“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outre results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.”
In other words, fact is stranger than fiction. It’s one of the reasons I tend to limit myself to my primary interests when it comes to fiction rather than glut myself on endless cookie cutter stories from any number of genres, and it’s why I developed an interest in a variety of nonfiction. This is one of the great quotes from the Great Detective, a fitting way to open one of his own stories. Interestingly, the quote itself is undermined by Holmes’ own methods, whereby all evidence is gathered and all motives occur in manners that repeat, ensuring that all such can be detected by keen observation.
As a point of character, at the beginning of this story, Holmes offers Watson a pinch of snuff from his now infamous golden snuff box. The shadow of Irene Adler still looms, as this was another gift from the King of Bohemia. This, of course, means that both Holmes and the reader are invited to contrast Adler with the client of this case, Mary Sutherland.
Miss Sutherland is a woman who lives off the interest of a fund set up in her name. She is engaged to be married to a quiet man, recently disappeared. Her intended, one Hosmer Angel, is peculiar, as one would expect in a Holmes story. Miss Sutherland is aware that he works in an office on Leadenhall Street and that he is keeps his finances separate from hers, taking no money rightfully belonging to her. His letters to her are typewritten, including the signature, though he insists that she write back in her own hand via the Post Office. The case culminates when, on the morning of their wedding, Mr. Angel disappears from the cab. Holmes takes note of all of this and observes that Mr. Angel is only available to meet when Miss Sutherland’s stepfather, James Windibank, is away on business. Windibank disapproves of the liaison, and is only five years older than Miss Sutherland. Holmes’ conclusion: Windibank and Angel are the same person, the ruse intended to keep Miss Sutherland in his keeping that he may have the use of the money of both mother and daughter. He calls this out to Windibank himself, observing that even typewriters have the same individual and defining distinctions as does handwriting.
While the case is a simple one for Holmes, he opts not to reveal the solution to his client, stating that she would not believe him, and indeed she has vowed to remain faithful for at least the next ten years. Holmes predicts Windibank will continue a career in crime and end up hanged.
When dealing with any level of civilization, there is always the question of the letter of the law vs. the intent of justice. No system is perfect, often leaving a wide gulf for matters to slip through the cracks. Victorian society is often stereotyped for this sort of thing, in part due to the ever-looming unsolved Ripper murders and a variety of smaller injustices characterized by this tale. Holmes pursues his cases for justice, recognizing when his hands are tied legally. In this matter, he suggests that perhaps Miss Sutherland has a friend that should whip Mr. Windibank for his offenses, and he even takes steps towards his own riding crop, wherein his target flees.
That Holmes is willing to take matters into his own hands instantly makes him the stand-in for virtually every reader. He is one of us. That he is unable to cross those lines into vigilante justice makes him equally identifiable while offering no escapist relief for such darker imaginings. We stand with him in his frustration. Today’s crimefighters respond to vigilante situations with a variety of responses. Holmes’ direct successor to the mantle of World’s Greatest Detective, Batman, regularly delivers beatings upon his targets without crossing the ultimate line of taking a life… when he’s written properly, in character, that is. He still works in conjunction with the law, often going where legal authorities cannot. Characters such as The Punisher, on the other hand, have no faith in the legal system and cross all lines in the name of moral authority. Most hard-boiled detective fiction falls somewhere in between, where the law is utilized to utmost advantage, but the law of the gun is often the final word, as put forward by the likes of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Mike Hammer. All of these and more are descended from the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, along with the modern science of forensics, aiding the cause of equivalency between law and justice.
All in all, not one of the terribly exciting cases, but per usual, character outweighs any perceived shortcomings.