Literature Study GuidesThe Adventures Of Sherlock HolmesThe Adventure Of The Blue Carbuncle Summary

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Study Guide

Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle | Summary

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Summary

Watson visits Baker Street a few days after Christmas. His visit is unannounced, but as always, Holmes is delighted to see him and implores his friend to stay and chat about his current investigation. When he enters he sees Holmes examining a worn felt hat. Watson half jokes the hat must be connected to some dastardly crime. Holmes laughs at his jest, explaining he's not sure whether it's related to a crime: he's merely interested in figuring out the history behind the hat. He then explains how he came into possession of the hat: it was brought to him on Christmas morning by a commissionaire named Peterson, who "[knows] that even the smallest problems are of interest to me." At four o'clock in the morning Peterson had been walking down Tottenham Court Road in London when he spotted the owner of the hat walking in front of him; he was a "tallish man," and was carrying a goose. When the man reached the corner a gang started menacing him and knocked off his hat. As the man tried to defend himself with his walking stick he accidentally smashed a shop window. Peterson ran toward him to help him, but the sight of Peterson and the smashed glass caused him to drop his goose and flee. The gang also took off at the sight of Peterson, leaving him with the goose and the hat.

Holmes says Peterson kept the goose until this morning, when he cooked it. He then turns to the hat and explains he has been busy trying to figure out information about its owner. The goose came with a note saying it was "For Mrs. Henry Baker," and the initials H.B. were marked inside the hat, but there are undoubtedly hundreds of Henry Bakers in London, so finding the owner requires further sleuthing. Watson is extremely skeptical that any valuable information could be revealed from merely looking at the article, but Holmes has deduced a large amount of information. He's certain of the following about the hat's owner: he is an intellectual; he was once affluent, but has fallen on hard times within the past three years; recently he has given in to some sort of vice, probably drinking; and his wife no longer loves him. When Watson interjects incredulously, Holmes adds the man is middle-aged, recently had a haircut, puts lime cream in his hair, and does not have gas service in his house.

To pacify Watson, who is still utterly unconvinced, Holmes explains what led him to these conclusions. Because the hat is large, it indicates the wearer had a large head (and thus a large brain and intellect). The hat is very expensive and high-quality, but its serious deterioration suggests its owner could not afford to replace it, presumably because he has faced economic hardship. His "foresight" is identifiable by the strap he added on to the hat. Holmes offers evidence for all of these claims, finishing with the assertion Henry Baker's wife didn't love him because the hat hasn't been brushed in weeks. Watson concedes to Holmes's superior deductions; as the men talk, however, Peterson bursts into the room. He holds out a shimmering blue stone, which he says his wife found in the bird's crop (a digestive area near the throat). Holmes identifies the stone as the Countess of Morcar's blue carbuncle; it was recently stolen out of the Countess's hotel room, and an ad offering a £1,000 reward has been running in local papers since the theft.

Holmes finds a newspaper account of the heist, which took place at the Hotel Cosmopolitan in London on December 22. A 26-year-old plumber named John Horner is accused of the crime and is now in jail. According to a hotel attendant named James Ryder, Horner had been summoned to the countess's dressing room to fix a grate. Ryder left the room for a bit, and when he returned Horner was gone and the (now-empty) box holding the stone was left on the dressing room table. The countess's maid, Catherine Cusack, heard Ryder's shouts, raced into the room, and ultimately confirmed his story. Horner was arrested by Inspector Bradstreet despite vigorously pleading innocence. The fact that he'd previously been convicted for robbery casts further doubt on his innocence.

Holmes tells Peterson and Watson they now have a responsibility to find the man whose hat they have and figure out his role in the carbuncle theft. He directs Peterson to place an advertisement in several evening newspapers; the ad should explain a hat and goose were found at the corner of Goodge Street and that Mr. Henry Baker can claim them both at Holmes's Baker Street residence at six thirty that same evening. Holmes and Watson discuss the stone's origins and characteristics, and then Watson leaves to make a doctor's call. He makes his way to Holmes's front door around six thirty, and spots a man—presumably Henry Baker—waiting outside. Once inside Holmes and Baker speak. Baker explains he didn't place an ad for his belongings because money is very tight. Baker is upset to hear Holmes has eaten the goose but is relieved when Holmes explains he obtained a new one for him. Holmes explains he still has all of the original bird's inner parts—including the crop—but Baker laughs and tells him he can keep them. Before Baker leaves, Holmes asks him where he purchased his goose. Baker says he acquired it from a pub called the Alpha Inn as part of a Christmas pool.

