One of the joys of a good Sherlock Holmes discussion group, as met at the North Branch of the Peoria Library tonight, is the perspectives you get from other Sherlockians that can actually improve a story for you. Tonight we were discussing "A Case of Identity," a minor light as mysteries go, but a tale ripe-to-bursting with delicious Doylean detail.
"A Case of Identity," you will recall, is that weird little tale of step-daughter Mary Sutherland who is conned by her step-father . . . and her actual mother, her selfish cougar of a mother . . . into staying single by breaking her heart so they can keep her income coming into the household.
It's a plot we see play out a few times in the cases Holmes takes -- men trying to control the inheritance of young ladies, who were not so far out of Jane Austen times that they had much power over their own destinies without a husband. And the ending to Miss Mary Sutherland's case is especially unsatisfying that way.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson get to feel all manly and good for chasing the step-father out of 221B and watching him flee down Baker Street, but you know when he gets home, James Windibank and his wife, Mary's mother, can just go back to living the lie they built to keep Mary and her income willingly trapped in their greedy little household.
Sherlock isn't going to tell her about the con job that was pulled on her, saying she wouldn't believe him anyway. And he's got ten or twelve other problems at hand, one of which involved identifying bisulphate of baryta, which seemed to be more in the forefront of his mind that Mary Sutherland's case. But if you go back a few pages to a paragraph before Sherlock Holmes solves the case, you find a rather interesting letter "s."
"It is just as well that we should do business with the male relatives," he tells Watson. And yet by the end of Watson's narrative, he has only dealt with "male relative" singular. Who else was Holmes planning to deal with? Mary had no other male relatives, right?
Posing this question to the discussion group, an answer came 'round quickly in Mary's own words: ". . . we went, mother and I, with Mr. Hardy, who used to be our foreman, and it was there I met Mr. Hosmer Angel."
While not a true family member by blood, Mr. Hardy was a part of the Sutherland business family and plainly a loyal friend of Mary's father who was familiar enough to take the widow and daughter of his old boss to the gasfitter's ball. Since Mary's mother had sold the Sutherland plumbing business entirely, she had no power over Mr. Hardy, and a foreman who managed working men was not the sort of guy who was going to put up with a little weasel like young Windibank's scheming.
As Watson's following of this case was based on social calls, he was probably not around when Sherlock Holmes went to talk to Mr. Hardy, the one man who could be trusted to straighten out Mary Sutherland's bogus fiancee issues and give her the facts. So it makes sense that part might not make it into the published account. But that one line from Holmes, "do business with the male relatives," makes it clear that Windibank wasn't the only man he planned to talk to before he considered this case wrapped up.
Coming to that conclusion made tonight's discussion of "A Case of Identity," which had a lot of great and fascinating points in it, one of the most valuable talks I've participated in on that matter. Despite Mary Sutherland's rather ridiculous plight, I now have a good feeling that someone was looking out for her, and that the case had a much more satisfying end that I got from previous readings.
While we can't consult with Mr. Sherlock Holmes on these cases, sometimes consulting with his followers can do a pretty good job of it as well. Pretty darn good.
The next meeting of Peoria's "Sherlock Holmes Story Society" will be April 27th, and I can't wait to see what we get from "Boscombe Valley."