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Translated by Josie Sohn.
My Dear Watson,
This is my first letter to you since I came down to Southsea. I owe our friendship to your remarkable patience that bears with my negligence. I have received all your letters. It worries me that your new practice in Paddington is not as busy as it should be. You are not very particular about seeing patients with unusual maladies as I am with my clients, are you?
I vividly remember the days we chased after villains through the thick London fog. The wild chase after the Agra treasure down the Thames, the brain game with Miss Irene Adler concerning the scandal in the kingdom of Bohemia, the mystery of the Red-headed League… As for where I am, there is sweet Fanny Adams. What use to me would be a garden path full of flowers in bloom, the pebble beach, or the cool ocean breeze? I came here for a change of air at your suggestion – I shall refrain from calling it a threat, as you have nothing to gain – but my health has not improved at all. As in London, here, too, the vicious cycle of tedium and cocaine ever repeats itself.
That is right. I could not help but turn to cocaine again. I can almost see your eyebrows rise. You need not use such a professional jargon as a “living cadaver”. I can very well feel how cocaine affects my already wrecked body and soul. But, what can I do? My mind rebels at stagnation. My accursed brain requires constant stimulation. If only I can find a problem that excites me at this very moment! I will get up at once and undergo three days of sleepless investigation, and, on the morning of the fourth day, knock out the ape of a crook who is a pugilist, no less, with a single blow. The boredom of life has, however, turned me into a fair damsel fresh out of a finishing school. Ah! my life is an endless struggle against the dull routine of existence.
Watson, to tell you the truth, I regret the death of Professor Moriarty in the corner of my heart. This is, of course, not how a discerning citizen should think. It is no doubt for the good of all that the treacherous villain is done away with. It is nonetheless difficult to deny that London has ever since become a city that is as dull as its grey fog. London used to be the best place in Europe for scientists who studied the world of crime, but it has now become a quiet country whose virtue lies in its banality. The era of great crimes has passed, and now, creativity and romance are forever lost in the world of crime.
Moriarty. He was the archenemy of my life and the ballast that added weight to my being at the same time. I struggled desperately to keep my head above water so long as the ballast was tied to my ankle, but now that I have been freed from the weight, I am sinking sheer to the bottom of the river. If only I had fallen into the Reichenbach Fall, I would have fought with the man under the water and met my end then and there…
I pray you, forgive my complaints. A man whose mind and body are enfeebled is given to exaggerating his plight. To add a word of excuse, I could in no way follow your prescription of having three square meals here at Mrs Martha’s boarding house. As you are well aware, I permit myself as little food as possible to refine the faculties when I work on intricate and interesting cases. Well, Mrs Martha’s food gives me an endless illusion of working on such intricate and interesting cases. I do not intend to insult the good-natured and hardworking Mrs Martha. It is more probable that I have long been in the habit of having Mrs Hudson’s cold cuts of roast partridge or chicken curry. Please give my regards to Mrs Hudson if you ever run across her at Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes is cursed for the rest of his life with an inability to satisfy that which is as simple as gustation all thanks to Mrs Hudson.
I do nothing but complain, and in my first letter to you, no less. To whom else but you in this world can I pour out my heart like this? Or with whom else shall I desire to share the joy of breaking free from deathly stillness? Ha-ha! That is right, Watson. If your observation has improved by any measure, you would have noticed that this “living cadaver” quetches in far too refined a manner. The vicious cycle of boredom and cocaine has plagued me only until recently, and I am as good as new now. If you were here with me, you would see my eyes flashing again like a hawk’s. It was, as it always has been, a new case that helped me forget the needles. A very interesting and singular case indeed.
My dear Watson, you have been good enough to chronicle my trifling experiences all this time. Your collection of those trivial cases will not, however, be complete without this one that has rescued Holmes out of the bottomless mire of lassitude. I will then describe the cold facts of what has taken place here in detail for your undertaking. It is bound to be a dry record, but you will find it all the more useful for exercising your talent as a storyteller. You have never failed to elevate my simple methods, which are no more than a congeries of common sense, to sheer genius, though it is a pity that you have occasionally embellished such instructive case studies into sensational and shallow street stories by discounting the faculties of deduction and logical synthesis to gratify the popular taste.
On last April 14, I had a half-hearted lunch and buried myself in an armchair, still in my dressing gown. It was, as usual, a depressing, drab, dull, and clammy afternoon. I was feeling even more wretched because of a bizarre dream that I had the night before. In the dream, I was an old encyclopaedia sitting on a mantelpiece under a blanket of dust. Some ambrosia beetles appeared and began gnawing me away. They belched to their heart’s content. The sound hovered around my ears all day long. Chomp, burp, chomp, burp… I picked up my violin, but I could not think of a single harmonious tune. So I raked and scraped the bow against the strings as the vertigo of dizzying thoughts led me. It must have sounded dreadful. When I heard footsteps running up the stairs in haste, I supposed that poor Mrs Martha had her fill of the dissonance. But the one who opened the door and jumped in was a young constable from the village. He saluted as he fought for breath, with his face completely flushed.
