|"The Adventure of Black Peter"|
"The Adventure of Black Peter" is one of the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is one of 13 stories in the cycle collected as The Return of Sherlock Holmes, but was published originally in 1904 in the The Strand Magazine and Collier's Weekly Magazine.
In July of 1895 Holmes has embarked on a new case which has kept him away from 221B Baker Street for large amounts of time. Watson is shocked one morning when Holmes returns from a pre-breakfast trip to the butcher's carrying a large harpoon. Holmes unhelpfully explains that he spent the morning stabbing at a dead pig with the spear, failing to pierce it with one blow, but that it is nonetheless relevant to his current case.
At that moment Stanley Hopkins, a young police inspector whom Holmes favours, enters. He confides in Holmes his frustration with the progress of his investigation, and asks Holmes for his help. Holmes asks him about a tobacco pouch found at the crime scene, to which Hopkins replies it was definitely the victim - it carried the initials P.C. - although the man didn't smoke, and no pipe was found. Holmes comments that the bag should have been the starting point of the investigation, but then asks Hopkins to recount the facts in the crime for Watson's benefit.
The victim was Captain Peter Carey, 50, a former whaler and sealer and master of the Sea Unicorn of Dundee. Carey had retired about a decade prior, and for six years had lived in Woodman's Lee near Forest Row in Sussex. He lived with his wife, daughter, and two servants, and had a reputation as a most unpleasant man, prone to violent outbursts when drunk - particularly towards his wife and daughter, though he was once prosecuted after he assaulted the vicar. In fact his nickname, Black Peter, was as much given because of his evil temper as for the colour of his beard and dark features. His character made his death universally unmourned.
Carey had a strange habit of not sleeping in his home, instead preferring to spend his time in a small wooden outhouse a few hundred yards from his house, which he called the "cabin". He kept the key in his pocked and allowed no one else to enter
The only clue from an eyewitness comes from a stonemason named Slater, who says that he saw the shadow of a head on the blind in one of Carey’s cabin windows, and he is sure that it was not Carey. The next day, Carey was in his foulest mood, and then early the next morning, at about two o’clock, his daughter heard a scream from the direction of the cabin, but took no notice. Carey often screamed when he was drunk. The murder was not discovered until about midday, when the ladies summoned enough courage to look in on him. Hopkins was soon on the scene.
Carey was fully dressed, suggesting that he was expecting a visit, and there was some rum laid out along with two dirty glasses. There were brandy and whisky, too, but neither had been touched. There was also a knife in its sheath at the dead man’s feet. Mrs. Carey has identified it as her husband’s.
A little notebook was found at the scene. It contains the initials J. H. N. and the year 1883. It also says C. P. R. on the second page, which Holmes reckons stands for Canadian Pacific Railway. The first set of initials is likely a stockbroker’s, as the little book is full of what appears to be stock exchange information.
Holmes decides to accompany Hopkins to Forest Row, and upon arrival, Hopkins observes that someone has tried to break into Carey’s cabin, but failed. Holmes believes that the burglar will likely try again, this time bringing a more useful tool for the job.
After examining the inside of the cabin, Holmes observes from the lack of dust that something has been taken from a shelf, even though the burglar did not get in. It was a book, or possibly a box.
Holmes, Dr Watson, and Hopkins all lie in wait for the burglar that night, and they are not disappointed. Along he comes, he breaks into the cabin, and goes through one of Carey’s old logbooks, cursing when he finds that the information that he wants is missing, having been torn out of the book. As he is leaving the cabin, Hopkins moves in and arrests him.
He is John Hopley Neligan - which matches the initials in the notebook - the son of a long-vanished, failed banker. He claims he was looking at Carey’s logs to test a theory of his. His father disappeared with a box full of securities after his bank failed. He took them on a yacht bound for Norway. He believes that his father’s boat may have been driven north on the North Sea by bad weather, and met the Sea Unicorn, captained by Carey. He believes that Carey knew something about his father’s disappearance, and that possibly his father was murdered by the man who has now himself become a murder victim as he has traced some of his father's long lost securities back to Carey.
Hopkins takes Neligan off to the station, even though Neligan swears that he has nothing to do with the murder. Holmes believes this to be true. Neligan is, after all, a slight, thin man, hardly capable of running a man through with a harpoon. Furthermore, that kind of attack requires a practised wielder such as a professional harpooner.
Holmes saves Neligan from the noose by finding the true killer in a most unusual way. He advertises for a harpooner, posing as a sea captain named Basil. He gets three applicants at 221B Baker Street for the job, and one of them is indeed Peter Carey’s killer, as confirmed by his name, Patrick Cairns (the tobacco pouch was his, not Carey’s), and the fact that Holmes had established that he was once Carey’s shipmate. Holmes also felt sure that a murderer would want to leave the country for a while.
Holmes handcuffs Cairns unaware, but the latter furiously denies that he murdered Carey, claiming self-defence, as Carey was reaching for his knife. He was actually at Carey’s cabin to extort hush money from him. Neligan’s father had indeed come aboard the Sea Unicorn with his tin box of securities, and Carey had murdered him by throwing him overboard while no-one was looking (but actually, Cairns had seen). Carey did not take kindly to being forced in this way by his old subordinate, prompting Cairns to take the action that he did after Carey draws a knife on Cairns.
The rum was another clue. Holmes was sure that it, and the fact that the brandy and whiskey had been left alone, were sure signs that the murderer was a seaman.
Neligan is released and the securities returned to him-although those Carey had sold cannot be recovered.
- The story was adapted for the 1968 BBC series with Peter Cushing. The episode is now lost. There is also a BBC Radio adaptation starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson.
- This story serves as the first case in Frogware's 2014 video game, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments.
- The depiction of Patrick Cairns being lured to Baker Street, taken unaware, handcuffed, fiercely struggling and being subdued with difficulty by several people is identical, in virtually all details, with the capture of Jefferson Hope in "A Study in Scarlet". Forest Row, the setting of the murder, is a real place south-east of East Grinstead. It is also only 11 km from Crowborough, where Arthur Conan Doyle lived for many years.
- The Harpooners of the Sea Unicorn in St. Charles, Missouri, USA is a Scion Society of the Baker Street Irregulars. It is a discussion group and literary club that studies the works of Doyle and the world of Sherlock Holmes and things Victorian. Scion Societies are sub-societies of the Baker Street Irregulars. Most Sherlockian societies choose their names from something or someone within one of the sixty Sherlock Holmes stories. The Harpooners of the Sea Unicorn chose their name from The Adventure of Black Peter.