The Case of the Twisted Canary

*** A creative writing assignment. A combination of two classes that I took: American Drama and Contemporary Literary theory. In the former, we discussed the play, A Jury of Her Peers by Susan Glaspell. In the latter, we discussed various literary theories using the writings of Conan-Doyle as a point of departure. So I started to think: how would have Conan-Doyle dealt with the story told by Glaspell. (The footnotes indicate actual quotes from SH stories.)

dead canary

The Adventure of the Twisted Canary

A “Sherlock Holmes” mystery

by Linda Yechiel, August 1, 2014

****

August 19, 1921

Dear Mr Doyle,

Forgive me for reaching out to you  like this. Some years ago, I encouraged my wife, Susan Glaspell, as she is known, to try her talents at writing a play. She really is a spectacular writer, and her journalism is quite impeccable if I do say so myself. Stimulated by my prodding, she finally did set pen to paper and composed a lovely little play based on a court case she reported on some thirteen years ago.

The play is all very well and good—in fact, I am undoubtedly its greatest fan! It makes her particular statement loud and clear. The reviews were certainly satisfying and it has been accepted nicely in the milieu of post-modern theater-goers.  Perhaps you are acquainted with it, though I  doubt  that any word of it has traversed the Atlantic. 

If you knew my wife, you would be correct in predicting  that the play deals with aspects of feminism and women’s solidarity; indeed it has been termed “feminist drama.” However, it deals only with the pathos of the event, and seems to shed a certain amount of cynicism on the logos and ethos involved in the realm of detective work.

Not too long ago, I spent a few marvellous mornings immersed in the entertaining deductions of your clever Sherlock Holmes, and this brought to my mind a singularly sensational thought : What would the eminent  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle do with such a case?

Enclosed is a manuscript of the play, plus some newspaper clippings of the account of the incident. I will be looking forward to your reply.

With greatest respect, I remain

George Cram Cooke

encl:

****

Nov. 27, 1921

 My Dear Mr. Cooke,

Thank you so much for the stimulating letter you sent me some months ago. I read the manuscript and  the reportage of the court case with much attentiveness. I imagine that had the admirable and certainly very observant Mr. Sherlock Holmes been sitting by my side (and I must say that oftentimes I do feel that he is—in spirit, if not in  flesh), he would have been aghast at the slipshod, shoddy way that the Sherriff and District Attorney  collected their evidence.

Certainly, the case of John and Margaret Hossack could lend itself  quite well as inspiration for a story. I am certain that Sherlock Holmes, by way of my pen, would have been much more assiduous, and  the Wright case would have been investigated  much more thoroughly to a satisfactory outcome.

I was fascinated, though, by your wife’s reasons and underlying motive in her portrayal of the events, being, of course, that the two women, by virtue of their identification with their peer’s situation and circumstance, knowingly withheld crucial information from the authorities and thus exonerated the perpetrator (alleged, I should point out) of her crime. Thus a dilemma for me: will  Sherlock Holmes ultimately be on the side of Truth and the Law, or on the side of Justice? A fascinating quandary, wouldn’t you say?

As you may have heard, I am long  retired from writing detective stories, being more immersed in more important and serious works. Nonetheless, I could not resist this little challenge, and therefore you will find attached the little story that I composed.

I hope you will find it amusing.

 Remaining  respectfully yours,

Arthur Doyle

encl:

****

The Adventure of the Twisted Canary

In the annals of remarkable cases that have accumulated in my files and notes, one that is particularly interesting and worthy of telling occurred in America. Sherlock Holmes’ renown had spread across the ocean, and he had been invited to present a lecture on the singular characteristics of cigar and cigarette ash at The First International Conference on Crime and Forensic Science in Des Moines, Iowa.