“Mr Holmes, we have a problem. Inspector Martin is requesting your immediate assistance.”
“Has Mrs Lexington’s Siamese cat disappeared again?”
“No, sir, it’s murder. We have a murder!”
The constable, with freckles on the bridge of his nose, almost let out a shout of joy. It must have been the first time he came across a murder case in this village.
“It is really a most peculiar case. A doctor who had been boarding at Mrs Forrester’s was killed while the door and all the windows were locked from the inside. The murderer simply disappeared into thin air!”
I put the violin away and, for the first time in a long time, rubbed the palms of my hands. I had not felt my hands for so long that they felt strange. The suspect disappeared…
“It is indeed peculiar. Let us head out.”
I put on my ulster and left the house with the constable. The drizzly sky of the night before had cleared, and clusters of gorse were in bloom in the heathy meadow. You used to tell me that appreciating nature is not one of my strong suits. Had you not also said that I get a change of air only when I turn my attention away from the villains in the city to those in the country? I could not help but look forward to finding out about this villain who turned up in this peaceful country village of all places.
We walked for about thirty minutes and arrived at Mrs Forrester’s. It was a two-storey house that stood alone by a creek at some distance from the main road.
“In which room did the murder take place?”
“There on the second floor, Mr Holmes.”
I looked up to find the wooden shutters closed shut. I inspected round the house as customary before entering the scene of the murder. There was a stream of about four metres in width below the windows that wrapped around the house like a moat. It was difficult to tell how deep the turbid water ran.
“Is the stream always so murky?”
“It is usually so because it carries mud from the upstream. It looks a bit cloudier than usual because of last night’s rain.”
If the suspect jumped down from one of the windows and ran away, he should have left footprints as it had rained. However, I could not find any trace of footprints or a hansom even after doing a thorough search along the creek across from the house. It was evident that the suspect did not escape this way or was intelligent enough to hide his footprints by walking away from the site in water.
I went inside the house as there was nothing left for me to learn from the outside. Inspector Martin and Mrs Forrester were standing with a grave look on their faces at the door of the room in question on the second floor.
“Thank you for coming, Mr Holmes. We are very fortunate to have you here. This is a baffling case indeed. We must rely on your reputation.”
“You are very kind, Inspector. I would be even more honoured to have you rely, if at all, on my ability than fame.”
The fellow might be silver-tongued, but he is a typical rustic clad in the armour of prejudice and obstinacy. Inspector Martin, to introduce him briefly, is a very picture of our old friend Inspector Lestrade. He is not only equally dark-eyed and ferret-like but also devoid of reason and short of imagination. It is a pity that the man does not share Lestrade’s bulldog tenacity, which is his saving grace.
The boarding room on the second floor was of moderate size and neat. The furniture in the sitting area was old but kept well. In front of the fireplace, a man of large build sat huddled with his head down on an antique rosewood desk. There was a pool of blood that had trickled down from the open wound on the right side of his neck.
“Inspector, do we know anything about the man?”
“About him? Why, sir, the whole of London will turn upside down when they hear the news. This may shock you, Mr Holmes. He is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.”
Inspector Martin lifted his chin and spoke as if he were declaring the Magna Charta. I was, of course, not shocked.
“Who is this Conan Doyle?”
The inspector stared at me aghast. The look on his face reminded me of yours when I told you that I did not know whether the sun moved round the earth or the earth round the sun. Thanks to this, I had to listen to the inspector explain, sputtering profusely, about the man named Conan Doyle before the investigation could proceed. Inspector Martin seemed to feel a grave sense of responsibility and take a curious pride in the fact that a well-known figure was murdered in his jurisdiction.
He was, to be brief, a physician who studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh but became more famous as a writer of popular detective novels. Fiddlesticks! Why the deuce should I know the man? As you are well aware, my over-stacked library contains no such category as literature. How will a child’s play like detective fiction, of all things, inspire Sherlock Holmes? I shall not fill the precious attic of my brain with such impractical knowledge. Sir Arthur might have written a detective novel or two for all I know, but what I can infer is that the man was undoubtedly a mediocre physician. Think about it. How idle should a doctor with his own practice be to write such threepenny novels? Ah! my apologies. Pray do not misconstrue, as I was not alluding to you. My dear doctor, please accept my deepest condolences if perhaps it is the passing of a fellow physician of yours that I am relating to you now.
