“The Engineer’s Thumb,” or “The One(s) That Got Away”

I thought about taking a crack at discussing Victorian economics, since this story is essentially about a counterfeiting ring and spins on the conceit that times are hard enough for your typical middle-class tradesman or businessman that they will take even the most bizarre job for the right price.  I figured out pretty early, though, that that was a research black hole I may never crawl out of, and the result wouldn’t be a blog post, but a damned thesis.  With bibliographies and citations and possibly graphs.  For my sake and yours, I decided on a different angle.

(The topic may come up again, though, because it is fascinating, especially when you do a comparison of contemporary literary depictions of the economy versus the historic record.  Yes, I’m looking at you, Dickens.)

(That may only be interesting to me, though.  Moving on.)

Remember, around week four, when we had that conversation about failure in the Sherlock Holmes universe?  Watson broaches the subject in “The Adventure of the Yellow Face,” and tells us that he usually doesn’t talk about his friend’s failures because “where he failed, it happened too often that no one else succeeded, and that the tale was left forever without conclusion.”  But…that’s not exactly true.  Not the part about the cases remaining unsolved, but that Watson doesn’t write about them.  He wrote about several of them, in fact, just in the stories read so far.

In the twenty-three stories that I’ve covered up until now, the culprit has escaped justice – not out of Holmes’ mercy or compassion, but out of a failure to be caught – five times.  Six, if you count the disappearing maid in “The Musgrave Ritual;” seven, if you think old Hudson killed Beddoes and escaped at the end of “The Gloria Scott“, like Holmes does.  While in two cases, “The Five Orange Pips” and “The Greek Interpreter,” we are told that karma eventually catches up with the perpetrators, the legal system never does.  In the others, the crooks avoid detention and are free to continue their criminal enterprises.  (Yes, I’m including Irene Adler in this list; she fits the parameters, even if it’s hard to call her a crook.)

One of those others is “The Engineer’s Thumb,” the story of an unfortunate hydraulic engineer by the name of Victor Hatherly who, like the clients in “The Stockbroker’s Clerk” and “The Redheaded League” gets taken in by the offer of a ridiculous amount of money in exchange for an unequal amount of work.  Unlike Misters Pycroft and Wilson, the task itself isn’t also ridiculous.  His professional services are contracted to identify the problem with a large hydraulic press in the hands of a suspicious gentleman. While the problem itself is a very simple one, it’s Hatherly’s curiosity and suspicion that winds up costing him a thumb – in the course of his examination of the press, he starts to doubt his employer’s claim of what the press is for, and that leads him right into a desperate escape and a very bloody confrontation.

We meet Hatherly after he loses the eponymous thumb.  He arrives at Watson’s practice, already missing the digit and suffering from blood loss and probably mild shock.  Once the medical issues are seen to, Watson refers him to Holmes – one of only two times, he tells us, that he’s ever done so.  After hearing the specifics of Hatherly’s trying evening, the three of them catch a train and head to Eyford straight away.  You already know how it ends, basically: without the counterfeiters getting led away in handcuffs.  Holmes takes it all remarkably well, even if his client doesn’t.  When Hatherly asks what he got out of the affair besides a missing thumb, the lack of payment, and the villains getting away scot-free, Holmes tells him:

“Experience,” said Holmes, laughing.  “Indirectly it may be of value, you know; you have only to put it into words to gain the reputation of being excellent company for the remainder of your existence.”

Or, basically, “you might be out a thumb and fifty guineas, but just think of the story you can tell at dinner parties now.”

Holmes is only human.  He isn’t perfect; once in a while, over the countless cases Watson only eludes to in the canon and the ones he does share, the Great Detective is going to have to lose eventually.  Statistically, it just has to happen.  Seven out of twenty-three?  That’s still almost a 70% success rate.  While that’s probably not good enough for Holmes, it’s nothing to shake a stick at.  And, if the above is any indication, he learns how to come to terms with imperfection, at least in this case.  I think the fact he failed to protect John Openshaw in “The Five Orange Pips” likely haunted him for some time.

There’s even an argument to be made that “The Final Problem” was setup as the ultimate case of Holmes losing, albeit through self-sacrifice.  He only sees one way to stop Moriarty, and it’s not by outsmarting him, ultimately.  To protect the world and those who matter to him, he has to lose.

Has to appear to lose, anyway.  But that’s a topic for another time.

2 thoughts on ““The Engineer’s Thumb,” or “The One(s) That Got Away”

  1. “a comparison of contemporary literary depictions of the economy versus the historic record. Yes, I’m looking at you, Dickens.”

    No, no, that’s not only interesting to you. I would love to hear such a discussion – but only if you would be able to escape the research at some point. Didn’t Dickens write at least partially out of his own experience? Is it a case of “the economy is booming but the lowest are being left further behind” or is it really a mismatch? I suppose I could go do the research myself… but where’s the fun in that? Sounds like you already know more about it than I do so I think you should just run with that head start. 😉


  2. The problem with Dickens – and “problem” might be a strong word – is that he was writing in some cases about experiences that may have been true at the time they happened to him, but didn’t exactly fit the contemporary environment. By the time he writes “Little Dorrit,” the debtors prisons that feature in the story have long been closed.

    There was a “Great Depression” from 1873-1896, but it hit the middle classes much harder than the poorer classes, which suffered through the previous economic downturns (like the ones caused by the Railway mania of the 1840s that turned the economy on its head). And bankruptcy, that looming menace that permeated so much of the fiction at the time, wasn’t exactly as common as the fiction made it out to be, according to Eric Hobsbawm, a social historian:

    “A man might have to work hard to raise himself into the middle class, but once in a moderately flourishing line of business, he could take things very easily indeed, unless he made some appalling miscalculation, or hit an abnormally bad patch in the course of an abnormally bad slump. Bankruptcy was, according to economic theory, the penalty of inefficient businessmen, and its spectre haunts the novels of Victorian England. But in fact the risks of incurring it were extremely modest, except for the very tiny and marginal man in such occupations as small shopkeeping, the fringes of the building trade, and the underside of a few still dynamic industries such as metals.”

    Full disclosure – I’m no expert/economist/social historian, I’ve just done a little reading.


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