Whenever anyone mentions The Golden Pince-Nez, I always cry – ‘Ah yes, the one with the coconut matting!’ Never has a floor covering been so important in solving a crime.
I was honoured when The Bootmakers of Toronto, the Sherlock Holmes Society of Canada, asked me to be a guest speaker at their story meeting focusing on The Golden Pince-Nez. Established in 1972, The Bootmakers take their name from a reference in The Hound of the Baskervilles to a bootmaker in Toronto called Meyers. He made the boot which is stolen from Sir Henry Baskerville and used to train the hound to track and kill him. Thanks to Holmes’ intervention, the terrifying beast thankfully fails, and the boot provided a perfect name for this friendly and interesting society who noted in their early days that a ‘Mixture of scholarship and whimsy’ was needed at meetings. A tradition they have maintained ever since.
I was asked to provide the story commentary and loved delving back into the Pince-Nez. It has been some years since I last revisited this interesting tale and relished having an excuse to do so. Having shared my thoughts with the Bootmakers, I thought I’d share them again on the Barefoot blog as I suspect there are others who haven’t visited Yoxley Old Place and grumpy old professor Coram in a while. Maybe I can tempt you back because there’s so much more to The Golden Pince-Nez than difficult to pronounce eyewear and coconut matting.
The Pince Nez is one of the 13 stories to feature in The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle had killed off his most famous creation at the end of ‘The Memoirs’ but a public outcry persuaded Doyle to resurrect Holmes in this wonderful series starting with The Empty House.
By now the friendship between Holmes and Watson has depended and matured, their co-dependency acknowledged by them both – Holmes by paying above the odds for Watson’s Kensington practice just to have his friend returned to his side full-time, and Watson by being so quick to forgive the hiatus, give up his work and install himself back in 221b.
Holmes’ return heralds a successful and busy period of what Watson refers to in the opening of Pince Nez as ‘our work.’ By now, the consulting detective business has very much become a shared venture. The year is 1894 and Watson tells us he already has three massive manuscript volumes which contain their work for the year.
Holmes has indeed returned from the hiatus with increased vigour and enthusiasm, emboldened, I’m sure, by having his friend and biographer devoting all his time to their joint endeavours. And as they are now both living off the proceeds, it is fortunate that business is booming. No wonder Holmes took that cheque for £6000 from the Duke of Holderness in The Adventure of the Priory School – considering the average wage at the time was about £100 a year, that money would have been more than enough to pay Mrs Hudson her rent.
Watson tells us at the start of Pince Nez that Holmes has even gained the order of the legion of honour from the French President. This would certainly have added to his notoriety and therefore also his bankability. Even Lestrade’s attitude is softening, we have that lovely statement by him in Six Napoleons as Holmes pulled the black pearl from the shattered bust – ‘We’re not jealous of you at Scotland yard. No sir, we are very proud of you!’ prompting Watson to comment that Holmes was ‘more nearly moved by the softer human emotions than I had ever seen him.’ I suspect this high praise meant more to Holmes than all the money in Holderness’s bank account.
In Pince Nez Holmes is on top form, and so is Doyle with yet another of his wonderful descriptions of stormy London weather – ‘outside the wind howled down baker street, while the rain beat fiercely against the windows. It was strange there in the very depths of the town, with ten miles of man’s handiwork on every side of us, to feel the iron grip of nature, and to be conscious that to the huge elemental forces London was no more than the molehills that dot the fields.’
How seamlessly Doyle can switch from the literary, with all its rich imagery and metaphors, to concise writing which rapidly moves a story forward – particularly his use of dialogue.
Pince Nez starts with the familiar set-up, Holmes and Watson sitting together in companionable silence as the storm rages outside, a fire burning in the grate as Watson studies a recent treatise on surgery and Holmes sits with his magnifying glass deciphering an inscription on a palimpsest from the fifteenth century. In walks Stanley Hopkins, a promising young detective. That raging storm rattling down Baker Street echoing the confusion in Hopkins’ own mind as he grapples with the apparently motiveless murder of a Mr Willoughby Smith, secretary to the reclusive Professor Coram, stabbed in the neck and left to bleed to his death in the professor’s study – clutching a golden pince nez snatched from the murderer during the struggle. When the maid finds him, he has just enough strength to mutter his final words – ‘the professor – it was she.’
Hopkins can now unburden himself of his troubles and find refuge from the storm in the cosy interior of 221b and the relief that comes from putting trust in Holmes’ unique method and superior mind.
