The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Study Guide

Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | The Boscombe Valley Mystery | Summary



While Watson is having breakfast with his wife, he receives a telegram from Holmes asking if he's free to accompany the detective on an investigation to the Boscombe Valley, a rural area in western England. Watson's wife encourages him to go, and after packing quickly Watson meets Holmes at Paddington Station, the central London train depot. During the ride Holmes catches Watson up on the details of the case and the people involved in it. He's been hired to investigate the murder of a man named Charles McCarthy, an Australian native who had been living on a farm owned by a wealthy local landholder named John Turner. During his youth Turner had lived in Australia—where he met McCarthy—and after amassing a small fortune he returned home to the Boscombe Valley. Both men were widowers with one child each; Turner has a daughter, Alice, and McCarthy had a son, James.

According to the police report and the coroner's examination, what happened was this: On the previous Monday, McCarthy was found dead by the Boscombe Pool, a small lake close to his rental property, Hatherley Farm. He had left Hatherley around three o'clock in the afternoon, telling his servant on the way out that he was going to meet up with someone. A gamekeeper witnessed McCarthy walking to Boscombe Pool; shortly after, however, he observed McCarthy's son (armed with a pistol) walking in the same direction. Another witness, a 14-year-old girl whose parent manages the Boscombe Valley estate, a local lodge, was in the woods near the lake when the two McCarthys met. She watched as they got into a violent argument, but after James McCarthy appeared to raise his hands to fight she ran off home. Very shortly after, James McCarthy came running toward the lodge shouting about his father's body. He did not have his gun on him, and his clothes had bloodstains. The lodge-keeper and others followed McCarthy to his father's body. McCarthy appeared to have been murdered by blunt-force trauma to the back of his head. As James McCarthy's gun was lying just a few feet away from the body, he was arrested and charged with murder.

In Watson's view the case is open-and-shut. The circumstantial evidence is completely damning, he says. Holmes, however, disagrees, arguing that circumstantial evidence "is a very tricky thing." At any rate he was contacted by Scotland Yard detective Lestrade to see if he can dig up any clues that might cast doubt on James McCarthy's guilt. Lestrade has been hired by Turner's daughter, Alice, a friend of McCarthy's who believes in his innocence.

Holmes and Watson continue discussing the case on the train. There seems to be one bright spot for McCarthy's defense: when he was arrested at Hatherley Farm, he did not plead innocence. Rather, he explained, "he was not surprised to hear it, and that it was no more than his desserts." Holmes interprets McCarthy's nondenial and acceptance as potential proof of his innocence, for if he were guilty he would have pretended to have had no involvement at all with his father. He also interprets McCarthy's discussion of his "desserts" as nothing more than the guilt of a grieving son who comes across his father's body. The duo then turns to James McCarthy's confession, which was given to the coroner who examined Charles McCarthy. According to the younger McCarthy, he had just arrived home from a three-day trip to Bristol when the murder occurred. His father had been out when he arrived back at the house, and had taken off for the lake after getting dropped off by a carriage in the yard of the house. While McCarthy headed in the direction of the lake, he heard him yell "Cooee!", a secret code word between father and son. After the younger McCarthy caught up with his father at the lake, he seemed surprised and irritated by his son's presence. This led to harsh words and nearly blows. "Seeming as [Charles McCarthy's] anger was becoming ungovernable," the younger McCarthy turned around and headed home. After 150 yards, however, he heard his father cry out, and ran back to the lake. There he found his father, dying from his head injuries; he dropped his gun and comforted his father, then ran to find the lodge-keeper.

The coroner then asked James McCarthy a series of questions. McCarthy explained the only thing his father said to him before he died was some bizarre mention of a rat; McCarthy had absolutely no idea what he meant. McCarthy refused to reveal why he had gotten into such a heated argument with his father at the lake, despite the coroner's multiple attempts to find out. Next, McCarthy explained he was completely puzzled why his father would utter the words "Cooee" given that James McCarthy did not know his son was in the area. Lastly, McCarthy said, though the frenzy of the moment fazed him, he did recall seeing some sort of grey-looking cloth about a dozen yards from his father as he lay down to cradle the dying man. When he stood up, however, the article had disappeared. He pointed out, however, that his back was toward the article while he was holding his father.

Watson and Holmes arrive in the small country town of Ross, and meet Lestrade at the station. The three of them take a carriage to the Hereford Arms Hotel. Soon after their arrival, Alice Turner showed up to talk with them. Watson is taken aback by her youthful beauty. She is extremely relieved to see Sherlock Holmes, whose reputation is known far and wide. She says she is convinced James could not be the murderer because "he is too tender-hearted to hurt a fly." She adds she thinks she knows what James was arguing with his father about: the youngsters' relationship. Charles McCarthy, she says, has been insisting the two of them get married, but despite their long friendship, she and James are just friends. Also, she says, her father knew about Charles McCarthy's interest in the marriage, but he was very opposed to it. Holmes finds this information intriguing and asks to speak with Alice's father, but she says he is very sick and unable to receive any visitors. Charles McCarthy's death has struck him especially hard, because the two of them worked together in the gold mines of Victoria, Australia. She tells Holmes to send a message of support to James McCarthy when he visits him in jail, and then leaves the group. Lestrade upbraids Holmes for giving Alice false hope. Holmes responds he thinks he may be able to exonerate McCarthy, and he would like to see him. He and Lestrade take off for jail while Watson waits at the hotel.