Mrs Forrester detailed to me how this “eminent” author was discovered dead. The night before his death, Sir Arthur had asked her after dinner not to let anyone in until he called as he intended to write in quiet. The next morning, Mrs Forrester took his morning tea up to his room but found the door locked. She supposed that he was sleeping in, but he did not stir well past the lunch hour. Mrs Forrester became worried and peeked in through the keyhole. It was only then that she found Sir Arthur huddled in a pool of blood on his desk. Terrified, she ran straight to the police. Inspector Martin and the constable came along and pulled down the door. Sir Arthur had been dead, stabbed in the carotid artery by a sharp object. The inspector looked at the scene and decided that it was a murder. It was clear that Sir Arthur died instantly in his chair although the weapon could not be found anywhere in the room. There was indeed nothing but an empty leather sheath lying on the desk. Where then do you suppose the suspect disappeared to with the door and the windows being locked from the inside of the room?
“If it is murder, do you have any hunches as to who the suspects are?”
“As for the suspects, there might be more than we can ever count.”
Inspector Martin told me a rather absurd story. Sir Arthur supposedly gained immense popularity by publishing a magazine series that featured a certain detective until a few years ago. Then, he suddenly killed this exceedingly popular detective in a waterfall accident and brought the series to an end. The readers, I gather, raised a hue and cry for a long time. Many funerals were held in London for the death of this fictional character. The publisher received a massive load of letters of complaint. Sir Arthur was harassed by endless threats that demanded him to restore the detective back to life… (Indeed, strange things have happened while I was away from London to evade the cronies of Professor Moriarty!) According to Mrs Forrester, his followers, livid with anger, came all the way here even until quite recently.
Can you believe it, Watson? It is still not so surprising if you consider how commonplace it is to see irrational things happen in our lives. People are liable to turn a blind eye to the fact that everyday life is far stranger than any creation of the human imagination. They are instead obsessed with such banal, futile, and utterly predictable rubbish as novels. It is indeed beyond anyone to suppress the desire of the hoi polloi to cling to fantasy. Well, I suppose it is healthier than depending on cocaine.
“We found this in the pocket of Sir Arthur’s dressing gown. It may be another piece of evidence.”
Inspector Martin handed me a piece of paper that had been folded crosswise. It was spotted with blood and the ink was partly blurred by water, but the message was legible if you can call it a message.
534 C2 13 127 36 31 4 17 21 41 109 293 5 37 26 9 47 171
“Mr Holmes, I am positive that this is a blackmail written in code.”
“Right. It is a ghastly set of numbers.”
Naturally, Inspector Martin’s conviction was not worth a second thought. The purpose of blackmailing is to deliver a threat, directly and unmistakably, but a letter as cryptic as this one could never alarm a person wanting in intelligence.
I could put my magnifying glass and tape measure to work only after I finished giving him a lengthy explanation. I examined the fireplace behind the desk first. There was a heap of still-warm ashes.
“Mrs Forrester, Sir Arthur must have disliked the cold. Do you always use the fireplace at this time of the year?”
“No, it was only last night that he asked me to light the fireplace. He said it was clammy because of the rain.”
Sir Arthur must have been attacked while he was working on a manuscript at the desk with his back to the fireplace. His left hand was holding a swan quill pen firmly as if to illustrate the moment of his death, and his head rested on a stack of light amber papers like a paperweight. On a sheet of now bloodstained paper, he had written a title called “The Adventure of the Empty House” in large letters followed by a single line of text: “All London was dismayed by the murder of the Honourable Ronald Adair under most unusual and inexplicable circumstances…” The last sentence he wrote in this life produced a grotesque scene in his death. He had evidently meant to resume the detective series. I eliminated the zealous readers – those gifted with the remarkable ability to confound reality and fiction by suturing them carefully – from the list of suspects. Sir Arthur, after all, was killed right at the moment of resuscitating the sleuth whom he had killed himself. Could it be that the murderer protested the resurrection of the detective vehemently enough to kill the author?
The desk was neatly organised. There was a small ink bottle to the right of the paper stack and the previously mentioned leather sheath by his head. The missing dagger should have been about fifteen centimetres in length, and the width of the sheath matched the wound on Sir Arthur’s neck. The angle of the wound suggested that the murderer stood behind Sir Arthur and stabbed his neck while he was writing. When I stood in the position of the suspect, one of the windows that I had seen from outside came directly into my view. It was about three metres away. I noticed that the shutters were locked while the window itself was left wide open from the inside.
“Inspector, did you find that window open inside with the shutters locked when you arrived here?”
