The Boscombe Valley Mystery, or, The Problem With Obvious Facts

As often happens, I was catching up on my podcasts while working on my notes for this week’s post.  I’d just finished Pod4Ham’s dissection of “Cabinet Battle #1” (from the second act of “Hamilton,” because earlier posts this week made my obsession there clear) when this week’s episode of Undisclosed started.  For those unaware, Undisclosed is a podcast featuring Rabia Chaudry, Colin Miller, and Susan Simpson that spent its first season looking into the Adnan Syed case and has moved on in season two to discuss the murder conviction of Joey Watkins.  This week’s episode, which focused on how the crime scene was handled the night of the murder, opened with Colin talking about “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” which is the story up for discussion this week.  The mention includes a quote delivered by Sherlock Holmes when he finally gets his first chance to look at the scene of the story’s eponymous mystery:

“Oh how simple it would have all been had I been here before they came like a herd of buffalo and wallowed all over it.”

That’s sort of the heart of the story, that quote.  While on the surface it’s just another murder mystery perfectly crafted for the sole purpose of letting Holmes show off for the reader, what it also is is a treatise on the importance of looking deeper than the first blush.  It epitomizes the Holmesian thesis – that investigation without careful observation and a scientific approach to the evidence is only ever half an investigation.  That old saying – that when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me – holds a lot of truth, and the local police of the sleepy little hamlet of Boscombe Valley make a lot of assumptions – erroneous ones at that – while investigating the death of Charles McCarthy.

Mr. McCarthy is found dead near the Boscombe Pool one afternoon by his son, James.  Cause of death?  Blunt force trauma to the back of his skull.  Police discover early on in their investigation that Mr. McCarthy had gone out to the pool to meet someone he had an appointment with at three.  They also find a witness that says they saw the deceased heading into the woods, and his son following not far behind a few minutes later with a gun in hand.  Another witness, a young girl who was wandering the woods that afternoon as well, tells police that she saw father and son arguing and that James raised his hand like he was preparing to strike him before the girl ran away.  She is also the person James ran into later when he came running out of the woods in search of help.  He had blood on his hand and sleeve.

The police immediately arrest James.  Their theory is that the two McCarthy’s fought and that, in a rage, James struck his father with the barrel of his gun, killing him (even though the witness saw him raise an empty hand, not his gun).  James’ gun being found next to his father’s body seems to support this theory.  Just as quickly as he is arrested, James is bound for trial by the finding of the coroner’s inquest.  He will be tried for his father’s murder.  He, of course, swears he’s innocent.

Holmes becomes involved with the case through Inspector Lestrade, who is contacted by a family friend who believes James didn’t do it.  Miss Turner, the daughter of Charles McCarthy’s oldest friend, reaches out to the inspector after having little luck getting through to the local authorities.  Despite thinking the case is a slam dunk, Lestrade engages Holmes and Dr. Watson, who of course leave London on the first available train.  Watson listens to Holmes’ recitation of the evidence while they’re in transit an is absolutely sure that James McCarthy is guilty.  Holmes, in one of his more famous quotes, disagrees:

“I am afraid,” I said, “that the facts are so obvious that you will find little credit to be gained out of the case.”

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact,” he said, laughing.

Of course, James doesn’t do much to help his own cause, in the eyes of the court, Lestrade, or Watson.  When arrested, he makes a statement the officers consider a confession – “that he was not surprised to hear [that he was being arrested] and that it was no more than his deserts.”  He also follows that up by swearing that he’s innocent, so it’s a pretty confusing confession.  Then, during the inquest, he refuses to answer any of the coroner’s questions about what he and his father were fighting about in the woods that afternoon.  The case is stacked well and truly against him by the time Holmes and Watson arrive.

Holmes takes the time to talk to Miss Turner and visit with his erstwhile client to get some much needed background on the situation.  He learns what the McCarthy’s argued about – Charles wishing for his son to marry Miss  Turner despite her father’s and James’ objections.  He also learns that James is in love with Miss Turner and other circumstances are the cause of his objection.  But it is the crime scene, not the witnesses, that provides Holmes the true answer to the events, even given the quote above about the state of the scene.

Half the solution comes from what Holmes knows of human behavior, but without the evidence he finds at the scene, he’d have no framework to hamg that knowledge on.

In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes tells Watson “You see, but you do not observe.  The distinction is clear.”  That statement is the heart of the issue.  An investigator needs to do more than just see a body lying on the ground with a gun near by and immediately assume the two are connected.  Jumping to conclusions too soon inevitably leads to championing the wrong conclusion.  Also in “Scandal,” Holmes infamously tells us “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.  Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”  The witnesses provided the basis for a theory and the investigators twisted the available facts to suit it.

Of course, it’s the 1890s and scientific observation of a crime scene was an anomaly – and it is fiction – so maybe it’s understandable why the Boscombe Valley authorities didn’t dig deeper.  Modern investigators don’t have that excuse.  No one has it, really,  in Sherlock Holmes’ opinion.

(Here’s my unrelated-to-the-above observable fact based on this story and others I’ve read so far: the countryside is dangerous.  To be fair, I was half-led to this theory by “Torchwood” back in season one (and possibly had it reinforced recently driving  between dark cornfields during a GPS malfunction-fueled road trip detour).  Doyle never populated his version with psychotic, tourist-snatching cannibals, of course – though in an early story he apparently did inhabit a small Montana town with a man-eating plant, as I learned this week.. He preferred insanity, a little murder, and ghoulish hounds that want to eat your face.  The country he shows us is where all creepy yellow faces peer out of windows and phantom hounds with a taste for noble blood haunt the moors; suspicious burglary-homicides rock quiet, far-flung communities and men have their brains bashed in beside quiet pools in the middle of the day.  Maybe people in Doyle’s small towns have more to worry about than just an unobservant local constabulary.)

Owen Harper: I hate the countryside.  It’s dirt, it’s unhygenic.  And what’s that smell?

Gwen Cooper: That would be grass.

Owen: It’s disgusting.

-Torchwood, “Countrycide” Season One, Episode Six