Musings on ‘A Case of Identity’

Robin RowlesBy Robin Rowles

‘A Case of Identity’, was originally published in the Strand Magazine and later included in the omnibus The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Many collections present it as the third case in the Adventures, after ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ and ‘The Red-Headed League’ but ‘A Case of Identity’ is set before ‘The Red-Headed League’. This is easily checked, because the events of ‘A Case of Identity’ are briefly referred to at the beginning of ‘The Red-Headed League’.

The plot of ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ focussed on costumes and disguises. The King of Bohemia wears a ridiculous costume that merely advertises his social position. Holmes uses a wardrobe full of disguises: unemployed groom, humble worshipper in church, and a non-conformist minister. However, as Holmes finds out, two can play at that game and Irene Adler neatly upstages Holmes, cheekily calling out ‘Goodnight, Mr Sherlock Holmes’ whilst passing the door of 221B Baker Street, dressed as a man. In this adventure, only Watson, the Canon’s everyman, plays himself. As Holmes remarks in ‘His Last Bow’: ‘Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age.’

‘A Case of Identity’ also involves a disguise, but this story is more about observation, deductions and inferences. Holmes tests Watson’s powers of observation on his client, Miss Mary Sutherland. Watson fails this exercise as he is able to describe accurately the young woman’s attire but is unable to draw inferences from the visual clues. Holmes criticises Watson for missing everything of importance but softens this by acknowledging that he has found the method. In ‘The Red-Headed League’, Watson is able to follow Holmes’ train of thought as he ‘reads’ Jabez Wilson. However, we must not get ahead of ourselves and should focus on ‘A Case of Identity’.

Holmes now demonstrates that vital skill which everybody should learn: active listening. The interview with the client is frequently where the best clues are found. They fall, like rose petals in the wind and are sometimes overlooked. From Mary Sutherland’s account we find a young woman who is severely short-sighted, with a private income, living with her mother and stepfather. Holmes’ suspicions are aroused when Miss Sutherland’s whirlwind romance with Mr Hosmer Angel ends abruptly on their wedding day. And the odd coincidence that her stepfather, James Windibank, ‘a traveller in wines’, is away on business every time Hosmer Angel is present. In the modern age with its internet romance scams, the deception is obvious.

However, we must let the mystery play out. Mary Sutherland had an inheritance of £2,500 in New Zealand stock yielding 4.5%. She could only draw the interest, but this was £112 and ten shillings per year, a good income for a young lady in 1890. Mary Sutherland was socially restless, but content to boost her income by typewriting and live at home, allowing her stepfather to control her finances. Her fiancé, Hosmer Angel, who only communicates by typewritten letters, is worthy of investigation. Despite weak physical health, he woos Mary Sutherland but then disappears – having first extracted a promise she will not seek another should anything happen to him.

Holmes, of course, sees through this fog and strongly advises his client to forget all about Hosmer Angel. Whereas to Mary Sutherland he was real, to Holmes he is a chimera, a fantasy. Holmes’ theory regarding the identity of Hosmer Angel is confirmed when he writes to Westhouse & Marbank, ‘the great claret importers of Fenchurch Street’ who were Windibank’s employers, then to Windibank himself. Holmes receives a typewritten reply which virtually seals the case. James Windibank’s typewriter has the same character faults as the one used by Hosmer Angel. Mary Sutherland’s letters to Hosmer Angel were sent to a post office in Leadenhall Street. The post office in Leadenhall Street actually existed, although it closed in 1934. It was sited where the ‘Cheesegrater’ building now stands. James Windibank’s offices were in Fenchurch Street, a few minutes’ walk away. Further proof, if any were needed. d

‘A Case of Identity’ plays out like a one act studio play. There is little action, except at the end when Holmes threatens Windibank with his hunting crop – but too late, the scheming stepfather has fled. Holmes predicts: ‘That fellow will rise from crime to crime until he does something very bad, and ends on a gallows. The case has, in some respects, been not entirely devoid of interest.’ Holmes’ assertion is correct. ‘A Case of Identity’ feels like an open-and-shut case, but this is misleading. Admittedly, it lacks the multiple disguises and exciting capers of ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ and the tension of the stakeout in ‘The Red-Headed League’. However, there is more. ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ is a spy story, of sorts, and ‘The Red-Headed League’ a ‘decoy’ story. In ‘A Case of Identity’ ACD introduces a plot idea that served him well: one man with two identities. ACD would go on to revisit this theme several times, notably in ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’, ‘The Stockbroker’s Clerk’ and ‘The Three Garridebs’.

However, the reward of reading this story is that we learn so much about Holmes. His analytical method, advising Watson not to rely on general impressions but look for specifics. A detailed knowledge of crime. Holmes recalls a similar case at Andover in 1877 and ‘something of the sort at the Hague last year’ [1889]. His willingness to thrash Windibank, and finally, his pragmatism. Holmes realises that Mary Sutherland won’t believe his revelation about Hosmer Angel’s true identity, therefore he will not attempt to persuade her. He illustrates this with a quote from the classics. Although, prima facie, this contradicts Watson’s initial assessment in A Study in Scarlet: ‘Knowledge of literature – nil’. On the other hand, the action in A Study in Scarlet takes place in 1882 and ‘A Case of Identity’ in 1890, then Holmes has widened his reading interests. The sometimes-cold professional is developing himself. This will serve Holmes well in later adventures. Holmes cites the poet Hafiz:

‘There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for who snatches a delusion from a woman.’ There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world. »

The author is a City of London Guide Lecturer, who created the walk ‘Sherlock Holmes Goes East!’ in which ‘A Case of Identity’ features