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Conning The Commissionaire

Conning The Commissionaire

“… Peterson, who, as you know, is a very honest fellow …”

– The Adventure of The Blue Carbuncle (BLUE) 

Granada BLUE Goose
Frank Mills & Jeremy Brett, as Peterson & Holmes in Granada’s 1984 telecast of The Blue Carbuncle

A lot of Sherlockians have a warm place in their hearts for The Blue Carbuncle. It’s the only Canonical adventure that takes place at Christmas time, and in telling the story, Dr. Watson creates a charming seasonal atmosphere. But the doctor’s fine writing obscures the fact that Sherlock Holmes’s behaviour in the adventure may not have been . . . quite what we would expect of our hero.

When Peterson, the commissionaire, burst into the sitting-room at 221B, Holmes found himself facing serious temptation. Let’s see how he dealt with it.

Watson says that Peterson “held out his hand, and displayed upon the centre of the palm a brilliantly scintillating blue stone.”

“A diamond, sir! A precious stone! It cuts into glass as though it were putty.”

Holmes realises at once what Peterson has brought: “It’s more than a precious stone. It’s the precious stone.”

Watson says, “Not the Countess of Morcar’s blue carbuncle?”

“Precisely so. I ought to know its size and shape, seeing that I have read the advertisement about it in The Times every day lately. It is absolutely unique, and its value can only be conjectured, but the reward offered of a thousand pounds is certainly within a twentieth part of the market price.”

So, Holmes tells Peterson the value of what he’s found. Obviously he intends to do the right thing by the man, as we’d expect. But did he change his mind about that later? It’s a shocking charge, maybe, but I’m not the only Sherlockian who has asked the question.¹

Anyway, the commissionaire is staggered. A thousand pounds reward! He collapses into a chair. And no wonder. In today’s money that would be something like $100,000 or even more.

And Holmes adds, “That is the reward, and I have reason to know that there are sentimental considerations in the background which would induce the Countess to part with half her fortune if she could but recover the gem.” As Holmes remarked in The Hound of the Baskervilles, “It is a stake for which a man might well play a dangerous game.”

Now, here we should pause to consider why Peterson brought the blue carbuncle to Holmes in the first place. On finding the stone, the commissionaire and his wife had two obvious choices:

First: Advertise for the owner. That would have been expensive for working-class people in Victorian London. The Petersons might have afforded a one- or two-day notice in one paper, but the kind of saturated coverage that Holmes laid on for Henry Baker’s lost hat — he named seven newspapers and tacked on “and any others that occur to you” — all that would have been far beyond the Petersons’ tiny income. And if nobody had responded to their one-day ad, they would have been a couple of shillings poorer and no closer to finding the jewel’s owner.

Second choice: Report the matter to the police. Peterson was an honest man — Holmes said that himself — but he would have thought carefully before doing that. The Metropolitan Police were badly paid. The Petersons might have asked themselves if any part of the reward was likely to find its way into their hands. After all, £1,000 was seven or eight years’ pay for an inspector — I looked it up — and a lot more than that for a sergeant or a constable.²

And then the police might come up with some uncomfortable theories: The Petersons stole the jewel themselves, but decided that collecting the reward would pay better than dealing with a fence. Or, the Petersons were part of a conspiracy, their job being to claim they found the jewel, collect the reward, and then divide it with the actual thieves.

On top of everything else, the Petersons would have wondered whether a hard-boiled desk sergeant would even believe the implausible story they had to tell. Listen:

“And where did you say you found this jewel, Mrs. Peterson?”

“Why, inside the Christmas goose! It was proper amazin’! There was I, scoopin’ out the innards, like, gettin’ it ready for the oven, and Gawd help us! you could have knocked me down with — ”

“Yes, yes, all right. And where did you buy this goose with the precious stone inside it?”

“Well, we didn’t buy it, exactly — my husband . . . found it in the street.”

We can imagine the sergeant and his clerk exchanging sarcastic glances.

“Found it in the street, did you, Peterson?”

“Uh . . . well, no, not exactly, sergeant — I mean, yes, I did find it in the street, as you might say, but it’s not what it seems. You see, it was this way: I was walkin’ ‘ome early Christmas mornin’ — about four o’clock, it was; I’d been havin’ a drink with some of me mates . . .”

You see, it’s not a story that would inspire instant belief.

So we can see why the Petersons, with all these unpleasant possibilities going through their minds, decided on a safer plan: to take the stone to a man who knew Peterson and who would believe his story; a man of experience who could advise him on how to handle the matter; and — perhaps most important of all — a man whose social position and reputation would give some protection to him and his wife.

So Peterson approached Sherlock Holmes, confident that he was an honourable man, and trusted him to do the right thing.

