The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Study Guide

Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | The Man with the Twisted Lip | Summary



Watson describes Isa Whitney, a man he knows who is addicted to opium. Whitney, Watson explains, followed the typical, sad trajectory of an addict: experimenting with the drug as a young man and eventually descending into physical and psychological ruin. One night in 1889 Whitney's wife arrives at the Watson household. She explains through tears that Isa had not been home for two days, and is most likely holed up in an opium den called Bar of Gold on Upper Swandam Lane, a notoriously slummy area of east London right by the River Thames. Watson agrees to search for Whitney at the den, promising to return with him if his friend is actually there. He takes a hired cab. As he approaches Upper Swandam Lane, he notes with alarm and a bit of scorn the neighborhood's shabbiness. He enters the opium den and locates Whitney among the many other ne'er-do-wells. Whitney is dazed and confused, but he agrees to go home with Watson if he'll settle his tab.

As Watson looks for the den manager, a wrinkled old man whispers at him to "walk past me, and then look back at me." Watson does as he's told; when he looks back, he is astonished to see that the "old man" is Sherlock Holmes, slipped momentarily out of disguise. Holmes tells Watson to send Whitney home in the cab and to tell the cab driver to notify Watson's wife he's staying out with Holmes; he also directs Watson to meet him outside in five minutes. Watson meets Holmes outside as directed, and the two walk away from the den. Holmes, staying in character, limps for two streets. After confirming no one is following them, Holmes begins walking normally and explains himself to Watson. Holmes is looking for a man named Neville St. Clair, and his search brought him to the den. He is worried, however, because the den has a bad reputation for violence, and many men have disappeared through the trap door of the building, which leads directly to the wharf. "It is the vilest murder-trap on the whole riverside," he says. He then whistles out, and his cab materializes with a driver. He convinces Watson to accompany him to St. Clair's large villa near the town of Lee, seven miles outside the city, and sends his driver home.

As they drive out toward the house, Holmes explains the series of events that brought him to the Bar of Gold disguised as an elderly opium addict. The previous Monday the target of his search, Neville St. Clair, bid his wife farewell and went into London, as he does every morning. On Monday the happily married 37-year-old father of two went in earlier than usual, explaining to his wife he had two tasks to attend to. He also said he would pick up a gift of bricks for his son. That same day St. Clair's wife received a telegram informing her a package was waiting for her at a shipping office close to Upper Swandam Lane. After she retrieved the package she walked around the area; as she passed close to the Bar of Gold, she heard a cry coming from the building—and then looked up to see Mr. St. Clair staring at her and gesticulating as if he was in distress. He quickly disappeared back into the room, almost as if he'd been pulled into it. Before he disappeared, however, she noticed he was wearing his black coat but no collar or tie.

Mrs. St. Clair ran into the house, but the manager—a lascar (the term for a South or East Asian sailor)—prevented her from going upstairs. She ran outside and found a group of constables, who returned with her to the building and forced the manager to let them inspect the room Mrs. St. Clair had spotted her husband in. There was no trace of her husband, just a "crippled wretch" who swore he had never seen Neville St. Clair. Mrs. St. Clair spotted a box in the room. She opened it, revealing the set of bricks her husband had talked about that morning. This prompted the constables to inspect the room further. They found traces of blood on the windowsill and on the floor, and Neville St. Clair's clothes—with the exception of his coat—stashed behind the curtain. Apart from the blood there were no signs of foul play, leading to the conclusion that St. Clair must have left through the window, which overlooked a small strip between the building and the wharf. (At high tide it filled with water up to four and a half feet high.)

The lascar pleaded complete ignorance, and claimed to know nothing about the shabby man upstairs, a beggar well-known to the authorities named Hugh Boone. Holmes explains Boone is a professional beggar who rakes in a not-unimpressive amount of money from his daily perch in the city. Holmes attributes his success to Boone's unforgettable appearance—he has red hair and a disfiguring scar over his lip—and his quick wit. Boone protested his innocence and "declared that Mrs. St. Clair must have been either mad or dreaming" when she saw her husband at the window, but was arrested and taken to jail just the same. There were bloodstains on his shirt, but he said they came from his finger, which had a visible cut. When the inspectors went to check out the strip behind the building at low tide they found Neville St. Clair's coat, its pockets overstuffed with pennies and half-pennies. Holmes hypothesizes Boone is somehow involved in the disappearance but admits he is perplexed by the case.

The men arrive at the St. Clair villa and are greeted by Mrs. St. Clair, who has arranged for Holmes to stay on the premises while he works on the case. She asks Holmes to be frank with her and tell him if he thinks Neville St. Clair is dead; Holmes confesses he does think so. Mrs. St. Clair then produces a letter she received from Neville earlier that day. Holmes inspects the letter, which is postmarked from Gravesend, a town outside of London, and observes that the address seems to have been written in phases, suggesting the letter-writer wasn't initially sure of the address. He also notices the sloppy address handwriting is different than the handwriting of the letter itself. Mrs. St. Clair confirms the letter's handwriting, though hasty, matches her husband's. The letter is a quick note telling Mrs. St. Clair he is okay and the mystery will be revealed soon. Neville St. Clair's signet ring is included with the letter. Further inspection reveals the letter was written on a blank page from a book, and the envelope must have been closed by someone with a "dirty thumb" who chewed tobacco.

