The Golden Pince-Nez – Hounds Summary

J. Randolf Cox – Tue, 14 Dec 1993

The beginning discussion of GOLD, plus the fact that I actually found time last night to read the story, reminded me of the study questions I designed the last time I taught my class called “Sherlock Holmes and His World” here. I am reproducing them below:

  • Why does Watson choose this case to tell rather than some of the others he mentions? How busy do you imagine Holmes to have been in 1894, and why should Watson refer to “our” work?
  • How does Doyle contrast the urban and the rural; civilized London with the world of nature?
  • How does the weather influence the direction the story takes, both in setting the mood and in making the physical clues difficult to read?
  • How does Holmes use a “spirit lamp” in this story? Would you imagine this to have been a commonly used device? Why?
  • Comment on the extensive use of tobacco in this story.
  • Do you think the clues to the solution are fairly presented?

Ralph Edwards – Fri, 5 May 1995

  • Is the Smith-Mortimer case related to the secretary, the gardener, or both?
  • Would ecologists equate London to molehills?
  • Why didn’t Holmes answer the door himself?
  • Do we learn from this story that Holmes and Watson are not virtuous?
  • What goes well with hot water and a lemon?
  • Why was the household so self-contained?
  • Does the diagram provide for a front bedroom immediately above the study?
  • Why a knife for sealing wax?
  • Did Hopkins examine the path by daylight?
  • What lies between the path and the road?
  • Was Hopkins a poor student or was Holmes a poor teacher?
  • Why did it take from 2 to 3 hours for a morning journey and less than 2 hours for an afternoon trip from Charing Cross to Yoxley Old Place?
  • Did Holmes ever invite any other late visitors to spend the night?
  • Was the weather appropriate for garden loitering?
  • Was the wound in a peculiar location?
  • Why, with the rain, would Smith go for a walk in the mire?
  • Why dust and cobwebs after 24 hours?
  • How might Anna have located Professor Coram?
  • Couldn’t Anna have used blackmail more readily than theft?

Chris Redmond – Thu, 25 Jul 1996

The final paragraphs of this story take it out of the realm of ordinary crime, and introduce the higher moral considerations of politics. No other Canonical story appears to do so, with the important exception of The Valley of Fear, which is largely about labor unrest. What inference can be drawn from Holmes’s intention of visiting the Russian embassy, and is his attitude consistent with any opinions he expresses about the Scowrers?

Sonia Fetherston – Fri, 17 Oct 1997

At Oxbridge and Camford the professors worry about kids cheating on their Greek exams. Meanwhile, in Russia, students at another university plot to overthrow the entire social order. As we prepare for the next story, The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez, consider these questions and comments:

  • The dose was small. Presumably, it was orally administered. Onset of the symptoms was rapid, including turning a “dreadful color,” progressive pain, and dizziness. What kind of poison was in that phial?
  • As I understand nihilism, its advocates want a classless society. Coram, however, employs servants. Has he changed? Is it possible to change that much?
  • Sherlock Holmes says that glasses are so instructive “it would be difficult to name any articles which afford a finer field for inference.” Elsewhere in the canon he says pretty much the same thing about pipes, watches, and bootlaces. Which of your belongings would tell Holmes the most about you? 😉
  • As we learn from GOLD, not every crime needs a motive, and accidents happen. In past weeks we’ve discussed the skills of several police detectives. Did Hopkins do a good job in this story?
  • Whenever anyone dies young we grieve twice: once for the loss of an individual, and once for the loss of his or her potential. . . . what might have been. Willoughby Smith was a very young man, straight from the university. He was engaged as personal secretary to a scholar and a writer. His duties included research and writing. He was a decent, quiet, hard-working fellow with good references and not an enemy in the world. But for his untimely death, who knows where Smith’s career might ultimately have taken him? We can’t say for certain, but perhaps there’s a clue. His good education and first job, you see, closely parallel that of another young personal secretary who went on become arguably the finest English-language satirist — Jonathan Swift!

