Usually Watson finds about the cases of Sherlock Holmes when Holmes tells him, or when a client drops by. This one, we’re told, is one of only two cases where Watson brought the matter to Holmes.
Victor Hatherley, a young hydraulic engineering consultant trying to build a career for himself, shows up seeking medical attention for his severed thumb. From there, Watson introduces Hatherley to his friend to address the criminal matter that claimed the man’s thumb.
Hatherley relates the tale wherein he’s visited by Colonel Lysander Stark, who offers him a commission with an inflated fee to examine a hydraulic press at a country house late at night and to keep the matter completely secret. The press, Stark explains, is used to compress fuller’s earth into bricks. The secrecy is because those bricks are being sold off to turn a profit so that they can buy the land they’re getting the fuller’s earth from. It’s a tidy little backdoor scheme to keep the land’s owner ignorant of his own potential wealth. Despite misgivings, Hatherley agrees as his own business is new, and he needs the work. He can’t afford to turn down that kind of money.
Hatherley meets Stark at the agreed upon train station, where he’s taken in a carriage with frosted glass windows over unknown distance. Once at the house, a woman warns him to run, and even then Hatherley is clueless this is bad idea to be here. Hatherley inspects the machine, offers his recommendations for repairs, and on closer inspection discovers metallic proof that the machine isn’t being used for fuller’s earth. Instead of keeping it to himself, he confronts Stark directly, painting the proverbial bull’s eye on his chest. He narrowly escapes getting crushed in the machine, and when pursued by Stark, he has to jump out a second story window. Stark severs Hatherley’s thumb with a cleaver in the process of escape. He passes out in the rose bushes, waking by a hedge near the rail station later.
Holmes, of course, connects this to a past article in the paper about a missing hydraulic engineer, realizing Stark and his buddies are counterfeiters. But when Scotland Yard is rounded up to accompany the trio back to the house, it’s on fire, and the bad guys are long gone. The press was destroyed when Hatherley’s lamp was crushed inside it during the murder attempt, setting the machine on fire and destroying the evidence. The villains escaped justice, with their boxes of coins. Another case solved… too little, too late.
As Holmes stories go, they can’t all be gems. I don’t really think this one is all that good. It’s not bad, it’s just not good either in my humble opinion. Part of it is the lack of Holmes / Watson interaction that really makes these stories pop, and part of it is the telegraphing of just how stupid Hatherley is. The rest is just dumb luck all around, save for Holmes having that newspaper article on tap. The only reason it really sticks in my mind is because I always remember any kind of dismemberment. (Thanks, George Lucas.)