As the title implies, the scene of this mystery is Boscombe Valley in Herefordshire, a former English county which was situated between the Malvern Hills and the Welsh border. In the course of the story, Sherlock Holmes describes the Boscombe Valley as a rural area not far from Ross, a town situated on the Wye River in southern Herefordshire.
A man named Charles McCarthy had been murdered. Sherlock Homes had been asked to look into the matter, and he and Dr. Watson were traveling by train from London to Ross. As they traveled, Sherlock explained to Dr. Watson what he had learned so far.
Charles McCarthy and another gentleman named John Turner had been living in Australia. They apparently knew each other while living in this British colony, and they settled down as close to one another as possible when they came to England. John Turner was apparently the richer of the two. Charles McCarthy became a tenant on the Hatherley farm, which was one of the farms owned by John Turner. Mr. McCarthy had an eighteen-year-old son named James, and Mr. Turner had an eighteen-year-old daughter named Alice. Neither of them had a living wife. While Mr. Turner had a considerable number of servants, Mr. McCarthy had only two.
On the previous Monday, Mr. McCarthy walked from his farm to the Boscombe pool, where he had an appointment with someone. His son followed him with a gun, according to a witness. Another witness, a fourteen-year-old girl, saw father and son arguing by Boscombe pool, but she quickly returned home and did not see the conclusion of the argument. She was Patience Moran, the daughter of the lodge-keeper at the Boscombe Valley estate.
Shortly after she had returned home, James McCarthy came to the lodge-keeper’s house. He said that his father was dead and asked the lodge-keeper for help. His right hand and sleeve were stained with fresh blood.
Charles McCarthy had been struck repeatedly with a blunt instrument. His son was arrested. On Tuesday, the inquest returned the verdict of “willful murder” and referred the case to the next Assizes. (Assizes were judicial proceedings that formerly took place in English counties. Itinerant judges presided over them.)
The daughter of John Turner believed in his innocence and asked Lestrade of Scotland Yard to look into the matter. In turn, Lestrade referred the case to Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock showed Dr. Watson a newspaper that reproduced the story that James McCarthy told at the inquest. He had spent three days in Bristol and had just returned home. His father was not at home when he arrived. His father eventually arrived at the farm but immediately walked away without entering the house. His son did not notice the direction in which he was walking.
James then took his gun and headed toward Boscombe pool. He wanted to hunt rabbits in a rabbit warren at the other side of the pool. James claimed that he did not know that his father was in front of him.
Suddenly, he heard his father shout “Cooee,” which had always been a signal that father and son used to call each other. He ran in the direction of the call and found him by Boscombe pool.
His father was surprised to see him and asked what he was doing there. An argument ensued. Since his father had a violent temper, he was afraid that a fight would ensue, so he started to walk back home. After walking a short distance, he heard his father cry out and returned to the pool. His father lay dying. As James took him in his arms, his father said something about a rat. James thought he was delirious.
When the coroner asked if James had noticed anything suspicious, he said that he thought there was a gray garment lying on the ground as he approached his father. However, when he later looked to see what it was, there was nothing there.
When the coroner asked James to explain why he and his father were arguing, he said that he could not talk about it. He said that it had nothing to do with the tragedy that followed.
In his report, the coroner severely criticized James for refusing to answer this question. He also saw a discrepancy in the story James told. Even though Mr. McCarthy thought that his son was still in Bristol, James said that his father shouted “Cooee” to him when he had no way of knowing that his son was nearby.
Dr. Watson thought that the case against James McCarthy was strong. When they arrived at Ross, they found that Lestrade was totally convinced that James was guilty. He had looked into it only because a lady had asked him to do so.
As they were discussing the matter, Miss Turner arrived on the scene. She assured Sherlock that she knew James well and that he would never kill anyone. Sherlock expressed the hope that he might be able to prove his innocence.
Miss Turner explained that James had refused to tell the coroner about the argument because she was the subject of the quarrel. Mr. McCarthy wanted his son to marry Miss Turner, but James apparently thought he was too young to marry. So there were arguments. Sherlock also learned that John Turner was against the proposed match.
In the course of the conversation, Miss Turner happened to mention that her father had worked in Victoria when he was in Australia. Sherlock Holmes considered this significant.
Sherlock found that he could not visit Mr. Turner. His health had been bad for some time, and the recent tragedy had shattered his nerves, so the doctor would not permit any visits. However, after Miss Turner left, he and Lestrade went to see James in prison, while Dr. Watson remained behind.
When Sherlock returned, he discussed the matter with Dr. Watson. The visit did not help solve the case. James had no idea who might have committed the murder. However, Sherlock did find out why James did not want to marry Miss Turner. He actually loved her very much and would have liked to marry her. However, she had spent five years at a boarding school. During this time, James got involved with a barmaid at Bristol and married her, or so he thought. His father did not know about this, so he kept pestering him to marry Miss Turner. James found it frustrating when he was continually urged to do something that he really wanted to do but could not.
When the Bristol girl learned about the Boscombe tragedy from the newspaper, she was no longer interested in James. She informed him by letter that their marriage was not legal since she had previously married someone else.
Sherlock considered two points to be significant: the fact that Mr. McCarthy had an appointment with someone at Boscombe pool and the fact that he said “Cooee” before he knew that his son was home.
The next day Lestrade was telling Sherlock about Mr. Turner’s kindness to Mr. McCarthy. He happened to mention that he allowed Mr. McCarthy to live on his farm without paying rent.
Lestrade was still certain that James was guilty. In reply, Sherlock directed Lestrade’s attention to the strange attitude of Mr. McCarthy, who was confident that his son’s marriage to Mr. Turner’s daughter would automatically take place if his son proposed to her. How could he be so confident when Mr. Turner was against the marriage?
