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Case 95: The Adventure Of The Engineer's Thumb (1889)

Chapter Text

[Narration by Doctor John Watson, M.D.]

It was ironic that the next client to draw Sherlock into a case worthy of publication was also female yet could not have been more different than the mauve-clad Miss Mortimeria Mary De'Ath. Mrs. Emmeline Strong, a supporter of the suffragist movement (although that did not relate to her case) was most definitely Someone To Be Reckoned With. I myself was ambivalent towards her movement – I believed that propertied women would get the vote sooner or later just as most propertied men had got it earlier this decade – but that it would take time. After all it had been five and a half centuries between Simon de Montfort and the Great Reform Act and full thirty-five years after that before any more changes. Although I am sure that the poor old earl would be spinning in his grave at the idea of women getting the vote!

To call Mrs. Emmeline Strong formidable would have been passing up the chance to use the adjective ‘terrifying’. She charged into our apartments in Baker Street like an old-time galleon heading into battle, and she was built like one too. I swear the fireside chair creaked when she descended upon it but fortunately it held. She stared sharply at Sherlock in silence for what must have been a whole minute before speaking.

“You, sir, are short!”

I coughed, trying to hide my shock. Although a couple of inches shorter than myself Sherlock was in fact above the average height, although in fairness he often carried himself as a smaller man. And anyone would have been considered short when compared to the leviathan that had just descended upon us.

To my friend's eternal credit he held both his nerve and his manners.

“I am some distance above the average height, madam”, he said politely.

“I prefer short”, she said curtly. “Mr. Aesop was quite right when he said that short men are wiser, even if my husband is all intelligence and no common sense whatsoever. I need someone sensible for this matter. You will do.”

I had seen all sorts of people try to persuade Sherlock to take their cases, using a whole range of different approaches. This was… different. I noticed a slight turning up at the corner of my friend's mouth so he too was clearly amused by the lady's forthrightness.

“How may I be of service, madam?” he said. “At the moment the only things I know of your case is that your husband is most likely an engineer, that you came through Paddington Station this morning, that you are careful with your money and that you take pride in your appearance.”

That finally seemed to halt her progress, at least temporarily. She peered at him distrustfully.

“Explain!” she barked, as if she were addressing a dog that had just performed an unexpected new trick.

“Your ring is engraved twisted metal, clearly created by someone knowledgeable in the field of engineering”, Sherlock explained. “There is, unusually, no green mark on your finger which implies that whoever made it knew to combine certain metals to prevent that, a skill that is quite rare. The engraving is high quality but not perfect, suggesting that it was not done in a jewellery shop. The ring also has a most ingenious device that shops do not fit unless asked and which allows it to be expanded slightly; most people's fingers swell slightly as they age. Then there are particles of fine soot on your wrap; only the Great Western Railway uses Welsh coal so you came through their station, Paddington. It had rained lightly in the past ten minutes so your damp coat indicates that you walked rather took a cab, even though Paddington is a good twenty minutes away from here. Hence you are careful with money. Finally there are faint marks either side of your nose which shows that you usually wear glasses, yet you have removed them before coming here.”

She snorted approvingly.

“Yes, you will do!” she said. “I want you to investigate something which my husband says is unsolvable but that my woman’s intuition says otherwise. Do you believe in such things, Mr. Holmes?”

I privately thought little of women's intuition (though I was not going to voice that thought in this lady's presence!), considering that most women who claimed it merely used it as an excuse to entice my friend 'intuit' their bedchambers. Sherlock shot me a look and smirked annoyingly. No change there then.

“I believe that on a subconscious level you may have seen something which has triggered an alarm bell in your head without fully knowing why”, he said. “Intuition is one name for such an experience. And one of my recent and most interesting cases arose because a lady's intuition about the honesty of a servant proved quite correct, and led from a small quantity of household dust to a most diabolical attempt at the entrapment and social ruination of her husband who is a fine young gentleman. Pray tell me about your case, madam.”

She sat back – I winced as the chair creaked ominously – and began.

“My name is Mrs. Emmeline Strong. I live with my husband Edward at number fifty-two St. Ethelred's Street in Ealing. He is employed as you said by that venerable institution the Great Western Railway Company as an engineer, working on designing railway structures. We have been married for twenty-five years and are comfortably well-off.”

