I think we can all agree that it’s not everyday you get a Sherlock Holmes mystery involving a harpoon as a murder weapon. A young police inspector, Stanley Hopkins, admires Holmes and asks him for help on this particular case. By the time the story opens, Holmes is already hard at work and has determined the great deal of skill and strength required to not only run a man through with a harpoon, but to have the weapon embed itself in the wall behind the victim. Of course, Watson has to wait for any of this explanation, first dealing with several scary types arriving at his dwelling to inquire after “Captain Basil” and eventually seeing Holmes walk in with a harpoon tucked under his arm. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, turns out you haven’t.
The victim is 50-year-old Peter Carey, aka “Black Peter,” a whaler and sealer, former captain of the Sea Unicorn. Carey had a reputation of being unpleasant and violent, especially while drunk, having once assaulted a local vicar. Given the years of abuse his wife and daughter suffered at his hands, his daughter is actually glad he’s dead. Says it all, don’t you think? Carey was found harpooned in the cottage he built behind his family house, where he usually slept having decked it out to resemble a sailor’s cabin on a ship. The only other physical evidence at the crime scene was a small sealskin tobacco pouch monogrammed with the initials, “P. C.” Peter Carey, however seldom smoked, and no pipe was found in the cabin, thus marking this as an unusual clue.
A stonemason named Slater says he saw a shadow of a head on Carey’s blind in one of the cabin windows that he’s certain was not Carey. Carey was said to be in the foulest of moods the next day, then around two o’clock the next morning, his daughter heard a scream from the direction of the cabin but dismissed it as he often screamed when he was drunk. The murder was discovered around midday. Carey was fully dressed, suggesting he was expecting someone, and there was rum set out with two dirty glasses. Brandy and whiskey were available, but neither had been touched. A knife in its sheath at Carey’s feet is identified as belonging to him. A notebook is discovered containing the initials J. H. N. and the year 1883 (the story is set in 1895). On the second page it reads C. P. R., which Holmes figures to mean Canadian Pacific Railway. As the book appears to be stock exchange information, he suggests the first set of initials belongs to the broker.
Although a burglar tried and failed to get into the cabin, Holmes notes from a lack of dust on one shelf that something has been removed, presumably a book or a box. He suspects the burglar will try again, so he, Watson, and Hopkins lie in wait that night. The burglar does indeed show, cursing when he discovers the information he seeks is missing from the logbooks. He is arrested as he turns to leave.
The burglar is John Hopley Neligan (initials matching the found notebook), son of a failed banker who had disappeared. He claims his father disappeared with a box full of securities after his bank failed, which he took on a yacht bound for Norway. He believes that bad weather may have driven the boat north where it encountered Carey’s ship, and that Carey possibly murdered him. He has traced some of the missing securities back to Carey, driving his suspicion. Hopkins arrests him, though Neligan swears his innocence in the murder. Holmes believes him as Neligan is a thin, anemic man, hardly capable of wielding a harpoon, let alone driving it through a man and into the wall behind him. A professional harpooner is clearly the murderer.
Holmes advertises for a professional harpooner (much as he did regarding the goose in the “Blue Carbuncle”), posing as sea captain Basil. Three applicants arrive to 221B, and one of them is the killer, confirmed by his name: Patrick Cairns (matching the initials of the tobacco pouch). Cairns was a former shipmate of Carey, and Holmes gambles that given that Cairns had just committed a murder, he’d want to leave the country for a while. He handcuffs Cairns, who denies murder and claims self-defense as Carey was reaching for his knife. Cairns was there to blackmail him regarding the securities, and Carey reacted as he typically did, prompting Cairns to take action. To his mind, killing a man is not the same as murder, and he did the law a favor.
Holmes notes that the rum was another clue, as only a sailor would opt for that over brandy and whiskey. Not sure I buy that one, but it works for the story if you enjoy dealing in stereotypes… which it needs reminding that those typically happen because they tend to be born in some manner of truth. Anyway… Neligan is released, and the securities are returned, save for the unrecoverable ones that Carey sold.
All things considered, I think the screwball opening of this one, combined with the arguments between killing and murder mark this one as one of the more memorable ones.