“The game is afoot!” It must be something important if Holmes is opening this adventure by waking Watson in a rush on a cold winter morning. Murder has been committed at Abbey Grange, presumably by burglars. The victim: Sir Eustace Brackenstall. The suspects: the infamous Randall gang, who have been committing other burglaries in the area.
Lady Brackenstall reveals that her marriage was anything but happy. Her husband was violent and abusive while drunk. In regards to the murder, she encountered an elderly man and two younger men coming in via the French window in the dining room around 11 pm. The older man struck her face, knocking her out cold. When she woke, she was gagged and tied to a chair with the bellrope, which had been torn down. Sir Eustace came into the room, wherein he was attacked and killed with a poker. Lady Brackenstall fainted again, waking to see the intruders drinking wine. Then they took some silver plate from the sideboard and left.
Inspector Hopkins fills in some details about the deceased that paints an ugly picture. Sir Eustace poured petroleum over his wife’s dog and set it on fire, he once threw a decanter at the maid, and was typically abusive, especially when drunk.
Holmes examines the bellrope. If it were tugged hard enough to tear it down, it would have rung in the kitchen. Why did no one hear it? Hopkins says the kitchen is at the back of the house, where the servants wouldn’t have heard. Seems to defeat the point of having the bell ring there, doesn’t it? In any case, the burglars would have to know this, suggesting an inside job, although the thieves took little for their efforts.
The wine bottle and glasses draw Holmes’ attention. The bottle was opened not with the long corkscrew in the drawer, but with a shorter one that is part of a “multiplex knife.” Of the three glasses, only one has beeswing in it, and Holmes makes a show of pointing out how he must be overthinking this point. When Hopkins still misses the point, Holmes scoffs at being called in for such an open and shut case and takes his leave. On the train ride back, Holmes reconsiders the case, concluding that Lady Brackenstall and her maid have lied and created a false crime scene. He and Watson turn around and return to Abbey Grange, where Holmes re-examines the scene and concludes the bellrope was cut, fraying the loose end to look like it pulled loose of its own accord, but failing to do that with the end still attached. When he confronts Lady Brackenstall and the maid, they stand firm to their original story. On the way out, Holmes notices a small hole in the ice in the pond and leaves a note for Hopkins.
For Holmes, the killer is likely a sailor, someone Lady Brackenstall would conceal. Following her travels, he identifies the sailor in question, one Jack Croker, recently promoted to captain and currently in England as he awaits his new command. Holmes is reluctant to turn him in until he can learn more. Hopkins stops by 221B with some new information. The silver was found at the bottom of the pond, which Hopkins sees as a temporary hiding place while Holmes sees it as a distraction from the murder. Also, the Randall gang was arrested that morning in New York, meaning they couldn’t commit a murder in Kent the previous night.
Captain Croker arrives to 221B when summoned by telegram, and Holmes demands a full account. Any lie or omission, the police are to be called. Croker recounts how Sir Eustace attacked his wife with a cudgel in the dining room, then attacked Croker, who killed him with the poker in self-defense. The cover story of the burglars was to avoid the scandal, but with the case revealed, it makes Lady Brackenstall and her maid into accomplices to murder. Holmes says he has 24 hours before he’ll reveal the truth to the police, but Croker wants the lady to be left out of it, which impresses Holmes. To his mind, Holmes has given Hopkins a hint, and if nothing more is made of it, it’s not his problem. He asks Watson for a verdict, who in turn offers a resounding “not guilty.” Holmes says he will keep silent unless someone else is wrongfully charged, and he may come back to his lady in a year’s time.
One of the everlasting appeals of Holmes is his understanding of justice over law. Ideally, the two concepts should line up, but where they don’t, it requires a human decision to weigh the matters. Holmes has the authority in the collective minds of the readers to be a just arbiter. It’s that sort of thing that makes a story like this stand out for the right reasons.