While he waits anxiously at the hotel, Watson reviews an account of the murder in a recent local paper. He learns McCarthy's injuries were caused by a "heavy blow from a blunt weapon" and the victim must have been approached from behind, a potentially promising fact for James McCarthy's defense. He mulls over the rest of the oddities—the reference to the rat and the grey cloth—but can't make any sense of them. Later that night Sherlock Holmes returns alone to the hotel and fills Watson in on his conversation with the accused. He learned McCarthy was madly in love with Alice Turner, but he could not be with her because he had impulsively married a barmaid in Bristol while Turner was at boarding school for five years, a secret not known to either his father or Alice. He couldn't bring himself to tell his father this secret, however, because his father was "a very hard man." It explains his angry, frustrated response at the lake to his father, who was berating him for not proposing to Turner. After learning about McCarthy's charges, however, his wife in Bristol abandoned him, claiming she was already married to someone else. Holmes concludes McCarthy is innocent, and finding the perpetrator depends on resolving two clues: 1) who the elder McCarthy had an appointment with at the lake; and 2) why he yelled "Cooee!" before he died.

The next day Watson, Lestrade, and Holmes return to Hatherley Farm and examine Charles McCarthy's and James McCarthy's boots. They make their way down to the lake where Charles McCarthy's body was found and to the nearby woods. The ground, which is so close to the lake, is still wet, and there are several footprint indentations in the earth. In the woods Holmes picks up a jagged stone. After his survey he concludes the murder was committed by "a tall man" who is "left-handed, limps with the right leg, wears thick-soled shooting boots and a grey cloak," and has other attributes. Lestrade is dubious and laughs at Holmes's conclusions.

Holmes discusses his findings with Watson back at the hotel. He says the McCarthy cried "Cooee"—an Australian greeting—because the person he was meeting was familiar with Australian slang. This fits with his finding that McCarthy's final mumblings about a "rat" was actually Ballarat, a city in Australia, in the Colony of Victoria. All that is left, he tells Watson, is to find "an Australian from Ballarat with a grey cloak." He explains to Watson he determined the man's height by the stride of the footprints at the crime scene, and that the man was left-handed.

Just as Holmes is about to reveal who the murderer is, John Turner limps into the hotel room. Holmes had sent him a note requesting the two speak at the hotel, lest Holmes's visit to Turner's house raise suspicions. Turner immediately confesses to the crime. He is distraught by the prospect of being arrested, but Holmes reassures him he is only a private investigator hired by his daughter. Relieved he explains what happened. Charles McCarthy, he says, was "a devil incarnate." The two met in Australia many years ago; as a young man Turner had gone to seek his fortune in the colony in the 1860s. He quickly fell in with the Ballarat Gang and started robbing supply wagons. One day he robbed McCarthy's wagon, leaving him alone but running off with the gold he was transporting. After this he returned to the Boscombe Valley, married, had Alice, and became a reformed man. One day, however, McCarthy showed up in town. He was able to blackmail Turner into giving him Hatherley Farm rent-free and other goods and services. One day, however, he demanded Alice—he wanted her to marry his son, James. This was too much for Turner; he'd rather die than give his precious daughter up to a McCarthy. And so he murdered Charles McCarthy. Holmes offers a way out to the sickly, distraught man: he would make a full signed confession, which Holmes would keep to himself unless James McCarthy was sentenced to death. Turner gladly agreed to the scheme. He dies seven months later. James McCarthy is freed, once Holmes's findings cast sufficient doubt on his guilt, and he takes up with Alice Turner.


"The Boscombe Valley Mystery" is set in a provincial area of rural England, but it's a global story that reflects the enormous power and reach of the British Empire in the late 19th century. The spark that set off the chain of events leading to the murder happened thousands of miles away in Australia, which at the time was a British colony. There are other indications of the British Empire's might. On the very first page we learn Watson was able to get his things together so quickly because of his military service in Afghanistan. Back in England the amenities of modern Britain are plain to see. The fact that Holmes and Watson travel to Boscombe Valley from London by train shows how well-connected the country is, and how expanded Holmes's reach is. Even Holmes, who has seen much and traveled all over, is taken with the country's new opportunities. After he explains to Watson how the case found him, he says, with no small amount of admiration, "and hence it is that two middle-aged gentlemen are flying westward at fifty miles an hour instead of quietly digesting their breakfasts at home."

On the train Holmes and Watson discuss the value of circumstantial evidence. Watson argues the circumstantial evidence points overwhelmingly toward James McCarthy's guilt, but Holmes, ever the patient teacher, counsels him to be more cautious. "It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different," he says. This nugget of wisdom, which stresses the importance of keeping an open, judgment-free mind, is typically Sherlockian.

This is the first story in the collection to involve Lestrade, the Scotland Yard detective. In so many ways he is Holmes's opposite and is meant to demonstrate the differences between the "official" authorities and the outsider Holmes. He is a pleasant fellow, but he is deeply conventional and unimaginative. In particular he is skeptical of Holmes's fancy logic work and hypothesizing. After Holmes wonders why Charles McCarthy felt so entitled to demand his son's marriage to Alice Turner, the daughter of McCarthy's seemingly generous benefactor, Lestrade dismisses his misgiving. "Do you not deduce something from that?" Holmes asks rhetorically. "We have got to the deductions and the inferences," Lestrade replies. "I find it hard enough to tackle facts, Holmes, without flying away after theories and fancies." He is a completely unoriginal investigator, and his incompetence is amplified by the fact that Holmes correctly solves the case even though both men are working on it.

The murder in this story reinforces Holmes's view—made more explicitly in later stories—that the countryside is far from an innocent, bucolic place. Behind the sparkling lakes, rustic cottages, and valley vistas, human nature lurks—often with tragic consequences. The isolation of the countryside evokes a feeling that horrors are simply out of sight. Indeed, a faint sense of foreboding increases the closer Holmes and Watson get to Boscombe Valley (and the farther they get from London, where crime is out in the open and plain to see).

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