About the Book: one of the 56 short Sherlock Holmes stories written by British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is the ninth of the twelve stories collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The story was first published in Strand Magazine in March 1892.
About the Author: Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born on 22 May 1859 at 11 Picardy Place, Edinburgh, Scotland. From 1876 to 1881, he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, including a period working in the town of Aston (now a district of Birmingham) and in Sheffield, as well as in Shropshire at Ruyton-XI-Towns. While studying, Doyle began writing short stories. His earliest extant fiction, "The Haunted Grange of Goresthorpe", was unsuccessfully submitted to Blackwood's Magazine. His first published piece "The Mystery of Sasassa Valley", a story set in South Africa, was printed in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal on 6 September 1879. On 20 September 1879, he published his first non-fiction article, "Gelsemium as a Poison" in the British Medical Journal. In 1882 he joined former classmate George Turnavine Budd as his partner at a medical practice in Plymouth, but their relationship proved difficult, and Doyle soon left to set up an independent practice. Arriving in Portsmouth in June of that year with less than £10 (£900 today) to his name, he set up a medical practice at 1 Bush Villas in Elm Grove, Southsea. The practice was initially not very successful. While waiting for patients, Doyle again began writing stories and composed his first novels, The Mystery of Cloomber, not published until 1888, and the unfinished Narrative of John Smith, which would go unpublished until 2011. He amassed a portfolio of short stories including "The Captain of the Pole-Star" and "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement", both inspired by Doyle's time at sea, the latter of which popularized the mystery of the Mary Celeste and added fictional details such as the perfect condition of the ship (which had actually taken on water by the time it was discovered) and its boats remaining on board (the one boat was in fact missing) that have come to dominate popular accounts of the incident. Doyle struggled to find a publisher for his work. His first significant piece, A Study in Scarlet, was taken by Ward Lock Co. on 20 November 1886, giving Doyle £25 for all rights to the story. The piece appeared later that year in the Beeton's Christmas Annual and received good reviews in The Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald. The story featured the first appearance of Watson and Sherlock Holmes, partially modeled after his former university teacher Joseph Bell. Doyle wrote to him, "It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes ... Round the center of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man." Robert Louis Stevenson was able, even in faraway Samoa, to recognize the strong similarity between Joseph Bell and Sherlock Holmes: "My compliments on your very ingenious and very interesting adventures of Sherlock Holmes. ... Can this be my old friend Joe Bell?" Other authors sometimes suggest additional influences—for instance, the famous Edgar Allan Poe character C. Auguste Dupin. A sequel to A Study in Scarlet was commissioned and The Sign of the Four appeared in Lippincott's Magazine in February 1890, under agreement with the Ward Lock company. Doyle felt grievously exploited by Ward Lock as an author new to the publishing world and he left them. Short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes were published in the Strand Magazine. Doyle first began to write for the 'Strand' from his home at 2 Upper Wimpole Street, now marked by a memorial plaque. In this period, however, Holmes was not his sole subject and in 1893, he collaborated with J.M. Barrie on the libretto of Jane Annie. Doyle was found clutching his chest in the hall of Windlesham Manor, his house in Crowborough, East Sussex, on 7 July 1930. He died of a heart attack at the age of 71. His last words were directed toward his wife: "You are wonderful." At the time of his death, there was some controversy concerning his burial place, as he was avowedly not a Christian, considering himself a Spiritualist. He was first buried on 11 July 1930 in Windlesham rose garden. He was later reinterred together with his wife in Minstead churchyard in the New Forest, Hampshire. Carved wooden tablets to his memory and to the memory of his wife are held privately and are inaccessible to the public. That inscription reads, "Blade straight / Steel true / Arthur Conan Doyle / Born May 22nd 1859 / Passed On 7th July 1930." The epitaph on his gravestone in the churchyard reads, in part: "Steel true/Blade straight/Arthur Conan Doyle/Knight/Patriot, Physician, and man of letters". Undershaw, the home near Hindhead, Haslemere, south of London, that Doyle had built and lived in between October 1897 and September 1907, was a hotel and restaurant from 1924 until 2004. It was then bought by a developer and stood empty while conservationists and Doyle fans fought to preserve it. In 2012 the High Court ruled that the redevelopment permission be quashed because proper procedure had not been followed. A statue honours Doyle at Crowborough Cross in Crowborough, where he lived for 23 years. There is also a statue of Sherlock Holmes in Picardy Place, Edinburgh, close to the house where Doyle was born.
In his narration, Dr. Watson notes that this is one of only two cases which he personally brought to the attention of Sherlock Holmes.
The story, set in 1889, mainly consists of a young London consultant hydraulic engineer, Mr. Victor Hatherley, recounting strange happenings of the night before, first to Dr. Watson, who dresses the stump where Mr. Hatherley's thumb has been cut off, and then to Sherlock Holmes himself.
Hatherley had been visited in his office by a man who identified himself as Colonel Lysander Stark. He offered Hatherley a commission at a country house, to examine a hydraulic press used, as Stark explains, to compress fuller's earth into bricks. Stark warned Hatherley to keep the job confidential, offering him 50 guineas (£52 10s, an enormous sum at the time, worth over £4000 today). Hatherley felt compelled to take this work, despite his misgivings, as his business was newly established and he had very little work.
Upon arriving late at night at the appointed train station, Hatherley is met by Colonel Stark and is driven a considerable distance in a carriage with frosted glass windows to the house where he is to examine the machine. (A minor detail is that the house was actually quite near the station; Holmes realizes that the carriage drove "six [miles] out and six back" to disguise the house's location from Hatherley.) Hatherley is still under the spell of the 50 guineas and does not become afraid even when a woman at the house warns him to flee. He is presently shown the press and makes his recommendations as to needed repairs. Then, he rashly decides to inspect the press more closely. His discovery that its floor is covered by a "crust of metallic deposit" confirms his suspicion that the machine is not used for pressing fuller's earth. Hatherley narrowly escapes getting crushed to death when Stark turns the machine on him, but he escapes the press with the aid of the woman. Pursued by the murderous Stark, Hatherley is forced to jump from a second story window, in the process getting his thumb severed by Stark's cleaver. Hatherley survives the fall but passes out in the rose-bushes, coming to hours later by a hedge near the rail station.
Holmes then makes sense of the happenings, recognizing Stark and his allies as counterfeiters, but he, Watson, and the police arrive too late: the house is on fire, and the perpetrators have fled. Ironically, the press was destroyed when Hatherley's lamp was crushed inside it, setting the machine on fire and ruining the criminals' operation, although they escaped with several "bulky boxes" presumably containing counterfeit coins.
This case is one of the few where Holmes fails to bring the villains to justice. (Others include The Five Orange Pips, The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter and The Hound of the Baskervilles, though in all these cases Providence exacts vengeance on the villains.)
I recommend this book to all readers that love a well written mystery and of course to those who appreciate Sherlock Holmes adventures.