This case takes place shortly after Watson’s marriage following The Sign of Four. He cites that it is of peculiar note when Sherlock Holmes leaves his lodgings for any reason other than professional necessity. Of course, he doesn’t take into account that Holmes asking him to join him on a case counts as just such an excuse, and the ensuing banter is always the perfect setup to a case. It’s friendship, but it’s business all the same. Heaven forbid Holmes should do anything resembling normalcy without a case-oriented motive. Their client, a young clerk named Hall Pycroft, awaits them outside to fill them in on the details en route to Birmingham.
Pycroft relates that he was recently made redundant at a stockbroking house and looked to other employment. He secured a post at Mawson and Williams on Lombard Street. One Arthur Pinner offered him a management post with a newly established hardware distribution company, based in France. Pycroft is sent to Birmingham to meet Harry Pinner, Arthur’s brother and co-founder of the company. Upon arrival, he notes the minimal furniture and Pinner’s resemblance to his brother. Pycroft is offered a generous salary and advance, and is asked to sign a statement that he accepts the position, but he’s also asked not to resign his former job. Given his reservations, he also notes for Holmes that the two men had the same badly-filled gold tooth, suggesting they may be one and the same man.
Holmes and Watson accompany Pycroft to the Birmingham office, where Holmes is presented as an accountant, and Watson a fellow clerk, both seeking posts. Pinner is pale upon arrival, obviously in shock, reading a London newspaper. He goes behind a closed door as the trio leaves, but they are in time to rescue the man as he attempts suicide.
Holmes deduces that there is only one Pinner as Pycroft surmised, lacking the manpower to pull off a full-scale con. As it happens, the con itself was to obtain a sample of Pycroft’s handwriting so that a fake Pycroft may take his place at his old firm, which was keeping a stock of valuable securities. Fake Pycroft was a common safecracker.
According to the newspaper, Mawson and Williams had an attempted robbery and the weekend watchman murdered, but the safecracker had been caught after stealing a large amount of American railway bonds. With one brother caught, the other brother who had been posing as twins attempted to take his own life to avoid justice.
An elaborate hoax, an innocent dupe, a means to keep that dupe conveniently away from the crime being committed, and… we’ve seen this before, haven’t we? “The Red-Headed League” was a similar plot, and we’ll see it again down the road. The difference is that this time the innocent dupe was observant enough to catch the incriminating detail that couldn’t be otherwise explained away. In this case, the gold tooth. Also of note, which I don’t think I’ve ever really caught before now, is that Holmes didn’t actually catch the criminal this time. The entire affair was over and done with before he arrived on the scene. All he really did was turn in the accomplice and clear a man’s name… which might actually be the more difficult bit to achieve in a case of this nature in Victorian Britain. Less fanfare, but certainly more praiseworthy than this story might suggest at first glance.