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A Sherlock Holmes Essay

LESS IS MORE
by Whatsits Galore

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This essay originally appeared in the Baker Street Journal, Spring 2003.

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"Less is more." -- Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969)

Sherlock Holmes described the same principle as "the supreme gift of the artist--knowing when to stop." Apparently what is true in art is also true in a diametrically different field of endeavor: crime.

Holmes was referring to Jonas Oldacre of The Adventure of The Norwood Builder, whose eleventh-hour addition to his ruse ruined his otherwise perfect crime. There are other criminals in the canon of whom Holmes may've said with equal certainty that they didn't know when to stop. But first, the Norwood builder.

Oldacre, of course, had written a new will naming his former sweetheart's son, John Hector McFarlane, as his chief beneficiary. He then set a fire on his property, which happily burned up one of his own suits, and hid himself in a secret room. His disappearance in the wake of the fire led the police to the conclusion of murder. The only clue, McFarlane's walking stick, along with the testimony of Oldacre's housekeeper, seemed enough to have McFarlane convicted. At least, Holmes thought so. "I fear," said the great detective, "that our case will end ingloriously by Lestrade hanging our client."

It all unraveled, however, when Oldacre failed to leave well enough alone. He devised an ingenious scheme for leaving McFarlane's bloody thumbprint on the premises. Alas, Holmes recognized instantly that the mark had appeared after McFarlane was taken to jail and Mr Jonas Oldacre was hoist on his own petard. If only he'd taken Mies van der Rowe's sentiment to heart, he might very well have succeeded.

Consider another canonical criminal, namely Mortimer Tregennis, who, in The Adventure of the Devil's Foot, slipped an obscure poison into the fireplace and effectively put an end to his brothers and sister as he walked safely home to his bed. No physician could have traced the cause of the mysterious deaths, and, Holmes' immediate suspicions of Tregennis notwithstanding,, it is unlikely that even the master detective could have proved anything against the culprit.

Despite Mortimer's nearly foolproof scheme, he felt the need for a bit of embellishment. During Holmes' investigation, Tregennis told the detective that he had seen, or thought he saw, a moving shape on the lawn the night of the tragedy. This revelation reeks of improvisation, Mortimer adding a little tidbit to throw suspicion on some unknown person outside the window. Holmes, however, instantly proves to his own satisfaction that no one could've appeared at the window without leaving traces in the flowerbed. Thus, a story intended to divert suspicion from Mortimer only tends to place it more squarely on his shoulders. Mortimer's murder a short time later made his alibi a moot point, but it is clear that his eleventh-hour addition in no way enhanced his tale.

Perhaps the worst instance of a perpetrator ruining his own chances for success is found in The Abbey Grange. You will doubtless recall that Capt. Croker killed Sir Eustace Brackenstall with a fireplace poker, and then tried to disguise it as a bungled burglary. He and the maid Teresa Wright had two injuries to account for as they contrived their subterfuge: Sir Eustace's fatal wound and the violent blow he had struck his wife Mary. According to Teresa's plan, they tied Lady Brackenstall to a chair using a bellrope and threw some of the family silver into the pond in order to give the impression that burglars had done the deed. They even poured the remains from the wine glasses into a third glass to implicate a specific gang of three men, the Randalls.

Ultimately, it was these elaborate precautions that proved to Holmes the true identity of the guilty parties. His first solid clue was the beeswing in the third wine glass, which told the detective that it had been filled with the dregs of the other two. Another flaw in Teresa's plan became apparent when Holmes observed the blood on the seat of the chair to which Lady Brackenstall had been bound. If she'd really been sitting in the chair when her husband was murdered, as she claimed, his blood could not have splattered onto the chair seat. These errors encouraged Holmes to search more diligently, leading him to the remaining clues, namely the cut in the bellrope and the hidden silver.

An examination of the case makes it clear that the flaws in Teresa Wright's plot all stem from its complexity. Could she have fooled Holmes with a simpler story?

Suppose that, instead of attempting to incriminate the Randall gang, they'd settled for a more generichousebreaker. If Capt. Croker had disposed of the silver as before and Lady Brackenstall simply said that she'd been struck by a burglar and awoke to find her husband dead, what clues would there have been to prove her wrong? The charade with the bellrope and the chair spoke volumes to Holmes' trained eye. And that business with the wine...they might've simply washed the glasses, thus eliminating the clues of the beeswing and the pocket screw. By fixing on a specific criminal gang to implicate, they ran several unnecessary risks. Suppose the Randalls had an ironclad alibi? Was it likely that there were two nearly identical gangs of housebreakers at large? Even the local police might suspect the lady's story at that point. The more details Wright and Croker added to their story, the more clues they left for the police, and, as it turned out, Sherlock Holmes.

The question remains, would Capt. Croker and Teresa Wright have succeeded in their plan if they'd kept to the simplest possible story? Maybe, although Holmes did not seek to have them prosecuted in any case. It's certain that Mortimer would've met the same fate at the hands of Dr. Sterndale no matter what tale he'd concocted. But Jonas Oldacre, the Norwood Builder, as Sherlock Holmes observed, would've almost certainly escaped justice and caused the death of John Hector McFarlane if he'd only realized that, in the world of crime as in the world of the artist, less is indeed more.

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