Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Boscombe Valley Mystery


Baring-Gould dates The Boscombe Valley Mystery in June of 1889. Watson does not give us a year, but does offer the same month. Watson is also married in this adventure, implying that the case took place sometime during his marriage to Miss Morstan. The story was first published in 1891.


A young woman by the name of Miss Turner seeks Sherlock Holmes' aid in proving the innocence of her oldest and dearest childhood friend; one James McCarthy. James has been accused of murdering his father, Charles McCarthy, and the evidence against him is overwhelming. Armed with only a footprint, an envelope of cigar ash, and a misplaced rock, Holmes is soon able to solve the case, winning young McCarthy his freedom.

The Subtext:

It should first be noted that, according to Baring-Gould, Watson and Mary married on May 1, 1889, approximately one month before The Boscombe Valley Mystery took place. This is significant, for the events which transpire during this case, and, indeed, so shortly into Watson's newly-wedded bliss, are quite suggestive.

The story begins as Watson and Mary are seated for breakfast. This scene of domestic contentment, along with their morning meal soon, is interrupted by the arrival of a telegram. This telegram is, of course, from Sherlock Holmes, and runs as follows:

Have you a couple of days to spare? Have just been wired for from the west of England in connection with Boscombe Valley tragedy. Shall be glad if you will come with me. Air and scenery perfect. Leave Paddington by the 11:15.

While Holmes' presumption here is quite obvious, allow us to first translate this passage from the subtextual to the textual.

Dearest Watson. I would be ever so glad if you were to ditch your bride of a month and run away with me to the country. The air and scenery are quite lovely, and I have arranged a mystery which might serve to attract your attention for a few days. I have already booked your ticket, and have arranged for us to share a room, just like old times. Kindly be at Paddington by 11:05.

Note that Holmes does not request Watson's presence. The phrase leave Paddington by the 11:15 suggests that Holmes considers Watson's acceptance inevitable; Holmes is simply telling Watson where to be and when. The question contained within Holmes' telegram, then, can be seen as mere decorum.

Watson, unwilling to seem too eager in front of Mary, appears to weigh the matter quite carefully. It is interesting, then, to note Mary's comment:

"You have been looking a little pale lately. I think that the change would do you good, and you are always so interested in Mr. Sherlock Holmes's cases."

Let us begin with Mary's comment that Watson is looking a little pale. Recall that Watson has now been married some 36 days (using Baring-Gould's date). Thirty-six days, and Watson already begins to show a decline in his appearance; so much so that his wife recognizes this depletion and recommends returning to his companion's side. It is quite obvious here that Watson is not cut out for marriage, and, in fact, that he should have remained in Baker Street.

It is also quite interesting to note Mary's comment that a change would do Watson some good, and that that change should involve Sherlock Holmes. Clearly Mary knows far more than she lets on, for it is obvious here that Mary is only too aware that Watson's failing health is directly tied to Holmes' absence. Apparently Mary felt the best way to aid her husband in his recovery was to send him out of town with his intimate friend and companion. One cannot help but wonder, then, if this was the reason Mary so often allowed Watson to abandon home and practice at Holmes' beckoning. Could she have known that any protest on her part might have resulted in Watson's ill health?

Watson, of course, agrees instantly, and within half an hour was in a cab with my valise, rattling away to Paddington Station. Quite amazing for a man with a fairly long list at present. Obviously Watson's initial objection was entirely for Mary's benefit.

Watson arrives at Paddington some moments later, only to find Holmes pacing up and down the platform, his tall, gaunt figure made even gaunter and taller by his long gray travelling-cloak and close-fitting cloth cap.

Curious, is it not, that Holmes should be pacing? Holmes has requested Watson's presence, and has not heard a reply. For all Holmes knows, Watson has decided not to come, and yet, there he is, pacing frantically, awaiting Watson's arrival. Although we have stated above that Holmes thought Watson's acceptance inevitable, it is clear here that Holmes was not quite as certain as his telegram made him seem. Indeed, Holmes seems quite nervous and, indeed, worried that Watson might not come.

In fact, Holmes is so relieved to discover that Watson has decided to come that immediately upon spotting Watson, Holmes states:

"It is really very good of you to come, Watson," said he. "It makes a considerable difference to me, having someone with me on whom I can thoroughly rely."

One gets the impression here that Holmes really isn't doing too well without his Watson. He seems considerably flustered, and one can easily imagine that that has much to do with Watson's absence. That Holmes should forget himself long enough to confess his gratefulness at Watson's presence is quite remarkable. That he should go a step further and bestow such a compliment speaks to Holmes' frazzled nerves and increasing loneliness. Truly, Holmes is incomplete without his Watson.

