Bear with me, loyal reader, for there’s a lot of background detail to discuss on this story that may or may not overshadow the tale itself. I’m going to present it anyway, and you can decide for yourself or skip ahead to the discussion of the case at hand.
If you’re following along in an American edition of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, you’ll find “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” is missing from its proper placement. When the story first appeared in the Strand Magazine, it was in its proper sequence, which is how we’re covering it here. The first edition of Memoirs in the UK omitted the story at the request of the author. He felt the story was unsuitable for younger readers because it included adultery. Remember that point later on, and we’ll discuss how laughable that is in context. At any rate, most later UK editions reinstated the story (there are exceptions), while most US editions publish the tale in the collection His Last Bow after originally including it properly in Memoirs. They moved it not on author request, but because it was simply “scandalous.” See how screwed up that is? It’s become something of a wrong-headed tradition ever since, much like with the track continuity on Beatles albums released on Capitol Records. Just… no. I’m frustrated to say that every print copy I have ever bought — up to and including my otherwise trusty Barnes & Noble leatherbound version — is wrong, so it is with shouts of heartfelt hallelujah that I thank Stephen Fry’s audio collection for at long last giving me a solid British version.
I also realize that I could simply order a British edition online and fix that easily enough, seeing as how I order Tolkien books from the UK all the time. But you know what? At this point, it’s on my bucket list to someday visit the sitting rooms at 221B, and on that day I will sally forth to purchase a proper British hardcover collection to commemorate the event. (I may buy one online before that too, just on account.)
There is one other change to this story that still appears in many US editions as well, which drives me a bit nuts (which is why I’ll likely order one long before I make it overseas). In the story’s opening, Holmes and Watson are discussing a methodology known as “ratiocination,” whereby the detective can use facts and imagination to put himself into the mind of the criminal. The result appears to the outside as mind reading, which Watson demonstrates skepticism, and Holmes pounces on the opportunity to use it on him. The device is first employed by Edgar Allan Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin in his three tales: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (considered the first detective story), “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” and “The Purloined Letter.” It’s a really cool way to open the story, and a wonderful tip of the hat to Holmes’ predecessors, but here’s where it drives me nuts. In many US editions, this scene is clipped and moved to the beginning of “The Adventure of the Resident Patient,” found later on in Memoirs. Conan Doyle did this himself because this was his salute to that great American pulp author who created the detective story in the first place. Thanks, Mr. Poe. Dammit, ACD!
Now that I’ve ironed all that out and can safely say that nothing like this appears anywhere else in the canon, let’s talk about one more point before we proceed with the story that will take us a bit into the weeds. In this same introductory section, we learn that Watson is an admirer of Henry Ward Beecher. He’s one of those guys who was incredibly famous in his day, but has since faded to obscurity. Beecher was an American Congregationalist clergyman known for his outspoken views on social reform, especially women’s suffrage, the abolition of slavery before the Civil War, the complete absence of alcoholic beverages, and most astonishing of all for a Protestant reverend of the age, Darwin’s theory of evolution. He saw all of these things, and more besides, as the inevitable march towards progress in accordance with God’s plan. His fiery speeches helped to turn European sentiment against the Confederacy, which is most certainly how Conan Doyle would most associate him. Sounds like an upstanding, admirable guy, right? Watson seems to think so, if he keeps the man’s portrait.
A pity Beecher was on the wrong side of history when it came to workers’ rights. He thought people working on the railroad should willingly go into poverty rather than strike if that was their lot in life, and he spoke out in favor of Chinese immigration with incredibly racist and backhanded ideas about how suited they were to the menial labor positions that the upwardly mobile Irish were vacating. I swear, sometimes the hardest part about enjoying history is the people who lived it. At least he was anything but boring, right? But wait, this gets better! Somehow, incredibly, this isn’t the big “stain on his good name.” Beecher’s also most known for his 1875 adultery trial. It’s known today as “The Beecher-Tilton Scandal Case,” a matter so big it “drove Reconstruction off the front pages for two and half years” and became known as a “holocaust of womanhood.” Oops. If you enjoy reading about such colorful things, proceed to Google. It’s worthy.
So we get Conan Doyle, via Watson, to tip the hat to the man’s otherwise positive social efforts, but also a jab on his character that now lives in infamy within a story directly concerning adultery in a scandal that echoes some of the great falls of ministry leaders even today. Seems that gossip of the time claimed he’d preach to more than a half dozen mistresses every Sunday evening. You know, the more socially-minded we get in our modern era, the more historical hindsight really looks bad on Watson in some cases.
And speaking of cases, let’s talk about this one now.
We have the return of Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, who inquires after Holmes in regards to the titular cardboard box received by Miss Susan Cushing of Croydon. Lestrade suspects a prank by medical students whom Miss Cushing was forced to evict for their bad behavior. Lestrade’s conclusion is, of course, revealed to be quite the rookie mistake once Holmes makes his case. The box in question was sent from Belfast, tied with tarred string, and containing two human ears — one male, one female, both pierced — preserved in salt. Holmes deduces that medical students would have removed the ears with more precise cutting instruments and preserved them in some solution far more effective than basic salt. The address was misspelled and corrected, written in a rough hand, and suggesting of a lack of higher education. The string and port of origin suggest to Holmes that the sender is a sailor. A few questions to Miss Cushing, some basic observations, and one cable to Lestrade later, Holmes wraps up the case more neatly than the original box. In fact, he considers the solution so elementary that he asks Lestrade not to even mention his name, preferring his reputation to be built on more difficult cases. Point: Holmes.
Holmes deduces that the package is sent to the wrong Miss Cushing, just as she suggests. Based on the study of the ear and observing a photo of her and her two sisters, he believes the ear belongs to her sister Mary and her adulterous lover, and the package was intended for the other S. Cushing, the third sister, Sarah. The sender, James Browner, intended to horrify Sarah because he blamed her for everything that led to him murdering his wife Mary and her lover. Being a sailor, Browner had to wait until he made Belfast before sending the package. The next port of call being London, Holmes’ information to Lestrade allows the inspector to intercept and arrest Browner. His full statement is sent to Holmes for us to read. For his part, Holmes is disgusted with the waste of what he terms a “crime of passion,” a term first coined in an 1859 criminal trial of an American congressman, popularized ever since by stories just like this one.
A sad footnote, but it must be offered… the Granada TV version of this story in 1994 with the great Jeremy Brett was the final episode of that series due to the actor’s failing health (highly visible on screen by this point). He passed away a year later from the chain smoking habit he developed in his portrayal of Holmes.
I may have been listening to Henry Mancini’s soundtrack to Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective while writing this review. It helps, sometimes, to have a playful distraction when pushing past things that depress me or otherwise annoy the ever-loving crap out of me… like American editions that can’t get British stuff right. Yeah, I’m still harping on that. As an American, it pisses me off and just makes us all look bad (because we need more reasons to look bad to the rest of the world). So far as I’m concerned, this is quite literally an international incident, especially when you consider how detail-oriented a dedicated Sherlockian has to be.
Here’s me, going to order a top quality British hardcover edition now…