Even Sherlock Holmes has his limits. After a case in France (the details of which are conveniently sidestepped) that taxes his genius and awards him all manner of international accolades, the Great Detective is stricken with an illness brought on through overwork. Reading into his character, it’s easy to surmise that it’s because he hit a peak moment in his career and feared that little would compare for awhile, so it’s less overwork and more boredom and depression. Such things would normally lead him to his cocaine habit, but Watson intervenes and whisks him away to a friend’s estate near Reigate in Surrey, one Colonel Hayter. Hayter is a former patient of Watson, treated by the doctor during their time in Afghanistan. This offers us a rare glimpse into Watson’s life before he met Holmes. Holmes, naturally suspicious of anything that sounds like coddling, resisted until he was assured the destination in question was a bachelor’s retreat, confirming yet again the detective’s allergy to women… contrary to the legions of authors and fans who can’t seem to wrap their heads around this idea.
The nearby Acton estate has recently been burgled, whereby the thieves broke into the library to steal a random list of things including a ball of twine, but virtually nothing of intrinsic value. The Colonel’s butler tells of a murder of one William Kirwan, the coachman at the nearby Cunningham estate. According to Inspector Forrester, in charge of the investigation, there is a clue, a torn piece of paper with a few words on it written in Kirwan’s hand. This immediately fascinates Holmes, a fresh case being exactly the thing to help him over his ailments.
Holmes notices the note fragment was, in fact, written by two men, each writing every other word. One writer is older, the other younger, and they are related. He keeps this observation to himself until the end of the story, along with twenty-three other observations of interest only to experts in handwriting. How’s that for smug? One line of text reads “quarter to twelve,” the approximate time of death of Mr. Kirwan. Holmes remarks the rest of the note would be in the pocket of the murderer, which seems circular logic given that one would need to find the murderer to obtain the clue.
It becomes known in short order that there is a legal dispute between the Actons and the Cunninghams involving about half of the estate currently in the latters’ hands. Holmes begins his investigation, interviewing the two Cunningham gentlemen, young Alec and his father. Alec says he saw the burglar struggling with Kirwan when a shot rang out and Kirwan fell dead. The burglar ran off through a hedge. The father claims he was in his room smoking, while Alec states he’d also still been up. Holmes understands that no burglar with common sense would break into a house with lit lamps for risk of detection. Likewise, Kirwan’s body had no powder burns, hence the shooter was at distance rather than point blank range. The hedge in question leads to the road as claimed, but there is a boggy ditch that would have to be crossed with no signs of footprints.
When Forrester is about to mention the singular paper clue to the Cunninghams, Holmes uses the excuse of his illness to fake some odd behavior. He gets Cunningham to correct a mistake in an advertisement for publication, cleverly getting the man to write the word “twelve” so as to match it against the scrap of paper. Then, having dismissed the entire idea of a burglar as a ruse, he opts to search the Cunninghams’ rooms despite their protests, first Alec’s, then his father’s. In the elder Cunningham’s room, he deliberately knocks over a small table, and with it a water carafe and some oranges… then accuses Watson of clumsiness. Watson plays along, gathering the oranges while groveling a bit, and acting as a distraction while Holmes slips the room. Moment’s later, Holmes calls for help.
Watson and Forrester rush to Alec’s room where the two Cunninghams are assaulting Holmes. They are restrained, and Holmes orders their arrest for the murder of William Kirwan. Forrester thinks Holmes has gone mad, but the guilt is all over their faces. Pay no attention to the fact that they should be arrested anyway for assaulting Holmes. The gun knocked from Alec’s hand is, naturally, the murder weapon. The rest of the note is found in Alec’s dressing gown pocket His father comes clean and tells all. The coachman had followed his two employers the night they broke into the Acton estate, in pursuit of the documents supporting Acton’s legal claim of the land in dispute. Kirwan then decided to blackmail them, so the Cunninghams staged a burglary as the means to get rid of him.
In the end, Holmes is fully recovered once more, telling Watson, “I think our quiet rest in the country has been a distinct success, and I shall certainly return much invigorated, to Baker Street to-morrow.”
This is one of those times when I envy Holmes, having a career he loves to the exclusion of all else.