Classics, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: A Case of Identity

A Case of Identity


Miss Mary Sutherland, angry and beside herself with feelings of loss, asks Sherlock Holmes to solve the sudden, mysterious disappearance of a shy and attentive man she has grown to love upon the very day they were to be married.

A Case of Identity is another short story within The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The narrative depicts a rather weird plot regarding a woman, Miss. Mary Sutherland, her missing fiancé, Mr Hosmer Angel and their connection with her stepfather, Mr James Windibank.

“life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outré results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.”

The story begins with an interesting discussion between Mr Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson. A discussion that reflects on the popular Mark Twain quote, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Holmes argues that the lives of ordinary people can lead to unusually shocking circumstances, even stranger than fiction. As Watson disagrees with Holmes, it raises an alternative question to the readers, does the quote hold true to the writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and his fictional creation of Sherlock Holmes? Ultimately, Holmes is bored of simple crime cases and is longing for a case that fascinates and puzzles his mind, much to his ego.

Looking over his shoulder, I saw that on the pavement opposite there stood a large woman with a heavy fur boa round her neck, and a large curling red feather in a broad-brimmed hat which was tilted in a coquettish Duchess of Devonshire fashion over her ear. From under this great panoply she peeped up in a nervous, hesitating fashion at our windows, while her body oscillated backward and forward, and her fingers fidgeted with her glove buttons.

Holmes & Sutherland

Subsequently, the story introduces us to Miss. Sutherland. She begs Holmes for his assistance in finding her fiancé that went missing on their wedding day. With great interest, Holmes accepts. Written from the point of view of Watson, you can tell from Watson’s descriptions that he’s clearly learning from Holmes’s observation skills. Additionally, this passage is beautifully written. Doyle’s depiction and the creation of vivid characters is captivating. It’s amazing how Doyle can capture the readers immediately, even with such a short story.

The narrative continues with Miss. Sutherland’s depiction of her stepfather, Mr Windibank. Her bizarre accounts of how he married her mother soon after her father’s death, even though he was fifteen years younger than her mother and only five years other than herself. It would appear that money was a major factor. Besides gaining financial wealth from marrying her mother, Mr Windibank also withdraws a large some of Miss. Sutherland’s income every quarter. Strangely though, Miss. Sutherland accepts this without any hesitation as she does not want to burden her parents since she still lives at home.

Doyle then introduces the readers to the fiancé, Mr Hosmer Angel, a shy, well-dressed man that wore tinted glasses. Curiously, not once was the fiancé ever introduced to Mr Windibank. You would have thought, if a women were to be married during the Victorian era, they would have met the father first? But no, in every instance where Mr Angel was at their house, the stepfather had business in France, even on the day of the wedding. What made this weirder, was the fact that both her mother and fiancé told her not to worry and to tell her stepfather after they were married. It was from this point on that the plot was obvious; strange, but obvious.

He was in dreadful earnest and made me swear, with my hands on the Testament, that whatever happened I would always be true to him.

Essentially, marriage during the Victoria period resulted in the limitation of women’s rights. Everything that a woman owns, especially money would have been transferred to the husband. It was seen as power and how men were the “head of the household”.

A woman should be happy in her own family circle.

The portrayal of women is one of the major themes throughout the Sherlock Holmes novels. For women to have so little power against men during the Victorian period gladly did not stand the test of time. However, it’s definitely an interesting topic and the way in which Doyle describes women within his stories; women that are always in need of help.

“Never trust to general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details.

The power of Holmes’s deduction and observation skills is always exciting to read and is without a doubt what makes Sherlock Holmes a great detective.  Without even leaving 221B Baker Street, Holmes manages to solve the case just by Miss. Sutherland’s visit alone.

Holmes & Watson

When Holmes invites Mr Windibank to his house for an interview, the plot begins to unravel. It would appear from the very beginning, both Mr Windibank and Mr Angel was the same person. The stepfather impersonated Mr Angel in order to stop her stepdaughter from marrying anyone else. Why? It all comes down money. Mr Windibank wanted to stop her stepdaughter from leaving the house so that he can have his share of her income every quarter. It also questions the readers, was the wife working with her husband too? What makes matters worse, is the fact that Holmes cannot arrest him, as he has committed no crime. Instead, he threatens Mr Windibank by stating, “The law cannot, as you say, touch you…yet there never was a man who deserved punishment more. If the young lady has a brother or a friend, he ought to lay a whip across your shoulders.” It just goes to show money and status was everything during the Victorian period. Unfortunately for Miss. Sutherland, she will never believe or know the full extent of the scheme.

To conclude, ‘A Case of Identity’ is a well-written short story that can be read in one sitting. The beginning of the novel brilliantly predicts the plot as to why Holmes ultimately believes that life is stranger than fiction. Unfortunately, the title of the story gives the plot away and the majority of readers would have outsmarted Holmes before his inevitable deductions.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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