Holmes goes over the facts of the story one more time with Mrs. St. Clair. She confirms everything Holmes has already been told but does agree it's possible her husband's "cry" was a shriek of surprise after seeing her, not a distress call. She also confirms her husband never used opium and had never said anything about the opium den. Holmes and Watson retire to their room. Watson turns in to sleep, but Holmes sets up the sofa cushions on the floor and sits, cross-legged, thinking and smoking his pipe atop the makeshift divan all night. At around 4:25 a.m. Watson awakes, and finds Holmes in the same position—though his huge pile of shag (tobacco) is gone. As they get ready to head out, Holmes tells Watson he thinks he has solved the case—and found the answer to the mystery in the bathroom. He doesn't disclose what he found in the bathroom, but he does say he has packed it into his bag. The two men take off for London and arrive at the jail, on Bow Street in central London, where Boone is being held. The men enter the jail building, and Holmes makes his way to the office of Inspector Bradstreet. After quick greetings Bradstreet leads him to Boone's cell.

Boone is sleeping when Holmes and Watson arrive outside his cell. The Inspector remarks on Boone's filthy state, and Holmes agrees Boone could benefit from a washing, adding he "took the liberty of bringing the tools with me." To Watson's amazement Holmes whips out a sponge from the bag he packed at the St. Clair household. Holmes asks Bradstreet to let him in Boone's cell so he may give him a wash; Bradstreet agrees, and opens the door. Holmes wets the sponge and wipes it twice across Boone's face. He then declares, "Let me introduce you ... to Mr. Neville St. Clair, of Lee, in the County of Kent." The prisoner's face skin is transformed from the washing from dirty and wrinkled to smooth. As he wakes up, Boone's "scar" falls away and his red hair falls off to reveal a head of dark hair. Shocked by the realization he has been found out, the prisoner buries his head in his pillow. He confesses he is indeed Mr. Neville St. Clair. He is terrified his children will find out about his ruse, and begs to know what he can do to keep the scandal from being reported in the news. Holmes says if the case goes to court there will be lots of publicity, but if St. Clair confesses right now to Bradstreet and explains why he shouldn't be charged, the case won't be known.

St. Clair thanks Holmes, and then tells his story from the beginning. He had guaranteed a loan for a friend, but when the friend went bust he was on the hook for paying the loan of £25. He had no idea where he would find the money, so in desperation he decided to go out begging for the funds—a role in which he had some experience. He acted in his youth, and his first adult job was newspaper reporter. While he worked at an evening paper he had went undercover to report on begging throughout London. He was so good at the disguise, however, he routinely made £2 in a day—as much as he made as a journalist in a week. When he realized how much money he could make begging he gave up his reporting job for begging full time. The money allowed him to grow fairly rich, marry, and purchase his large home. He used the room in the opium den where his wife spotted him as his base for changing in and out of his disguise. When he saw his wife he was dressing back into his regular clothes. He reacted in shock, which drew her to the building. He quickly changed back into his disguise, but only had time to get rid of his jacket, which he threw out the window, before his wife made her way into his room with the constables. The bloodstains were from his cut, which he reopened in his flurry to put on his disguise.

He slipped back into disguise because he was too ashamed to explain himself to his wife and family. To help alleviate his wife's worry, however, he sent her the letter—he scrawled in a rush—with his ring. He gave the letter to the lascar, who must have handed it off to some other visitor to the den, thus explaining its Gravesend postmark and odd address formatting. Bradstreet agreed to drop the case so long as St. Clair kills Hugh Boone for good; a grateful St. Clair readily agrees. The Inspector then asks Holmes how he cracked the case. "I reached this one ... by sitting upon five pillows and consuming an ounce of shag."


In many ways this story evokes anxieties of city life, especially among the upper class. The area around the opium den, Upper Swandam Lane, is described in language usually reserved for horror stories. "Upper Swandam Lane is a vile alley lurking behind the high wharves which line the north side of the river to the east of London Bridge," observes Watson as he nears the den, which is "between a slop-shop and a gin-shop." As for the den itself, it had a feeling of "gloom"; the lights of opium pipes appeared through "black shadows." As for the people in the den, they were "bodies lying in strange fantastic poses." It's perhaps not surprising the overseer of this sinful enterprise is a lascar—a foreigner. Victorian England was a global power, and as a result migration to England and contact with the world increased at this time. Suspicion of the foreign unknown followed. This den of depravity, which is managed by a foreigner, stands in stark contrast to the ordered and moral surroundings of Baker Street. It's a place that can grab even respectable men like Isa Whitney in its clutches.

The idea of upper-class shame resonates throughout the story. Whitney is pitied by Watson, and Neville St. Clair is so terrified of his family's discovering how he makes his living that he's willing to fake his own disappearance. The implication is that his faked disappearance scheme will somehow traumatize his family less than admitting to his begging career, a somewhat dubious calculation—at least to modern readers. The power of shame during Victorian England was perhaps strong enough that this calculation may have been a correct one.

In a bit of situational irony, it's the very power of Holmes's own pipe smoking that helps him crack this case, which is filled with despair about the horrors of opium addiction. Tobacco is different from opium, but it's still an addictive substance.

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