Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 April 2021
‘The Cardboard Box’ is a strange story with an unusual textual history. First published in the Strand Magazine in January 1893, it was the only story of the series left out of the first English edition of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (published by George Newnes later the same year). It made it into the first American edition, published by Harper in 1894, only to be removed from later American editions. Its disappearance from the Memoirs led to some significant cutting and pasting: a nineteen-paragraph exchange between Holmes and Watson in Baker Street was taken from the opening of ‘The Cardboard Box’ and moved to ‘The Adventure of the Resident Patient’ (1893), where it replaced one and a half paragraphs of introductory material, changing the setting of ‘The Resident Patient’ from a ‘boisterous’ autumn to a boiling summer (and causing some strange meteorological phenomena in the process). ‘The Cardboard Box’ remained suppressed for over two decades. Its inclusion in His Last Bow in 1917, making up the weight of what would otherwise have been a slim volume, is an anomalous intrusion of the nineteenth century into stories written in and often explicitly concerned with the twentieth: ‘His Last Bow’, for example, is set in 1914, features a motor car, and mentions aeroplanes, Zeppelins, and Marconi. ‘The Cardboard Box’ is also textually anomalous, and has created particular problems for Doyle's editors. Does it belong in The Memoirs or His Last Bow? Should the long passage attached to ‘The Resident Patient’ remain in that story, or revert to its original location? (Some collected editions of the Holmes stories allowed it to remain in both.) Behind these questions lies a much more fundamental one: why did Doyle have second thoughts about the story in 1893, before deciding to reinstate it to the Holmes saga in 1917?
Doyle himself gave conflicting, and unconvincing, explanations. In one letter he said that the story, in which Jim Browner murders his wife Mary Cushing and her lover Alex Fairbairn, and then takes a grotesque revenge on his sister-in-law, ‘is rather more sensational than I care for’; in another he said that ‘a tale involving sex was out of place in a collection designed for boys’. But elsewhere Doyle also said that the story was too ‘weak’ to be included in the Memoirs.