Now, it seems obvious to me that since Mrs. Peterson had made the actual discovery, the Petersons deserved the reward. And I think we’d expect Holmes to recognise that. After he had identified the stone and told Peterson about the reward, I’d expect him to say something like, “I congratulate you, Peterson. This will no doubt be a welcome Christmas present for you and your family.”

But here we find the dog in the night-time: Holmes says nothing to suggest that he’s going to turn over the reward, or even part of the reward, to the Petersons. The commissionaire asks, “And this stone?” And Holmes blandly replies, “Ah, yes, I shall keep the stone. (Hold out hand, palm upward.) Thank you.”

That response doesn’t seem to promise well for the Petersons.

I can’t help suspecting that Holmes had originally intended to act honourably, but formed a new plan as the pleasant image of a quick thousand pounds grew brighter in his mind.

Anyway, after Peterson leaves, Holmes muses on the subject of precious stones. He calls them “the devil’s pet baits,” which might be significant. Then he returns to business and says, “I’ll lock it up in my strong-box now, and drop a line to the Countess to say that we have it.”

Notice that he didn’t say anything about informing the police. Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t have been in any danger of the tough grilling that the working-class Petersons would have undergone, but the police might have suspected him of being involved in the theft somehow. Much safer, Holmes would have thought, to return the gem directly to the Countess. That would ensure that he’d receive the money personally.

Anyway, Holmes wrote his message to the Countess, and presumably he took possession of the reward. And the big question in my mind is, what became of all that money? Did he turn it over to Peterson and his wife? Did he keep some of it for himself?

It could be argued that without Holmes the Petersons might never have learned about the reward. So he might have said, “You found the stone, it is true, but I have the knowledge of what it is and the professional standing necessary to return it without suspicion. You will not, therefore, think it unfair that a portion of the reward should go to me.”

We might prefer to think of Holmes behaving more generously, but he was a professional man, and in the world of business it would be reasonable for him to expect a commission for his services. Fair enough.

But did he keep all of the money for himself? Did he stiff the Petersons? That business of holding out his hand and saying, “Ah, yes, I shall keep the stone” —that makes us wonder,

Another possibility comes to mind: Holmes spoke of “sentimental considerations” that would have induced the Countess “to part with half of her fortune” — remember that? Did he give the Petersons the £1,000 and negotiate an even larger sum for himself? It would have been something like extortion, but Holmes had enough tact and skill to manage it.

And while, in a way, that would have been a good deal for the Petersons, looked at in another way, it would have been cheating them out of that larger reward.

Unfortunately, all these questions remain unanswered. Dr. Watson, in his charming Christmas narrative, reveals nothing about the Countess’s reward. We’re left to wonder, rather uneasily, whether Watson’s silence is significant. Did he mean the reader to assume that Holmes dutifully passed the money over to the Petersons? Or was he drawing a veil over a discreditable episode?

Early in the case, Holmes called Peterson “a very honest fellow.” Can we say the same thing about him? I wonder.

At the end of another of his cases, The Sign of Four, Holmes described himself by quoting some lines in German written by the poet Goethe. They seem to show that he was well aware of his own moral ambiguity. This is how the lines translate:

It’s a pity that Nature created only one person of you,
For there was material enough for a worthy man — and
a scoundrel.³

1. James C. Iraldi, “The Other Geese,” The Baker Street Journal (New Series), Vol. 4, No. 3 (1954), 156-159; S. Tupper Bigelow, “The Blue Enigma,” The Baker Street Journal, Vol. 11, No. 4 (1961), 208-209; Thomas L. Stix [senior], “Un-Christmaslike Thoughts on “The Blue Carbuncle,” The Baker Street Journal, Vol. 11, No. 4 (1961), 218-220; D. Martin Dakin, A Sherlock Holmes Commentary (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1972), 74.

2. David Ascoli, The Queen’s Peace (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979), pp. 88, 142.¬

3. Schade dass die Natur nur einen Mensch aus dir schuf,                                                                                        Denn zum würdigen Mann war und zum Schelmen der Stoff.

This paper was originally presented at the December 16, 2015 meeting of the Six Napoleons of Baltimore.

HyderWilliam Hyder, a native of New York, joined the Six Napoleons of Baltimore in 1962 and would later serve as the group’s Harker for over 20 years, in addition to terms as Commissionaire and Gasogene. Invested as “A Most Valued Institution” in the Baker Street Irregulars in 1997, Hyder is also a Master Copper-Beech-Smith of the Sons of the Copper Beeches and a member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. Hyder is a prolific author, after spending 35 years with The Baltimore Sun, with articles appearing in The Baker Street Journal and Baker Street Miscellaneous, among others.  The editor of BSI’s Sherlockian Saturdays at the Pratt and The Napoleon Bust Business Again, Hyder is also the author of From Baltimore to Baker Street: Thirteen Sherlockian Studies.

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