Holmes had been quite excited at the prospect of an all-expense-paid trip to the United States and immediately entreated me to accompany him. It came at an opportune time, as Mary had expressed a desire to pay a visit to a distant aunt up in Glasgow, and so we conspired to go our different ways at the same time. It rather astounded us as to why the conference had been scheduled to be in Des Moines, of all places, as it seemed such an out-of-the-way venue. However, being the end of March, Holmes and I looked forward to the experience of spring in Iowa.

We took our leave of England on a dark and dreary Monday. Our four-day voyage on the S.S. Mauritania was pleasant enough, the seas being remarkably calm and the ship offering agreeable diversions and faultless service. We spent one night in New York, and then embarked on the train from New York to Des Moines. The trip was a mite long, taking a day and a half, but bright and early Monday morning we arrived at Osceola Station where we were met by a ramrod-straight sergeant bearing a placard imprinted with “Detective Sherlock Holmes.”  The day was clear but briskly cold.

“Welcome to Des Moines, gentlemen,” he said. “I am Constable MacPherson. I have been assigned to accompany you to your hotel, which we trust you will find to your satisfaction. Once you have deposited your luggage and refreshed yourselves, my superior invites you to headquarters to join him for luncheon. The conference, as you know, starts tomorrow.”

The young officer directed us to a waiting horse and buggy. We deposited our traveling cases in our rooms at a rather plain, yet pleasingly proportioned hotel, took a few moments to change from our traveling clothes and attend to some necessary ablutions, and then Mr. Holmes declared that we were ready to go.

We soon arrived at the First Des Moines Police Station, at the corner of East 1st Street and Court Ave.  “Ah! So wonderful to meet you, Mr. Holmes,” exclaimed Captain Whittaker, rising up from his chair and coming around his desk. “You have no idea what an honour this is. I have followed your exploits quite closely, you know. My brother, who lives in Marylebone, takes great pains to forward to me whatever newspaper articles he comes across pertaining to your cases. Your work is absolutely phenomenal.” He grasped Holmes’ hand in his, pumping vigorously.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” answered Holmes, extricating his hand as delicately as he could. “May I present to you my dear friend and assistant, Dr. John Watson.”

“So pleased to meet you, Dr. Watson. Welcome! Welcome to you both. Now I have to apologize. I was so looking forward to hosting you for luncheon, but unfortunately, I have been called aside due to a murder that happened just yesterday. The details are quite unusual and I am hard-pressed to make sense of the situation. I am afraid I must be diverted from social pleasures.”

“A murder, you say?” interjected Holmes. “I’d certainly be interested in hearing the details. Perhaps I could be of some service.”

“Oh my Lord! To have the venerable Sherlock Holmes involved in a case with me! I am beyond words!” And with that, the Captain began to explain to Holmes the initial findings of the case.

“Well, here are the bare basics. Yesterday a man was found strangled in his very own bed. His wife claims she didn’t hear a thing, that someone just snuck into the house in the middle of the night and wrapped a rope around his neck. But when she discovered him, she didn’t do anything, didn’t call anyone. Heck, if a passing neighbour hadn’t stopped in, the man might still be lying in that bed. The sheriff hurried over and thought that the woman was acting rather suspicious, though he don’t know how she possibly had the strength. We have the woman under arrest. But, my word! How could she have possible managed such a thing, that little bird of woman? And what motive? The sheriff and DA did a thorough investigation of course, yesterday, but came up with nothing! Nothing! I sent them back this morning to check the scene again.”

“An interesting story, indeed,” said Holmes when he finally managed to break into the captain’s homily. “Is this farmstead far away? I have trained myself to see what others overlook.[a] Perhaps I could have a gander. I may discover something that can assist you in this case.”

“Oh! This is almost too good to be true! Let me just have a moment.”

The captain hurried out of the office and presently returned. “Mr. Holmes. You do me much honour! Of course, we’d be ever so pleased if you wouldn’t mind going out and looking around. You will go there at once. Perhaps you will find something that we have overlooked. I have sent word to the sheriff to wait at the farmstead until you get there. And a horse and buggy are waiting for you outside.”

