“You know that I cannot possibly leave London while old Abrahams is in such mortal terror of his life. Besides, on general principles it is best that I should not leave the country. Scotland Yard feels lonely without me, and it causes an unhealthy excitement among the criminal classes.”
This is one of those stories where Holmes is at his most insufferable and territorial, much like his successor to the mantle of Great Detective, the Batman. Sometimes what is seen cannot be unseen. Even so, we tolerate Holmes as a character precisely because such quirks make him human, however rude and obnoxious at times. Sometimes it seems that when he steps into the background, he has to become even more snooty when he makes his presence known. In most other characters, that would be turn-off. Why, then, does it work so well for Holmes?
As suggested, this tale is one in which Holmes steps back, pushing Watson into the limelight of his own adventure. Watson is sent to Lausanne (a French-speaking area of Switzerland) to investigate, as the title reveals, the disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax. She is a single, unwed woman denied a rather substantial inheritance due to her gender. She carries valuable jewels on her person. She is in the habit of writing every other week to her old governess, Miss Dobney, but there has been no letters in the past five weeks. She left the Hôtel National for some unknown destination. The last two banking transactions were cheques for her hotel bill and for her maid, Miss Marie Devine for £50, reason unknown, and cashed less than three weeks ago in Montpellier.
Watson’s investigations lead him to discover that Lady Frances left in a hurry, with only one witness offering a hint of explanation: a large, bearded man who kept bothering her. It’s also revealed the maid left Lady Frances’ service for unknown reasons. Watson learns that Lady Frances made her way to the Englischer Hof in Baden, Germany, where she stayed for a fortnight and met with a couple named Shlessinger, a South American missionary, and an invalid. She left with them three weeks ago for London and has not been heard from since. The bearded man came looking for her about a week ago. When Watson wires Holmes what he has learned, Holmes asks for a description of Dr. Shlessinger’s left ear. Watson believes it to be a joke, but Holmes is deadly serious.
In Montpellier, France, Watson visits Marie Devine, the maid. She’s left Lady Frances’ employ as she’s getting married. The cheque in question was a wedding present. The bearded man is believed to be her reason that Lady Frances left Lausanne, and Miss Devine sees the man in question across the street. Watson rushes out to confront him and is nearly strangled in the fight until a workman breaks up the fight with a cudgel. The workman is Holmes in disguise, who suggests to Watson that he should return with him to London.
“And a singularly consistent investigation you have made, my dear Watson,” said he. “I cannot at the moment recall any possible blunder which you have omitted. The total effect of your proceeding has been to give the alarm everywhere and yet to discover nothing.”
Have I ever mentioned that Holmes is a jackass? And yet, you’d think by this point that, with all of the knowledge he possesses, that an understanding of how Watson operates — even while utilizing Holmes’ methods — will result in less than perfect results in Holmes’ eyes. It’s a given. And yet, Holmes does know this and proceeds on his own investigation, doubling down on my own point that he is indeed a jackass. It’s not difficult for a casual reader to think that Watson is used more as a pawn instead of relied upon as a partner, but because we know Holmes so well by this point, we know such is not true. It’s just that Holmes is a jackass in how he goes about such things.
Holmes interviews the bearded man, learning him to be the Honourable Philip Green, an old suitor of Lady Frances. He still wants to win her heart. In his younger days, he was not rich, but he’s since made a fortune in South Africa. Still, his demeanor hasn’t changed much, and Holmes suggests he return to London.
At Baker Street, Holmes receives a telegram about Dr. Shlessinger’s left ear, “jagged or torn.”This confirms his suspicion that Dr. Shlessinger is in fact Henry Peters, an Australian whose earlobe was chewed away in a bar fight. His wife’s real name is Fraser. His modus operandi is to play on young women’s religious beliefs, matching the pattern as happened to Lady Frances, which is where Holmes got the idea to inquire about the ear. Holmes believes Lady Frances is in London, confined or possibly dead.
Known associates are followed by police, advertisements are posted, but nothing happens until a pawnshop reports a a person Shlessinger’s description pawning a pendant like the one owned by Lady Frances. A false address is given, but knowing that Peters will want to pawn more jewelry, Holmes has Green wait and watch. It takes a few days, then his wife shows up to pawn a matching pendant. Green follows her, first to an undertaker’s where an “out of the ordinary” order is discussed, and then to an address in Brixton. Watching the house, he sees some men deliver a coffin.
Holmes writes a note and hands it to Green, sending him to secure a warrant, after which Holmes and Watson go to the undertaker’s to ask about the funeral — at eight o’clock the next morning — and then to Brixton to search the house. Without a warrant, Holmes barges in under threat of violence, where he finds the coffin with a very old dead woman, decidedly not Lady Frances. Peters explains that it’s his wife’s old nurse, and takes great delight in rubbing it in that Holmes was wrong before demanding the pair leave. When the police do show to enforce the lack of warrant, Holmes makes his case known, and the officer watches the house until the warrant can be secured the next morning.
Holmes realizes what’s happening early that morning, and he and Watson rush to Brixton to ensure the coffin is not removed for burial before the warrant shows up. The lid is unscrewed, revealing Lady Frances inside, chloroformed, in a coffin too large for only one body. Peters and his wife were capable of kidnapping to steal some jewels, but they were too squeamish for murder. Watson revives Lady Frances while the Peterses have fled. So it seems that for all of his mannerisms that confirm Holmes is a jackass, his priorities are ever intact, and his heart remains ever in the right place. That is, after all, why we keep reading these stories.
And as for me, the name Carfax will forever be associated with coffins, partly because of this tale, and partly because of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, wherein Carfax Abbey was the primary estate acquired by the title character. It’s completely non-sequitur, but it lines up in my head a little too well.