Following the death of his first wife in 1906, belief in the Otherworld ramped up for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Spiritualism was a big deal at that point in history, with Theosophy holding sway in the UK and the US from the mid-1870s to the late 1920s. But Conan Doyle’s interest in the supernatural was always there. He was a founding member of the Hampshire Society for Psychical Research in 1889, and he joined the London-based Society for Psychical Research in 1893. He is known to have take part in a poltergeist investigation in Devon in 1894, and yet, he was never more than an enthusiast. In 1916, at the height of the war, his beliefs took a decidedly more committed turn. He came to believe his children’s nanny had psychic abilities, and combined with the sheer death all around at that point, he began to rationalize the idea that Spiritualism was a “New Revelation” sent by God to comfort the grieving. His first work on these lines, The New Revelation, was published in 1918, and in those years he wrote to Light magazine about faith and frequently lectured on Spiritualism. The story only grows more bizarre and somewhat tragic from there. I encourage anyone with an interest to read more into it. Suffice it to say, ACD was all about proving life beyond the grave and the existence of faeries, to the point of willful ignorance even when the likes of Harry Houdini proved otherwise to his face and cautioned him about “endorsing phenomena” with seemingly no other explanation.
And that brings us back to Sherlock Holmes. The elements of the supernatural and the spiritual are all over other works that ACD wrote, especially in his later years. But Holmes steadfastly gave voice to Houdini’s own warnings, that there is always a logical explanation, and that immortal attribution is a fool’s errand. It’s one of those curious points in literature where ACD stayed loyal to the character of his detective. This had the effect of undermining his own validity and authority in the supernatural, and it would inspire generations to come to seek out the more logical and human explanations behind the unknown.
This case brings Holmes and Watson to Poldhu in Cornwall for Holmes’ health, but in typical fashion, a holiday for Holmes turns into a case. One might say he attracts this sort of thing. Mortimer Tregennis and Mr. Roundhay, a local gentleman and the local vicar respectively, come to Holmes with a most dire situation. Tregennis’ two brothers have gone insane, they say, and his sister has died. Tregennis had paid them a visit, played some whist (a classic card game in the 18th and 19th centuries), and took his leave. At one point during the evening, one brother looked out the window, and Tregennis turned to see movement outside. The next morning, he found them still at the table. George and Owen, the brothers, were singing and laughing. The sister, Brenda, was dead. The housekeeper had discovered them and fainted outright. Tregennis had once been estranged from his siblings regarding a division of proceeds from the sale of the family business, but he insisted all was forgiven even though he still lived apart from them. The doctor summoned suggested Brenda had been dead six hours. To Tregennis’ mind, the entire matter is the work of the Devil, which always sounds fantastic in stories of this sort. Unless you’re reading something like The Exorcist, the first instinct is to laugh at this. The point is, however, Tregennis believes this, and Holmes rushes in where angels fear to tread because that’s what he does best.
During the course of his investigation, Holmes kicks over a watering pot, soaking everyone’s feet, presumably by accident. The housekeeper confirms that she heard nothing out of the ordinary. The family had been happy and fortunate lately. Holmes notes the remnants of a fire in the fireplace, and Tregennis explains the night was cold and damp.
Later on, Holmes lays out the case for Watson, stating outright that there’s no point in giving attribution to the Devil. It’s a human matter, pure and simple. Everything was in the same place, so no one had moved from the table. A footprint sample was obtained from Mortimer Tregennis (from the watering pot “accident”) when he swiftly returned to the vicarage where he lives. The movement outside that Tregennis reported was from Tregennis himself. Holmes explains that, given the weather, anyone appearing outside would have to come right up to the window, trampling the flowerbed, found to be intact. The question remains, what could the person at the window have done to cause horror sufficient enough to instantly kill a person?
A famous hunter and explorer, Dr. Leon Sterndale, is wired from the vicar with the news of the death, and being a cousin of the Tregennises, he aborts his plans to sail from Plymouth. Sterndale asks Holmes about his suspicions, but Holmes refuses to say. When Sterndale leaves, Holmes discreetly follows.
Holmes returns the next morning to his room, apparently unsuccessful, when the vicar arrives in a fluster. Mortimer Tregennis has died in the same manner as his sister. They rush to his room. It’s foul and stuffy, but a window has been opened. A lamp is burning beside the dead man. Holmes does his sweep of the place, placing interest in the upstairs window and scraping some ash from the lamp into an envelope.
Buying a lamp like the one in Tregennis’ room, he tests his hypothesis regarding how the victims died, went mad, fainted, or otherwise felt unwell. Lighting the lamp, he puts some of the collected “ash” on the smoke guard. The smoke from the powder creates a poison so strong it knocks Holmes down immediately. Watson resists and drags Holmes out of the room in the nick of time. To Holmes, Tregennis poisoned his siblings, but who killed him in return? Gee, who else could it be?
Dr. Sterndale left physical evidence at the vicarage, implicating himself. Holmes confronts him, and Sterndale explained that he loved Brenda for years. He’d been unable to marry her because of the current marriage laws that prevented divorce from his wife even though she’d abandoned him years ago. He killed Mortimer in revenge for the murder of his siblings, and especially for the murder of Brenda. Makes me wonder… if Sterndale had this in him, why not pull a Henry VIII and simply off his wife, leaving him free and clear to marry Brenda? Pay no attention to the idea of marrying his cousin. That was more commonplace back then.
In any case, the fact that Sterndale was more angered to murder out of love rather than the premeditated sort means that Holmes is far more sympathetic to him. The poison is called Radix pedis diaboli, Latin for “Devil’s-foot root.” Sterndale had collected it in Africa as a curiosity and explained its workings to Mortimer, who stole some and threw it on the fireplace to murder his siblings before he left. The toxins are released by heat and spread through the air in the smoke. Mortimer assumed Sterndale would be at sea before the news reached Plymouth, but he knew what happened as soon as he heard, prompting him to kill his cousin in revenge. As said, Holmes was sympathetic and bade Sterndale to return to his work in Africa.
I’ve always liked the idea of this one far better than the execution. It always seemed a bit obvious to me just by process of elimination, seeing as how the housekeeper is clearly blameless. Still, it wouldn’t take too much to rework this into something on the order of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Seems like a missed opportunity. But such was the nature of serial publication. It’s still a good tale.