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Unexpected Twists in the Sherlock Holmes Short Stories
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Note: this article contains plot details and spoilers.

Unexpected Twists in the Sherlock Holmes Short Stories

The Sherlock Holmes short stories sometimes have truly unexpected twist endings - The Norwood Builder and The Man with the Twisted Lip are good examples - but some of the tales have another more curious development: an unexpected twist which occurs usually just prior to the conclusion and which nonetheless leads to a major shift in the direction of the story.

These twists sometimes provide clues which lead to the solution, sometimes they expose weaknesses in Holmes's thinking, and always they reveal Conan Doyle's ability to maintain suspense and to keep the action unpredictable.

Here are a few examples:

The Adventure of The Dancing Men

On their way to see their client, Holmes and Watson learn that he has died from a gunshot and his wife has been shot too.

Significance - Holmes has failed to intervene on time. His client has been murdered. The crisis is over. In spite of this, the tragic development allows Holmes to become master of the situation.

Only he anticipated the crisis. Only he understands the nature of the danger that stalked his client. Only he can lure the repugnant killer to face justice.

The Adventure of The Solitary Cyclist

At Crooksbury Hill, Holmes and Watson see Miss Smith's vehicle move towards them much earlier than expected. She will arrive at Charlington before they can get there.

Shortly after, they see the alarming sight of the dog-cart - empty and driverless - rattling down the road towards them.

Significance - The trap symbolizes Carruther's attempt to protect Miss Smith. The runaway, driverless dog-cart symbolizes the failure of this attempt.

Holmes and Watson are too late, and must intervene at the very point of the crisis to avoid a tragedy.

The Adventure of The Norwood Builder

Lestrade shows Holmes a bloody thumbmark on the wall of the builder's house.

Proof positive that the right man is behind bars - so Lestrade believes.

Significance - Holmes knows the thumbmark was not there when he last inspected the room. Therefore he knows now for certain that it's a stitch-up job. And the stitch-upperer must be nearby.

Observation plays a crucial role in resolving the mystery, and if Holmes hadn't been sure there was not previously a thumbmark on the wall, this tale might have had a tragic ending.

The Adventure of The Priory School

Just like the incident of the thumbmark in The Adventure of The Norwood Builder, the sight of James Wilder, the Duke's bastard, riding his bicycle in terror towards the Fighting Cock is critical in helping Holmes to resolve the mystery.

In an otherwise excellent story, this part is clumsily written - Dr Watson resorts to the simple device of withholding the identity of one of the visitors they see entering the Fighting Cock after Wilder. This helps maintain suspense in the story, as the reader is denied the crucial detail that allows Holmes to unravel the mystery.

Better handled is the subsequent revelation of the fact that Wilder is in fact the Duke's son and the revelation of the twisted mass of motives that drive the main players in the story.

The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton

A beauty.

Having opened Milverton's safe and poised to discover and steal the document which threatens their client's future, Holmes and Watson are interrupted - interrupted by the arrival of Milverton on the scene.

Significance - Milverton believes he is about to see a 'client' - in fact the veil and coat of his visitor are a disguise.

He has, unknowingly, agreed to an appointment with one of the ladies that he has ruined. She proceeds to do vengeful murder on Milverton, as Holmes and Watson watch from the shadows.

After she leaves Holmes destroys all the poisonous contents of Milverton's safe. An act of chivalry; the two masked thieves know that the sound of the gunshots has already raised the alarm.

Risking everything, they safeguard, by their actions, the reputation of countless gentlemen and countless ladies of high standing.

And when their near capture results in the investigators of Milverton's murder focusing on two masked male intruders, rather than a bitter female victim of Milverton, who Holmes in any case believes to be justified in doing revenge on Milverton, the vengeful noblewoman is thus secured from Lestrade's pursuit.

The repulsive Milverton follows Moriarty in being another master criminal who risks too much and pays with his life.


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