The Memoirs find Sherlock Holmes’ friend and biographer Watson delving further into the great detective’s past as well as relating some of their shared adventures. The stories include Holmes’ first case (‘The Adventure of the Gloria Scott’), his first professional engagement (‘The Adventure of the Reigate Squire’) and introduce his corpulent and gifted brother Mycroft (‘The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter’). Finally, Watson brings us up to date by relating Holmes’s death at the hands of Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime.
As most people probably recall the famous stories, I am going to focus on a lesser-known tale: ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’.
In this one, Holmes’ client is Mr Grant Munro of Norbury. Mr Munro has been driven to the end of his tether by the suspicious behaviour of his wife Effie.
“It’s a very delicate thing,” said he. “One does not like to speak of one’s domestic affairs to strangers. It seems dreadful to discuss the conduct of one’s wife with two men whom I have never seen before.
Grant and Effie have been married for three years. Grant is Effie’s second husband, as she had married in America but lost her husband and child to the yellow fever before returning home.
All was well until recently, when some new neighbours rented a cottage near to the Munros’ home. Effie has been sneaking down there for visits and even more alarmingly, asking her husband to let her have some of her money – completely out of character. Consumed with worry, Grant followed her down to the cottage, only to be terrified by a horrible yellow face looking at him out of the window.
“I don’t know what there was about that face, Mr. Holmes, but it seemed to send a chill right down my back. I was some little way off, so that I could not make out the features, but there was something unnatural and inhuman about the face.”
Holmes suspects blackmail:
“The facts, as I read them, are something like this: This woman was married in America. Her husband developed some hateful qualities; or shall we say that he contracted some loathsome disease, and became a leper or an imbecile? She flies from him at last, returns to England, changes her name, and starts her life, as she thinks, afresh.”
Obviously, somebody has tracked her down in England and is now putting the screws on her.
I try not to do spoilers, but this story is interesting chiefly because of what happens next. So…
**** SPOILER ALERT ****
Holmes and Watson head down to Norbury to sort things out, but for once the great detective has blundered. They help Munro break into the house and get quite a surprise.
There is no blackmailer, just Effie’s daughter by her first husband. She has been keeping the little girl secret for reasons which become clear when she opens a locket and we see her first husband.
There was a portrait within of a man strikingly handsome and intelligent-looking, but bearing unmistakable signs upon his features of his African descent.
The yellow face was a mask designed to keep the little girl close, but her skin colour a secret. Quite a bombshell in 1894.
It was a long ten minutes before Grant Munro broke the silence, and when his answer came it was one of which I love to think. He lifted the little child, kissed her, and then, still carrying her, he held his other hand out to his wife and turned towards the door.
“We can talk it over more comfortably at home,” said he. “I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think that I am a better one than you have given me credit for being.”
Holmes and I followed them down the lane, and my friend plucked at my sleeve as we came out.
“I think,” said he, “that we shall be of more use in London than in Norbury.”
How’s about three cheers for Mr and Mrs Munro? And for Conan Doyle for what is a remarkably enlightened outcome for the 1890s despite his occasionally ‘old-fashioned’ vocabulary.
All told, a story well worth revisiting.
So, do you think any of the other stories in Memoirs deserves more attention?
- Silver Blaze
- The Adventure of the Cardboard Box
- The Adventure of the Yellow Face
- The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk
- The Adventure of the Gloria Scott
- The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual
- The Adventure of the Reigate Squire
- The Adventure of the Crooked Man
- The Adventure of the Resident Patient
- The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter
- The Adventure of the Naval Treaty
- The Final Problem