The Retired Colourman – Hounds Summary

Ralph Edwards – Fri, 19 Aug 94

  • Does an item in a bi-weekly become the “eager debate of all England?”
  • What happened to any luggage owned by Mrs. Amberley and Dr. Ernest?
  • If Watson had directions to The Haven, which stood out from its neighbors, why did he need Barker’s help?
  • Was it an island of ancient culture or a dingy sanctum?
  • Can a person with an artificial limb spring to his feet?
  • If Amberley suspected no intrigue, and no message was left, why did he not fear for his wife’s safety rather than think her an accomplice?
  • Why did Holmes consider the theater ticket situation remarkable?
  • Do box offices keep track of vacant seats that have been paid for?
  • What is “an old school number?”
  • Why would Mrs. Amberley leave the window open? Was she too lazy to shut the door?
  • Does a harsh and exacting husband have a slatternly house and a garden running to seed?
  • Was the servant interviewed?
  • Is Little Purlington to Lewisham to Baker Street only 50 minutes?
  • Why use the telephone exchange to send a one-word message?
  • Was the greater surprise that Holmes was not alone, or that he had entered?
  • Why did Barker, not Holmes, have a cab at the door?
  • What proof is there of an “intimacy” or that Amberley was jealous? Perhaps he only wanted to get rid of a slovenly wife and a competitor who always beat him at chess?
  • Who was Holmes’ agent? Could he not have sent the message more easily than by going to Little Purlington and running the risk of his description being given to Watson and Amberley?
  • If so trapped, would you:
    1. stuff a handkerchief in the gas pipe
    2. comfort your inamorata
    3. light a match
    4. try to create a spark, as by flicking a light switch
    5. write a message
    6. put your pencil in your pocket after becoming senseless
  • What lighted the strong-room to permit Dr. Ernest to see to write?
  • Who wrote?
  • What happened to the indelible pencil?

Chris Redmond – Sat, 11 Nov 1995

This tale has an atmosphere of old age, retirement, sadness, and decay; it also has one of the best shocking lines in all the Holmes tales and a thoroughly appropriate final sentence. Nevertheless, is it a strong enough story to occupy the crucial last place in the Canon?

Sonia Fetherston – Fri, 1 May 1998

There’s a house with an overgrown garden…and a mighty unusual variety of roses! Our new story, of course, is The Adventure of the Retired Colourman.  My questions and comments for this sinister tale:

  • She presumably volunteered to marry the old, pathetic, futile, miserable miser. She acquiesced to life in the slatternly house. She may have been an adultress. Not the most inspiring of characters, “and yet! — and yet!” why is it still possible to sympathize with Mrs. Amberley?
  • Does the game of chess have any actual bearing on the story?
  • Barker seems to be a pretty darned good detective. Is Holmes serious, or joking, when he says Barker is his “hated rival?”
  • “We we–” is a fairly thin indictment, though it’s the best Dr. Ernest could do under the circumstances. Is it strong enough evidence to lay before a jury, or even before the Broadmoor commitment board?
  • Josiah Amberley lived at a time when retirement wasn’t a universal practice. In those days, before old age pensions and social security, and when lifespans were shorter than we now enjoy, people could, and did, work until the day they died. There are precious few other retired persons in the canon. Irene Adler is said to be one, in the sense that she was retired from the operatic stage. Ferguson, the sea captain, retired to Three Gables before Mrs. Maberley took up residence there. Sherlock Holmes, of course, retired to Sussex at the end of his detective career.

Steve Clarkson – Fri, 2 Jul 1999

Josiah Amberley cut a pathetic figure. He had worked hard all his life, saved enough to allow him to retire with a comfortable income, bought a house, and taken a pretty younger wife to share his retirement years. Yet in one stroke of misfortune he lost all this; his wife had run off with a young doctor, taking his hard-earned savings with her. The police were unable to locate the wife and her lover, so Amberley turned to Sherlock Holmes for help. Little did he know what form that “help” would take.

In a few minutes, the Mâitre de Chasse will launch a hunt, not for the missing persons, but for their killer. The chase winds through Lewisham and extends to Little Purlington and ultimately leads to the bottom of a disused well. The Mâitre hopes that the Hounds enjoy their outing and wishes them bon chasse et bon chance.

This case is one of at least three that involves death by suffocation: MUSG and GREE are two others. (There is a possibility that the deadly fumes of radix pedis diaboli in DEVI would cause that case to fall into this category as well.) In any event, I was struck by the invocation of “the old Italian spirit” as exemplary of the mindset of Josiah Amberley. I recall that Isadora Klein referred to the writings of the hapless Douglas Maberley in those terms as well. Could this be a reference to cruel machinations of the sort practiced by Niccolo Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia?

Josiah Amberley is one of the five one-legged men to appear (there are six mentioned, but only five appear) in the Canon. One wonders why Doyle chose to make him an amputee; perhaps it was an effort to make him appear even more pathetic than Watson perceived him to be upon their first encounter. Evidently, the leg was inflexible (“Left shoe wrinkled, right one smooth”) and little better than the “timber-toe” worn by Jonathan Small in SIGN. Amberley must have experienced considerable difficulty in negotiating the 17 steps at 221 Baker Street, and the journey to Mossmoor (“Moosmoor” in Doubleday) cum Little Purlington must have been a peculiarly trying exercise for him. It is odd that his intact leg was “spindly” since, as Holmes remarked in TWIS, “weakness in one limb is often compensated by exceptional strength in another.” In any case, his prosthesis must have given him an awkward gait which somehow went unnoticed by Watson’s medical eye. And, considering his handicap, how was he able to “spring to his feet” when confronted by Holmes and Barker?

Did the gas laid in for illumination at the time of this story have a distinctive odour? If it had, would it not have dissipated in a short time had the doors and windows been opened? But there are other questions: How did Amberley rid the sealed “strong-room” of the fumes before entering to dispose of the bodies of his victims? Wasn’t there a chance that his nosey neighbours would notice the smell of gas when the room was ventilated? And was there not a considerable risk of explosion in using this highly combustible gas?

How did the management of the Haymarket Theatre know that neither seat B30 nor 32 of the upper circle had been occupied on the night in question? Was it customary for theatres to perform such a census, and if so, for what purpose? Of course, the theatre operators may well have saved the ticket stubs to verify them against the “gate” for that evening, but once that was done, would they not have discarded the stubs? Would they have been able to tell a week later whether or not a certain seat had been occupied?

Discover more about The Retired Colourman and read the canon.