|"The Adventure of the Dancing Men"|
The Adventure of the Dancing Men is one of the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was first published in The Strand Magazine in 1903 with illustrations by Sidney Paget. It is one of 13 stories in the cycle collected as The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle ranked "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" third in his list of his twelve favourite Holmes stories. This is one of only two Sherlock Holmes short stories where Holmes' client dies after seeking his help. The other is "The Five Orange Pips", part of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
PlotWhat would most people make of this childish-looking scrawl:
…or more to the point, what does Sherlock Holmes make of it?
Mr. Hilton Cubitt of Ridling Thorp Manor in Norfolk submits this very question. The little dancing men are at the heart of a mystery which seems to be driving his young wife Elsie to distraction. He married her about a year ago, and until recently, everything was well. She is American, and before the wedding, she asked her husband-to-be to promise her never to ask about her past, as she had had some “very disagreeable associations” in her life, although she said that there was nothing that she was personally ashamed of. Mr. Cubitt swore the promise and, being an honorable English gentleman, insists on living by it, which is one of the things causing difficulty at Ridling Thorpe Manor.
The trouble began when Elsie received a letter from the United States, which evidently disturbed her, and she threw the letter on the fire. Then the dancing men appeared, sometimes on a piece of paper left on the sundial overnight, sometimes scrawled in chalk on a wall or door, even a windowsill. Each time, their appearance has an obvious, terrifying effect on Elsie, but she will not tell her husband what is going on.
Holmes tells Cubitt that he wants to see every occurrence of the dancing men. They are to be copied down and brought or sent to him at 221B Baker Street. Cubitt duly does this, and it provides Holmes with the most important clue in the whole mystery.
Holmes quickly realizes that it is a substitution cipher. Through much brainwork, he cracks the code by frequency analysis. The last of the messages conveyed by the dancing men is a particularly chilling one, and Holmes rushes down to Ridling Thorpe Manor only to find Cubitt dead of a bullet to the heart and his wife gravely wounded in the head. Inspector Martin of the Norfolk Constabulary believes that it is a murder-suicide, or will be if Elsie dies. She is the prime suspect in her husband’s death.
As is so often the case, Holmes sees things differently. Why is there a bullet hole in the windowsill, making a total of three shots, while Cubitt and his wife were each only shot once? Why are only two chambers in Cubitt’s revolver empty? What is the large sum of money doing in the room? The discovery of a trampled flowerbed just outside the window, and the discovery of a shell casing therein confirm what Holmes has suspected — a third person was involved, and it is surely the one who has been sending the curious dancing-man messages.
Holmes knows certain things that Inspector Martin does not. He seemingly picks the name “Elrige’s” out of the air, and Cubitt’s stable boy recognizes it as a local farmer’s name. Holmes quickly writes a message — in dancing men characters — and sends the boy to Elrige’s Farm to deliver it to a lodger there, whose name he has also apparently picked out of the air. Of course, Holmes has learned both men's names by reading the dancing men code.
While waiting for the result of this message, Holmes takes the opportunity to explain to Dr. Watson and Inspector Martin how he cracked the code of the dancing men, and the messages are revealed. The last one, which caused Holmes and Watson to rush to Norfolk, read “ELSIE PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD”.
The lodger, Mr. Abe Slaney, another American, unaware that Elsie is at death’s door and quite unable to communicate, duly arrives at Ridling Thorpe Manor a short while later, much to everyone’s astonishment, except Holmes’. He has sent for Slaney using the dancing men, knowing that Slaney will believe that the message is from Elsie. He is seized as he comes through the door.
He tells the whole story. He is a former lover from Chicago and has come to England to woo Elsie back. She originally fled his clutches because he was a dangerous criminal, as Holmes has found out through telegraphic inquiries to the US. When an encounter at the window where the killing happened turned violent with Hilton Cubitt's appearance in the room, Slaney pulled out his gun and shot back at Cubitt, who had already shot at him. Cubitt was killed and Slaney fled. Apparently, Elsie then shot herself. Slaney seems genuinely upset that Elsie has come to harm. The threatening nature of some of his dancing-man messages is explained by Slaney's losing his temper at Elsie's apparent unwillingness to leave her husband. The money found in the room was apparently to have been a bribe to make Slaney go away.
Slaney is arrested and later tried. He escapes the noose owing to mitigating circumstances. Elsie recovers from her serious injuries and spends her life helping the poor and administering her late husband’s estate.
Complete Story Text
- The idea of the dancing men code was used in the 1943 film, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon.
- "The Dancing Men", an episode of the 1960s BBC television adaptations, from the programme's second series. Shot in colour, first aired in September 1968. Starring Peter Cushing and Nigel Stock. Unfortunately, this is one of the second series' missing episodes.
- "The Dancing Men", the 1984 episode of the ITV / Granada Television series, starring Jeremy Brett and David Burke.
- BBC Radio 4 adapted the short story under the same name in 1993, as part of a long-term series of BBC radio adaptations of the whole Sherlock Holmes Canon, directed by playwright and radio drama director Bert Coules. The radio adaptation starred Clive Merrison and Michael Williams.
- "The Blind Banker", the second episode of the first series of the BBC series Sherlock, borrows several elements from this story. In particular the use of a symbols-based secret code, though it is used for different purposes.