Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Retired Colourman


Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Retired Colourman in July of 1898 (coincidentally, the same month in which he dates The Dancing Men, lending weight to an earlier dating for DANC). As Holmes states that it has been two years since the colourman's retirement, and that he had retired in 1896, Baring-Gould's date seems quite reasonable. The story was first published in December of 1926, and marks the completion of The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes.


Sherlock Holmes is commissioned by a retired art supplier named Josiah Amberley to look into the disappearance of his wife. She is believed to have run off with their neighbour, a Dr. Ray Ernest, the pair taking with them a sizeable quantity of cash and securities. Holmes, though initially uninterested in the case, soon discovers that Amberley is not all that he seems. The key to solving the case, Holmes realizes, rests within Amberley's home, so, as Holmes knows that he won't be granted easy access, he sends Amberley out of the city (under Watson's watchful eye) so that Holmes might burgle the house and discover the true reason for Watson's reported paint fumes. A windowless room and a disconnected gas line make for an easy solution.

The Subtext:

The Adventure of the Retired Colourman opens shortly after the leaving of a prospective client. Holmes seems in a particularly dark mood, and after asking for Watson's opinion of the man, states:

"But is not all life pathetic and futile? Is not his story a microcosm of the whole? We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow — misery."

Here, we cannot help but question the possible cause for Holmes' melancholy. Were he and Watson fighting? Had their steady flow of clients dwindled, leaving Holmes without work? Or was this simply a matter of timing; Holmes trapped in the Victorian era with one hundred years between him and the invention of Viagra? Indeed, Holmes would have been nearing his forty-fifth birthday, and given his unhealthy lifestyle, and the copious amounts of tobacco he consumed, not to mention his prior cocaine addiction, it is quite easy to imagine that the passion which once consumed them had somewhat lessened.

Or perhaps we might suggest that it is the tale of his new client which has upset him. Josiah Amberley was once a man of prospects --a young wife, a successful career at his back, a long and well earned retirement in his future-- and yet, upon leaving Baker Street, Holmes cannot remark:

"And yet within two years he is, as you have seen, as broken and miserable a creature as crawls beneath the sun."

One wonders if Holmes felt the coming of age, and knew that his time was drawing near. One wonders, too, if Holmes worried that he might lose Watson should he abandon his practice. It is highly unlikely that Holmes had planned for his retirement by this point, but had he even once considered the possibility of leaving London, it is without doubt that he would have considered, too, whether Watson would accompany him.

Watson does not seem bothered by Holmes mood, and, indeed, is able to draw Holmes into the case by asking a flurry of questions. This seems to please Holmes, and he soon offers over a gesture of complete trust and intimacy.

"Well, the immediate question, my dear Watson, happens to be, what will you do? — if you will be good enough to understudy me."

For the first time in all of Canon, Holmes has given over an entire case to Watson's capable hands. That Holmes should have such faith is a mark of their decades-long relationship, and the trust which had grown between them.

And so Watson heads out to begin his investigation, returning much later to give Holmes an account of how the proceedings are moving along. Watson tells us:

It was late that evening before I returned to Baker Street and gave an account of my mission. Holmes lay with his gaunt figure stretched in his deep chair, his pipe curling forth slow wreaths of acrid tobacco, while his eyelids drooped over his eyes so lazily that he might almost have been asleep were it not that at any halt or questionable passage of my narrative they half lifted, and two gray eyes, as bright and keen as rapiers, transfixed me with their searching glance.

Watson's description of Holmes here is quite remarkable. Note Holmes' gaunt figure stretched out in his chair, the smoke from his pipe circling his brow like a crown. Note too the lazy, languid expression on his face, and, finally, his bright gray eyes, transfixing Watson with their gaze. The entirety of Watson's description is incredibly erotic; so much so, in fact, that we can automatically discount Holmes' need for artificial stimulants.

As Watson continues his narrative, we see that he has made a careful study of his surroundings. Indeed, he describes the setting in such exacting detail that Holmes is driven to protest.

"Cut out the poetry, Watson," said Holmes severely.

