The Dancing Men – Hounds Summary

Ralph Edwards – Fri, 17 Mar 1995

  • Was Holmes acquiring curvature of the spine?
  • Did Holmes have an artificial hand?
  • Was remembering four weeks unnecessary brain stuffing?
  • Was the checkbook locked up for safety or Watson’s benefit?
  • Was Holmes usually in or out to unscheduled clients?
  • Was mention of “no better known family” significant?
  • In 1898, was a registry office wedding appropriate (without the vicar)?
  • Having sent a letter earlier, why did Slaney use his full name in the message?
  • Slaney’s second note says, “AM HERE ABE SLANEY.” What might his first chalked note have said?
  • Why a week between messages?
  • Was Cubitt justified in taking his own line?
  • What other means could Holmes have suggested?
  • Why does Holmes say “Hilton” so often?
  • Would the law have upheld killing a prowler?
  • Why not have farmhands follow Slaney?
  • Why didn’t Holmes have cablegram forwarded to North Walsham?
  • Had old Anglia been more populous?
  • Would a much used writing table face a window?
  • Would guttering show if the candle continues in use?
  • Were long sharp toes significant?
  • Why straggling, irregular letters?
  • What did Slaney do to occupy his waiting days?
  • Was the surmise about flags entirely correct?
  • Was Holmes familiar with American name contractions?
  • Having “dropped” Cubitt, why would Slaney be swaggering?
  • Did Slaney shoot to wound or to kill?
  • How was the first of two simultaneous shots determined?

Chris Redmond – Fri, 7 Jun 1996

We have here the solid British husband, the flighty (but high-minded) American bride, the suitor unexpectedly returned from a far country — why, it might almost be The Noble Bachelor all over again. Is some lesson implied here about the importance of sticking with one’s own tribe and class?

Sonia Fetherston – Fri, 29 Aug 1997

The Dancing Men is one of the canon’s saddest accounts. The good guy dies and the bad guy lives. The damsel in distress is disagreeable. Holmes does not exactly shine. At the same time, it’s also a story which has received a great deal of scholarly scrutiny and is a favorite of many Sherlockians. As we read it this weekend, here are a few questions and comments to kick off the discussion:

  • Elsie Patrick met Hilton Cubitt in a boarding house where she was staying in Russell Square. Another guest there was Parker, the vicar of Cubitt’s parish. After a very brief courtship, Elsie and Hilton were married in a registry office. Why wasn’t Parker asked to perform the ceremony?
  • A letter from America was the starting point of all the trouble. But does that necessarily mean the letter was posted in one of the states? Weren’t American stamps also used in US territories and protectorates?
  • Abe Slaney is called the most dangerous crook in Chicago. That’s pretty rarefied criminality, given Chicago’s rough-edged image in the canon. Remember, that was Killer Evans’ hometown (3GAR); it was a place were Irish spies could safely enter the country (LAST); and union thugs ruled there (VALL). How accurate is this characterization of Chicago’s past?
  • The DANC code is a substitution cipher cryptograph. Codes are also used in REDC (flashing lights), VALL (book) and GLOR (open text), among other canonical tales. We see Holmes struggle with the substitution cipher more than any of the others: “He would sit for long spells with a furrowed brow and a vacant eye” as he attempted to decipher the meaning of the dancing men. Is this the most difficult style of code? Confronted with one of these codes, which do you think you could solve with the least difficulty? (I’d opt for flashing lights myself!)
  • We never actually meet Elsie Cubitt, though we hear a lot of her from the men with whom she associates. The picture isn’t flattering. She flees to England rather than staying in America and solving her problems. She’s secretive. She rejects her husband’s help and refuses to confide in him. She sneaks out of bed for a midnight meeting with Abe. She attempts to bribe him. She’s a failed suicide. Yet by story’s end, she becomes a sort of Mother Teresa, devoting herself to charity. Recalling the yardstick Bert gave us, now this is a character who changes and grows!!

Steve Clarkson – Fri, 13 Nov 1998

Hilton Cubitt was the huge and handsome scion of an old Norfolkshire family of landed gentry. He came to London for Queen Victoria’s second Jubilee in 1897, and there he met Elsie Patrick, an American with a veiled past whom he married within a month. The happy couple returned to his Norfolk estate, Riding Thorpe Manor, and settled into a loving domestic routine.

In June of the following year, Elsie Cubitt received a letter from America which seemed to terrify her and threatened the tranquility of her new life in England. Within a month, her agitation increased as graffiti seemingly scrawled by children began appearing in various locations near their home. Hilton Cubitt finally sought Sherlock Holmes’ advice, but Holmes couldn’t act without additional information. That information was forthcoming but not in time to prevent the murder of Hilton Cubitt–  apparently shot by his wife who then turned the gun on herself in an unsuccessful attempt at suicide.

In a few minutes, the Mâitre de Chasse will wind his hunting horn to summon the Hounds upon a trail composed of seemingly innocent stick-figures. In them lies the key to this incomprehensible tragedy.

I wanted to do the subject line in Dancing Men code, but there are no known symbols for “Q” and “U” in that code.

There is mention of Hilton Cubitt meeting Elsie Patrick during the Jubilee celebration, which must have been the one in 1897. In June of the following year Elsie, now happily (and quietly) married, received a letter at Riding Thorpe Manor which left her terrified. Who wrote the letter, and how did the sender know where to address it?

After Hilton Cubitt is killed, we learn that “The old hall…had been turned into a court of investigation.” Mrs. King, the cook, stated that she and Saunders, the housemaid, “had been aroused from their sleep by the sound of an explosion.” Following the interrogation of the servants, Holmes, Watson, Inspector Martin, and the country doctor left the hall and went into the study. There is no indication that the servants followed them into that room. After Holmes found evidence of a third shot having been fired, he says, “‘I should like to see Mrs. King, the cook, again. You said, Mrs. King, that you were awakened by a loud explosion.'” [Emphasis Watson’s.] In the first place, Watson did not record that Mrs. King mentioned a loud explosion. How did Holmes know that the first report was louder than the second? Further, how did Mrs. King get into the study so quickly that Holmes could turn to her and ask her a question immediately after stating that he would like to see her again?

Revolvers do not automatically eject spent cartridge casings; some manual operation is required on the part of the user to accomplish this. Could we, therefore, infer that Abe Slaney was armed with a semi-automatic pistol? But, consider that for all practical purposes semi-automatic pistols, which do eject spent casings, were not available to the public until after 1900. Yet, if we conclude that Slaney was armed with a revolver, there is the picture of him standing calmly in the flower-bed ejecting a spent casing before exiting the scene of the crime, while the whole household has been alarmed. This does not agree with Slaney’s later statement that he “went away across the garden” and heard the window shut behind him. Slaney refers to his weapon only as a “gun.” What kind of gun was it?

In discussing his decipherment of the Dancing Men code, Holmes makes an unwarranted supposition that “* E * E *” was the word “never.” Could it not have been “seven” or “leper?” (There is support for this latter interpretation because the same symbol stands for “V” in one message and “P” in another.) What other anomalies can the Hounds find in the Dancing Men code as Holmes construed it?

Discover more about The Dancing Men and read the canon.