Thomas de Quincy had written “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater in 1822. This work plays a minor role in “The Man with a Twisted Lip.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle begins this tale by explaining how a man named Isa Whitney read de Quincy’s work and decided to try opium. He subsequently could not get rid of the habit, and his health was adversely affected.
One evening Isa’s wife came to see her good friend, the wife of Dr. Watson. Isa had not been home for two days, and she was afraid. She thought that he was in a den where a lot of people were smoking opium. She asked Dr. Watson to persuade him to come home.
Dr. Watson found Isa at the place designated by Isa’s wife. The opium addict was so befuddled that he did not know what day it was. He was completely helpless, and Dr. Watson had to escort him to a cab, which took him home.
To his surprise, Dr. Watson encountered Sherlock Homes on the premises. He was engaged in a case and assumed the guise of a decrepit figure, so that he could secretly listen to the chatter of the insidious clients and perhaps pick up some information bearing on the case that he was investigating. He asked Dr. Watson to talk to him outside.
Once outside, Sherlock explained that the opium den was a dangerous place for him. The lascar in charge did not like the way Sherlock was using his place in his investigations and wanted to kill him. Sherlock thought that many who entered the den never came out alive.
Dr Watson and Sherlock rode to the home of Neville St. Clair in Kent. Sherlock was investigating the disappearance of Neville, and he was lodging in a room in Neville’s villa for the time being. On the way, Sherlock told Dr. Watson the details of the case. Neville was a respectable man. He was married and had two children. He lived in a villa and went regularly to London for business. His had no money problems.
One morning, he told his wife that he had some important commissions and went to town earlier than usual. Shortly after he left, his wife received a telegram stating that a valuable parcel that she was expecting had arrived. It was waiting for her at the office of the Aberdeen Shipping Company.
Mrs. St. Clair went to town after lunch, did some shopping, and picked up her packet. At 4:35 P.M., she happened to be walking past the opium den where Dr. Watson had found Isa Whitney. To her surprise, she saw her husband looking out the window of the second floor of the building. He was dressed in the coat that he was wearing when he left in the morning, but he was not wearing his collar or necktie. He cried out and was apparently beckoning for help. Then he suddenly disappeared, apparently yanked away from the window with violence.
When she entered the building and tried to ascend to the second floor, the lascar that was in charge of the opium den chased her outside. She encountered some policemen and asked for help.
Hugh Boone lived in the room where the lady had seen her husband. He walked like a cripple, and his hideous face had an ugly scar and a twisted lip. Hugh was a very successful professional beggar. When the police arrived, Hugh was the only person in the room. Both Hugh and the lascar stoutly denied that anyone else had been in the room.
The police eventually found most of the clothes of Neville St. Clair near a window that faced a wharf. They also noticed blood stains on the window sill. There were no signs of violence on his clothing. It was evident that Neville had left the room by the window. The waters of the Thames River were below the window, and a bleeding man would have trouble swimming to safety.
The lascar professed ignorance. He claimed that he did not know what his tenant did in his room. Since he was not upstairs when the wife of Neville entered the building, Sherlock knew that he could not have been the murderer, though he might have been an accomplice.
Hugh Boone said that he did not know how the clothes got into his room. He explained the blood by pointing to his ring finger, which he had accidentally cut. He protested loudly when the police arrested him and took him to the police station.
When the tide ebbed, the police examined the waters below the window. They did not find Neville or his body, but they did find his coat. Strangely, his pockets were filled with small coins.
Sherlock tentatively reasoned as follows. Hugh Boone realized that the clothes were incriminating evidence and wanted to get rid of them. He filled the coat pockets with the fruits of his begging so that they would sink out of sight. He wanted to do the same thing to the other clothes, but the police came before he could do so. His lascar accomplice probably warned him about the imminent arrival of the police.
Sherlock said that he had to figure out why Neville had entered an opium den and what happened while he was there. He also had to learn where Neville was and what Hugh Boone had to do with his disappearance.