“Some time back the Company decided that it would build a deviation to its line through Wiltshire near a place called Bolton St. John. Edward explained to me that the current route was quite steep and also possessed of a sharo curve; the new one would be more even and allow trains to run faster as well as being slightly shorter in distance. Part of it involved building a new bridge across the River Larch, a medium-sized river in the area. There are three engineers at the office where Edward works and all were asked to submit designs for the bridge. Of course his was the one that they chose.”

I smiled at the evident pride in her tone when she spoke of her husband.

“Edward had to submit a detailed final plan at the end of last year”, she went on. “Work on the bridge is due to start in autumn of this year; the line is already under construction and Edward was surprised when he went into the general manager’s office one day last week to find his plan on that gentleman's table. Mercifully he succumbed to the human sin of curiosity and looked at it.”

She paused.

“This next part makes no sense at all but I know from reading your friend's stories that the strangest things can sometimes assume more importance than might seem due, so I shall mention it. When Edward drew up the plans he stayed late at work to finish them off, rather than bring them home every night. He remembered that there had been a faint coal thumb-print of his in the right-hand corner of the plans which his superior – a most obnoxious personage by the name of Mr. Kenton Clarke – somehow only remarked on only after he had submitted them and refused to let him have them back to remove it. Except that when my husband chanced to look at the same plans on last week, the thumb-print was gone!”

Sherlock pressed his long fingers together and eyed our visitor thoughtfully.

“Why?” he said at last.

“I beg your pardon?” she said.

“Why would someone substitute one set of plans for another.”

She hesitated.

“I said that the three people who work in the office each submitted their own plans for that bridge”, she said, clearly being careful with her words. “Mr. Mark Filton is pleasant enough and quite friendly to dear Edward, and he has only just started there, but Mr. Michael Groves is a most disreputable fellow. He is a cousin of Mr. Clarke and hopes to succeed him when he retires in a few years’ time. He took his failure to have his bridge selected very badly, according to my dear Edward.”

“I see”, Sherlock said. “You believe that either Mr. Clarke or Mr. Groves has changed some of your husband’s workings so that the bridge will fail or be unworkable.”

She frowned.

“That is the problem, Mr. Holmes”, she said. “The general manager in iverall charge of the place, a Mr. Angus McKay, is the one who actually made the decision. He is a Scotsman and a little too prideful over certain matters, but I would swear that he is honest. And I know for a fact that he was there when Edward handed his design to Mr. Clarke as he immediately took possession of it. I have thought on this and I believe that someone of Mr. McKay's experience would know if something on a drawing had been altered and quite likely ask as to why, hence the design must have been changed before Edward handed it in. Yet I have gone through what happened and there seems to have occurred no opportunity to do that. That is why I have come to you.”

“Perhaps you might tell me exactly what happened during that time”, Sherlock offered, “and I shall see what can be made of it.”

She nodded and extracted a large notebook from her copious bag. Putting on her glasses she began.

“Edward finished the design at shortly after six o'clock on a Tuesday”, she said, “and handed it over to Mr. Clarke and Mr. McKay at nine o’clock the next morning. That, according to my own calculations, left some fifteen hours in which the document could have been tampered with. Mr. Groves was the only other employee at the office that day – Mr. Filton had had to take some documents to Swindon - and although he wandered over to look at Edward’s work from time to time he was never left alone with it. My husband did not trust him, quite rightly in my opinion.”

“Edward normally leaves the documents at work locked in a secure draw to which only he has a key, but he had recently found out that Mr. Clarke had somehow obtained a copy so he decided that for the last night it might be advisable to bring them home.”

I thought privately that the lady would have made an excellent witness. Or perhaps a terrifying police constable. If what they say about fear keeping people honest is true she could easily have subdued a large part of London!

“He came home on the train as usual, stopping only at the local shop to pick up some iced biscuits that I had asked him to purchase for me”, she continued. “He is quite capable with small tasks like that. He arrived home at approximately eight o’clock and we all sat down to dinner.”

“One moment, please”, Sherlock put in. “You said ‘we all’. Was it not just yourself and your husband?”

“We are blessed, if that is the right word, with two sons and one daughter”, she said. “Only our oldest, Edmund, was with us that evening. Edwy was out at the theatre and staying overnight at a friend’s house in the city while Audrey was still away at boarding school. There is usually one maid in the house, Berenice, but I had given her two weeks off because her mother was seriously ill and her replacement only came in during the daytime. Paid leave; I expect my maid to work hard and in return I treat her fairly.”

Maybe there was some silk in the iron, I thought with a smile.

“No cook?” Sherlock asked.

“I am inordinately fond of cooking myself so I do not see the need”, she said firmly. “If a woman cannot keep a man fed then she should not keep a man. Edward agrees with me in that.”

If he knows what is good for him, I thought with a smile. I caught a warning glance from Sherlock and blushed. Was I that obvious?

“Where were the plans located after your husband came home?” Sherlock asked, sending me a most annoying nod.

“In the house, all the time”, she said. “Edward placed them on his desk when he came in and there they stayed until the next day. Mr. Clarke called by on his way in to work – that was unusual as it is not really on his way – but I did not admit him to the house. I did not trust him.”

“Did anything unusual happen while you were at dinner?”

She frowned.

“There was the telegram”, she said. “A boy came and Edmund went to see to it, but it was in error. There is as it happens a Mr. and Mrs. Strong who live at the other end of the street – we are not related – so I presumed that it must have been for them. Edmund did not say.”

Sherlock nodded as if he had been expecting that piece of news. There was a strange silence between them.

“You are aware, madam”, he said slowly, “that if I begin to investigate a case I pursue it through to the end. Even if the outcome may not be to my client’s liking?”

She held his gaze. I stared between them. There was something going on here.

“Edward is innocent in all this”, she said firmly. “I would stake my life on it. I know from your friend's books - over-dramatic but that sort of thing sells, I suppose - that you follow justice first and the law second. If I had wanted the law I would have gone to a lawyer or the police. I want justice and I am prepared to pay for it.”

“I think that given the circumstances I would rather discuss payment once the case is settled”, Sherlock said mysteriously. “I also think that it would be beneficial that I speak with your son Edmund.”

“He works as a clerk at Dunston’s Bank in Aldwych”, she said. “It is in Montressor Street. He is working today and they close at four.”

Sherlock nodded.

“Then the doctor and I must take up no more of your valuable time”, he said firmly. “If you are so good as to leave a card I promise that I shall communicate any findings to you as soon as I have them.”

She nodded, placed a card on the fireside table, rose to her feet and sailed from the room. I felt silently pleased. Here at last was one lady who had not simpered at....

Damnation, right there in the bloody doorway! And why did none of them ever simper at me? What was I, chopped liver?

And if that was a smirk then someone was not getting cu..... held in a manly-like manner any time soon! Harrumph!


Chapter Text

It was nearly lunch-time so Sherlock suggested we take a cab to my favourite restaurant in Trafalgar Square and then proceed to nearby Aldwych. I enjoyed my meal and their rhubarb pie was so good I felt compelled to have two slices, though I did not see what young Mr. Edmund Strong could hope to add to his mother’s excellent testimony.

Dunston’s Bank was a small but elegant building, and judging from the people we saw inside they clearly catered to a most superior clientele. We were introduced to the manager, a dapper middle-aged fellow called Mr. Thaddeus Buckland-Woods who on finding out who Sherlock was looked like he was going to need my professional services sooner rather than his. Fortunately my friend soon calmed him down.

“In pursuance of an investigation which, it goes without saying, has no connection to such a venerable institution as this”, he said smoothly, “I need to ask Mr. Edmund Strong one or two questions. I am sure that you would rather that I did this in the privacy of one of your back rooms than over the counter in front of everybody.”

Mr. Buckland-Woods swallowed at the very idea and managed to turn even paler.

“Indeed!” he said weakly.

“I would however appreciate your personal opinion of the young gentleman before I speak to him”, Sherlock said. “The questions that I have to ask of him are important you see, and I have never met him myself. You know him well. What is he like?”

The manager swallowed nervously.

“Be assured that anything you say will be treated in the strictest confidence”, Sherlock said reassuringly.

The manager hesitated again before speaking.

“Mr. Strong fulfils his job quite.... adequately”, he said clearly weighing his words, “yet…. I do not really like to say this but I have reason to suspect that he does not handle his own finances very well.”

“What makes you say that?” I asked. Again a hesitation.

“He seems to be quite liberal with his money at staff functions”, the manager said. “I had the, uh, 'pleasure' of meeting his mother one time and I came away with the impression that she was not the sort of person to provide him with a generous allowance.”