Sherlock went to the crime scene with Lestrade and Dr. Watson. He had examined the boots of father and son before he went, so he was able to identify the footprints of Mr. McCarthy and James. These footprints corroborated James’ account of the incident. Previous investigators had effaced some of the footprints, but he managed to find the footprints of the murderer and even the ashes and the cigar butt that he was smoking while he was lurking in the area. He noticed how he came up behind Mr. McCarthy on tiptoes and then walked away. He also noticed that the footprints of the murderer temporarily returned. This would explain why James had noticed a garment when he approached his father but that it was gone when James later looked for it.
Sherlock also found a stone which he identified as the murder weapon. There was no blood on it, but he noticed that there was grass growing on it. This showed that it could not have been lying there very long.
Sherlock told Lestrade that the murderer was a tall, left-handed man who limped with his right leg. He wore thick-soled shooting-boots and a gray cloak. He smoked Indian cigars with a cigar-holder, and carried a blunt pen-knife in his pocket. Lestrade remained skeptical.
Sherlock later told Dr. Watson how he had deduced these facts. Since the wounds of Mr. McCarthy were administered from behind to the left side of the head, Sherlock concluded that the murderer was left-handed. The height of the murderer was easy to deduce from the length of his stride. It was obvious that he limped since the impression of his right foot was always less distinct that the impression of his left foot. The foot-prints also revealed the distinctive style of the boots that the murderer was wearing. It was easy to identify the cigar from the ashes and from the butt, since Sherlock had made a special study in this area. The end of the cigar butt showed that it had been in a cigar-holder, and the tip of the butt had obviously been cut off with a blunt pen-knife.
Sherlock also explained to Watson the significance of the fact that Mr. McCarthy shouted “Cooee,” even though he did not know that his son was nearby. Sherlock had concluded that it must have been meant for the person with whom he had an appointment. He also concluded that the person with whom he had an appointment had lived in Australia, since Cooee is an Australian cry.
Sherlock explained that it was also significant that James had heard his father say the word rat. Sherlock took it as a place name. Since Miss Turner had mentioned that her father worked in Victoria, Sherlock had sent a telegram to Bristol asking for a map of Victoria. He found Ballarat on the map, and he concluded that Mr. McCarthy was trying to tell his son that the murderer was somebody from Ballarat.
Sherlock also concluded that the murderer had to be someone who lived in the general area. A stranger would have trouble reaching the Boscombe pool.
As a result of Sherlock’s investigation, it was obvious that Mr. Turner was the murderer.
Sherlock had sent Mr. Turner a note in which he asked him for an interview. He said that he wanted to avoid a scandal if possible.
Mr. Turner arrived just as Sherlock finished explaining his conclusions to Dr. Watson. As he entered the room, the doctor immediately noticed that the murderer had some deadly disease.
Mr. Holmes told Mr. Turner that he knew what had happened. Mr. Turner assured Mr. Holmes that he would not have let James die for his crime. He was going to wait to see how James faired in the Assizes before confessing. Though he was about to die of diabetes, he would rather die in his own house than in jail. Above all, he wanted to protect his daughter from the terrible shock that she would receive if she learned the truth.
Sherlock suggested that Mr. Turner tell the truth and sign his confession. Sherlock promised that he would show it to the authorities only if James was convicted. As a result, Mr. Turner told the following story while Sherlock jotted down the important facts.
In Australia, Mr. Turner had not been a successful miner. So he became an outlaw known as Black Jack of Ballarat. One day he and his five companions attacked a gold convoy. After a fierce gun battle in which three of his men were killed, he succeeded in obtaining the gold. Mr. McCarthy was a wagon driver in the convoy, and he got a good look at Black Jack of Ballarat.
After this success, the three remaining outlaws were rich men. Mr. Turner retired and returned to England. He bought an estate, married, and settled down. His wife died young, but gave him a delightful daughter before she passed away. He tried to make amends for his past deeds as best he could.
Eventually Mr. McCarthy found him. By threatening to denounce him to the police, he forced Mr. Turner to do whatever he wanted. Mr. Turner gave him land, money, and houses. Finally, Mr. McCarthy asked him to give Alice as a bride to his son. James would then inherit Mr. Turner’s property when the sickly old man died.
Mr. Turner was adamantly opposed to the union. He had nothing against James, but Mr. McCarthy’s blood was in him. The two men made an appointment to meet at Boscombe pool to talk it over.
When he came to the pool, he witnessed Mr. McCarthy’s argument with his son. As soon as James left the scene, Mr. Turner murdered him. He did not want Alice to fall into his clutches.
Sherlock did not have to use the confession. He had given the defending counsel enough material to cast considerable doubt on James’ participation in the murder, so the defendant was acquitted.
Mr. Turner died seven months after his interview with Sherlock Homes. Dr. Watson believed that James and Alice would eventually marry in blissful ignorance of their parents’ past.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle nodded when he wrote this story. Mr. Turner told Sherlock that Mr. McCarthy had him in his clutches for twenty years. However, Mr. McCarthy did not find Mr. Turner till after Alice was born, and Alice was only eighteen years old when the tragedy took place.
Moreover, I imagine that the author hoped that no one would notice a certain weakness in his plot. The Turner and McCarthy families had lived in forced intimacy for many years. Alice and James were close friends, and Mr. Turner testifies that he always had to see the grinning face of Mr. McCarthy.
At the inquest, James could not explain why his father shouted “Cooee,” even though he did not know that his son was nearby. It is improbable that James never heard his father and Mr. Turner shout “Cooee” to one another during the years that the families were together.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had to pretend that James did not know that his father was likely to shout “Cooee” to Mr. Turner. If James knew this fact, Sherlock Holmes would not have had any mystery to solve.
Gutenberg: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes