clue to the Cunninghams. He suspects that the Cunninghams know where the rest of the note is, and does not wish them to destroy it. Holmes also cunningly gets the elder Cunningham to write the word "twelve", which appears on the scrap of paper recovered from the murder scene, by deliberately making a mistake in an advertisement that Holmes tells Cunningham to publish, and asking him to correct it.
Holmes then insists on searching the Cunninghams' rooms despite their protests that the burglar, whom Holmes has by now dismissed as a fabrication, could not have gone there. He sees Alec's room and then his father's, where he deliberately knocks a small table over, sending some oranges and a water carafe to the floor. The others have not been looking his way at the time, and Holmes implies that the cause is Watson's clumsiness. Watson plays along and starts grovelling about to gather up scattered oranges.
Everyone then notices that Holmes has left the room. Moments later, there are cries of "murder" and "help". Watson recognizes his friend's voice. He and Forrester rush to Alec's room where they find Alec trying to throttle Holmes and his father apparently twisting Holmes's wrist. The Cunninghams are quickly restrained, and Holmes tells Forrester to arrest the two for murdering William Kirwan. At first, Forrester thinks Holmes must be mad, but Holmes draws his attention to the looks on their faces – very guilty. After a revolver is knocked out of Alec's hand, the two are arrested. The gun, of course, is the one used to murder William, and it is seized.
Holmes has found the rest of the note, still in Alec's dressing gown pocket. It runs thus (the words in boldface are the ones on the original scrap):
"If you will only come round at quarter to twelveto the east gate you will learn whatwill very much surprise you and maybe [sic]
be of the greatest service to you and alsoto Annie Morrison. But say nothing to anyoneupon the matter."
The elder Cunningham's confidence is broken after his arrest and he tells all. It seems that William followed his two employers the night they broke into the Acton estate (Holmes has already deduced that it was they, in pursuit of documents supporting Mr. Acton's legal claim, which they did not find). William then proceeded to blackmail his employers – not realizing that it was dangerous to do such a thing to Alec – and they thought to use the recent burglary scare as a plausible way of getting rid of him. With a bit more attention paid to detail, they might very well have evaded all suspicion.
Considering the day and age in which these stories were written this is a very good and intriguing mystery. The Serials like CSI, Bones relies heavily on forensics. Serials like monk, mentalist, castle etc relies on hunches and unexplained guess work of leads. But todays VFX graphics movie generation will not be able to appreciate the mystery.
A very satisfying read. Must read for all those who like a good mystery. What sets apart Sherlock Holmes form Poirot, Miss Marple, Feluda, Byomkesh Bakshi and many others is that he explains everything logically. Holmes doesn’t rely on intuition, hunches or so called intelligent guess work. Holmes is the best.