Sherlock Holmes and the Mantelpiece

What does 221B Baker Street look like? Our impressions of spaces in written works can be formed unconsciously or by careful observation of details. If you observe too carefully, however, you may come to a strange conclusion about Sherlock Holmes and the mantlepiece. The explanation below was written by Inspector Baines and originally distributed to The Hounds of the Internet.

“It was one of the most remarkable feats ever performed by Sherlock Holmes,” I said to Mrs. Baynes. “And, yet, it has been generally overlooked and under-reported.”

I made the comment in a casual manner calculated not to betray my intense desire to engage her in conversation on the subject.

Mrs. Baynes responded, as I had hoped that she would—eagerly and with enthusiasm. “What type of feat do you refer to, Inspector?” she asked.

I had piqued her curiosity, and I happily accommodated her question with an answer. “It was a physical feat, an athletic endeavour—an action unparalleled elsewhere in the writings of Dr. Watson. It was a major accomplishment in the field of acrobatics and gymnastics.”

“I assume,” said she, “that you refer to the disposal of Professor Moriarty into the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Or was it Holmes’s crawling around under the shrubs at High Gable?”

“It was neither,” I explained. “It was an act of indoor athletics performed in a most casual manner in the sitting room at 221b Baker Street.”

Mrs. Baynes seemed puzzled, and I continued: “The mantelpiece above the fireplace is referred to many times in the canon. It was, as you know, the place where a jackknife transfixed the unanswered correspondence. It was, also, this mantelpiece that James Ryder grasped to keep from falling, after Holmes made the disclosure to him about the Blue Carbuncle. And—as I am sure you remember—this was where the plugs and dottles were kept overnight; also, where Mr. Holmes stored some of his reference books.

“Then, too, when Dr. Percy Trevelyan paid a visit and was seated before the fire, he rose from the chair and laid upon this mantelpiece his thin white hand which (according to Dr. Watson) was more like that of an artist than that of a surgeon.”

Mrs. Baynes interrupted: “What does this have to do with acrobatics? All you’re talking about is the mantelpiece.”

I continued: “In the Second Stain adventure, Mr. Holmes was seated by the fire. He ‘sprang to his feet and laid his pipe down on the mantelpiece. And this was also where Watson found a litter of pipes, tobacco-pouches, syringes, penknives, revolver-cartridges, and other debris. The mantelpiece generally served as an out-of-the-way place of safe-keeping for such things as a small blue bottle of Prussic acid, and the ubiquitous bottle of seven-per-cent solution.”

Mrs. Baynes cleared her throat loudly, and she huffed with impatience: “Inspector, your comments might be of interest to those who want to know about a Victorian fireplace and mantelpiece. We know what the mantelpiece was like from the Sidney Paget illustrations in the Strand. But you began this conversation talking about Mr. Holmes’s acrobatics.”

I replied, “The mantelpiece (and its height) have a great deal to do with the acrobatics. First, concentrate your thinking upon the mantelpiece, and picture it in your mind. Then, read aloud the passage that I have marked here in 'A Case of Identity’.”

I handed her the open book, and from it she read aloud: “The man [Windibank] sat huddled up in his chair, with his head sunk upon his breast, like one who is utterly crushed. Holmes stuck his feet up on the corner of the mantelpiece and, leaning back with his hands in his pockets, began talking, rather to himself, as it seemed, than to us.”

Mrs. Baynes thought for a moment. Looked in the book and read. Then with, astonishment, she said: “Right before that Holmes had stepped over to lock the door. So, he wasn’t sitting down—and if he was leaning back, his feet must have been over his head to be stuck on the corner of the mantelpiece. He must have been hanging from the mantelpiece by his toes, Inspector.”

“And, he had his hands in his pockets,” I said with a smile.

“Talking to himself, all the while,” said Mrs. Baynes. “Certainly, a remarkable feat—one to be proud of, I’d say!”