He smiled a little.

“You must understand gentlemen, that in the word of banking we often have to rely on our instinct as to whether the gentlemen – and ladies these days - that we have dealings with are what they appear to be. We can institute checks when employing people of course and in this case the young man in question was what he appeared to be which was why we took him on. Or rather my predecessor did; I only took over here four months ago and when it comes to Mr. Strong my own instincts tends towards the negative. Yet in all fairness I should re-iterate that his work here has been satisfactory if not outstanding.”

“I must thank you for being so candid with me”, Sherlock said. “Be assured that we shall keep what you have said to ourselves. Would you kindly arrange for us to see him now?”


I must say that my first impression of Mr. Edmund Strong was not a favourable one. I could only assume he took after his father for there was nothing of his formidable mother in his appearance. He had clearly been informed as to who we were and his demeanour was one of polite curiosity.

“You wished to speak with me, gentlemen?” he asked.

“I did have one particular question that I wished to ask you”, Sherlock said. “Who was it?”

The young man looked puzzled.

“Who was what, sir?”

Sherlock sighed impatiently.

“You try my patience, young sir”, he said with a surprising degree of sharpness. “If you will not deal with me then I will advise your mother to lay the matter before the police. I should inform you that in the circumstances they will quite likely decide to push for a charge of attempted murder.”

The young man went pale.

“Murder?” he blurted out.

“Mr. Clarke or Mr. Groves?” Sherlock asked bluntly.

For a moment I thought he would remain silent but finally he muttered ‘Kenton’ before slumping into his folded arms. Sherlock stood up.

“I shall give you twenty-four hours”, he said bluntly. “At the end of that time I will advise your mother to go to the police. I hope that we understand each other, sir!”

He swept from the room and I scurried after him.


“But how could you know that the son was involved?” I asked as we were being driven back to Baker Street. “There was no motive.”

“The motive was one of the oldest in the book”, Sherlock smiled. “Love of money. Mrs. Strong keeps her son on a tight leash but he clearly likes the good things in life; one only had to look at his expensive suit which was far above what most clerks could afford. Mr. Clarke wanted his cousin Mr. Groves to succeed him when he retired and took advantage of the boy's greed. The bridge competition was a setback at first but he menaged to turn it onto an opportunity.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Mr. Clarke knows that changing one or two figures on the design will render the bridge a failure”, he said, “or perhaps even cause it to collapse when a train passes over it like the Tay Bridge did. But he has to alter those plans before they are finally handed over, because as Mrs. Strong rightly worked out his own superior would spot any alterations and almost certainly question Mr. Strong over them. By using his key to his rival's desk – which the man does not initially know that he possesses - he is able to create a similar-looking copy but of a bridge that would fail, which he then gives to the son. He then lets Mr. Strong know of the spare key and the man responds, as he had known he would, by taking the plans home 'for safe keeping'. That evening a fake telegram sent by Mr. Clarke enables the son to excuse himself from dinner and make the switch. It was his bad luck that he did not notice the faint thumb-print that his father had left in one corner of the original and that his father later mentioned that fact to his good lady wife.”

“Poor Mrs. Strong”, I said. “She will be heartbroken.”

He looked at me in surprise.

“Oh John!” he said with a sigh. “Really!”

“What?” He was looking at me almost pityingly.

“Mrs. Strong is fully aware of her eldest son’s perfidy”, he said calmly. “If there were to be a police investigation her poor husband would be mortified by all the publicity. No, Mr. Edmund Strong will flee abroad somewhere and we can but hope that he is considerate enough to inform his confederate of the collapse of their nefarious scheme so that he joins him in making the country a better place by their combined absences. There will be a little publicity but hopefully it will soon pass. People's attention spans are short these days.”


Sherlock was yet again correct. Both Mr. Edmund Strong and Mr. Kenton Clarke fled abroad when their scheme was exposed and neither was ever heard from again. The police decided not to pursue either of them, bearing in mind the curious circumstances of the potential crime. Mr. Edward Strong was indeed affected by the ‘loss’ of his son and heir but he was consoled by being promoted to the position held by one of the men who had tried to ruin him and his bridge over the Larch proved a great success. Indeed ten years later his engineering achievements were such that he was made a knight of the realm which of course meant that Mrs. Strong became a Lady.

The poor English nobility had no idea what was about to hit it!