In this post, I would like to take a look at two phrases that have become common parlance, and how they relate to the Sherlock Holmes tales. Be forewarned that it contains SPOILERS!
The Inauspicious Sentence
“Then we rushed on into the captain’s cabin, but as we pushed open the door there was an explosion from within, and there he lay with his head on the chart of the Atlantic, which was pinned upon the table, while the chaplain stood, with a smoking pistol in his hand, at his elbow.”
And this somewhat inauspicious sentence transcribed by Watson as told to Sherlock Holmes by James Armitage from ‘The “Gloria Scott” ‘ is the supposed origin of the term “smoking gun.” The Sidney Paget illustration for this scene does indeed show a wisp of smoke emanating from the pistol. In fact, if there ever appears to be a ‘smoking gun’ almost anywhere else in a Sherlock Holmes case, it will certainly be taken up by the police and reasoned away by Holmes.
House Servants in the Sherlock Holmes Tales
The staunch, tried, and true British house-servant is seldom doubted in the Sherlock Holmes stories. In almost every case the house servants are dismissed in one sentence as suspects. There are, however, a few ‘exceptions.’
In ‘The Sign of Four’ the Indian servant Lal Rao (who is not British) communicates with John Small from inside the Bartholomew Sholto residence with bad intent.
There are several cases in ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Of course, the infamous Vincent Spaulding (aka John Clay), is the half-wage assistant in ‘The Red-Headed League’ though he works at the business, not in the house. The Indian lascar who protects the title character in ‘The Man With the Twisted Lip’ is, again, not a house servant. In ‘The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet,’ Lucy Parr, the second waiting-maid, is suspected, and she is even shown to have nefarious night-time business by Alice Holder, the daughter of Holmes’ client, but it is Alice who is the real problem. In ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,’ Holmes does not trust the servants at the Copper Beeches enough to involve them. In fact, he has Miss Violet Hunter lock Mrs. Toller in the cellar, but they show themselves to be harmless enough.
From ‘The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes we find three cases. In ‘Silver Blaze,’ Holmes demonstrates that John Straker, the trainer, is less than trustworthy, but he lives outside the home. In ‘The Musgrave Ritual’ it is Brunton, the butler, who is the centre of the controversy though his primary indiscretion is not confiding in his master, and it is he, in fact, who becomes the victim of another house servant due to his own relationship quandary. In ‘The Resident Patient,’ the newly-hired page is the one who is paid to let the real villains into the house; however, a trial did not find the page guilty of any crime.
In ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ novel, the butler, John Barrymore, is supremely suspected by Watson though Holmes is much less inclined to believe the servant’s guilt, and Barrymore proves to be innocent of the more serious crime at least. If Selden, the Notting Hill murderer (and Mrs. Barrymore’s brother), had lived, he and his wife could have been tried as accessories to a fugitive, convicted murderer — a very serious crime indeed.
In ‘The Adventure of the Priory School’ from ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes,’ the ‘servant’ who is the illegitimate son of the duke though he is apparently not tried in a court.
In ‘The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge’ from ‘His Last Bow,’ the household of Aloysius Garcia has mischievous intent, and their whole purpose in involving Mr. John Scott Eccles in their business is because of his trustworthiness as an honourable British citizen, but Eccles is not a servant while the actual servants were not British.
And finally, in ‘The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes we find some possibly disreputable servants. In ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge,’ Grace Dunbar, the British governess, who, at the commencement of the story, is already imprisoned yet her guilt is contrived, and she is cleared of the charges. In ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,’ the maid Dolores (who is not British) is caught with a ‘smoking gun’ of sorts, but the actual truth shows her to be more than loyal. Then we come to ‘The Adventure of the Three Gables,’ which includes as a character the British housemaid, Susan (Mrs. Barney Stockdale). Now Susan turns out to be a spy for Isadora Klein, so, in this case, the British house-servant — who is really a career criminal — turns out to be bad.
After all that, the British house-servants in Sherlock Holmes’ cases seem to invalidate the phrase “the butler did it.”