Watson is brought in on a case in the community of Herefordshire, where a local landowner has been murdered. The landowner’s son, who has not spoken with his father in some time, is the primary suspect. All signs that condemn him are dismissed by Holmes, who determines these points to be the strongest points for his defense.
Holmes briefs Watson on the train en route to the Boscombe Valley. Charles McCarthy and John Turner are both widowers and expatriates from Australia. Charles, the deceased, has been found dead near Boscombe Pool, and it was reported he was there to meet someone. Two witnesses claim they saw Charles there, followed by his son James, carrying a gun. Patience Moran, the daughter of a local lodgekeeper, saw the two arguing, and when James raised his hand to hit his father, she ran to her mother. While she was relating what she’d seen, James rushed to their house for help. When the two women followed James back to the site, Charles was found dead. James was arrested and charged accordingly.
Alice Turner, daughter of John Turner, believes James to be innocent. She contacted Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, who in turn contacted Holmes.
According to James, he was in the woods to hunt and had no idea his father was there. He heard his father calling “Cooee,” a call sign they once used, and he rushed to find him, surprised to see him. They argued, and James opted to return to Hatherley Farm. A short time later, his father cried out, and James found him on the ground. After trying to help, James states his father died in his arms. He refuses to offer the cause of the argument, stating it has no bearing on the case, despite the coroner’s warning to the contrary. James states his father’s last words were something about “a rat.”
Alice reveals that she believes she is the subject of the argument, for she asked James to marry her. James said no, and Alice’s father was also against the idea. Her father’s health has worsened since news of Charles’ death, so Holmes opts to meet with James.
Holmes assumes, mistakenly, that James is protecting the real killer and knows who it is. As it turns out, Alice is correct about the nature of the argument, but what she does not know is that while James does want to marry her, he had already married a barmaid before Alice returned from boarding school. He could not tell his father of this without being kicked out of the house, unable to support himself. His wife upon hearing of this confessed that she was already married, thus their marriage was invalid, and James is free to propose to Alice.
Boots are examined, tracks are followed, and ground are inspected. Holmes finds evidence of another man, deducing that the murderer is left-handed, tall, has a limp, and smokes a particular kind of cigar from India. Lestrade, of course, is unconvinced.
At the hotel, Holmes reveals to Watson that “Cooee” is an Australian cry and “a rat” is the last of the word “Ballarat,” a place in Australia. From this, he has reasoned that whomever Charles met with was someone he knew from Australia. When John Turner arrives to their room, he enters with a limp. He confesses once he realizes Holmes has singled him out. His confession involves the Ballarat Gange and a gold convoy he robbed. Charles was the driver of the wagon who could identify him, but John had spared his life. Later on when the two met again by chance, Charles threatened to blackmail him, and John gave him Hatherley farm and some money. Charles then demanded the marriage of James and Alice, and John resisted. They agreed to meet secretly, and when John witnessed the argument, he waited and turned it to opportunity.
Holmes vows that neither he nor Watson will reveal the secret unless it is needed to acquit James. Ultimately Holmes’ other points are enough for James to go free, and John dies seven months later, leaving James and Alice free to marry.
And it must be noted… Watson has broken Holmes’ vow of silence by writing this account for all to read. Good job, Watson.
As convoluted as this story seems at first glance, and perhaps as contrived, it turns out that there is cause to believe this story may be based on true events. Leave it to the diehard Sherlockians out there to discover that there are no locations on the map matching Boscombe Valley, leading some to believe this is a phony name, a cover-up. This was marked by Leslie S. Klinger in his The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which as since been referenced in other sources. (Incidentally, I can’t recommend the annotated collection enough for those wanting to dig deep.)
For myself, while this story didn’t resonate with me at all when I was younger, I’ve grown to enjoy it more over time, especially in light of the idea that it may be based on true events. I especially like the little character touch at the beginning that Mrs. Watson practically urges her husband to join the adventure when summoned, and Watson himself remarks that he owes his happiness (specifically his marriage) to such adventures with Holmes. It does, however, start to make Scotland Yard look bad. As competent as we were told the first time that Lestrade must be, this is where he starts turning into the running gag. It’s nice to have him there, but for Holmes to look good, there must be a foil in a position of authority. Sorry, Inspector. It’s just business; I’m sure you understand…
I think the most curious aspect of this is when Holmes realizes that in another life, he might be on the other end of these sorts of events. It’s such an easy thing for a reader to dismiss, but it’s profound in its own way. The older I get, the more it means.
In the final analysis, this is a solid story all around. Not truly great, certainly better than average. It’s a good one for a lunch break at work.