In our modern century, the first thing a new reader might understandably ask is, “What’s a pince-nez?” Eyeglasses, my dears. It translates from French to “pinch-nose,” so we’re referring to the type with the little oblong pieces that rest at either side of the bridge of one’s nose. So now that we understand that, let’s see how this fits into tale, shall we?
Willoughby Smith, secretary to the elder, invalid Professor Coram, has met a violent end. Inspector Stanley Hopkins has tried and failed to apply Holmes’ methods to the murder scene. Coram had dismissed his previous two secretaries, and the weapon of choice was the professor’s sealing wax knife. Smith was discovered by Coram’s maid, who says his last words were, “The professor, it was she.” Hopkins cannot figure out the motive for killing Smith, and he doesn’t understand what’s missing. As Watson points out, Hopkins is not Holmes, but then, this is why the inspector has brought the case directly to the Great Detective on a dismal November night.
Hopkins relates the rest of what he knows. The maid had told him that before the murder, she heard Smith leave his room and walk to the study. She recognized him by his brisk step only. She didn’t see him as she was hanging curtains. The professor was in bed. One scream from the study later, the maid hesitated, then found the body. She expands her statement to Holmes later, saying that Smith went out for a walk not long before the murder.
The only likely means of entry is through the back door. Hopkins found indistinct footmarks running along the path from the road to the door, but he couldn’t tell how big the feet were or if they were coming or going. A bureau in the professor’s study was left open, per normal, and nothing appeared to be stolen. The cupboard in the middle was locked; the professor had the key.
The titular glasses in question are the solo evidence, found in Smith’s hand. From these glasses, Holmes deduces a string of details about the murderer. She’s a woman of good breeding and refinement, dresses like a lady, has a thick nose, her eyes are close together, she has a puckered forehead, a peering gaze, and likely rounded shoulders. And just for grins, he adds that she has been to an optician at least twice in the last few months, owing to the slight wear on one cork nose pad and the complete replacement on the other. Bravo, Holmes.
The trio of crime-busters examine the site the next morning. Holmes notes recent scratches on the bureau, no doubt the murderer intending to get inside, suggesting that Smith interrupted a burglary. None saw the murderer leave nor hear a door opening. Holmes points out that the corridors leading from the back door and the one leading to the professor’s bedroom are about the same length and lined with coconut matting.
The professor gets interviewed next, as he and Holmes chain smoke Egyptian cigarettes, the professor dropping ashes all over the floor. He claims ignorance about the murder and suggests Smith took his own life. When Holmes asks about the locked cupboard, the professor surrenders the key, which Holmes inspects and returns promptly without bothering with the bureau.
Holmes tells Watson the cigarette ashes might reveal the truth, and then he proceeds to charm the housekeeper in the garden to learn about the professor’s eating habits. For someone who despises women, the man has a way about him. When the trio returns to the professor’s room, Holmes knocks the cigarettes over so as to get a good look at the floor; there are footprints in the ash! The murder emerges from her hiding place in a bookcase, exactly as Holmes deduced.
The particulars are as follows. The woman arrived to the professor’s house to obtain some documents by way of a duplicate key gained from one of the former secretaries. She was surprised by Smith, whom she attacked with the nearest object at hand. She had no intent to kill him and had no realization it was a wax knife until after the fact. The lost her glasses in her mad dash to escape, turning down the wrong corridor due to her inability to see clearly, and ending up in the professor’s room. He was surprised, but he hid her anyway. Why? Because she’s the professor’s estranged wife, Anna. Both are Russian, previously involved with a group of existential Nihilists. She and another such friend were betrayed by the professor for profit. Once she’d finished her jail time in Siberia (ouch!), she came to search for evidence that would exonerate her friend. She met Smith while he was out on his walk (thus explaining his last words). The professor’s increased appetite is explained in having to feed a second person.
And then Anna dies, having taken poison while in hiding. Her final wish is to request Holmes deliver the documents to the Russian Embassy for the sake of her friend, which he does.
While not one of the more memorable ones in the canon, I do find this one to be a solid story that holds up nicely as years go by. This is partly due to the facts of the case being traceable by the reader, which always makes us feel like Watson when the reveal comes. Also, there are little details, such as the coconut matting, that I had to learn about over the years while growing up (before the internet), so it served to enrich the story as time went on. I like that sort of thing.