Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Golden Pince-Nez


Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez in November of 1894. Watson confirms this date; although he does set it later in the month than Baring-Gould. Oddly, The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez is the only story Baring-Gould dates in the year of Holmes' return. This occurs despite Watson's reference to three manuscripts worth of cases. The story was first published in July of 1904.


One dreary night near the close of November, Inspector Stanley Hopkins arrives in Baker Street to present Sherlock Holmes with the details of a most curious murder. Aside from having no suspect, Scotland Yard is also unable to determine a motive, leading Hopkins to seek Holmes' aid in solving the case. Holmes agrees, and he and Watson set out with Hopkins for Yoxley Old Place, where Holmes investigates the death of Professor Coram's secretary, Willoughby Smith. The solution, however, is far more extraordinary than anyone would have suspected. Armed only with a delicate pair of gold framed glasses, Holmes is able to deduce a description of the woman they are searching for. Armed only with the ash of several imported cigarettes, Holmes does better still, locating the woman within the house where the very murder took place.

The Subtext:

It was a wild, tempestuous night towards the close of November. Holmes and I sat together in silence all the evening, he engaged with a powerful lens deciphering the remains of the original inscription upon a palimpsest, I deep in a recent treatise upon surgery.

So begins The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez, and here we are presented with several points of interest. First, there is Watson's reference to the date. The reader will recall that Baring-Gould dates the story in 1894, and that this is the only case which appears during this year. The reader will also recall that Holmes returned to London (and practice) in April of that year. As Watson tells us that Holmes was quite busy during this year, one cannot help but wonder why only one case was put forward. It is your author's opinion that Holmes was far less consumed by his practice than he had been in past years (undoubtedly due to the public assumption that he was dead) and so Holmes and Watson passed the year reacquainting themselves with one another. This likely occurred within the confines of Baker Street; indeed, in all probability, the pair never left Holmes' bedroom.

Then there is Watson's reference to their activities. Note that Holmes and Watson pass the time in companionable silence, each engaged in his own activities. This picture of domestic life is quite telling, for it hints at familiarity, bringing to mind an established marriage; Holmes and Watson clearly comfortable enough in one another's company to pass the time without the need for conversation. Clearly, their summer-long reunion did wonders to restore the foundation of their relationship.

"Well, Watson, it's as well we have not to turn out to-night," said Holmes, laying aside his lens and rolling up the palimpsest.

Holmes soon grows weary of his work, and, setting it aside for another day, remarks to Watson that it is too dreary a night to head out of doors. The innuendo in this statement is staggering, for one instantly anticipates Holmes' next suggestion; that they should retire to bed and while away the dreary evening as best they can.

Sadly, Holmes' plans are for naught, for soon they are interrupted by the arrival of Inspector Hopkins. Watson, we shall see, is quite perturbed by this, for he was rather looking forward to spending some 'quality' time with his Holmes.

The cab which I had seen had pulled up at our door.

"What can he want?" I ejaculated, as a man stepped out of it.

Holmes seems to sense Watson's frustration, and indeed, finds it quite amusing, for he sends Watson down to answer the door, stating:

"Run down, my dear fellow, and open the door, for all virtuous folk have been long in bed."

Clearly Holmes does not include Watson or himself amongst the virtuous folk. Perhaps more telling is the obvious implication that Holmes and Watson have reached a place in their relationship where Holmes is no longer afraid to poke fun at their 'deviant' behaviour.

Hopkins' arrival marks the beginning of his tale, and the case. As Hopkins begins to describe the events which brought him to Baker Street in spite of the dismal weather, Watson tells us:

The wind howled and screamed at the windows. Holmes and I drew closer to the fire while the young inspector slowly and point by point developed his singular narrative.

While the above paragraph seems quite benign, one cannot help but picture Holmes and Watson drawing nearer to the fire, and one another, the coldness of the night ever present in the screaming of the wind, with Holmes and Watson each longing for the warm embrace of their shared bed, and their tangled limbs.

Hopkins, however, is oblivious to their longing, and continues his narrative, telling Holmes of the mysterious murder of Mr. Smith before describing the setting and household of Yoxley Old Place. Halfway through, he produces a diagram of the rooms involved, which he then hands to Holmes so that Holmes might spread it out across his knee. Note here Watson's actions, for they are quite suspicious.

I rose, and, standing behind Holmes, I studied it over his shoulder.

Oh, Watson; risking such public exposure so that you might initiate contact. Oddly enough, it is usually Holmes who seeks out excuses to lean over Watson. Clearly this role reversal can be seen as evidence of their intimacy; they have adopted one another's habits, as most established couples do.

Hopkins finishes his strange narrative, before suggesting that Holmes come around to Yoxley Old Place in the morning. This leaves Holmes in the very disagreeable position of having to offer over the sofa to Hopkins so that they might leave upon the first train. One can easily imagine that Holmes passed a rather sleepless night that evening, for in addition to the excitement of a new case, Holmes was forced to sleep, perhaps for the first time in months, alone.

The night passes quickly, and come morning the trio set out for Yoxley Old Place. Their trip is uneventful and, upon their arrival, Holmes finds himself investigating the crime in earnest. Using his usual methods, Holmes examines the scene and devises several theories. The testing of these theories, however, takes some time, and so, in order to pass the time, Holmes and Watson spend their morning engaged in recreational activities.

We loitered the morning away in the garden.

The above sentence paints quite the romantic image. One can almost picture Holmes and Watson strolling arm in arm through the garden, perhaps pausing every so often to admire the flora. It is entirely possible that the pair found a bench, perhaps in a secluded part of the garden, where they might sit, hip to hip, and merely enjoy one another's company.

Sadly, their moment alone is interrupted by the arrival of afternoon, and Holmes, ever a professional, immediately sets his mind to solving the case. He announces his intention to seek out the professor, and, upon arriving in the professor's rooms, Watson tells us:

When we rose again I observed that Holmes's eyes were shining and his cheeks tinged with colour. Only at a crisis have I seen those battle-signals flying.

It is quite evident here that, despite the increased intimacy of their relationship, Watson is still very much taken with Holmes; Watson still drawn to seek out and categorize Holmes' eyes. That Watson knows Holmes well enough to recognize Holmes' mood merely from a shift in his expression is telling, too, as it provides additional evidence for an increased intimacy of their relationship.

From here the story quickly approaches its resolution, and it is interesting to note that, while the story is not as subtextually heavy as some of Watson's other cases, it does mark a pivotal moment in their relationship. With Holmes' return, and Mary's death (leaving), Holmes and Watson's intimacy has blossomed; so much so that the pair demonstrate all outward signs of being a happily married couple. The tension between them has lessoned, and they are clearly quite comfortable with one another's company. The angst which once permeated every aspect of their friendship has vanished, and in its place remains only the confidence which comes with a long-standing, and secure, relationship.

Content contained within belongs to the author. Where outside work is reviewed/quoted, credit has been given. Please do not reproduce without permission. Site credits: Sidney Paget sketch used in the header, Arthur Conan Doyle quote used in the header, brushes compliments of Hybrid Genesis and Miss M.