It would appear as though Holmes' sour mood has returned, and while there still remains a dozen or so probable explanations, here we will suggest only one. Watson, it would appear, is the victim of Holmes' jealousy. While at first glance, this may seem a preposterous notion, as we continue with the story, we begin to see growing evidence that this may, in fact, be the case.

Recall that the underlying plot of the tale is a relatively simple one. Mr. Amberley's wife, having committed infidelity with a neighbour, Dr. Ernest, has supposedly run off with her lover. As Watson has quite the reputation of being a lady's man (an entirely fabricated reputation, mind you) it is quite easy to imagine (and indeed, we have seen it often) that Watson was perhaps a little too friendly with a recent female client.

Holmes would have naturally noticed, and it is quite possible that the incident brought to mind Watson's first meeting with Mary Morstan. Holmes had lost Watson once to a woman, and now, faced with the (imagined, for Watson was merely being polite, we are sure) prospect of losing Watson a second time, it is quite understandable that Holmes should simultaneously attempt to demonstrate his trust and regard for Watson (i.e. the handing over of a case), while building protective walls by snipping at Watson over the smallest provocations.

Indeed, that this story takes place over a year after the events in The Devil's Foot, it is safe to say that Holmes, still new to the intimacies of what is now quite the serious relationship, was likely quite fearful of losing it all. His hand was dealt, after all, and with no remaining cards, Holmes was out of his element.

In order to further demonstrate this theory, we must examine Holmes' behaviour. First we shall examine Holmes' attempts to demonstrate his trust (and, indeed, respect) for Watson. Here we see that, in the midst of Watson's narrative, Holmes is quite quick to dole out praise:

"I have, of course, studied it, and yet I should be interested to have your impression," said Holmes.

By letting Watson know that Holmes is interested in his impression, Holmes is essentially validating Watson's position in his [Holmes'] life. Holmes places great value on Watson's opinion, because Holmes places great value on Watson.

"That is remarkable — most remarkable," said Holmes, whose interest in the case seemed to be rising. "Pray continue, Watson. I find your narrative most arresting."

Here we seem Holmes acknowledging the fact that Watson is a good storyteller. Perhaps their last female client was a fan of Watson's writing?

Sadly, Holmes is not quite able to give Watson uninterrupted praise, for in truth Watson has missed a good many things. As Holmes informs Watson of his errors, Watson appears quite hurt, to which Holmes states:

"Don't be hurt, my dear fellow. You know that I am quite impersonal. No one else would have done better. Some possibly not so well."

Holmes' attempt to reassure Watson here is quite endearing. Indeed, Holmes would not be Holmes were he to refrain from pointing out another's foibles. Given that Holmes is also not one for apologies, it is quite remarkable that Watson should earn one.

We return now to our suggestion that it was Watson's attentions towards a female (client or otherwise) which first caused Holmes' sour mood. If we use this as a working hypothesis, then we should bear witness to several barbed remarks on Holmes' behalf which allude to the incident. Lo and behold, they appear:

With your natural advantages, Watson, every lady is your helper and accomplice. What about the girl at the post-office, or the wife of the greengrocer? I can picture you whispering soft nothings with the young lady at the Blue Anchor, and receiving hard somethings in exchange.

Curious, is it not, that Holmes should make such a remark. There is a touch of cynicism in this statement, and, indeed, a touch of bitterness. We cannot help but suspect that Holmes is speaking more to the past than to the present. While we have no doubt that Holmes would indeed pimp Watson's natural advantages in order to obtain his desired result, we suspect that the bulk of this statement was meant to be taken as sarcasm.

Indeed, Holmes must feel as if he has gone too far, for a moment later he remarks:

"Well, leave it there, Watson. Let us escape from this weary workaday world by the side door of music. Carina sings to-night at the Albert Hall, and we still have time to dress, dine, and enjoy."

Remarkable, these mood swings of Holmes'; first he praises Watson, then he insults him, then he snarks at him, and finally, changing course completely, he invites Watson out on a date. Clearly, whatever has passed between the two men shall undoubtedly result in a set of cold sheets come evening.

We can only hope that a night on the town brightens Holmes' mood, and returns the pair to the domestic bliss we are certain followed the events in Cornwall (DEVI).