Steve Clarkson – Fri, 8 Jan 1999

Professor Sergius Coram (not his real name) was a semi-invalid scholar and researcher devoting his time to study of manuscripts from ancient monasteries. His objective was to develop a thesis which would “strike at the very heart of revealed religion.” In pursuing his studies he found it necessary to engage the services of a male secretary, and the third one he hired proved to be ideal: young Willoughby Smith was a serious scholar who had recently graduated from Cambridge University; he adapted himself well to the Professor’s requirements and labored from morning to night providing the research, organizational, and support services the Professor needed.

And so life went on for the quiet little household, which consisted of a gardener, a maid, and a housekeeper in addition to Coram and Smith. But one day tragedy suddenly arrived at this peaceful menage in the form of the violent death of Willoughby Smith by stabbing. Inspector Stanley Hopkins of Scotland Yard was swiftly summoned, and he found many clues at the scene of the crime, the Professor’s study. Among these clues was a golden pince-nez clutched in the dead man’s hand. But even with these clues, Hopkins was at a loss to understand how they all fit together, and so on a wet, windy January night he traveled to 221B Baker Street in search of the one man who could make sense of it all.

In a few minutes the Maître de Chasse will wind his great Hunting Horn to call the Hounds in pursuit of the meaning of the golden pince-nez and the identity and location of the murderer of Willoughby Smith. He is confident that the Pack will not be short-sighted as it sifts through the clues that were left behind.

This Adventure is interesting from several standpoints, not the least of which is the fact that it contains specific mention of no fewer than six unpublished adventures, all of which took place in 1894. It also contains a deductive tour de force by Holmes that ranks alongside the most notable examples of the Master’s reasoning in the Canon.

Stanley Hopkins told Holmes that the Professor was fond of being wheeled about in a bath-chair [“Bath chair” in Doubleday]. What sort of conveyance was this, and was it used primarily by semi-invalids?

Hopkins says of the little Coram household, “‘Whole weeks would pass and not one of them go past the garden gate.'” In 1894 it was more customary to go grocery-shopping nearly every day. What did they eat, and how did they obtain it?

For the medicos: Certainly, a “divided” carotid artery would result in a rapid loss of both blood and consciousness. But would such a wound cause young Willoughby Smith to fall the instant it was inflicted? And what is the likelihood of Smith recovering consciousness long enough to utter his cryptic message, “The Professor — it was she”?

Since Willoughby Smith was wounded in the right side of his neck, would we be justified in suspecting that his killer was left-handed? Also, the wound was “from behind and forward,” so Smith must have been bent forward when he was stabbed. How else could the location and nature of the wound be accounted for? Was he stabbed from behind? Further, according to the chart of Yoxley Old Place drawn by Hopkins, there were three possible ways by which Smith could have entered the Professor’s study. Based on the chart, the marked location of Smith’s body, and the scratch upon the bureau, by which way did he most likely enter?

Hopkins says, “I was wired for at 3:15 [and] reached Yoxley Old Place at 5….” Allowing fifteen minutes for Hopkins to reach the train station in London, it could not have taken more than an hour and a half to complete his journey. Yet later Hopkins says, “There is a train from Charing Cross to Chatham at six in the morning, and we should be at Yoxley Old Place between eight and nine.” That is a span of from two to three hours. What would account for the longer journey?

Anna “Coram’s” remark to her husband, “…I have your life in my hands, and I let you go” is curious. She says that she “could give him to the Brotherhood,” but how? She had no chance to communicate with the Brotherhood from the moment she entered Yoxley Old Place, and as she spoke those words she knew she was dying.

Finally, we encountered Stanley Hopkins a month ago, in BLAC. I seem to recall that the Hounds were quite disparaging of his qualifications as a detective in that Adventure. In your estimation, did he fare better in GOLD?

Discover more about The Golden Pince-Nez and read the canon.