In 1889 London, opium and other drugs were not crimes themselves, but the opium den — operated openly and quite legally — was often connected with the criminal underworld. And where crime manifests, our Great Detective is certain to follow.
The story opens with Watson visiting such an opium den at the behest of Kate Whitney, a friend of his wife. Kate’s husband Isa is missing, after several days of worry, she has enlisted Watson to find him and bring him home, which Watson is more than keen to do for her. This leads him to the opium den in question, and he finds not only Isa Whitney, but also his friend Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is disguised as one of the denizens, completely indistinguishable among the rabble. He suggests Watson send his companion ahead with a note and join him on the case he is currently working. Watson, of course, can never refuse. After all, where would the story be in that?
Holmes’ quarry is another missing man, Neville St. Clair: rich, respectable, punctual… the kind of guy who never goes missing. His home is in the country, but he comes to London daily for business. On one such day, Mrs. St. Clair went to London separately. Passing through Upper Swandam Lane near the London docks (where the opium den is that Holmes and Watson met), she glances up and sees her husband in a second floor window, frantic and disheveled, and then suddenly pulled away by force. Clearly, something is wrong, so she bursts into the building only to be blocked by the owner of the opium den, a lascar. For those not in the know, this is a military man, usually militia or perhaps a sailor, from Southeast Asia. Out of options, Mrs. St. Clair gets the police involved, who are, of course, unable to locate her husband. The room from where her husband disappeared belongs to a disfigured beggar known as Hugh Boone.
The police are convinced this is all a mistake until Mrs. St. Clair notices a box of wooden toy bricks that her husband had promised to buy for their son. More searching reveals Mr. St. Clair’s clothes. His coat, pockets full of loose change, is found on the bank of the Thames just behind the building outside the window. Bodies, however, can be swept away, and this is the immediate conjecture.
Boone is arrested, but he denies all knowledge of St. Clair. He also refuses to be washed. Holmes’ reason for being in the opium den was that he was convinced Boone was connected to St. Clair’s murder. But when Holmes and Watson arrive to St. Clair’s country home, Mrs. St. Clair that very day had received a letter from her husband, in his own handwriting, telling her not to worry. His signet ring is enclosed. Holmes is instantly led to new conclusions accordingly based on his wife’s evidence and connection, both of which lead her to believe her husband is still alive. It is stressed that he’s never taken any opium before, and it is again stressed that the last time he was seen, he was wearing his coat, but not his tie and collar beneath, just as Mrs. St. Clair had related to Holmes the first time.
Our duo go to the police station where Boone is being held, and Holmes brings with him a bath sponge, allowing him to clean off Boone while he sleeps, revealing the missing St. Clair beneath layers of grime, a scar, bright orange hair. and the twisted lip of the story’s title. It’s the kind of disguise that would have made Lon Chaney proud.
And on that note, it just so happens that St. Clair was an actor in his younger days, before becoming a newspaper reporter. When he went undercover as a beggar to research a story, he made a surprising amount of money. Later, as debt mounted and his salary couldn’t keep up, he returned to being a beggar. The obscene amount of money he made doing this afforded his country house and lifestyle as a gentleman. But in the name of respectability, he kept this a secret from his wife and children, fearing exposure and his kids’ disappointment more than prison or execution. As there is no murder, there is no crime, and he’s released. Holmes and the police agree to keep the secret providing Hugh Boone is heard from no more.
Apparently this agreement did not apply to Watson, who has written down the account for the rest of us to read.
This story is one that a number of people think is implausible. Myself, I have seen it in action in real life. Back when I was in college, there was a guy in one of my classes who came from a well-to-do family. But he was such a troublemaker that his family cut off his rather sizable allowance. Resourceful to the end, he went to a thrift store, bought some beat up clothes, distressed them a little more, and spent evenings just off campus as a panhandler. According to things I overheard in classes, he was pulling in over $900 a night doing this. Let’s do the math, shall we? $900 per night, five nights a week with weekends off, and assuming doing this as a year round profession rather than just a fall and spring type of thing amounts to $234,000 per year. As I was working fast food at the time to supplement my own needs, this was very tempting, one of those thoughts that sits at the back of your head and nags you. I never could bring myself to do it, however. It always seemed way too dangerous, especially given that some of the legitimately homeless people would actually fight each other for food, sometimes even for sport for the promise of food, if you can believe that. More than that, the whole idea just seemed morally repugnant to me, like I was somehow stealing food from those who had none. The reality was I was likely just taking away cigarette and booze money from most of them, but there were some out there that I knew were legitimately hurting and grateful for what they could get. It was an experience that stays with you. The whole scenario typically made me think about this story, written just over a century before. Makes me wonder if this other guy got the idea from this story. It also has the side effect of making me second guess every panhandler I ever see. After all, what is seen cannot be unseen.
I’ll close out this review with a point of Sherlockian level geekery. We know that Watson’s first name is John, and his middle initial is H. His wife, Mary, refers to him here in the beginning of the tale by the name of James. Blink, and you miss it. It is the common belief of those who need an explanation for such things that his middle name is, perhaps, Hamish — a Scottish variant of James. It would make it nice and tidy, wouldn’t it? Conan Doyle never addressed this, so we’re left to keep guessing as whether or not this is even intentional.