The night passes, and with the arrival of morning, we see that Holmes and Watson have indeed made amends. Watson tells us:

In the morning I was up betimes, but some toast crumbs and two empty eggshells told me that my companion was earlier still. I found a scribbled note upon the table.

While one might be tempted to point to Watson's waking to an empty bed as a sign that not all is well in Baker Street, the presence of a note instantly dismisses the theory. That Holmes, waking early and not wanting to disturb Watson, should leave a note is an argument in favour of their married bliss. Indeed, the note itself is quite scandalous (and may come in to play in the decoding of Charles Augustus Milverton), for Holmes writes:

I would only ask you to be on hand about three o'clock, as I conceive it possible that I may want you.

We can only boggle at Holmes' audacity; scheduling sex, for the middle of the afternoon, through a not very carefully concealed note. Dearest, Holmes; have a care.

Shortly after Holmes' return (and their scheduled appointment, we have no doubt), Holmes informs Watson that he has arranged for Amberley's arrival. This comes swiftly, as it appears Amberley has received an unusual telegram, beckoning him to Essex with all due haste. Holmes tells Amberley that he should go, and arranges for Watson to travel with him. It is only later that we learn of Holmes' ruse; for it was he who sent Amberley the telegram.

Holmes suspects Amberley guilty of having killed his wife and her lover, and so he sends Watson away with the man, to a small town where Watson will be forced to spend the night (likely in the same room as Amberley). While others have remarked at Watson's misuse here, we would like to suggest that this is, in fact, a great compliment to Watson. Again, Holmes is demonstrating his trust, for who else but Watson could Holmes entrust to keep Amberley occupied. Indeed, it is Watson's actions here which in the end allow Holmes to piece together enough evidence to solve the case.

The next day, Watson and Amberley return, and, upon arriving at Amberley's residence, Holmes immediately demands to know where Amberley has stashed the bodies. Eventually, after a suicide-attempted confession, Amberley is escorted to Scotland Yard, and upon Holmes' return, Holmes, in reference to the third man involved in the case, states:

"You had not met Barker, Watson. He is my hated rival upon the Surrey shore."

Holmes' hated rival. Perhaps not a woman, then; and perhaps Watson did, in fact, know Barker. We do not, of course, doubt Watson's loyalty to Holmes, and yet, witnessing Watson meeting a second private detective, Watson showing even the barest hint of chivalry, would have likely worried Holmes gravely.

Holmes seems quite over his insecurity by this point (we can well imagine that Watson is quite reassuring in the bedroom), and finally seems to realize how poorly he has used Watson during this adventure. He states:

"I'll show you first how it was done, and then I will give the explanation which is due to you, and even more to my long-suffering friend here, who has been invaluable throughout."

A rare and heart-warming compliment, to be sure, and not without its due, for Holmes' entire case can be built on Watson's work. Holmes owed Watson this apology and more, and it is quite touching to see that Holmes now knows this, and is more than willing to admit his fault. Truly, Holmes has grown, and we cannot doubt that this came after a long, and for the most part secure, relationship with Watson.

As the case comes to a close, we have but one final note. Holmes, some days later, back in Baker Street, tosses Watson the public account of the case, stating:

"You can file it in our archives, Watson. Some day the true story may be told."

Here we cannot help but note that Holmes refers to his work, and Watson's writing, as ours. It is quite relieving to note that this case ends, as all cases should, with Holmes and Watson, once again happily ensconced in domestic life.

It should, of course, be pointed out that the theories contained within are simply that; theories. It is also entirely probably that Holmes was merely having a bad day. Perhaps Watson had stolen the covers for the fourth time that week and Holmes had grown tired of objecting. The reason behind Holmes' mood is far less important than the underlying strength of Holmes and Watson's relationship. It is quite apparent throughout The Retired Colourman that Holmes' mood holds no sway with Watson. Indeed, Watson, ever in love with Holmes, simply dismisses it out of hand, waiting for the dawning of a new day, and a new mood. Trivial matters and arguments do not seem to lessen the bond they share, and so it is safe to assume that Holmes and Watson's relationship was as sound as the art of deduction.

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