“The Adventure of Silver Blaze” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This tale kicks off the second short story collection in the series, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.  If we think about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories in terms of modern television, then we can see his first two novels (A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four) as the first and second pilots, wherein the second pilot is a rare opportunity to start again (a la Star Trek), greenlit due to the strength of the ideas in play.  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, then, would be the first season (or series for all the Brits out there keeping it pure) that establishes the norm, setting the standard for how these stories are to be told.  Things are a bit wobbly from time to time, but our protagonists get their sea legs and ingratiate themselves to the reader.  A second series must, by dramatic law, delve deeper, raise the stakes, and shake things up a bit.  It is to that end that this collection will widen the depth and breadth of Holmes and his world, bringing to us along the way two more characters who stand in the canon’s legacy as memorable as Irene Adler: Sherlock Holmes’ older, smarter brother Mycroft, and that most memorable of archrivals, Professor James Moriarty.

Initially, Conan Doyle had decided this would be the final collection of Holmes stories, with public pressure ultimately pushing him to write The Hound of the Baskervilles.  But at this point, no one had a clue about any of it.  Holmes was big, he was on top, and his creator — becoming bored and considerably overshadowed by his creation — would decide that maybe the character should go out on a high note.

Of course, we have to get there first.

“The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” opening this new collection, is one of the most popular stories in the canon.  Centering the action at Dartmoor, the tale brings Holmes and Watson to King’s Pyland to investigate the murder of horse trainer John Straker and the disappearance of the great race horse Silver Blaze.  Straker was killed by a blow to the skull.  Fitzroy Simpson carries a “Penang lawyer,” a clublike stick capable of such a blow, and Simpson’s cravat is found in Straker’s hand.  In his pocket, a tallow candle and a milliner’s bill for a 22-guinea dress made out to one William Derbyshire.  Straker is also found to be stabbed in the hip by a knife found at the crime scene that Watson identifies as a cataract knife, used for delicate surgeries and unsuitable as a weapon.  The case mounts (no pun intended) against Simpson, but for Holmes, the facts simply do not add up.  Had the goal been to kill the horse, that could have been done in the stall without stealing the animal.

Ned Hunter, a stable boy on guard duty that night had been drugged with opium powder in his evening meal of curried mutton, a dish spicy enough to cover the flavor of opium, and one Simpson couldn’t possibly arrange, so it must be someone in the household: Straker himself.  Using a photo of Straker, Holmes visits the milliner’s shop to determine that Straker is posing as Derbyshire.  He has a mistress with expensive tastes, and Silver Blaze was taken with the goal to influence the outcome of the race to win a large wager.  The clue that tipped Holmes to all of this comes from one of the most famous exchanges in all of the stories:

Colonel Ross still wore an expression which showed the poor opinion which he had formed of my companion’s ability, but I saw by the inspector’s face that his attention had been keenly aroused.
“You consider that to be important?” he [Inspector Gregory] asked.
“Exceedingly so.”
“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

So the dog made no noise because the intruder was no stranger.  Straker led Silver Blaze out of his stall to the moor with intent to use the knife to inflict an injury on the horse’s leg so small it could render him temporarily lame and go unnoticed and dismissed as strain.  The lame sheep in the stable were proof of Straker’s practice attempts.  Straker was killed when the horse, sensing something was wrong, panicked and kicked him in the head.

Colonel Ross is introduced to “the murderer” when Holmes has a little fun at his expense on the reveal following the Colonel’s lack of faith in the detective and relief in discovering the horse alive and well when the race is won, the distinctive white markings having been dyed.  Silver Blaze was cared for by Silas Brown, one of the Colonel’s neighbors who found the horse wandering the moor.  He’d been hidden in the barn.

Many of the best Holmes stories keep the Great Detective lighthearted and completely insufferable when it comes to those who dismiss his abilities.  This story is easily one of the best examples in the entire series, and as such, one of my favorites, especially with the twist on the standard “whodunit” and Holmes’ melodramatic reveal.

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