Wednesday, February 27, 2013

38. Ambush

“An assassin does not come unarmed.”
“The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez”

“The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez,” the second (although, as the story is set in 1894, immediately post-Hiatus, it is chronologically the first) of the Holmes stories (after “Black Peter”) to feature Inspector Stanley Hopkins of Scotland Yard, provides us with a glimpse of Holmes at his best. Utilizing all of the, by now, popular conventions of the Holmes mystery: the brilliant deductions and surprising forensic analyses of clothing, furniture, finger- or foot-prints, the formidable adversary, this time in the person of the chain-smoking, invalid Professor Coram, and a setting that is more than it first appears, this time Yoxley Old Place, near Chatham, that holds many secrets. Perhaps most notable in the story is its suspenseful conclusion, in which Holmes deploys an ingenious plan to ambush a murderer-at-large. But just as the Yoxley case is a tangled web of intrigue, the story itself contains its fair share of twists.

Holmes was never one to shy away from trapping his criminal interlocutors. One need only consider the conclusions to “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,” and “The Speckled Band.” However, in “The Golden Pince-Nez,” Holmes concocts his plan with an almost military precision, in both a strategic sense, and, as the story eventually bears out, a literal one. The political subtext of the story is revealed subtly, and owes much to the twin poles of Conan Doyle’s use of minor characters providing illuminating exposition and Holmes’s own relative silence with regard to his plan until just the right moment. As Holmes himself remarks, it was “a simple case, and yet in some ways an instructive one,” and readers emerge delighted to see Holmes at the height of his powers. 

However, Holmes’s ambush plot, while brilliantly conceived, is not without its consequences, as the story’s reveal takes on an implication that Holmes could neither predict, nor would have intended. As with the earlier stories, Holmes is left reflecting—along with the reader—on both the great heights of his skills of detection—and the sorrowful lows that they must plumb. 

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