“I see no more than you, but I have trained myself to notice what I see.”
Published in October 1926 and taking place in January 1903, during the time when Watson had married, his only “selfish action” in Holmes’ estimation of their time together. And that brings up a major point: this story is one of two in the canon narrated not by Dr. Watson, but rather by Holmes himself. (The other is “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” seven stories from now.) It’s worth noting that in both of these stories, Watson does not feature, which is to be expected given married life and his own medical practice. Holmes claims from the outset how Watson’s repeatedly told his friend how superficial his written accounts were, and Watson encouraged Holmes to try his own hand at it. And so, we get a tale where Holmes puts his money where his mouth is, so to speak. The tonal shift is immediately recognized, but even Holmes is forced to admit that he has to play to his audience in order to keep a reader’s interest.
James M. Dodd comes to Baker Street to see Holmes concerning a missing a friend, ine Godfrey Emsworth. The two served together in the Imperial Yeomanry in South Africa during the Second Boer War (which ended the previous May). Emsworth was wounded, and Dodd has had no word since the report of the injury. Given their friendship, Dodd fears something is terribly wrong.
Dodd reached out to Godfrey’s father, Colonel Emsworth, writing twice before receiving an answer, at which point he was told in an unfriendly manner that Godfrey was not at home and had gone on a voyage around the world. Dodd was certain his friend would do no such thing without telling him, so he appeared at the family home, wherein the Colonel was a rather rude host. The cover story was repeated, the implication being that Dodd was lying, and the Colonel seemed bothered by the mere suggestion of providing enough information through which Dodd could send a letter.
That evening when the butler, Ralph, came to deliver some coal to Dodd’s ground floor bedroom, Dodd pursued his inquiry, and Ralph spoke of Godfrey in the past tense, suggesting his friend was dead. Ralph confirmed that he was alive, but it might be better were he not. Later that night, Godfrey appeared at the window, nose pressed against the glass, looking pale as death. Seeing Dodd looking right at him, he ran off, but Dodd climbed out after him. He could not tell where Godfrey had gone, but he heard a door slam somewhere ahead, not at the house behind him.
Opting to stay another day at the Emsworth home, Dodd went looking around the property. A well-dressed man leaving an outbuilding gave Dodd the suspicion that this is where Godfrey had gone, but the man and Dodd were aware of each watching the other, and suspicion is aroused. After nightfall, Dodd again climbed out the window and proceeded to the outbuilding. Finding a crack in the shutters, he could see the man he’d seen before and another figure whom he could not see clearly, but Dodd was sure it was Godfrey. At this point, Colonel Emsworth tapped Dodd on the shoulder, accused him of spying, and ordered him on the first available train.
Dodd comes straight to Holmes with this tale, and the case immediately obvious to Holmes upon the telling. Holmes and Dodd visit the estate with a missing clue in hand, risking the righteous anger of the Colonel. The clue is a tarry smell from the leather gloves that Ralph has removed. When the Colonel threatens police intervention, Holmes states that calling them would cause the turn of events the Colonel hopes to avoid.
Holmes’ deduction: leprosy, which Holmes and Dodd confirm from Godfrey himself. The night he was wounded, he found his way to a house, where he slept, waking in the morning surrounded by lepers. The house was a leper hospital, and a doctor informed him he’d likely contract the disease after a night in a leper’s bed. The doctor treated his wounds, but the symptoms of the disease began to appear upon his return to England. For fear of an institution and the scandal that comes with it, the family segregated their son and kept his presence secret.
Holmes, however, has brought with him Sir James Saunders, a famous dermatologist from London. His diagnosis is one of ichthyosis, or pseudo-leprosy, a treatable disease. Yay for happy endings.
Stories like this, being of their time and place, are often shunned by the public today for being politically incorrect. Such is the environment we live in today. I continue to argue, however, that it’s important to understand such things all the same. Better to be enlightened than to be dismissive.
Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, as it’s known now has been a one of those great incurable fears since Biblical times, if not before. Much like the other great incurable fears, such as the Black Death, the only known way to deal with it was separation lest it be contracted and spread throughout the rest of the population. Thing is, today we know it to be curable, and most leper colonies have since been closed as the disease is not nearly as contagious as historical stigma would have us believe. Such beliefs didn’t start to change until the mid-1950s. Holmes’ “pseudo-leprosy,” Ichthyosis, is a rare genetic skin disorder, and there are reportedly many kinds of it, thus making diagnosis difficult. I translate that as being nigh-impossible to figure it out when the story was written, let alone when it takes place. But with some topical creams and some trial and error, it is indeed treatable as the story claims.
This is also not the first time we’ve heard mention of the Second Boer War in the Holmes canon. This is the sort of thing that would be common knowledge to contemporary readers, but the older the stories get, and the less the history is taught, the more esoteric such knowledge becomes. This is the kind of thing that readers might be tempted to skip past, thus meaning they don’t really get the full understanding of the tale. It’s also the kind of thing that makes readers of historical fiction lazy, because they expect to be spoonfed the information they need rather than taking some initiative. We live in the age of the internet, and it should be a golden age of curiosity. I sometimes wonder if part of the blame could be because of the detective mystery stories, wherein the reader is dazzled by the information dump when the sleuth reveals the solution. For the casual reader, that may be true. But the one thing that keeps me positive is seeing how much fandom at any level becomes the quest to know “all the things.” To that end, Holmes provides something of a public service, I think, just on account of remaining as ever-popular as he does.
And one last point of geekdom, if I may… Holmes mentions that his investigation is delayed due to an engagement in another case, which Watson describes as “that of the Abbey School, in which the Duke of Greyminster was so deeply involved.” For those who like to connect the dots, this refers back to an earlier story, “The Adventure of the Priory School.”