Sherlock Holmes: “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” and “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Man with the Twisted Lip
Illustration for “The Man with the Twisted Lip” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I’m behind in the  Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. In an effort to try to catch up a bit, I read two stories this week, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” and “The Man with the Twisted Lip.”

Sherlock Holmes becomes involved in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” when Lestrade consults the detective after the murder of a landowner in Herefordshire. The murdered man’s son looks guilty, but Holmes doesn’t believe the son is the culprit. Using footprint analysis and a quick inspection of the grounds, Holmes affirms the son couldn’t have killed his father and unravels the mystery.

In “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Holmes has gone undercover to determine what has happened to Neville St. Clair. Watson discovers Holmes in disguise in an opium den, where he has gone to retrieve a patient, who also happens to be the husband of Mary Watson’s friend Kate Whitney. Watson is shocked to see Holmes in such a place but quickly recovers when Holmes offers him the opportunity to be involved in the case of the missing Mr. St. Clair. Mrs. St. Clair is sure her husband is alive after receiving a letter from him that was posted after he went missing. A beggar named Hugh Boone has been arrested under suspicion of being involved in St. Clair’s disappearance, as Boone was in a room in that same opium den in which Mrs. St. Clair clearly saw her husband from a window. Holmes seems stumped by the case for a time but resolves the matter at last.

Of these two stories, I liked “The Man with the Twisted Lip” better, though both were fairly good. The opening of “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is so compelling and well-written.

Isa Whitney, brother of the late Elias Whitney, D. D., Principal of the Theological College of St. George’s, was much addicted to opium. The habit grew upon him, as I understand, from some foolish freak when he was at college; for having read De Quincey’s description of his dreams and sensations, he had drenched his tobacco with laudanum in an attempt to produce the same effects. He found, as so many more have done, that the practice is easier to attain than to get rid of, and for many years he continued to be a slave to the drug, an object of mingled horror and pity to his friends and relatives. I can see him now, with yellow, pasty face, drooping lids, and pin-point pupils, all huddled in a chair, the wreck and ruin of a noble man.

I can’t find any reference to “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” in the BBC series Sherlock, but the story does involve a common trope in Sherlock Holmes stories—murder in the countryside, the most obvious suspect didn’t do it. However, “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is alluded to in the episode “His Last Vow,” when Watson discovers Sherlock in a crack house similar to the opium den in the short story. He is undercover for a case, but Watson isn’t having it. As an interesting aside, opium wasn’t illegal when the story is set. It was definitely associated with the seedy underbelly of society, but the opium den in the story is a perfectly legal business. By the time in which the Sherlock series is set, such an establishment would definitely be illegal, and the dangers of drug use would be more widely known. I always appreciated that Conan Doyle’s Watson expressed disapproval of drug use even when it was legal and encouraged Sherlock Holmes to stop using cocaine.

As an interesting aside, “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is also the story with the inconsistency regarding Watson’s name. He is usually called John Watson, but Mary calls him James in this story. It’s probably an oversight on Conan Doyle’s part, but much has been made of the confusion, which Conan Doyle apparently never addressed. Some have theorized that Mary calls him James because his middle name is Hamish, which is a variant of James. He is known as John H. Watson elsewhere. In the BBC Sherlock series, Watson tells Sherlock and Irene Adler his middle name is Hamish if they’re looking for baby names.

“The Boscombe Valley Mystery” Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Man with the Twisted Lip” Rating: ★★★★★

I read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the twenty-second and twenty-third stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Engineer’s Thumb,” which I will read with “The Cardboard Box” in order to catch up completely.

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