This method is at once put to work analysing the pince nez which Hopkins has wisely brought to his mentor. Holmes treats us to another fine example of his highly tuned observational skills and power of reasoning inferring from such an innocuous object that the murderer is a woman, has a thick nose, eyes close together, and rounded shoulders. She has twice visited an optician. At first, Hopkins is astonished, likewise us readers, but as Holmes explains his reasoning all seems so obvious, simple. Elementary. Doyle plays this trick many, many times and we fall for it every time. The conclusions first, the explanations second, giving the former much greater impact. If Holmes had simply said, ‘The pince nez is very delicate, it must therefore belong to a woman,’ he wouldn’t be such an exciting character or betray that love of drama, that hint of vanity and need for praise always battling with his otherwise controlled emotions.
Another commonplace item also yields a vital clue when Holmes and Watson visit the scene of the crime, the professor’s home in Kent – Yoxley Old Place. Seeing that the corridor to the professor’s bedroom and that which leads from the front door to the study, are both of similar length and lined with coconut matting, suggests to Holmes the possibility that a person with poor eyesight could easily mix up the two. Other clues go on to support his growing suspicion that the lady must still be in the house, and the most likely hiding place is the professor’s bedroom. Could he be shielding her?
We are treated to observations such as the scratch on the bureau’s lock which Hopkins had missed, suspicious footprints, books piled up against every bookcase in the professor’s room except one – suggesting a recess behind. All forming links in a chain which Holmes carefully tests, such as asking about the professor’s appetite to ascertain whether he may have requested extra food to feed whoever he may be sheltering.
He’s a chain smoker, and Holmes uses this to full advantage by accepting his offer of fancy Egyptian cigarettes which he starts smoking copiously, dropping ash in front of the suspected hiding place.
But then Holmes has a rare moment of self-doubt when he takes a walk in the garden with Watson.
‘Have you a clue?’ Watson asks.
‘It depends on those cigarettes that I smoked,’ Holmes replies. ‘It is possible that I am utterly mistaken.’
For a man who usually insists that he does not guess, admitting that he’s taken a chance on a theory which may well prove to be wrong, is a rare moment of candour.
But, of course, he is right, and on returning to the professor’s room sees traces in the ash just as he’d hoped. Then the woman herself bursts from her hiding place and reveals the backstory of the case, until she is overcome by the poison administered by her own hand.
The professor is Russian and she his estranged wife. As with so many of the stories, mistakes and crimes of the past have come back to haunt those who have since reinvented themselves as respectable Englishmen. But in this case, it’s an innocent young man who pays the price – Willoughby Smith who the wife accidently stabbed when he caught her trying to retrieve stolen papers from the professor’s bureau. Now she herself has died, leaving the one-time violent Russian revolutionary, now cantankerous old professor, as the only survivor.
This has always felt like an unsatisfactory ending to me, the real villain of the piece survives. And though the story serves as a good example of Holmes’ method of deduction, how his incredible observational skills inspire chains of logic and reasoning which bring about conclusions which, once explained, are so simple the reader is left wondering why on earth they didn’t work it out sooner themselves. But I think there are better examples in the canon and can completely understand why Granada felt the need to spice up the story in their adaptation, as well as add a more satisfying ending. In their version, a member of the Russian brotherhood betrayed by the professor breaks into his room and murders him.
We also feel rather less sorry for Willoughby Smith in this version, he is portrayed as a womaniser sleeping with the innocent young maid while trying to win the hand of a spirited suffragette. We see him dismissing the woman’s suffrage movement in the most derogatory terms and hitting the woman he intends to marry. This then provides an extra layer to the story as police arrest her as an early suspect in his murder. Writer Gary Hopkins clearly felt the need to embellish this otherwise rather simple story and make viewers more sympathetic towards the wronged woman who was driven to extremes by her husband’s actions – especially as we now see Willoughby Smith as less of a victim, more of an abuser himself. Another major change was replacing Watson with Mycroft because Edward Hardwicke was unavailable. Charles Grey stepped in, and the episode contains fun moments of rivalry and sparing between the Holmes brothers.
When I reviewed Pince Nez in my 56 stories in 56 days blogging series, I only gave it six out of ten. Revisiting it again I feel inclined to push it up to a seven. The tropes we all love are all there – the stormy night, the visitor who sits by the fire and brings a case, the observations which elevate the commonplace and bring about startling conclusions.
An official police detective would not have stood there greedily smoking Egyptian cigarettes and dropping the ash as a trap. But Holmes exists outside the official, he can use short-cuts and do things his own way to get results. He can’t resist a touch of the dramatic. And we love him all the more for it.