Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Crooked Man


Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Crooked Man in September of 1889. Given that Watson tells us that it has been a few months since his marriage and makes reference to summer, Baring-Gould's date is likely correct. The story was first published in 1893.


Sherlock Holmes arrives one summer's evening on Watson's doorstep with a request for Watson to join him in the final stages, and stand as a witness, in what will prove to be a most unusual case. Two days prior, Holmes had been called out on a case of murder. The murdered man was Colonel James Barclay, the suspect his wife, Nancy Barclay. Holmes, however, was quickly able to deduce that a third man, along with his strange animal companion, had been in the room, and that this man left with the room's key in his pocket. An interview with Nancy's friend, Miss Morrison, revealed a chance meeting with a deformed cripple (whose back was so crooked that he walked bent over) on the very night of Colonel Barclay's murder.  According to Miss Morrison, Nancy seemed quite familiar with the man. Holmes has found this man and, with Watson's aid, is now ready to get a full account of the events which took place on the night of Colonel Barclay's death.

The Subtext:

One summer night, a few months after my marriage, I was seated by my own hearth smoking a last pipe and nodding over a novel, for my day's work had been an exhausting one.

The above sentence is our introduction to The Crooked Man, and it warrants examination, for it contains a very singular point of interest.

Notice that Watson tells us that the day in question occurred a few months after his marriage.  We have commented on the frequency of Watson's participation in Holmes' cases in the months following Watson's marriage, and yet, it begs repeating, for it really is quite suggestive.  Recall that Watson, according to Baring-Gould, married Mary Morstan on May 1, 1889.  According to Baring-Gould, the following cases took place 'a few months after Watson's marriage:

The Boscombe Valley Mystery
The Stockbroker's Clerk
The Naval Treaty
The Cardboard Box
The Engineer's Thumb
The Crooked Man

And this is limited to using Baring-Gould's dates.  If we assume Mary to be Watson's first (and possibly only) wife, then we must also account for the cases Baring-Gould dated during Watson's supposed first marriage.  In fact, were we to count the number of cases Watson's sets some few months after his marriage, I expect we would be quite surprised by the shear number of them.  Clearly, for a man newly married, Watson seems less inclined to spend time with his wife and more inclined to spend time with Sherlock Holmes.

Watson's next statement is even more curious, for he tells us:

My wife had already gone upstairs, and the sound of the locking of the hall door some time before told me that the servants had also retired.

We later learn that it is a quarter to twelve, and yet, here Watson is, awake and reading a book, while his new bride warms their bed alone.  Surely it is not presumptuous to find this unusual.  One would expect, especially given Mary's warm nature, that Watson should be only too overjoyed to join his wife in their bedroom.  Clearly this is not the case.

We can examine this further, as, upon hearing a knock upon the door, Watson is very particular to mention his exhaustion.  Why would he, a man exhausted by a day's work, and newly married to a warm and endearing woman, further exhaust himself by staying up late to read when he could have very easily retired with his wife?  One wonders if, perhaps, their marriage had already grown disagreeable.

Watson, naturally expecting a patient, heads out into the hall to open the door.  His unexpected visitor is, indeed, a pleasant surprise.

To my astonishment it was Sherlock Holmes who stood upon my step.

"Ah, Watson," said he, I hoped that I might not be too late to catch you."

"My dear fellow, pray come in."

Note Watson's excitement here.  His invitation, which suggests that his exhaustion is no longer a matter of concern.  That Holmes should incite such a reaction, whereas Mary could not, is quite telling.

Holmes, of course, makes himself quite at home, strolling into Watson's home without a care in the world.  It is quite obvious that Holmes knows where Watson's loyalties lie.

In fact, Holmes is so confident with his place in Watson's life (after months of wooing Watson away from Mary) that he immediately begins dazzling Watson with a display of deduction.  All of this is followed by one of the most suggestive requests in all of Canon.

"Could you put me up to-night?"

Watson's response:

"With pleasure."

Note that Watson is not willing to join his wife in bed, but that he is willing to put Holmes up for the night.  Curious, is it not?

Holmes, of course, verifies Watson's response by stating:

"You told me that you had bachelor quarters for one, and I see that you have no gentleman visitor at present. Your hat-stand proclaims as much."

It is quite obvious, then, that Watson has, on numerous occasions since marrying and moving into his current residence, invited Holmes to come and stay.  Although it has only been a few months since Watson left Baker Street, it is quite obvious that Watson does miss his Holmes, and that he desires Holmes' presence.  In fact, Watson's confirmation of:

"I shall be delighted if you will stay."

Only serves to strengthen our argument, for it becomes quite evident that Watson truly would be delighted by Holmes' presence.

Holmes' response is quite interesting, too, for there is a decided air of territoriality in Holmes' claiming of Watson's hat stand:

"I'll fill the vacant peg then."

This scene, and Watson's undying devotion and loyalty to Holmes, continues when Watson, despite the late hour, offers to cook Holmes dinner.  This is made evident by Holmes' dismissal of a meal.

"No, thank you, I had some supper at Waterloo, but I'll smoke a pipe with you with pleasure."

Watson has already told us that the servants have retired, and while we may view this as an empty offer, in keeping with Victorian propriety, it is still remarkable that Watson would think enough of Holmes' comfort to extend this offer.  Should Holmes have agreed, Watson would have been very much obliged to arrange a late night supper.

Dinner dismissed, the pair soon retire to Watson's sitting room, where they sit, opposite one another, while smoking in silence.  This silence is soon broken when Holmes, in one of his more playful moods, begins in on an old favourite game --deducing to Watson's amazement.  This is, of course, not unusual, or unexpected, but upon Watson expressing incredulity, Holmes' response is quite telling.

"I have the advantage of knowing your habits, my dear Watson," said he.