Holmes quickly recoups, Watson's presence a steadying one, and soon the pair set out for Boscombe Valley. To pass the time on their journey, Holmes fills Watson in on the case, making particular note to dismiss Lestrade's theories in the matter. Watson, however, is inclined to accept Lestrade's version of events, and this leads Holmes to displaying his aptitude for deduction. This demonstration, the reader will soon see, leads to a particularly interesting conversation.

To take the first example to hand, I very clearly perceive that in your bedroom the window is upon the right-hand side, and yet I question whether Mr. Lestrade would have noted even so self-evident a thing as that."

"How on earth -- "

"My dear fellow, I know you well. I know the military neatness which characterizes you. You shave every morning, and in this season you shave by the sunlight; but since your shaving is less and less complete as we get farther back on the left side, until it becomes positively slovenly as we get round the angle of the jaw, it is surely very clear that that side is less illuminated than the other. I could not imagine a man of your habits looking at himself in an equal light and being satisfied with such a result."

While I am tempted to merely remark upon the intimacy of this statement and let that stand, instead I shall endeavour to point out this intimacy. Note Holmes' statement that he knows Watson well; well enough to know his shaving habits. That Holmes can deduce the location of Watson's window by his intimate knowledge of Watson's shaving habits is quite remarkable. Holmes does not merely know when and where Watson shaves, he knows when and where Watson shaves depending on the season. This could not occur if Holmes did not, on a frequent basis, observe Watson shaving.

We know that Watson shaves in his bedroom (as evident by Holmes' comment). We know, too, that Watson's shaving habits vary depending on the season. It can therefore be stated, with almost certainty, that Holmes must have been witness to Watson's shaving rituals on more than one occasion, and during more than one season. We know that, as stated elsewhere in Canon, Holmes wakes after Watson. We know, too, that Watson, being a true Victorian gentleman, would not think of leaving his bedroom in the morning without shaving. Knowing all of this, then, we are really only left with one question:

How often did Holmes wake in Watson's bed so that he might have the occasion to witness Watson's morning shaving ritual?

It is curious here, too, that Holmes should bring up such a delicate subject, especially given that Watson is married; not to mention the fact that he is abandoning his wife to follow Holmes into the country.

The intimacy between them only grows, with Holmes, having exhausted his theories on the case, announces:

And now here is my pocket Petrarch, and not another word shall I say of this case until we are on the scene of action.

Petrarch, as the reader may recall, was an Italian scholar and poet in the 14th century. He is known for his contribution to the Renaissance movement, and, more amusingly, his obsession with a woman named Laura. His love was an unrequited love, and Petrarch channelled his feelings into a series of love poems. Sherlockian scholars have suggested that Holmes' reference to Petrarch is proof of his undying love for Irene Adler --a theory which perplexes your author, for it makes little sense. What would make sense is the assumption that Holmes' reference to Petrarch, particularly as it is made in Watson's presence, speaks to Holmes feelings for Watson. Even dismissing this theory allows for intimacy, however, for it is certainly suggestive that Holmes would pass the time reading love poems in Watson's presence.

This fact becomes increasingly amusing when, upon arriving at their destination, and meeting with Inspector Lestrade, they drove to the Hereford Arms where a room had already been engaged for us.

Note that Watson is very particular to clarify that they were given a room. This is highly suggestive, for it implies that Holmes and Watson would be sharing accommodations. Were this not the case, then Watson would have undoubtedly stated rooms. Again we are met with Holmes' presumptuousness, for clearly he has made arrangements ahead of time, and clearly, knowing (even hoping) Watson would come, Holmes intentionally booked a single room.

The case progresses to a short interview with Miss Turner, the accused's friend and Holmes' client. Shortly after her leaving, Holmes decides to head out to the gaol to see Mr. McCarthy. Lestrade is adamant that only Holmes will be permitted entrance, leaving Holmes to abandon Watson for several hours. Holmes is, however, good enough to assure Watson of his eminent return.

"Watson, I fear that you will find it very slow, but I shall only be away a couple of hours."

While this is quite sweet of Holmes, and indeed, quite amusing for the reader, it is Watson's response that is of particular note.

I walked down to the station with them, and then wandered through the streets of the little town, finally returning to the hotel, where I lay upon the sofa and tried to interest myself in a yellow-backed novel.

First Watson walks Holmes to the station, a clear indication that Watson is loath to leave Holmes' company. Then, bored, and uncertain how best to pass the time, Watson returns to his and Holmes' hotel room where he reads a yellow-backed novel. It is interesting here to note that yellow-backed novels were popular fiction of the day, and included the genre of romance. One can easily imagine, especially upon reading Watson's comment that the plot was puny and thin, that Watson had mistakenly borrowed one of Mary's romance novels. One wonders, then, if, upon Holmes' return, Watson began to fully understand the implications behind Holmes' invitation, and, more importantly, Watson's acceptance.

