"With that man in the field, one's morning paper presented infinite possibilities. Often it was only the smallest trace, Watson, the faintest indication, and yet it was enough to tell me that the great malignant brain was there, as the gentlest tremors of the edges of the web remind one of the foul spider which lurks in the centre. Petty thefts, wanton assaults, purposeless outrage—to the man who held the clue all could be worked into one connected whole. To the scientific student of the higher criminal world, no capital in Europe offered the advantages which London then possessed."When he puts it like that, he's almost got a point, you know?
Before the substance begins, Watson tosses in another reminder that in this version of London, all the stuff that he writes about really happened:
"His cold and proud nature was always averse, however, from anything in the shape of public applause, and he bound me in the most stringent terms to say no further word of himself, his methods, or his successes—a prohibition which, as I have explained, has only now been removed."And then the client arrives, introducing himself as "the very unhappy John Hector McFarlane."
To which Holmes replies with both a put-down and a demonstration of his own abilities: "You mentioned your name, as if I should recognize it, but I assure you that, beyond the obvious facts that you are a bachelor, a solicitor, a Freemason, and an asthmatic, I know nothing whatever about you."
You can't beat the English when it comes to putting a person in his place.
What Holmes' itinerary doesn't include is that McFarlane is also accused of murder, which is of course the bit that appeals here: "This is really most grati-- most interesting."
Conan Doyle chooses the form of a newspaper article to convey the salient details, but McFarlane is the one reading the paper aloud, so in a way he's telling his own story, in headline format. Watson gets to read the actual text of the article. It's very long, so here's the short version: Jonas Oldacre is missing, presumed dead, and McFarlane, his last known visitor, is the leading suspect.
Inspector Lestrade arrives before we return to McFarlane's story, this time in his own words. Because there's one other crucial detail here: Oldacre hired McFarlane, out of the blue, to prepare a will in which he leaves all his possessions to McFarlane, despite the fact that they had never met.
Lestrade is ready to wrap up the case right there, but Holmes delivers another verbal smackdown:
"'It strikes me, my good Lestrade, as being just a trifle too obvious,' said Holmes. 'You do not add imagination to your other great qualities, but if you could for one moment put yourself in the place of this young man, would you choose the very night after the will had been made to commit your crime? Would it not seem dangerous to you to make so very close a relation between the two incidents? Again, would you choose an occasion when you are known to be in the house, when a servant has let you in? And, finally, would you take the great pains to conceal the body, and yet leave your own stick as a sign that you were the criminal? Confess, Lestrade, that all this is very unlikely.'"Lestrade, of course, has an answer for all of those points, even if it means leaving Occam's Razor on the shelf.
Holmes dashes out for a spot of investigating, and though he isn't pleased by anything he's turned up, we do learn that McFarlane's mother was once engaged to Oldacre, but gave up on him when she realized that cruelty to animals was not an attribute she wanted in a husband.
Also, we get this gem of a description of Oldacre's close-mouthed housekeeper: "But she was as close as wax."
In conveying the housekeeper's words through Holmes' retelling of his investigations, Conan Doyle turns to a technique called free indirect speech. (Hat tip to David Shapard and his annotated Jane Austen series for introducing me to the term.) Holmes doesn't quote the housekeeper directly, but he essentially repeats her words, shifted from first person to third person:
"Yes, she had let Mr. McFarlane in at half-past nine. She wished her hand had withered before she had done so. She had gone to bed at half-past ten. Her room was at the other end of the house, and she could hear nothing of what had passed. Mr. McFarlane had left his hat, and to the best of her belief his stick, in the hall. She had been awakened by the alarm of fire. Her poor, dear master had certainly been murdered. Had he any enemies? Well, every man had enemies, but Mr. Oldacre kept himself very much to himself, and only met people in the way of business. She had seen the buttons, and was sure that they belonged to the clothes which he had worn last night. The wood-pile was very dry, for it had not rained for a month. It burned like tinder, and by the time she reached the spot, nothing could be seen but flames. She and all the firemen smelled the burned flesh from inside it. She knew nothing of the papers, nor of Mr. Oldacre's private affairs. "Is it cheating to have your character reuse a technique that's worked for him in the past? Because that's what Conan Doyle does here, doing the same "pretend there's a fire and flush out what the criminal loves most" trick he pulled in "A Scandal in Bohemia," with the difference that in this case the flushed out object was the criminal himself, the not-murdered Jonas Oldacre.
And then, in the closing paragraph, Holmes gets one more chance to remind us that he's going to be a character in a story someday: "By the way, what was it you put into the wood-pile besides your old trousers? A dead dog, or rabbits, or what? You won't tell? Dear me, how very unkind of you! Well, well, I daresay that a couple of rabbits would account both for the blood and for the charred ashes. If ever you write an account, Watson, you can make rabbits serve your turn."