If you talk to a member of law enforcement and ask them which cases are the hardest to solve, you might be surprised by the answer. It’s not likely going to be a specific class of crime that they bemoan – not your murders, robberies, cons, auto thefts, etc. What they’ll probably tell you is that the most difficult cases to close are usually the seemingly random ones. That’s because motive goes a long way toward implicating a criminal.
Sure, if you ask Gil Grissom of “CSI: Las Vegas” fame, he’ll tell you that the why isn’t important, but he’s speaking purely from a forensic investigator’s point of view. Plus, you know, he’s fictional. When the physical evidence is all you focus on, the why can be an afterthought. But when you’re looking at a crime from a broader perspective, what motivates the criminal is always just as helpful for identifying the perpetrator as the how. And that is what makes random crime such a pain in the investigator’s ass.
This is especially true in a world – like, say, the Victorian Era, for example – where DNA, extensive fiber analysis, and cellphone records and cell tower data don’t exist.
Holmes and Watson undertake a seemingly motive-less murder in “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez,” a story that revolves around the death of a mild-mannered personal secretary found dead in his employer’s study. Willoughby Smith – which I think is a glorious name for a mild-mannered secretary – has no enemies, no hobbies worth mentioning (he apparently has his work and nothing else going for him), and not a single bad habit to his credit, unless you count his fondness for the same Egyptian cigarettes his employer, Professor Coram, chain-smokes. Willoughby is, in fact, such a boring gentleman that when he wasn’t busily taking the professor’s dictation, he was pulling references for the next day’s work. This is why Willoughby is cast, in my brain, as Rupert Giles from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” But without the cool, irresponsible magic-using rebellious phase and tawdry affair with the computer sciences teacher.
What I’m saying here is, nobody had a reason to want Willoughby dead. He’s not interesting enough for anyone to want dead.
(I kind of want a story where Willoughby is only playing at the mild-mannered secretary thing because he’s really a spy. Maybe even a foreign spy. And definitely played by Anthony Stewart Head utilizing portions of his Rupert Giles wardrobe/aesthetic. Especially the glasses. Sorry, I think I may have gone slightly off track there. Also, I don’t know why I say “I kind of want” when what I should be doing is making notes for something in the Charlotte-verse. Anyway.)
(Have I apologized yet for these random tangents that tend to pop up? I really feel like I should. Sorry.)
Also not helping make the case all that clear or simple is the paucity of helpful physical evidence. There is only one set of incoming tracks coming into the house. The hallways are floored in such a way that they don’t really take footprints well. The killer seemingly leaves nothing of themselves behind at all except for a pair of glasses found in the victim’s hand, and his dying declaration – “The professor – it was she.” The glasses in question here are the aforementioned golden pince-nez. (If you’re unfamiliar with the term, those are glasses that do not have sturdy earpieces but are held in place by a nose clip and may have ear hooks attached to the frames by a chain.) Holmes spends about five minutes with the glasses and provides a pretty specific description of the wearer – female, well-dressed, of good bearing, with a wide nose and close-set eyes who has probably been to the optometrist twice in the last year and bears a few physical signs of someone with poor eyesight and a strong eyeglass prescription.
If Inspector Hopkins were left to figure this case out alone, it would probably still be unsolved 122 years later because the lack of motive actively stymied the Inspector’s processing of the information. Holmes of course sees things others don’t and, through his usual combination of attention to detail and ability to logically analyze all possible explanations for a thing, manages to suss out the location of the killer. Which, by the way, is tucked in behind the bookshelf in the professor’s own bedroom. Before you ask: no, the professor wasn’t involved. It was just in is best interests not to let the cops find the killer.
Can I just say, secret compartments and rooms in houses seem to be really popular things in Victorian England. That’s the second story in a row where someone’s had a hidden cubby hole to hide themselves or someone else, and I’m kind of jealous.
Once the killer, the mysterious Anna, is revealed, along with the professor’s secret Russian origins and Nihilist Party background, the why of the crime becomes clear. But without the presence of displaced cigarette ashes, a pair of abandoned glasses, a sickly man’s increased appetite, and the identical nature of two hallways, there would be nothing that could ever point to this one Russian woman as the wielder of the sealing-wax knife that killed poor, dead Willoughby. Not even Holmes saw anything suspicious enough about the Professor to make him curious as to his background, after all.
I realize this case pretty much supports Grissom’s previously mentioned credo. But! It takes the exceptional brain of Sherlock Holmes in order for that to happen. The, unfortunately, fictional exceptional brain. Which isn’t to say that brilliant investigators don’t exist, or that other, real-life investigators couldn’t have potentially discovered the hidden compartment behind the bookshelf and found poor Anna. What I am saying, though, is that the case likely wouldn’t have been solved so quickly or so easily without the involvement of Sherlock Holmes, super sleuth.
Honestly, where else but a Sherlock Holmes story would a Russian discontent accidentally murder someone not at all involved with Russia, communism, or espionage, and hide in her husband’s bedroom to wait out the cops? Poor Willoughby. He could’ve been a spy…
I’m going to tattle on myself for a second here: I really thought, based on Willoughby’s dying declaration and the description of the glasses, that the Professor was going to be revealed as a woman hiding in an elaborate disguise. My pet theory dissolved entirely, though, when Watson described Professor Coram’s face as “aquiline.” I liked my theory, damn it…