Sherlock Holmes takes a little heat over the case Watson wrote up under the title of "The Five Orange Pips." His client is murdered before Holmes has even begun to investigate the case. And if you counted all the Sherlockians who've suggested that the detective should have kept John Openshaw overnight at Baker Street, or accompanied him home with Watson and some pistols, well, you'd have the population of a small town.
A town called "Sherlock's Fault, Florida."
(We have to put it in Florida, because that state is not blameless in this matter itself.)
But in turning an accusatory eye toward Sherlock Holmes, we always look away from the worst person on the Openshaw case: the policeman who was to remain in the house with Openshaw.
When John Openshaw decided to take a chance and go see if this Mr. Sherlock Holmes he'd heard of could shed any light on the deaths in his family, he certainly told the policeman what he was going to do. And it was that policeman who interpreted orders to remain in the house with Openshaw as having more to do with the house than the man.
It was a horribly stormy night, of course, so we start to get an impression of that copper as the sort of man who likes the comfort of dry clothes and a warm fire. We can also conclude from the fact he has no curiosity or interest in Mr. Sherlock Holmes that this fellow didn't keep up with the newspapers or even talk at the station-house about criminal investigations. Even if he had heard of Holmes and took him to be a charlatan, any self-respecting crime-stopper would have felt obliged to head along with Openshaw to show the misguided man what a sham Holmes was.
One has to wonder how this irresponsible member of the police force finally heard that Openshaw had died. Or did he? Did he just spend the night at the house, raid the cupboards, doze in some comfy spot, and then stroll back to work in the pleasant morning sun, never to hear anything about the man he had gone home with turning up in the Thames.
Sherlock Holmes hadn't started on his case, which focused more on finding the culprit. The policeman who stayed at the house was supposed to be on the job of protecting the victim.
"Why didn't you come to me?" Holmes railed at Openshaw after hearing about that policeman. "And above all, why did you not come at once?" During daylight hours, Holmes might have been able to get on the scent of who was after Openshaw. And since Openshaw was moving on crowded streets while armed with a gun, Holmes could be forgiven for putting his planning on how to solve the case above playing bodyguard -- the job that the un-named policeman already had.
The great counterpart to that nameless and worthless cop will always be Police-constable Cook of H Division, who not only heard Openshaw's cry as he fell into the river, but actively tried to same the man, getting help from passers-by, and even summoning a police boat. Cook made every effort to save Openshaw's life, but the night was against him.
So many points where that night and this case could have gone differently . . . but the one man most at fault in this business leading to John Openshaw's death?
Not Sherlock Holmes.
Just a guy spending a pleasant evening in a house near Horsham. The bum.
Peoria Public Library's Sherlock Holmes story society meets again this Thursday night in the meeting room at the far end of the North Branch library at 6:30 to discuss "The Five Orange Pips" further. Stop in if you're in town!