Before I begin this, perhaps a note is in order regarding this particular story. In the past, we’ve already seen that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had no problem portraying people of color in his stories, and he was largely sympathetic to the idea of treating everyone equally. Class, race… it didn’t matter to him. Having said that, there are some unfortunate characterizations from time to time that, regardless of real or perceived accuracy, are hurtful in the modern world. This story features one of those characterizations, which has aged less than gracefully in the intervening decades. It would be more accurate, I think, to say that this is less of a characterization and more of a caricature. I’ll leave it at that.
This story was published in late 1926; it’s unknown when exactly it takes place.
Steve Dixie (the aforementioned unfortunate caricature) bursts into 221B, warning Holmes to keep away from Harrow. Holmes, spotting him for the coward he truly is, turns things around and secures the brute’s future cooperation with a threat regarding the suspicious Perkins death and Dixie’s involvement. Holmes just learned of the Harrow Weald case via a message from the elderly Mary Maberley of Three Gables, and he surmises that Dixie’s boss, Barney Stockdale, is connected.
Maberley’s son recently died in Rome, where he was operating as an attaché. Mrs. Maberley herself has lived at Three Gables for almost two years now, but has managed to attract very little attention from her neighbors. Out of the blue, a man recnetly offered to buy her house and all the furniture in it, but she was unwilling when her lawyer pointed out that the legal agreement would forbid her to remove any possessions at all.
During her story, Holmes realizes someone is eavesdropping: Susan, a wheezing maid. Holmes figures out that Susan told Barney Stockdale that Mrs. Maberley was hiring the detective, hence Dixie’s visit. Susan is a member of Stockdale’s gang, but she refuses to give up their secrets.
Holmes deduces that whatever it is Susan is looking for, it’s come into the house recently. A set of trunks with Italian names on them, belonging to Mrs. Maberley’s late son Douglas, are the key. He instructs Mrs. Maberley to get Mr. Sutro to spend a couple of nights at Three Gables so as to help guard the house.
Now inclined to help Holmes as he can, Dixie is found outside, keeping the house under surveillance. He swears he does not know who hired Barney Stockdale.
Holmes and Watson return to Three Gables to investigate a burglary. Mrs. Maberley was chloroformed, and the burglars stole a manuscript from her son’s belongings. She managed to hold on to part of one sheet of paper.
The police inspector, ever helpful in these stories (*ahem*), treats the scene as an ordinary burglary. Holmes examines the paper, believing it to be the end of a rather lurid novel in Douglas’ own hand. The word choices change from third person to first person, suggesting he’s putting himself into the story.
Holmes and Watson then pay a visit upon Isadora Klein, a wealthy woman quite used to getting her own way. Douglas Maberley was involved with her at one time, and when she broke off the relationship, he decided upon revenge in the form of a novel, fictionalizing a thinly-veiled account of their affair. The idea is that anyone would know immediately who the characters really were, should it be published. Klein learned that no copies ever reached the publisher, but she knew Douglas must have a copy and hired Stockdale and his people to secure it. When legal means failed, she moved on to illegal means. The manuscript has since been burnt.
To secure his own silence, Holmes forces Klein to produce a cheque £5000 so as to provide a first-class trip around the world for Mrs. Maberley.
Whenever I read this story, I get the feeling Conan Doyle was distracted by other things. It’s an interesting setup, but the execution always feels off to me. Part of is the character of Dixie, who is just written terribly. The rest of it amounts to wondering how Klein learned of the manuscript in the first place. Did Douglas actually tell her he was writing it? It seems to me that if she had as many lovers as is mentioned following the death of her extremely wealthy husband, the novel would do very little to add to her ill reputation in the first place. I can say this of so few of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but I say it here: this one doesn’t hold water… or my interest.