Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 April 2021
‘You know my methods. Apply them, and it will be instructive to compare results.’Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four (1890)
‘A Case of Identity’ (1891) opens, like so many stories in the Sherlock Holmes saga, in 221B Baker Street, where Holmes and Dr Watson receive a new client who bears a problem that is also a story. Watson is both Holmes's pupil in the science of detection and, crucially, the story's narrator. Both roles give him the scope to observe and record the client, Miss Mary Sutherland: his description for the reader of her ‘preposterous hat’, ‘vacuous face’ and ‘general air of being fairly well to do, in a vulgar, comfortable, easy-going way’ (Adventures, 39–40) suggests that she is bourgeois ordinariness personified. However, in this instance as in many others, Watson is a conventional but somewhat limited narrator – he reports accurately enough, but also superficially. Holmes sees beyond her appearance and detects her uniqueness as a human being: she is ‘an interesting study … more interesting than her little problem, which, by the way, is rather a trite one’ (39). Her problem, of course, turns out to be anything but trite, but Holmes's message is that no one is as ordinary as they might appear. Put on the spot by Holmes, Watson succeeds in identifying only the outward and obvious features of her appearance, particularly the colours and cuts of her apparel. Holmes's response is crushing: ‘It is true that you have missed everything of importance, but you have hit upon the method.’ Holmes upbraids Watson for failing ‘to realize the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumb-nails, or the great issues that may hang from a bootlace’ (40). ‘It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important’ (36), Holmes tells Miss Sutherland. Watson has trusted to ‘general impressions’ but missed the details: the traces left in the plush of her sleeve by habitually leaning on a table reveal her to be a typist; her nose bears the dint of a pince-nez, indicating shortsight; her boots are odd, not a pair, and incorrectly buttoned, so she put them on in a hurry; an ink-stain on her glove and finger shows she had written a note in haste.