Watson is not able to get into his novel, however, and so finds himself contemplating the case. He is unable to reconcile Holmes' position with the evidence at hand, James McCarthy's guilt so obvious that Watson cannot find a way around it. Still, Watson tells us:

...I had so much faith in Sherlock Holmes's insight that I could not lose hope as long as every fresh fact seemed to strengthen his conviction of young McCarthy's innocence.

Watson knows his Holmes well, and, indeed, puts his faith in the right man, for Holmes is able, in short order, to unravel the whole mystery and win McCarthy his freedom. It is interesting here, however, to note the conviction in Watson's words. He does not think to doubt Holmes, even when the weight of evidence stands against Holmes' theory. Watson is so completely trusting, so completely faithful, that Holmes' theory automatically becomes the correct one in Watson's mind. Truly, Watson is blinded by his dedication to his long-time friend and companion. One cannot help but wonder if Watson afforded this same blind-devotion to his wife.

Watson's thoughts are interrupted by Holmes' return, and the two quickly discuss the results of Holmes' late night visit to young McCarthy. Soon the topic is exhausted, and Holmes, wishing to block out the case until morning, suggests:

"And now let us talk about George Meredith, if you please, and we shall leave all minor matters until to-morrow."

Curious, is it not, that this is the second occasion upon the same day which Holmes has spoken of poets. Curious, too, is it not, that Holmes request they pass the evening locked inside their single hotel room while discussing a well known English poet, and, in all likelihood, his poetry. It would appear as though Holmes has added some tactics to his wooing repertoire.

The next morning leads Holmes and Watson to the site of the crime. This is of particular interest, for it gives us a chance to see Holmes in action, and, more importantly, to witness Holmes' action through Watson's eyes.

Sherlock Holmes was transformed when he was hot upon such a scent as this. Men who had only known the quiet thinker and logician of Baker Street would have failed to recognize him. His face flushed and darkened. His brows were drawn into two hard black lines, while his eyes shone out from beneath them with a steely glitter. His face was bent downward, his shoulders bowed, his lips compressed, and the veins stood out like whipcord in his long, sinewy neck. His nostrils seemed to dilate with a purely animal lust for the chase, and his mind was so absolutely concentrated upon the matter before him that a question or remark fell unheeded upon his ears, or, at the most, only provoked a quick, impatient snarl in reply.

This is an incredibly vivid, incredibly detailed description of Holmes. Indeed, Watson's descriptions are quite suggestive. He speaks of Holmes' flushed and darkened face. He mentions that his eyes were shining with a steely glitter, and references his long, sinewy neck. Then there is Watson's animal lust analogy, complete with the image of a snarling Holmes. In fact, one wonders whether Watson was describing the investigation of the scene, or their sex life. Either way, the entire passage speaks, not only to the intimacy between the men, but to Watson's continuing obsession with Holmes.

It does not take Holmes long to get on the right scent, and he is soon able to deduce the correct solution. There are still details to be worked out, however, and, upon arriving back at their hotel, Holmes feels the need to discuss his findings.

"Look here, Watson," he said when the cloth was cleared "just sit down in this chair and let me preach to you for a little. I don't know quite what to do, and I should value your advice. Light a cigar and let me expound."

We have already discussed Holmes' need to talk in Watson's presence, and here we are presented with a perfect example of exactly that. Watson is Holmes' sounding board. Watson, by his very presence, inspires Holmes' thoughts. Holmes likes to discuss his day in Watson's presence, and this is highly suggestive of Holmes' dependency on Watson. It is curious to note, too, that, for the average person, this role would have belonged to a spouse.

Here Watson fills that role, and he does so admirably well, for within moments of this conversation Holmes' direction is clear and he is able to solve the case. This, sadly, brings us to the end of our tale, and yet, before concluding, we should make particular note of Watson's closing remarks.

James McCarthy was acquitted at the Assizes on the strength of a number of objections which had been drawn out by Holmes and submitted to the defending counsel. Old Turner lived for seven months after our interview, but he is now dead; and there is every prospect that the son and daughter may come to live happily together in ignorance of the black cloud which rests upon their past.

Here Watson speaks of Holmes in present tense, and yet, given that the story was published in October of 1891, several months after Holmes' death, one cannot help but note Watson's error. Without delving into conspiracy theories, one might suggest that Watson was so overcome with grief and loss that for months after Holmes' death Watson refused to acknowledge his passing. Then again, one could simply state that Watson wrote the story prior to Holmes' death, and published it after. Still, if the latter were true, one would expect a man of Watson's habits to alter the final pages of the story to reflect Holmes' passing.

Whatever his reasons, it is clear that Watson's world revolved around Holmes, and with Holmes gone, Watson turned to his imagination; the one place where Holmes still exercised his great powers.

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