The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Study Guide

Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | A Case of Identity | Summary



A young woman named Miss Mary Sutherland visits Holmes on Baker Street. Before her visit the detective had been discussing the nature of crime with Dr. Watson, arguing "life is infinitely stranger than anything the mind of man could invent." Sutherland was clearly in a hurry to get to Holmes's place: she explains she stormed out of her house to get away from her stepfather, James Windibank. Windibank has completely refused to help her in her quest: to find out what happened to a man named Hosmer Angel. She explains her father recently died, leaving his successful plumbing business in the hands of her mother. Much to Sutherland's alarm, she quickly married Mr. Windibank, who is only five years older than Sutherland. After pressure from Windibank, Sutherland's mother sold the plumbing business—albeit for a much lower price than Sutherland's father would have fetched. In addition Sutherland receives a yearly payment of £100 from a trust account set up by a deceased uncle in New Zealand. She forfeits most of this money to her mother and stepfather (with whom she lives), but with the remainder, in addition to the money she makes from typing, she has a tidy income.

Sutherland explains she met Hosmer Angel at a gasfitters' ball. Windibank is fiercely controlling and had forbidden her from going to the event, but when he was supposed to be away in France on business she attended the ball with her mother. She hit it off with Angel, and over the next few days he called on her. The pair had taken walks together on two separate occasions before Windibank returned from France and put an end to the relationship. On their very first walk, however, Hosmer proposed to Sutherland, and she accepted, though she knew so little about him other than the fact that he worked as a cashier at some sort of office on Leadenhall Street in London. After Windibank forbade their seeing each other, the pair communicated by letter. Hosmer sent letters written by typewriter but asked that Sutherland send him handwritten notes. He also instructed her to send her letters to the post office on Leadenhall Street, so as not to draw his coworkers' attention to the courtship. A week later Windibank took off for France again, and Angel stopped by Sutherland's house. He asked Sutherland to marry him before her stepfather returned, and made her swear on a New Testament she "would always be true to him." With her mother's blessing—she told Sutherland she would deal with her stepfather and that she approved of Angel—Sutherland agreed.

On the morning of the wedding, a few days later, Angel arrived at Sutherland's house in a hansom cab. There wasn't enough room for him, Sutherland, and her mother in the cab, so he found a different cab to transport himself. When the cabs met up outside the church where the marriage was to take place, however, Angel was nowhere to be found. He hasn't been seen or heard from since. The previous Sunday, Sutherland placed a missing persons ad in a local paper describing Angel. Holmes asks Sutherland to leave her letters and ad with him and counsels her to leave the entire business behind. She thanks him and leaves, but not before saying she will keep her word to Angel and will wait for him.

Holmes discusses the case with Watson. As usual Watson has not detected a number of revealing clues Holmes has so easily assimilated. Believing he knows the answer to Angel's whereabouts, Holmes sends out two letters to confirm his suspicions: one to an unnamed London business, and one to James Windibank, asking him to visit Holmes the next evening at six o'clock. Windibank sends a letter back confirming he will visit Holmes. During their meeting Holmes accuses Windibank of disguising himself as Hosmer Angel in order to keep collecting Sutherland's trust payments and have access to her mother's money. He figured this out because Angel's description in the missing person advertisement includes common disguise articles: glasses, whiskers, and the like. In addition the letter Windibank sent to Holmes has the same typesetting errors as the letters "Angel" sent to Sutherland, meaning the same typewriter must have been used to author both letters. Windibank confesses to the crime, but insists it's not an actionable offense. Holmes agrees, and then throws him out.


The conversation between Holmes and Watson at the beginning of the story foreshadows the crime in the story. During their discussion Holmes marvels at the sheer absurdity of most crimes, which, he argues, are far stranger than fiction, which is itself so often predictable and conventional. Holmes would appear to be correct, given that this story involves a plotting stepfather who marries into a well-to-do family and then disguises himself as a bridegroom for his own daughter-in-law only to leave her at the altar.

Mary Sutherland's ordeal clearly illustrates the subordinate position of women in Victorian society. Even though she's an adult, Sutherland's independence is completely subject to the whims of her parents—even her new stepfather, who is a mere five years older than she. His controlling behavior deeply affects her life; arguably his cruel plot to dupe her and take control of her money is simply an extreme version of his usual behavior. Even Sutherland's trust underscores her dependent status, because she is reliant on money from her uncle, an older man. Intentionally or not, the story calls attention to the injustice and unfairness many Victorian women faced in their society.

Like many other stories from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, disguise is a feature of this tale. It's interesting, however, that it's the culprit himself who dons a disguise in this story, not Sherlock Holmes. Windibank's deception adds a twist to the escapade, and shows Holmes must remain ever vigilant and open-minded in his crime-solving. Clearly the criminals and scofflaws he brings to justice are just as imaginative as the master detective himself.

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