We do not doubt that Holmes does indeed know Watson's habits, for he has spent the better part of eight years studying Watson on an almost daily basis.  That Holmes should confess this, however, is quite remarkable, for it is an indication, not just of the intimacy between Holmes and Watson, but of Holmes' need for an intimate connection with Watson.

Holmes' confession, however, is not enough, and Holmes then goes on to compliment Watson, something we are seeing with increased frequency; it is obvious here that Holmes wants very much to retain the close association he and Watson have formed.

"The same may be said, my dear fellow, for the effect of some of these little sketches of yours, which is entirely meretricious, depending as it does upon your retaining in your own hands some factors in the problem which are never imparted to the reader."

That Holmes should compare his art of deduction to Watson's writing is quite the compliment indeed.

Holmes is not alone in his powers of observation, however, for while Holmes may know Watson's habits, Watson knows Holmes.  This is very evident in Watson's description of Holmes, for here Holmes has become quite impassioned by the case, and Watson, always observing Holmes, is quick to notice.

His eyes kindled and a slight flush sprang into his thin cheeks. For an instant the veil had lifted upon his keen, intense nature, but for an instant only. When I glanced again his face had resumed that red-Indian composure which had made so many regard him as a machine rather than a man.

That Holmes should show such passion in Watson's presence is quite remarkable, but that it should be Watson who is privileged enough to know the man behind the machine (and indeed, be shown the man behind the machine) is quite incredible.

Holmes' outburst and Watson's appreciation of Holmes' excitement soon gives way to an invitation.  The exchange which follows is quite suggestive.

"If you could accompany me in that last step you might be of considerable service to me."

"I should be delighted."

"Could you go as far as Aldershot to-morrow?"

"I have no doubt Jackson would take my practice."

"Very good. I want to start by the 11:10 from Waterloo."

Here Holmes requests Watson's aid and companionship, both of which Watson gives without hesitation.  This is not quite enough for Holmes, and so he continues to question Watson, finally ensuring that Watson is more than willing to set aside his practice and family life for Holmes' case.  What is interesting here (and again, a reoccurring pattern) is that Watson has already remarked upon how busy his practice is.  Despite this, he is more than willing to hand it over to his neighbour to follow Holmes out on one of his cases.  Clearly, and again, Watson has demonstrated his loyalty to Holmes.

In fact, Watson is so enamoured with Holmes that he is no longer consumed by exhaustion in Holmes' presence, and responds, upon Holmes' offer to postpone their conversation until morning:

"I was sleepy before you came. I am quite wakeful now."

That Watson finds Holmes' company so stimulating that at sometime past twelve in the evening Watson is not only willing to forgo sleep, but finds himself no longer in need of sleep, is quite remarkable.

At Watson's insistence, Holmes begins filling Watson in on the case, including the necessary background information. Halfway through his tale, Holmes seems to realize the late hour, and offers again to pick up the story first thing in the morning.  Watson, we will soon see, will have none of this.

"But really, Watson, I am keeping you up, and I might just as well tell you all this on our way to Aldershot to-morrow."

"Thank you, you have gone rather too far to stop."

Interesting, is it not, that Watson is still enjoying Holmes' company too much to allow Holmes to retire to bed.

Holmes' worry does not lesson, although he does finish telling his story.  He must sense Watson's exhaustion, for upon concluding, Holmes states:

..."I should be the criminal myself if I kept you out of bed any longer."

Clearly Holmes recognizes Watson's need for Holmes' companionship (a fact which no doubt thrilled the Great Detective) and yet Holmes cares enough for Watson's well being to bundle Watson off to bed.

The next morning the pair head out to Aldershot, and here Watson's observations of Holmes, and indeed, the statement regarding his own state, are quite suggestive.

In spite of his capacity for concealing his emotions, I could easily see that Holmes was in a state of suppressed excitement, while I was myself tingling with that half-sporting, half-intellectual pleasure which I invariably experienced when I associated myself with him in his investigations.

Note how well Watson knows Holmes; well enough that he is able to see through Holmes' mask and register Holmes' state of excitement. Note too Watson's comment that he was tingling with pleasure, and that Watson attributed this sensation to Holmes.  The subtext here is so blatant that it does not require explanation.

The story next turns to the telling of Henry Wood's tale, and when next we return to Holmes and Watson, they are heading for the station and home.  This brings us to two interesting elements contained within the story, both of which are due examination.

Holmes, upon hearing Henry Wood's tale, does not give Wood over to the police.  Instead he offers to find another way to prove Nancy Barclay's innocence without revealing Wood's involvement.  This is quite interested, and yet, not entirely new.  Several times throughout Canon, Holmes has allowed someone involved in a crime to 'get away', and in each of these incidences Holmes' reasons for doing so can be tied directly to love.

Henry Wood loved Nancy Barclay, and the feeling was, once, quite mutual.  That Wood's motives were driven entirely from his love for Nancy and his need for vengeance against the betrayal caused by Nancy's husband proved to Holmes that Wood was not a threat and did not deserve punishment.  Holmes did not always operate according to the law.  He sought justice, and in matters of love, Holmes always sided on the side of lovers.  This is quite suggestive, for a man incapable of love would not be capable of this empathy.

Our second element is a curious one, for here we question why it was that Holmes needed Watson's involvement.  Holmes stated that he required Watson to stand as a witness, and yet, Holmes did not seem at all surprised by Wood's innocence, and so we can easily imagine that Holmes knew (well ahead of time) that he would not need a witness.  That Holmes, despite having concluded the case (all that remained were incidentals) should still seek Watson out is quite telling, for it suggests that Holmes wanted Watson's company rather than Watson's professional presence and needed an excuse to seek it out.  Clearly, Holmes missed his Boswell.

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