“Yes, everything is as it was when we came in yesterday. I kept the site completely untouched.”
I was not sure whether he kept the site untouched or his hands off the site, but I found it fortunate nevertheless. There was a console below the windows and a dumb-bell under the table. I looked round the room, but the other dumb-bell was nowhere to be found. Watson, do you remember what I told you once? Exercising with a single dumb-bell is a thoroughly unsound habit. Picture to yourself the unilateral development, the imminent danger of a spinal curvature.
There was a venthole in the shape of a diamond in the middle of the oak shutters through which a hand could barely pass. When I examined around the opening with a magnifying glass, I discovered that a chip of wood had come off in the bottom right corner. The light colour of the fleck suggested that it had broken off recently. I began to see how it all happened. I lay face down like a dachshund and inspected the floor between the window and the desk with the magnifying glass. As I had expected, I was able to spot a few drops of blood on the carpet. They had fallen precisely on the straight line between the wound on Sir Arthur’s neck and the hole in the shutters. This was the last clue that confirmed my hypothesis. When I lifted myself up from the floor, Inspector Martin, the freckled constable, and Mrs Forrester stared at me blankly, standing in a straight line like a chorus of three.
“It is said that there is no genius but the genius of hard work. It is an inadequate definition, but it suits the work of a detective.”
Only the freckled constable nodded his head enthusiastically.
“Mrs Forrester, did Sir Arthur show any sign of anxiety or depression lately?”
“No, Sir Arthur was gentle and cheerful. He always was.”
“Hmm, it is curious, very curious.”
“Aha, is it a lost cause even for Mr Holmes?”
Inspector Martin did not even bother to disguise his pleasure at hearing me mutter under my breath. Though I had yet to see the truth of the matter, I decided to stop planting false hope in this country inspector.
“Inspector, the murderer is a large man, about 190 centimetres in height, with a ruddy complexion. He is right-handed and rather muscular from having exercised. He wears his hair neatly combed back and sports a nice silver moustache.”
Inspector Martin, completely astonished, scrambled to pull out his blotting pad and started taking notes in earnest. He kept stealing a glance at me as if he wished me to repeat what I had just said. Good heavens! One may need a kitchen garden to cultivate even some sense of humour in this part of the world. I was, therefore, obliged to provide a more decisive hint.
“There is no need to hurry. He is now lying in blood at a handsome rosewood desk. Ah! please note that his surname starts with a C.”
Inspector Martin stopped scribbling at last and looked at me and at the fallen figure of Sir Arthur in turn.
“Are you suggesting that Sir Arthur committed suicide?”
“So, you see. What a wit you are, Inspector.”
The inspector’s face flushed and twitched.
“Mr Holmes, I have done my share of investigation. It is obvious from the wound that Sir Arthur died instantly when he was stabbed at the desk.”
“Superb. I could not agree more.”
“Then, where do you suggest the dagger in question is?”
“He threw it out through that venthole.”
I pointed my finger at the shutters. Inspector Martin looked at me inquiringly with a puzzled face.
“Are you trying to be funny?”
“Inspector, I am not terribly witty, but I certainly do not jest so poorly.”
“Mr Holmes, you mean that Sir Arthur sat at the desk, stabbed himself in the carotid artery, and then managed to hurl the knife right into that small opening while he was bleeding copiously. Like a knife thrower in a circus.”
The inspector seemed pleased with himself for having protested so cleverly.
“I do not believe Sir Arthur was gifted with such a rare talent. He used a more efficient method.”
“An efficient method?”
“Constable, ask Mrs Forrester for a garden rake and run it through the bottom of the stream below that window. You will find a dumb-bell. Please bring it back here. Ah, there will be a knife hanging at the end of the rope that is tied to the dumb-bell. Please bring that as well.”
The freckled constable rushed out like the wind. Watson, I do not mean to insult your intelligence by elaborating the obvious course of deduction, but allow me to repeat briefly what I explained to Inspector Martin for the sake of record. This case appeared to be a closed book at first, but it did not take long for me to see through the simple trick. How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth? When a body is discovered in a room where the door and the windows are locked from the inside, there can be only three possible explanations. The murderer came and left through the chimney, the victim locked the door and the windows before he died in order to protect the suspect who fled, or there was no suspect to turn tail from the beginning. Since the fireplace was used yesterday, we can very well eliminate the first hypothesis. The second hypothesis also seems unlikely from Sir Arthur’s wound and the bloodstains. We can then infer quite naturally that Sir Arthur was alone and took his own life. He tried, however, to dispose of the weapon and conceal his suicide for some reason. How would you say he discarded the dagger?