After dinner Holmes and Watson travel to the Alpha Inn. The proprietor tells them he acquired the set of geese—two dozen, to be exact—from a salesman named Breckinridge who works out of a stall at the Covent Garden Market. Watson and Holmes travel to the market, where they find Breckinridge. Holmes pretends to be interested in purchasing a goose, and asks Breckinridge where he sourced the geese he sold to the Alpha. Breckinridge explodes in anger, claiming people won't stop pestering him about the origins of the geese. He says he won't reveal his source. Playing along, Holmes bets him a five-sovereign coin the goose is "country bred." Breckinridge denies this, asserting his birds are "town bred"; Holmes demands proof, and Breckinridge shows him his ledger, which reveals Breckinridge purchased the birds from a woman named Mrs. Oakshott. Holmes makes a mental note of Oakshott's address, and leaves the angry salesman with his sovereign.

As Holmes and Watson debate whether or not to visit Mrs. Oakshott that evening, they hear a commotion coming from Breckinridge's stall. A "little rat-faced" fellow has been bothering the merchant, yet again, about his geese. An angry Breckinridge tells him to get lost; as the man slinks out Holmes corners him. Holmes introduces himself and explains he's been chasing information on a goose from Mrs. Oakshott to Henry Baker, and the man lights up with interest. Holmes hails a cab, and he, Watson, and the man talk. He claims his name is John Robinson, but after prodding from Holmes admits he is James Ryder, the attendant at the Hotel Cosmopolitan. The cab arrives at Holmes's house, and the men continue their discussion in Holmes's study. Holmes quickly gets Ryder to confess he was involved in the theft, though he blames it on Catherine Cusack, the countess's maid. Ryder pleads for mercy, but Holmes barks at him and tells him to think of the plumber Horner, who is in serious trouble. He demands Ryder to explain everything, which he does.

After Horner was arrested, Ryder knew he would be searched next, so he took off for his sister's. She is married to a Mr. Oakshott and raises fowls to be sold at the market. In his sister's yard he thought about what to do, and it dawned on him to seek the counsel of an ex-con friend. Eventually, he decided a trip to visit his friend would be too risky, so he considered other options. That's when he thought of the idea to hide the stone in a goose: his sister had promised him a bird for Christmas, so he picked one with a barred tail, then forced the stone down the goose's throat. When it came time for him to choose his goose, he insisted he wanted the bird with the barred tail; at first his sister resisted, but she eventually relented. He took the bird with the barred tail to his friend's place, but when they killed it, the stone was nowhere to be found. Ryder ran back to his sister's, but by this point all of the birds had been sold to Breckinridge. She explained there was another bird with a barred tail, and she could never tell the two geese apart, which explains why he has been harassing Breckinridge for information about his sales.

After hearing this Holmes kicks Ryder out of his house. Holmes turns to Watson and explains, as far as he is concerned, there is nothing more to be done. Ryder will never testify against Horner, which means the accused man will go free. As for Ryder, Holmes will not proceed with the case, as "it is the season for forgiveness."

Analysis

"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" is noteworthy for how it organizes Holmes's sleuthing. In every Sherlock Holmes tale the masterfully astute detective makes no small number of deductions, but they usually involve multiple people or objects. In this story, however, all of Holmes's deductions come from a single object: Henry Baker's faded felt hat.

Additionally, none of Holmes's Baker-related deductions really contribute to the crime's solving. The hypotheses he makes about Baker during his discussion with Watson are proven correct once Baker comes to his house, but don't serve any greater purpose in the story. Actually getting Baker to his house merely required putting an advertisement in local papers, which Holmes could have done without any sort of deduction-making, given that he knew Baker's name from the note that came with the goose. Presumably, once Baker came to Holmes's house, Holmes could have figured out where he acquired the goose—from the Alpha Inn—even without knowing anything at all about Baker himself.

In fact in this story Holmes solves the crime merely by following the trail of the stone. This is good detective work, but it's not quite Sherlock Holmes-level detective work, which typically involves identifying clues no one else has seen and theorizing what they have to do with a crime. It's interesting, if not a touch disappointing, that Holmes's extreme deduction-making so early in the story doesn't really have a payoff. It seems to be largely for show.

As a result this story comes off more as a classic mystery and less a unique Sherlock Holmes tale. Even Holmes himself talks in a way that seems ripped from a jewel-thief caper. "Of course [the carbuncle] is a nucleus and focus of crime," he tells Watson, in a tone reminiscent of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. "Every good stone is. They are the devil's pet baits. In the larger and older jewels every facet may stand for a bloody deed."

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