* * *

A powerful chestnut mare trotted steadily for forty-five minutes, steam rising from its warm flanks. Presently it slowed down and pawed the ground as it let out a soft whinny.

“My dear Watson. I do hope that we have finally arrived,” said Holmes. “I must say I have never experienced such a cold and miserable ride. If it weren’t for these fur throws here, we would probably be frozen to death by now.”

“Indeed, Holmes. It is frightfully cold. Already the end of March. I was imagining a much more hospitable climate. To think we had been anticipating spring in Iowa.”

“Spring in Iowa, you say?” guffawed the driver. “Spring in Iowa is tornado season! No one comes here in spring! Luckily you got yourselves a nice clear day today. More than likely tomorrow will see a thunderstorm!”

We climbed down from the buggy and looked at the lonely farmstead before us. The main house was dun-collared,[b] its lumber facing grey and weathered. A rickety fence, also of the same grey, weather-beaten wood surrounded a dismal yard that hosted a few bent, windblown aspens. The grass, if that was it was supposed to be, was brown and dormant. Up near the front of the house, a small garden looked to have been freshly dug, the reddish, brown earth raked smooth. A small, homemade pinwheel in one corner spun madly in the breeze.

We alighted from the buggy. There seemed not to be a soul around. However, as we went up to the door we saw a note tacked to it, “Have gone to grab some vittles. Will return soon.”

“Well, I may as well have a look around,” said Holmes.

Holmes smiled and rubbed his hands.[c] “Keep your eyes open, John. We will see what can be seen as quickly as possible so that we can hurry back to the hospitable climate of the hotel. My suspicion is that some intruder broke into the house last night and strangled the master of the house in his bed. Perhaps the wife had imbibed a bit, or was overly tired from her homemaking duties and thus slept through it. No doubt we can quickly find the spot where the intruder entered and solve the case.”

Holmes removed his ivory-handled magnifying glass from the inside pocket of his cloak and was soon bent almost double, examining the ground around the house and the doors and windows. Slowly and with determination, he carried out a thorough inspection of the perimeter of the house.

“Hmmm, very interesting,” said he. “There seems not to be one iota of evidence to be had. I see a number of holes here along the back wall of the house, but they seem to be holes made for planting. They seem normal enough. Although there are two here that are deeper than the others. Perhaps a ladder stood here. And those faint marks by the upper window. It seems that they are not fresh at all.”

At this moment, the sheriff returned, accompanied by four other people.

“Sheriff Peters, I presume,” greeted Holmes.

“Mr. Holmes,” said Sheriff Peters. “May I introduced to you the DA, Mr. Walters.” The district attorney was a sturdy middle-sized fellow, some thirty years of age, clean shaven and sallow skinned, with a bland, insinuating manner, and a pair of wonderfully sharp and penetrating grey eyes.[d] “And this is Mr. Hale, the neighbour who uncovered the incident. This, here, is my wife. She came with me to be collectin’ some items to take back to the suspect in lockup. And this here is Mrs. Hale. When we picked up Mr. Hale to come along and explain to us all the particulars, my little woman asked Mrs. Hale if she might not come along too, to give some feminine company, as it were. You know how womenfolk are.”

Mr. Hale was about 5 ft. 7 in. in height; strongly built, sallow complexion, black hair, a little bald in the centre, bushy black side whiskers and moustache.[e] His wife, stout and sturdy and with mousy brown hair, huddled down into her heather-grey wool coat trying to escape the cold wind. Mrs. Peters, the sheriff’s wife, was rather short and gaunt, yet she had a proud upright posture. The skin of her cheeks was drawn quite tense over her outstanding bones,[f] and her nose was sharp, yet her eyes were bright and observing.