The single dumb-bell and the shutters provided the clues. What can it mean when a heavy object disappears right next to a body of water? Sir Arthur rose to the occasion as a detective novelist. He tied the dagger and the dumb-bell to either end of a rope that is over three meters in length, let down the dumb-bell out of the window through the opening in the shutters, sat at the desk, and stabbed himself in the neck. At the moment of Sir Arthur’s death, the dagger flew, dripping a few drops of blood on the carpet, and made a small dent in the corner of the diamond-shaped venthole before falling into the creek.
Would you care to guess what led me on to this solution? It was the ink bottle on the desk. As a great zoologist can describe an animal’s figure in its entirety from a single bone, so must a great detective illustrate the progression of a case from a single clue. Sir Arthur held the quill pen in his left hand whereas the ink bottle was to his right. Why did he bother to place the bottle on his right-hand side when it made it harder to dip the pen and easier to drip the ink? The position of the ink bottle explains that Sir Arthur was in fact right-handed but held the pen in his left hand to free the other for another task. What with a heavy dumb-bell hanging onto the dagger, it would not have been easy to stab himself in the carotid artery with any accuracy had he used his left hand. Sir Arthur had planned quite a meticulous course of action but failed to consider the ink bottle when he moved the pen to his left hand.
What do you say to this beautiful and flawless line of reasoning? It demonstrates the essence of deduction that employs imagination in a scientific manner. It is perfection itself that leaves no question unanswered. Yet, I am afraid that all this was rubbish. Rubbish! I still cannot forgive myself for having been so foolish. It was all so straightforward that I should have doubted… Watson, pray do record the failure of this day along with the chronicles of success if you are an honest man. Allow me to tell you what followed next.
I had finished explaining and was now asking Mrs Forrester whether she would look for a new lodger and if she would invite me to dinner someday when the freckled constable returned with a sour look on his face.
“Mr Holmes, I did find a dumb-bell as you said, but…”
When I saw what the constable held in his hand, I was so shocked that I could have flown all the way to Charing Cross. If you were with me, you would have seen the most dumbfounded look on the face of Sherlock Holmes. The dumb-bell, as I had expected, was tied to a rope. On the other end of the rope, however, was a ladle hanging instead of a dagger. A ladle! A ladle that one uses to serve stew or chicken curry. The attic of my brain was in utter disorder as in the aftermath of an earthquake. Mrs Forrester jumped with a start and cried that it was the ladle that had disappeared from the kitchen the day before, and the country inspector was only too happy to seise the chance to mock the illustrious detective from London.
“Well done, Mr Holmes. You just solved the mystery of the missing ladle.”
Watson, please whisper “ladle” into my ear if I ever draw conclusions in haste or become negligent in investigating out of arrogance. I shall be forever grateful.
Yes, it was all a trap laid out by Sir Arthur. He shrewdly led the course of my deduction from the ink bottle to the quill pen, fireplace, dumb-bell, dent on the shutters, and blood drops, and then backstabbed me with a ladle. I fell straight into the snare. I, the best detective in the real world, was knocked square by the hack of a detective novelist. When I turned and saw Sir Arthur huddled at the desk, I saw clearly his twisted lips breaking into a wry smile. I shuddered in disbelief beyond frustration.
I do not see how Sir Arthur anticipated my observation and deduction with such accuracy. It is still a mystery. He had carved a canal through which my thoughts would flow with pinpoint precision, as if he could see right into my brain. I had to grant that the first round was a lopsided defeat for me. My legs gave way after a single left counter punch. I had to return to the corner, collect my senses, and prepare for the second round. I hurried out of the scene as Mrs Forrester thanked me for recovering the lost ladle.
My dear doctor, this case shall be an illustration of how even the most balanced of minds is liable to fall into momentary darkness. All may stumble, but a man of great mind differs in that he discerns and corrects his own error. I rid myself of all parti pris and reviewed the case from the beginning.
I was first mistaken in my obstinate preoccupation with methods. I arrived at a conclusion hurriedly without regarding Sir Arthur’s intention. Why did he stage a play in a situation as extreme as suicide? Watson, I have emphasised many times that the ultimate purpose of solving a problem through observation and deduction is to study human nature. I am left with no excuse, for it is I who have overlooked the grand principle.
I was misguided again when I ruled out a clue in the process of deduction. I was blinded by all other clues pointing so clearly in a single direction. A solitary twig straggling from a file of false clues. It was the cryptogram in the pocket of Sir Arthur’s dressing gown. Like all else, Sir Arthur must have devised the code himself. It was fortunate that I remembered to ask Inspector Martin for the blotter and brought it home in that groggy state.
