BOOK REVIEW: A CASE OF IDENTITY–Sherlock Holmes: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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The ‘Case of identity’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first appeared in the Strand Magazine in 1891. It is considered to be, despite its, evasive and dry title, a corner stone in the detective novel history. It is appreciated not only by the admirers of this unappreciated genre and Sherlock Holmes’ devotees, but also by the specialists of crime detection and forensic science. The latter pay tribute to the inductive way of thinking, and to the use of traces and imprints, left by a criminal action initiated in this story. One can find references of it in Criminology and Police Science papers even nowadays. The reader is amazed by the multiplicity of meaning and interpretations of ‘identities’ revealed (or concealed) in a masterly manner in this story.

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes appeared in fifty-six short stories and four full length novels. “A Case of Identity” is one of the lesser known stories in the series, possibly because the case does not focus on a major crime in the same way as the majority of the other tales do. “A Case of Identity” was first published in 1891 in Strand Magazine, a month after the publication of Conan Doyle’s better known story, “The Red Headed League”. The following year ‘A Case of Identity’ was included in the collection, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. In ‘A Case of Identity,’ Holmes does not deal with a robbery or a murder, as in earlier cases, but with the disappearance of his client, Mary Sutherland’s fiancé. Holmes’ ever-present colleague, Dr. Watson, does not know what to make of the case, but Holmes on the other hand, doesn’t even need to leave the confines of his flat at 221B Baker Street to solve the case.

When Mary explains her situation to Holmes and Watson, they learn that she lives with her mother and her mother’s new husband, Windibank. Mary has an income of one hundred pound per year, as a result of an inheritance from her Uncle Ned. This money she gives to her mother and stepfather so as not to be a burden on them. In spite of having poor eyesight, Mary is able to do typing work to earn a bit of extra money. Mary is unhappy that her mother has remarried, a much younger Windibank. Windibank has amassed a considerable amount of money for Mary’s mother, by selling her late husband’s business for her. He doesn’t like to socialize and is upset when his wife goes to the gasfitters’ ball with Mary. At the time of the ball, Windibank goes on a business trip to France. At the ball, Mary one day meets one Mr. Hosmer Angel and within a short time they get engaged. Mary and her mother do not tell Mr. Windibank about the engagement.

When Windibank returns from France, Mary and Hosmer decide that they will communicate with each other via letter alone, rather than in person. While Hosmer, types his letters, he requests, that Mary make hers, more romantic, by writing them by hand. Mary knows little about Hosmer. She does not know where he works or lives. The letters she sends him are addressed to the Leadenball Street Post Office, where he picks them up. Being a shy man, Hosmer likes to walk with Mary only by night, rather than, by day. His voice is also weak as a result of some childhood illness. He wears tinted glasses because his eyes are sensitive to light. When Windibank returns to France on business, Hosmer convinces Mary to marry him before her stepfather returns. He makes her promise that she will always be true to him, regardless of anything that might happen. Mary’s mother makes Mary agree to this and accordingly makes a promise to Hosmer.

Mary does not believe she needs her stepfather’s permission to get married, yet she feels uncomfortable doing so without his knowledge. Hosmer, tells Mary and her mother not to worry about Windibank, but he does write to him. But the letter is returned by the post office. Mary sees this as an indication that Windibank must have left before the letter reached him, and so, he is on his way back to England. Meanwhile a small wedding is planned. Hosmer arrives in a Hansom cab to bring Mary and her mother to the church. Once again, he insists that Mary vow to remain true to him no matter what. Hosmer takes a separate cab to the church because there is not enough room in the Hansom cab. But later, when Hosmer’s cab, arrives at the church, it is found empty, and the driver can offer an explanation, though he had seen Hosmer get on board.

Mary defends Hosmer while talking to Holmes, even when, Holmes points out, how shabbily he has treated Mary. She fears that he has been in some sort of accident and is sure he will be in touch as soon as he is able to. She thinks he must have felt that something is to happen, which is why he made her promise to remain true to him. In response to Holmes’ questions about other people’s reactions to Hosmer’s disappearance, Mary says that her mother is too angry to discuss the situation, while her stepfather agrees that something unfortunate must have happened to Hosmer and that Mary will hear from him in time. Holmes, advices Mary that she should forget Hosmer, as she will never see him again. But when she presses him for more information, Holmes asks Mary for the typed letters, Hosmer had sent her and also for a description of him. He also takes note of Mary’s address, which is the same as Windibank’s, and the name of the company Windibank works for. As Mary takes her leave, Holmes reminds her once again to forget about Hosmer, but she continues to pledge her allegiance to him.

Holmes, writes a letter to Windibank and receives a response, typed on the same machine, as Hosmer’s letters. This confirms, what Holmes, already knows, that Windibank and Hosmer are the same person, and which also explains why they are never in the same room at the same time. At the end, it comes out that the missing fiancé is the ‘double’ of her stepfather, Mr. Windibank. Windibank, in disguise had been taking advantage of Mary’s poor eyesight. He pretended to be Hosmer, to engage Mary in a love affair which would have never fructified in marriage. All of this was designed to help Windibank and Mary’s mother retain the one hundred pounds per year they received from Mary’s inheritance. Holmes chooses not to tell Mary the outcome of the situation—that Windibank and Hosmer are the same person, believing Windibank someday will follow a path that will ultimately lead him to the gallows.

    After solving the mystery, Holmes chooses not to tell his client the solution. He feels, “If I tell her she will not believe me. Remember, the old Persian saying, ‘There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.’ There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world.” Holmes had earlier advised his client to forget “Mr. Angel Hosmer,” but Miss Sutherland refused to take Holmes’ advice and vowed to remain faithful to “Angel” until he reappears, for at least ten years.

Holmes predicts Windibank will continue a career in crime and end up on the gallows.

By Kamlesh Tripathi

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https://kamleshsujata.wordpress.com

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