“Women enjoy strength in numbers, I suppose,” murmured Holmes. Then he turned to the sheriff. “Now, pray give us the essential facts from the commencement, and I can afterwards question you as to those details which seem to me to be most important.[g]

“Well, sir. Let me just run it all by you. Yesterday morning, Mr. Hale, here, on his way to sell his potatoes, stopped off to exchange some words with Mr. Wright, and found the lady of the house, Minnie, rocking back and forth in her rocking chair like she’s seen a durn ghost. When he asked as to the whereabouts of her husband, she pointed to the ceiling and said to him that her husband was dead. Well, Mr. Hale went up the stairs to check, and sure ‘nuff, Mrs. Wright had not been kiddin’. He ran to the next farmstead to call me. I came ‘round quicker than beer turns to piss, you should excuse the expression. There was Minnie, just rockin’ away in her chair and poor ol’ John dead as a doornail up in his bed.

“Course, we asked her to tell her story. She claimed that she started her day as usual. Got up, changed into her farm clothes, stoked the oven, fed the chickens, slopped the pigs and set out some dough to rise. She was just about ready to wash the dishes when, around six o’clock, she heard the cows lowing and was curious why her husband was so late gettin’ going on his morning chores. So she goes upstairs and discovered him dead in bed. She says she just lost her wits, came down and sat right dang down there in her rocking chair. My word! If Mr. Hale here hadn’t happened to stop by, good Lord knows how long she might have been rocking in that chair while John rotted away upstairs, poor devil.

“Course, we didn’ believe she’d slept alongside Mr. Wright all night without hearing a thing. She claims that she was sleeping very soundly. She done say that she is in the habit of partaking of a bit of her husband’s whiskey ever’ now and then to help her sleep. ‘For medicinal purposes,’ she said. She said she had no idea who might’ve wanted to kill him, but claims he was in bad sorts with a couple of ruff’uns lately… owed them some money. We had none of that, though. We figured she was the prime suspect, and took her in. We are detaining her at present. On suspicion.”

“I see,” said Holmes. “Well, while I was waiting I took a look around outside. So now, if you will allow me, I would like to examine the interior of the house.”

“Oh. Abs’lutely,” said the sheriff. “Of course, me and the DA here made a purty thorough inspection of the premises this morning.”

“So you investigated all parts of the home for clues?”

“Oh yes. We checked out all the windows, the barn, the living room. Of course we went upstairs and examined the bedroom very carefully. We were careful not to move anything and of course ya needn’t worry about the womenfolk. They didn’ interfere at all. Just stayed down in the kitchen the whole time.”

“You make no mention of examining the kitchen,” said Holmes.

“The kitchen? Oh. What would there be there? We took a glimpse ‘round, of course. But nothing there but trifles. Certainly nothing pertaining to this investigation.”

“Indeed,” said Holmes, looking at me with a knowing wink. “My position, however, is that there is nothing so important as trifles.[h]  Very well, then. I shall begin my investigation at the place of the murder.”

Holmes and I went upstairs to examine the bedroom. Everything looked quite in order. So much so, in fact, that the bedclothes were disordered only on one side, presumably the husband’s. The other side had been smoothed down. Holmes examined a whiskey bottle, capped, on the night stand. It was three-quarters empty, yet the foil wrapper was lying next to it on the nightstand. A small glass with the remains of some amber liquid was on the table next to it.

“Singular! Most singular!” he murmured.[i] “If the bottle had just been opened, as indicated by the presence of the foil wrapper still here on the dresser, someone had quite a lot of whiskey to drink.”

Mrs. Wright’s dressing gown was folded neatly on a chair in the corner. Holmes walked over to it, lifted up the sleeve and examined it closely with his magnifying glass. He then placed it back the way it had been. “Fascinating,” said he. “I am afraid, my dear friend, that there is no doubt that the wife is guilty. I note some rope hairs on the sleeve here, and some grey hairs, presumably from her husband’s head or beard. She must have enticed him to drink his fill so as to not put up a struggle.  A motive, though. We must find the motive.”

We made our way downstairs and Holmes carried out a slow, thorough search of  the living room. “Nothing out of the ordinary here,” he announced. We then proceeded into the kitchen, where the others were waiting.

The kitchen was a dreary affair. One small window overlooked the naked landscape beyond. The floorboards were rough and worn and in need of some varnish. Dishes were piled in the sink, some filled with some murky water. A lump of raw dough was overflowing a bread pan, and the table was dirty with flour.

“A thorough search of the kitchen is now called for,” he announced. I saw him fix his gaze on Mrs. Hale’s face, which, I noticed, seemed to be registering an expression of alarm. Her eyes darted to the cupboard door, but then, when she seemed to realize what she had done, she looked first toward Mrs. Peters, who herself was staring at the ceiling, and then fixed her gaze out the window as her left hand reached deep into the pocket of her coat. Holmes seemed to ponder this a moment.

“Well, gentlemen … and ladies. Would you be so kind as to excuse me. I prefer to do my investigations only in the accompaniment of  my colleague here.”

“We’ll certainly get out of your way, Mr. Holmes,” said the sheriff . “We’ll wait in the living room if that’s OK you.”

“Oh my. Oh my. It’s so stifling in here!” exclaimed Mrs. Hale, loosening the bright green scarf wrapped around her neck. “Perhaps I shall just go out and get a breath of fresh air. Yes. I definitely need some air. Oh. Please excuse me.” And with that she went out onto the back stoop. Holmes had begun examining the various items in the kitchen, when Mrs. Hale came back through the door, seemingly quite agitated.

“My dear! The day is so sunny but a trifle too cold. Yes, perhaps I shall go join the gentlemen in the living room after all.”

“A very singular occurrence. Did you take notice of that?” asked Holmes.

“Well, I did notice she was quite breathless for someone who simply stepped out on the stoop.”

“It was most suggestive,” said Holmes. “It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important. Can you remember any other little things[j] about Mrs. Hale?

“No,” said I. “Nothing visible to the naked eye, I should think.”

“Not invisible but unnoticed, Watson. You did not know where to look, and so you missed all that was important. I can never bring you to realize the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumb-nails, or the great issues that may hang from a boot-lace.[k]  Did you not notice that the tips of her scarf and the fingers of her gloves were suddenly soiled with red dirt. I surely would have noticed such an aberration previously. I must satisfy my curiosity.”

He quietly opened the door to the stoop. On a bench were six  large planting pots filled with reddish potting soil. Some seed packets were lying nearby. The soil in four of the pots was smooth and level, but that on a fifth had an extra little mound on top of its surface. On the sixth of the pots lay a little trowel, and around it were scattered bits of soil. The appearance of these bits and some tracks of soil leading to the edge of the bench indicated that someone had tried to tidy up a little spill, albeit not very thoroughly. Holmes delicately picked up the trowel and scraped away a bit of the soil in the pot. I saw him pull out a little squat, brass-bound wooden box, the lid of which hinged upwards.[l]

He peered inside for a moment. I looked over his shoulder and saw the pitiful remains of a small, yellow canary, its eyes sunken hollow, its feathers lank and dishevelled, and its head lying in an unnatural position. Yellow feathers lay loose around it, and as we stared at the poor little creature, a small gust of wind dislodge a single downy bit of fluff, which fluttered slowly to the floor. Holmes gently closed the box, fingering a short length of bright green wool caught in the hinge. He tucked the box into some large rubber boots standing at the side. “Quite singular,” said Holmes.

We re-entered the kitchen and, with deliberation, Holmes walked over and opened the cupboard that Mrs. Hale had so vainly avoided  looking at.  He stretched out his long arm[m] and pulled out a bird cage, its door twisted and bent. “Hmmm,” said he. Then he  returned the cage to the cupboard and quietly closed the door.

“My dear Watson. Would you be so kind as to ask Mrs. Hale to step into the kitchen. I would like to have a few words with her.”

I summoned the woman and Holmes welcomes her with the easy courtesy for which he was remarkable.[n] He took her over to the side of the room  where they pursued a conversation to which I was not party. After about fifteen minutes, Holmes thanked her and called the others into the kitchen.

“Gentlemen, I believe I have finished my investigation. Since I imagine you noticed the holes spaced along the outside of the back and the markings on the upper level windowsill, I must congratulate you on your observations and admit that I have not uncovered anything more of importance. It seems there is no evidence to convict the wife; in fact the evidence may point elsewhere.” Holmes smiled and rubbed his hands,[o] “And now, I am most certainly looking forward to that conference.”

And with that, we escaped to the buggy waiting patiently outside. We hastily climbed in, covered ourselves with the fur throws, and requested our return to the city.

“My dear Sherlock,” said I. “That seemed a rather hasty departure.”

Sherlock Holmes sat silent for a few minutes with his finger-tips pressed together, his legs stretched out in front of him, and his gaze directed upwards.[p] “The ideal reasoner,” he remarked, “would, when he has once been shown a single fact in all its bearing, deduce from it not only all the chain of events which led up to it, but also all the results which would follow from it.[q] I have seen enough from the evidence observed and have heard enough from Mrs. Hale to conclude, as I ventured beforehand, that Mrs. Wright is most certainly the murderer.”

This astounded me to no end. “But surely you left the sheriff and the DA with a completely contrary interpretation. You stated that you had not uncovered any evidence at all save your allusion to a ladder, one that never existed I presume, along the back wall.”

“As I desired, my dear John. As I desired. This is a singularly sad case,” said he. “That dead canary called up a long-lost memory. I recalled an incident in my childhood. I had a pet rabbit. Some ruffians in the neighbourhood stalked that bunny and shot it. I remember how I felt. I would have killed them had I had the ability.

“So it seems that I can speculate on the cause of the little bird’s demise, and I can appreciate the rage and despair that Mrs. Wright must have suffered. It must be admitted that the workings of this unhappy woman’s mind were deep.[r] I surmise that she carefully planned her actions. She encouraged her husband with much whiskey that night, though obviously not enough to make him totally inebriated. I noted that she had taken pains to smooth out her side of the bed, presumably to erase any evidence of a struggle. She then pretended to go about her daily chores, planning, I imagine to suddenly discover her husband dead in bed. She was probably just about ready to go call the sheriff when Mr. Hale knocked on the door, so she hastily sat down in the rocking chair and too upon herself an attitude of shock.

“In my exchange with Mrs. Hale, she described to me Minnie’s pathetic, lonely life. The poor woman. A tight-fisted, diffident, irascible husband, no children and no friends. All happiness had been erased from her life. She was not allowed to participate in social events, was forced to abandon her love of singing, and was never allowed pretty new things, despite a comfortable income for Mr. Wright. He was taciturn and abusive to her, it seems, so much so that Mrs. Hale found that she herself avoiding calling upon Minnie. Apparently, Mrs. Wright’s only companion was that pretty little canary which she had bought last year from a traveling salesman.

“Luckily, I am not the law, but I represent justice so far as my feeble powers go.[s] I do not owe the authorities anything. I shall leave them to their own devices, and whatever there is to be discovered will be their responsibility only.”

I then saw a most singular intenseness in his expression[t] as he settled himself down for our journey back to the conference.

Endnotes

[a] A Case of Identity

[b] The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,

[c] The Adventure of the Creeping Man

[d] A Case of Identity

[e] A Case of Identity

[f] The Engineer’s Thumb

[g] The Five Orange Pips

[h] The Man with the Twisted Lip

[i] The Adventure of the Creeping Man

[j] A Case of Identity

[k] A Case of Identity

[l]  The Musgrave Ritual

[m] The Five Orange Pips

[n] A Case of Identity

[o] The Adventures of the Creeping Man

[p] A Case of Identity

[q] The Five Orange Pips

[r] The Problem of Thor Bridge

[s] The Adventure of the Three Gables

[t] The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire

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