534 C2 13 127 36 31 4 17 21 41 109 293 5 37 26 9 47 171
The cryptogram seemed easy enough to decipher. It was obvious that the numbers pointed to some words on a certain page in a certain book. The problem was locating the book. If we suppose hypothetically that “534” is the page number, “C2” then would be the column. The letter may as well stand for Chapter, but it is pointless to indicate the chapter when the page number is already disclosed. Besides, I hate to think of a book whose 534th page is in the second chapter. The fact that the title of the book is not given implies that the book is common and can be found easily anywhere. Now, what would be a readily available book that is printed with two columns on each page? I suppose you, my friend, are thinking of the Bible. It is not. The Bible is not suitable for cryptography as there are various editions in print. I knew, therefore, that the book is standardised and always has the same content on page 534. It would be an almanack. I pulled out a Whitaker’s Almanack from the bookshelf. The second column on page 534 was on the natural resources and trades of British India. The 13th word was “rubber tree”. It was not quite a running start. The 127th word was “sap”. These two made sense if nothing else. The 36th word was “condom”. I knew then that this deduction flopped for sure.
I lighted a clay pipe and looked thoroughly at the cipher again. The amber sheet of paper on the desk, one-third stained in blood and the ink blurred with water here and there… Leaving the message in the pocket of the dressing gown must have been a carefully calculated act in preparing for the suicide. What on earth could it mean? I could not think of another method of deciphering no matter how hard I tried. It drove me mad to think that an important piece of secret was laid asleep before me and it was beyond my powers to see through it. To be sure than sorry, I matched each number not to a word but to a letter. The 13th letter was a T and the 127th an O. “TO”. I was off to a rather promising start, but I remained cautious. The 36th was an S, followed by a H … E … R… The sixteen letters aligned and struck a blow on the back of my head again.
“To Sherlock Holmes”.
“To Sherlock Holmes” was all there was to the message. However, it was enough. I felt a fighting spirit blazing up inside that I had never experienced from any other case in the past. The cryptogram he left in the pocket was a letter of challenge of a kind. “Mr Holmes, you have made quite a name for yourself. I dare you to solve this one next.” Sir Arthur must have heard that the finest detective in Europe had come down to Southsea for a change of air. He should also have predicted that the police would come to me for assistance in case of a mysterious murder. (Who else but I could have fallen for the tricks he laid out at the scene?)
The cryptogram made it loud and clear that he intended to lure me into the case from the beginning. I was, however, still left with a couple of critical questions. First, how did Sir Arthur take his life? Second, why on earth did he plan such an absurd prank at the cost of his own life?
Watson, to be frank, I could not help but admit that this case was unprecedentedly peculiar and thorny. I took thirty grams of the strongest black tobacco and matches and buried myself in an armchair. Why did Mr Conan Doyle take his own life? This is where the mystery of it all must have begun. I could only speculate, as I could never know without hearing from the man himself over a game of chess or two. Of course, I hold as ever that speculation is a vice that destroys one’s ability to think logically. However, I put aside deduction and leaned on my imagination awhile for it was not a case of crime but a matter of private choice. (As for the criminal nature of suicide, let us leave the judgment to the court of God.)
Fortunately, Sir Arthur left us an useful clue. He staged the scene to appear as if he was murdered right at the moment of bringing the famous detective back from the dead in a new novel. If so, was it not a message that pointed to himself as the suspect, the one who opposed so fervently the resurrection of the detective?
Let us sail upstream to the fountainhead. Why had the author killed the detective in the first place? The character, after all, brought him enormous wealth and fame. The motive might have been anything: he wished to retire in style at the height of his career, he simply ran out of ideas, or perhaps his wife developed acute tuberculosis and needed a change of air… Considering, however, that it drove him as far as to end his own life, his trouble must have been more private and psychological in nature. A sense of inferiority, for instance, is a very dangerous emotion for those who lack willpower.
I learned as I collected further data on Sir Arthur that he did not think much of his detective novels. He instead prided himself in his historical novels that he published separately. It appears that he wished to be regarded as more of a serious writer. He must have thought that the detective’s fame prevented his historical novels from receiving due attention. (I have not read his historical novels either, but I would hazard that being a physician was his métier.) As people went wild about the sleuth in fiction, he perhaps felt that he existed only as its creator while his existential self faded away. Jealousy and anger no doubt paralysed his reason and, in the end, he saw the detective as a vampire that clung to his back and sapped his creativity and energy. (I rather fancy an illustration here.) As a creation becomes a legend in reality, the creator, castrated of all possibilities, hardens slowly into a stone statue in the corner of his temple. Surely, it was too much to bear. Sir Arthur finally picked up the pen that was his weapon and exercised the last right left to him as a creator. What do you think?