After a long ride, Sherlock and Dr. Watson arrived at Neville’s villa. Mrs. St. Clair asked Sherlock to tell her frankly whether he thought that Neville was alive. Sherlock believed that Neville had died the past Monday. Mrs. St. Clair then showed him a letter that she had just received from her husband. It contained his signet ring and a message assuring her that everything would be all right. Its postmark showed that it was mailed on Friday, the same day that she received the letter. She concluded that Neville could not have died on Monday.
The letter was written by Neville, but Sherlock could tell that someone else had written the address on the envelope and mailed it. He pointed out that that the ring might have been taken from Neville. He may have written the letter on Monday, even though it was not mailed till later. Much may have happened in the meantime.
Mrs. St. Clair felt that her husband was alive. There was an intimate sympathy between them. Whenever Neville experienced some grief, she somehow knew about it. The last day that she and Neville were together, he had cut himself in the bedroom. She intuitively knew that something had happened and ran up to see what was wrong. So if Neville died, she would know.
Sherlock acknowledged that the impression of a woman may be more valuable than the conclusion of an analytic reasoner.
He then asked Mrs. St. Clair a few questions. As a result of the discussion, he thought that the inarticulate cry that her husband uttered at the window might not have been a call for help but an expression of surprise when he saw his wife. He may have leaped back instead of being pulled back.
While Dr. Watson slept, Sherlock spent the night thinking. Early the next morning, Sherlock called himself the biggest fool in Europe.
He indulged in a bit of uncharacteristic humor. He said that the key to the mystery was in the bathroom. He said that he had fetched it from the bathroom and had it with him in a Gladstone bag.
Sherlock and Dr. Watson rode to the prison where Hugh Boone was confined. Inspector Bradstreet was on duty. He informed Sherlock that Hugh Boone did not cause any trouble, but he refused to wash himself.
Hugh Boone was still asleep. Sherlock agreed with Inspector Bradstreet’s opinion that Hugh Boone needed a bath. He took a bath sponge out of his Gladstone bag and asked the inspector to open the door of the cell quietly. Then he wetted his sponge and rubbed the prisoner’s face vigorously. When the false face fell off, Sherlock introduced the witnesses to Neville St. Clair.
Neville was alarmed at the developments. He did not want his two children to be ashamed of their father. Sherlock suggested that if Neville could show that he had committed no crime, the case would not go to court and the newspapers would not learn about it.
Neville explained that he had once been an actor and later a reporter for a London evening newspaper. The editor of his newspaper wanted a series of articles on begging in the metropolis. To get the facts, he disguised himself and started begging. By the time he finished the series of articles, he had received a considerable amount of money from begging.
He later stood surety for a friend and found himself saddled with a debt of 25 pounds. Since he could not pay it, he decided to get it by begging. His success was so great that he decided to quit his job as a reporter and become a professional beggar. He rented a room from the lascar of the opium den. Only the lascar knew his secret.
When he had enough money, he took a villa in the country and later married. His wife did not know about his begging profession.
He had finished his work and was getting dressed when his wife saw him at the window. He threw up his arms to cover his face and ran to ask the lascar not to let anyone come up to his room. He then put on his disguise again and tried to dispose of his clothes. When he opened the widow, a wound that he had received in the morning began to bleed again. He threw his coat into the water. He had previously put his day’s earnings in his coat pockets, so it sank out of sight. The police arrived before he could dispose of the rest of the clothing.
When the police were not watching him, he wrote a hurried note. He gave his ring and the note to the lascar, asking him to send it to his wife. He was dismayed when he learned that his wife had to worry for several days before she received the note. Inspector Bradstreet said that the lascar probably could not mail it, since the police were watching him. He probably gave it to one of his clients, who forgot about it for a while.
Begging in the streets was against the law. The inspector told Neville that he would have to stop this practice. If he repeated the offence, the matter would have to be made public. Neville assured the inspector that he would discontinue the practice.
Sherlock Homes does not explain what led him to the correct solution of the mystery. I imagine that a key element was the fact that both Neville and the supposed Hugh Boone had cut themselves on the same day. Moreover, Sherlock could have concluded that Neville was dressing himself when his wife saw him, since he was not wearing his collar and necktie. These factors would lead to a reinterpretation of other elements in the case.
Gutenberg: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes