The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gene Weingarten: A new dog. A closed door. A mysterious puddle. Can Sherlock Holmes solve this case?

(Alex Fine/For The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

The following account is true, except for the participation of Holmes and Watson.

From the reminiscences of John Watson, M.D.

In reading my notes from the summer of ’21, I encountered the facts of a case which exemplifies the particular deductive skills of my friend Sherlock Holmes. It was early afternoon in the flat we shared. Holmes was brutishly walloping a raw ham rump with a cricket bat, to test a theory about the bruising of flesh in homicidal attacks. The great detective stopped and said, “I hear a step upon the stair. It will be a slovenly mustached man of advanced age.”

It was, indeed. “Holmes, you astound me,” I whispered. “How could you have known that?” “I saw him through the window,” Holmes whispered back, “walking up to our door.”

Our visitor was in a pitiful state of agitation. His hair was frighteningly disheveled. His Semitic features suggested intelligence, but his shambling gait and inattention to his tonsure and sartorial presence suggested a man under extraordinary stress. He said: “I have a locked-room mystery, Mr. Holmes, and I fear it will strain even your talents …” Holmes’s eyes twinkled. Instantly, he was fully engaged.

The man’s story was relatively simple. The wretched fellow had obtained a new pet, a 1-year-old hound who had been inadequately civilized by her previous owner. Her name was Lexington. She did not understand the common courtesies incumbent upon a household animal. She unburdened herself at will, passing water in the house, often in one particular room, a second-floor study. And so our visitor, reasonably, closed the door. And yet, puddles of the abominable liquid continued to appear in the centre of the room, day after day!

Holmes began to pace. “Were the windows open, or openable, from the exterior of the home, perhaps penetrable? Might they be susceptible to entrance from, say, an ourang-outang? My police colleague, C. Auguste Dupin, encountered just such a praeternaturally nimble villain.”

The windows were closed and locked, the man said.

“Was the door locked with a latchkey?” I interjected. There was silence in the room. I fancied I’d stumbled upon something important. Eventually, Holmes turned to me and said, “It is your thesis, Watson, that a dog — lacking opposable thumbs or even a semblance of intellect or cunning — could manipulate a doorknob, walk into a room, perform as she wished, then exit the room and primly close the door after herself so as to disguise her crime?”

Holmes turned back to our guest.

“Picture the room in your mind,” he said, crisply. “Is there a bell rope to summon servants?” “No, sir. We have no servants.” “Might there be a small aperture in the ceiling, perhaps at the base of a chandelier, through which a viper might slither, drop to the ground and deposit his venom upon the floor? Were you careful in handling this excrescence? I encountered just such an event once, and it was part of a sinister and deadly plot.”

The ceiling was unbreached, the man said, and added, a little starchily, that the excrescence clearly was what it appeared to be. Holmes rose. “This is a most singular case, sir, and I shall be honored to take it on. We must go to the scene. I fear there is no time to lose.”

The home was one of several in a row, built in 1936 during the depths of the American Depression. It was comfortable and well appointed but clearly the work of common craftsmen who were paid for their skill and their haste, but not too well. Holmes produced a magnifying glass and got down on his knees. Then, after mere moments, he improbably turned to his host and said, “I believe I have solved it. When you eliminate the impossible, whatever is left, however improbable, is the answer. Please bring me a tablespoon, a bowl of soup — chicken consommé, if possible — a cotton swab, a golf ball, two kitchen matches, a hypodermic needle, some decent shag tobacco and a large towel suitable for the bath.”

In minutes, Holmes had cracked the case. How did he do it?

The solution

Holmes knew that the floors in old houses, hastily constructed, are susceptible to “sloping.” Typically, the slope leads from the edge of a room to the middle, where the joists are farthest from supporting structures. Holmes used the golf ball to ascertain that, when it was placed on the floor in front of the study, it rolled toward the door.

Satisfied he was on the right path, he then poured the consommé outside the door. It was the approximate viscosity of urine. It seeped beneath the door and collected in the centre of the room. Now the solution was clear to us all: Denied access to her favorite bathroom, Lexington had peed as close to it as she could get. The towel was for mop-up. The tobacco, spoon, hypo, cotton swab and matches were to satisfy Holmes’s vilest habits, often indulged after a successful deduction.

Email Gene Weingarten at gene.weingarten@washpost.com. Twitter: @geneweingarten. For previous columns, visit wapo.st/weingarten.

For stories, features such as Date Lab, @Work Advice and more, visit WP Magazine.

Follow the Magazine on Twitter.

Like us on Facebook.

Email us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

Loading...