Since then, scores of readers pressured the author incessantly to revive the dead detective, but he turned a deaf ear to them. Why then did he bring him back to life after having withstood so firmly for several years now? There could be only one reason. He wanted it. He himself could not resist the temptation of bringing back the detective after all this time. Notice how he arranged for the body to disappear into the fall to begin with so that the series could end in obscurity. He must have been torn inside. I do not, of course, believe that he was tempted just for the sake of fame or financial gain. Perhaps he missed the detective he killed. Just as I miss Professor Moriarty.
Although the detective was an evil vampire who clung to his back and sucked his blood, even the sharp fangs nailed in the nape of his neck were the work of his own hands. When he was freed at last, Sir Arthur, I am sure, lost the anchor of his life and turned slowly into a living cadaver at the bottom of ennui and languor. He then decided to bring the dead back to life again as if nothing ever happened under the pretence of yielding to the ceaseless demands of the readers. However, it was no longer a problem that could be resolved simply with the pen of a creator. Never mind the pitiful Easter comedy. He ended up denying his existential self that he had strived to protect at the cost of killing the detective… It was at this point that he ran into a dilemma. A dilemma that put his life at stake. When the world of fiction that he once believed to transcend the bounds of reality turned into another reality and throttled him by the neck, was not suicide the last resort he could turn to in order to confirm his existence?
Watson, we have encountered many cases so far that shed light on the complexity of human nature, but none may hold a candle to this one. A writer kills the character he has created out of a sense of inferiority, and the character that is brought back to life drives the writer to death as if to avenge himself in real life. It is indeed a sad, vicious cycle. Why, I have digressed too far. Of course, these hypotheses are, as noted earlier, no more than mere speculation and a figment of my imagination. I do not care to employ my brain for anything so meaningless, but it might as well be a kind of eulogy for Sir Arthur who demonstrated enough intellectual calibre to throw me into confusion. (If you please, therefore, leave this section out of the published material, though you are welcome to include it in the case file.)
As I followed the train of my thoughts, I began to see why he made a mystery out of his death and dragged me into the affair. That is, he simply wished that someone with excellent insight would consider his anguish in the process of solving the mystery. Not the great unwashed who fell into a frenzy over the death of his creation but the one person who would meditate quietly on the death of Conan Doyle. “To Sherlock Holmes”. The cryptogram was a letter of challenge as well as his last will and testament. Suicide was his final piece of work, and Sherlock Holmes was to be its sole reader.
I do not know how faithful of an executor I was to Sir Arthur’s will, but with this I believed that the second piece of the puzzle was solved. However, I had not made any progress on the first piece of the mystery that I had to solve as a detective. My duty and the game I had to play against Sir Arthur were to bring to light the exact way in which he met his death and unriddle the case. It was now time to fold away vague speculations and bring out a fine-spun deduction. If Sir Arthur put his pride on the line as a detective novelist and created a mystery, I wanted to put my pride on the line as the best detective alive and solve it. This was the proper way of paying homage to his excellent judgment in leaving me his last will.
I stayed up two nights in a row to scour every nook and cranny of Sir Arthur’s room in my head and reconstructed the scene of the suicide in many ways. The clues that one could see with one’s eyes had become meaningless since Sir Arthur crafted the tricks with me in mind from the beginning. It called for a new approach beyond deduction. There could be only one key to unlock the case: Where was the dagger he used to end his life? However, I remained clueless even after making hundreds and thousands of rings of smoke with the pipe in my mouth. At the end of every blind alley of my thoughts, a ladle dangled at a rope’s end.
Early in the morning on the third day, my room was already shrouded in a cloud of stifling smoke. It felt as though I was back in the thick fog of London. As I recalled the house in Baker Street, I picked up my violin and began playing Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise. It is not a piece I play often, but I was reminded of its sombre tune perhaps because my head was frozen stiff. I emptied out the attic of my brain. I was oblivious to everything else and focused solely on the beautiful vibrato of the four strings. The day broke, a ray of sunlight pierced into the drawing room through the thick tobacco smoke like a well-whetted blade, the dew on the windows glistened brightly, the dew on the windows… Warm tears melted the snow and frost… As I played the fourth song, “Erstarrung”, a hypothetical solution to the mystery tore Schubert’s score and burst into a flash of light. I dashed to pick up the cryptogram and took another look. Watson, I was the biggest fool in Europe, a beetle that could not see beyond the length of its nose. I had been completely in the dark even with a crucial clue in my hand right from the beginning. My brain was rusty from having been idle for too long.
“To Sherlock Holmes”. This was not the end of Sir Arthur’s message. The paper was a letter of challenge he sent to me, a will to have me reflect upon his death and, finally, a critical piece of evidence to solve the case. It was natural that the paper in the dressing gown pocket was speckled with blood that had dropped from the wound. But why were there separate blotches of water? It evidenced that both blood and water dripped but at different times, one after the other. When my thoughts reached this point, the clues from the scene rearranged themselves in a straight file and pointed in another direction.
It is by force of habit that we consider the existence of a dagger immediately upon seeing an empty sheath. What the empty sheath signified was, however, as simple as the signifier itself, namely, that the sheath had been empty from the beginning. Sir Arthur went to the kitchen the night before, took some ice from the icebox, and carved a dagger out of the ice to fit the sheath. A sharply whetted tip would have been enough to pierce the carotid artery past the supple skin of the cervix. He hinted at the kitchen by hanging a ladle to the dumb-bell, but I lost my head and missed it altogether. It is no wonder that he asked for a fire in the fireplace on a spring evening. Humidity was only a pretence. He needed to melt the ice dagger and dry the melted ice. It could have been a perfect mystery as the weapon melted away. Sir Arthur cleverly arranged the fake clues that he fabricated along with the real ones that would solve the case and wagered a bet against me. Consider the irony that he chose an ice dagger that would vanish for a weapon to put a period to the dilemma of existence… It was staged all very impressively. I took up the violin again in the morning light and paid respect to the director of this incredible tragicomedy with Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major.
This is the full account of the case of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You might have read the news in the papers by now. They would naturally say that the case remains unresolved as to whether it was a murder or a suicide. That is right. I have not informed Inspector Martin of the truth I have found. There was no need to feel responsible for carrying out justice since there was no suspect to pay the penalty. Inspector Martin will be in hot water trying to figure things out on his own for a while, but it should do him good. The fellow lacks the faculty of imagination.
If you ask me why, I really do not have anything to say. I simply decided to do so as I was playing Bach’s violin concerto. As incredible as it may sound, on rare occasions, I, too, make decisions on impulse. Sir Arthur can now read the papers above the clouds and say, “Hmm, Holmes isn’t such a big fish after all.” A bit of amour-propre would not hurt. Life must have been wearying for him.
To tell you the truth, something left a bad taste in my mouth though I solved the mystery to perfection. It feels as though there is a grain of sand stuck under my nail. It is most likely because of how I came to solve the case. Everything fell into place in the fleeting second when I saw the morning dew glistening in the sunlight. I was playing “Erstarrung” just then, and the lyrics to the part that I was playing were “Warm tears melted the snow and the frost”. An ice dagger flashed in my mind in that passing moment. It struck like lightning before I had a chance to deduce anything based on evidence. How should I interpret such a chain of coincidences? As you know, I never employ such an intuitive method to solve a problem. Absolutely not. It must be my nerves that I suspect whether this happenstance is not another scenario someone has contrived. “To Sherlock Holmes”. The cryptogram was a letter of challenge, a will, and a clue. Why do I feel that there might be a fourth meaning in this? As if there is yet another mystery to solve…
Watson, please refrain from publishing the case presently. I will let you know when I have dusted off my misgivings. I do not mind forgoing a chance to add another laurel leaf to the already sufficient fame of mine. I have gained something much more valuable. Since the morning when I unravelled the secret of the ice dagger, the ennui and apathy that had been weighing me down disappeared completely. It shattered the very silence that breeds danger graver than a tempest of any magnitude in my life. Could it have been a kind of shock therapy? Sir Arthur sank under the unbearable weight of the fantasy he had created while I turned to drugs, ever so thirsty for a bewitching piece of reality. Do not these anguishes of two different extremes resemble each other somehow? Although, for better or worse, I lacked creativity in mine and was not led to suicide like Sir Arthur who devised such a fine metaphysical process towards his end. The only trivial talents I have after all are to observe and to deduce. Thanks to these, I am once again basking in freedom within the confines of reality that recreates itself ad infinitum at a speed well beyond that of human imagination. I must admit, however untowardly, that Sir Arthur’s passing gave me an occasion to feel the blood circulating vigorously in my vessels once again.
I plan to make arrangements to return to London shortly. It must be bad news for the villains in London. Watson, do consider closing your practice if there is no sign of new patients by then. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt for my own small achievements. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. You are, as I am, hopeless when it comes to suffering banality. What we need surely are the house at 221B Baker Street, Mrs Hudson’s cooking, strong tobacco, and clients who will excite us. I will pay you a visit as soon as I arrive in London. If one of these days you run into a grumpy old man in the streets, do take a second look at him. Is not Sherlock Holmes a master of disguise?
April 19, 1903