Want to read this along with me? This essay is part of The Return of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1905. I used the epub version found on Feedbooks.com.
First, a caveat. This is the first short story in which pictures are an important part of the story. The story revolves around the cypher of the dancing men. It’s possible to read the story without the pictures, but some of the references (like the mention of the flags) really don’t make sense without the pictures in front of you. Annoyingly, the Feedbooks version I’m reading just has phrases like “[symbols]” as placeholders, so I had to use a Wikisource page for the story as reference while I was reading. I use the Wikisource pages for copy-pasting quotes and the like while composing these posts, but I haven’t really felt the need to mention the site until now. If you want to see the pictures, the link for that version is here.
This story has a good section with Holmes explaining some basic cryptography – in this case, a substitution cypher. One thing I like about this story is that it starts off as a fairly light and fun puzzle about some child-like drawings that suddenly turns into a dark locked-room mystery (Doyle seemed to love locked room puzzles and American wives with mysterious pasts). While Holmes does win in the end, he does so to gain revenge instead of preventing tragedy – certainly a mixed success at best.
The opening scene where Holmes deduces Watson’s thoughts by observation is interesting when you put it in conjunction with a quote from A Study In Scarlet:
“…[I]n my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial.”
Et tu, Holmes?
The scene, however, does give a few more brush-strokes of Watson’s character: he has a friend named Thurston and a fondness for billiards. We also learn later that Holmes has a friend in the New York police force named Hargreave, which implies that Holmes may have been to America before, either before he met Watson or during the Great Hiatus.
The case timing is pretty vague, but there is one reference to “the Jubilee”. It could be Victoria’s Golden Jubilee (1887) or the Diamond Jubilee (1897). That puts the case at either 1888 or 1898. Given Watson’s surprise at Holmes’ methods early on in the story, this could mean the case is in 1888, making it pre-marriage, but most scholars seem to accept it as being set in 1898.