The Problem of Thor Bridge (1922)

The Problem of Thor Bridge
The Problem of Thor Bridge

Want to read this along with me? This essay is part of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1927. I used the epub version found on Feedbooks.com.

“The Problem of Thor Bridge” is probably most well-known for being the story with the first mention of Watson’s infamous tin dispatch box.

Somewhere in the vaults of the bank of Cox and Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin dispatchbox with my name, John H. Watson, M. D., Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid. It is crammed with papers, nearly all of which are records of cases to illustrate the curious problems which Mr. Sherlock Holmes had at various times to examine.

True, Watson never actually served in the “Indian Army,” which is a separate organization from the British Army that served in India,1 but it presents a fascinating list of non-canonical cases that have enflamed the imagination of pastiche writers for over a century. Also, since this is the second time Watson’s middle initial is mentioned, there has been some speculation about what the “H” stands for. General consensus seems to cirlce around “Henry,” but there’s one other theory that I love: Dorothy L. Sayers proposes that it might actually stand for “Hamish,” a Scotch equivalent for “James” (thus also neatly covering Mrs. Watson’s slip of calling Watson “James” in “The Twisted Lip”).

So with that introduction, we see that this is a return to form for Doyle, and certainly one of the stronger stories in the book. In fact, Doyle does some backtracking on his last two stories, having Watson claim that “I was either not present or played so small a part that [some stories] could only be told as by a third person.” Holmes displays his particular brand of reverse snobbery with such lines as “Some of you rich men have to be taught that all the world cannot be bribed into condoning your offences.” There’s a great use of the classic device of the damning clue actually being the salvation of the accused (in this case, the revolver in the wardrobe), as well as use of Holmes talking out his theories with Watson. There’s also a fantastic bit of Holmes forgetting social niceties when on a case, as he borrows Watson’s revolver, ties it to a rock, let’s them both fall into the water, and then asks someone else to get it back for him! There’s even a little explanation of why Watson tends to carry a revolver on their cases:

“Watson,” said he, “I have some recollection that you go armed upon these excursions of ours.”

It was as well for him that I did so, for he took little care for his own safety when his mind was once absorbed by a problem so that more than once my revolver had been a good friend in need.

Some points of Victorian culture. Unfortunately, there are a couple of examples of the kind of ethnic stereotyping common in the Victorian era. Americans are all “readier with pistols than our folk are,” and South Americans all suffer from “a tropical nature.” Suicide (or “self-murder” as it was legally known then) was not uncommon in London, but the proving of suicide caused different distributions in property, which is why it had to be investigated even if it naturally couldn’t be prosecuted (and why some suicides went through elaborate lengths to appear as if they were murders). There are references to the double-jury system of criminal prosecution between the police court and the coroner’s court (although these days, a “coroner’s jury” is called an inquest, and seems to have less legal weight). And finally, while I don’t go into the minute studies of Sherlockian scholars too much in these essays, there’s a great example of it in this story: The reference to a “safety catch” on Watson’s pistol helped Stanton O. Berg, a firearms consultant, to deduce that there is only one pistol that fits the timeframe of the story that has a safety catch – the Webley Mark III .380 caliber pocket revolver.

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Pugmire

  1. Watson served in the Berkshires and the Northumberland Fusiliers.