Detective Stories Gone Wrong: The Adventures of Sherlaw Kombs
by Robert Barr
Introductory Note: “Detective Stories Gone Wrong: The Adventures of Sherlaw Kombs” is a parody of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle had already published two Sherlock Holmes novels and several short stories by the time this story was printed in The Idler. It contains many exaggerated tropes from detective fiction, such as the eccentric detective, a narrator who is the detective’s friend, and deducing things about a person from his or her appearance.
(With apologies to Dr. Conan Doyle, and his excellent book, “A Study in Scarlet.”)
I DROPPED in on my friend, Sherlaw Kombs, to hear what he had to say about the Pegram mystery, as it had come to be called in the newspapers. I found him playing the violin with a look of sweet peace and serenity on his face, which I never noticed on the countenances of those within hearing distance. I knew this expression of seraphic calm indicated that Kombs had been deeply annoyed about something. Such, indeed, proved to be the case, for one of the morning papers had contained an article eulogising the alertness and general competence of Scotland Yard. So great was Sherlaw Kombs’s contempt for Scotland yard that he would never visit Scotland during his vacations, nor would he ever admit that a Scotchman was fit for anything but export.
He generously put away his violin, for he had a sincere liking for me, and greeted me with his usual kindness.
“I have come,” I began, plunging at once into the matter on my mind, “to hear what you think of the great Pegram mystery.”
“I haven’t heard of it,” he said quietly, just as if all London were not talking of that very thing. Kombs was curiously ignorant on some subjects, and abnormally learned on others. I found, for instance, that political discussion with him was impossible, because he did not know who Salisbury and Gladstone were.1The Marquess of Salisbury and William Gladstone were leaders of the Conservative and Liberal parties, respectively. This made his friendship a great boon.
“The Pegram mystery has baffled even Gregory, of Scotland Yard.”
“I can well believe it,” said my friend, calmly. “Perpetual motion, or squaring the circle, would baffle Gregory. He’s an infant, is Gregory.”
This was one of the things I always liked about Kombs. There was no professional jealousy in him, such as characterises so many other men.
He filled his pipe, threw himself into his deep-seated arm-chair, placed his feet on the mantel, and clasped his hands behind his head.
“Tell me about it,” he said simply.
“Old Barrie Kipson,” I began, “was a stockbroker in the City. He lived in Pegram, and it was his custom to—”
“COME IN!” shouted Kombs, without changing his position, but with a suddenness that startled me. I had heard no knock.
“Excuse me,” said my friend, laughing, “my invitation to enter was a trifle premature. I was really so interested in your recital that I spoke before I thought, which a detective should never do. The fact is, a man will be here in a moment who will tell me all about this crime, and so you will be spared further effort in that line.”
“Ah, you have an appointment. In that case I will not intrude,” I said, rising.
“Sit down; I have no appointment. I did not know until I spoke that he was coming.”
I gazed at him in amazement. Accustomed as I was to his extraordinary talents, the man was a perpetual surprise to me. He continued to smoke quietly, but evidently enjoyed my consternation.
“I see you are surprised. It is really too simple to talk about, but, from my position opposite the mirror, I can see the reflection of objects in the street. A man stopped, looked at one of my cards, and then glanced across the street. I recognised my card, because, as you know, they are all in scarlet. If, as you say, London is talking of this mystery, it naturally follows that he will talk of it, and the chances are he wished to consult with me upon it. Anyone can see that, besides there is always—Come in!”
There was a rap at the door this time.
A stranger entered. Sherlaw Kombs did not change his lounging attitude.
“I wish to see Mr. Sherlaw Kombs, the detective,” said the stranger, coming within the range of the smoker’s vision.
“This is Mr. Kombs,” I remarked at last, as my friend smoked quietly, and seemed half-asleep.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” continued the stranger, fumbling for a card.
“There is no need. You are a journalist,” said Kombs.
“Ah,” said the stranger, somewhat taken aback, “you know me, then.”
“Never saw or heard of you in my life before.”
“Then how in the world—”
“Nothing simpler. You write for an evening paper. You have written an article slating the book of a friend. He will feel badly about it, and you will condole with him. He will never know who stabbed him unless I tell him.”
“The devil!” cried the journalist, sinking into a chair and mopping his brow, while his face became livid.
“Yes,” drawled Kombs, “it is a devil of a shame that such things are done. But what would you? as we say in France.”
When the journalist had recovered his second wind he pulled himself together somewhat. “Would you object to telling me how you know these particulars about a man you say you have never seen?”
“I rarely talk about these things,” said Kombs with great composure. “But as the cultivation of the habit of observation may help you in your profession, and thus in a remote degree benefit me by making your paper less deadly dull, I will tell you. Your first and second fingers are smeared with ink, which shows that you write a great deal. This smeared class embraces two sub-classes, clerks or accountants, and journalists. Clerks have to be neat in their work. The ink smear is slight in their case. Your fingers are badly and carelessly smeared; therefore, you are a journalist. You have an evening paper in your pocket. Any one might have any evening paper, but yours is a Special Edition, which will not be on the streets for half-an-hour yet. You must have obtained it before you left the office, and to do this you must be on the staff. A book notice is marked with a blue pencil. A journalist always despises every article in his own paper not written by himself; therefore, you wrote the article you have marked, and doubtless are about to send it to the author of the book referred to. Your paper makes a speciality of abusing all books not written by some member of its own staff. That the author is a friend of yours, I merely surmised. It is all a trivial example of ordinary observation.”
“Really, Mr. Kombs, you are the most wonderful man on earth. You are the equal of Gregory, by Jove, you are.”
A frown marred the brow of my friend as he placed his pipe on the sideboard and drew his self-cocking six-shooter.
“Do you mean to insult me, sir?”
“I do not—I—I assure you. You are fit to take charge of Scotland Yard to-morrow—. I am in earnest, indeed I am, sir.”
“Then heaven help you,” cried Kombs, slowly raising his right arm.
I sprang between them.
“Don’t shoot!” I cried. “You will spoil the carpet. Besides, Sherlaw, don’t you see the man means well. He actually thinks it is a compliment!”
“Perhaps you are right,” remarked the detective, flinging his revolver carelessly beside his pipe, much to the relief of the third party. Then, turning to the journalist, he said, with his customary bland courtesy—
“You wanted to see me, I think you said. What can I do for you, Mr. Wilber Scribbings?”
The journalist started.
“How do you know my name?” he gasped.
Kombs waved his hand impatiently.
“Look inside your hat if you doubt your own name.”
I then noticed for the first time that the name was plainly to be seen inside the top-hat Scribbings held upside down in his hands.
“You have heard, of course, of the Pegram mystery——”
“Tush,” cried the detective; “do not, I beg of you, call it a mystery. There is no such thing. Life would become more tolerable if there ever was a mystery. Nothing is original. Everything has been done before. What about the Pegram affair?”
“The Pegram—ah—case has baffled everyone. The Evening Blade wishes you to investigate, so that it may publish the result. It will pay you well. Will you accept the commission?”
“Possibly. Tell me about the case.”
“I thought everybody knew the particulars. Mr. Barrie Kipson lived at Pegram. He carried a first-class season ticket between the terminus and that station. It was his custom to leave for Pegram on the 5.30 train each evening. Some weeks ago, Mr. Kipson was brought down by the influenza. On his first visit to the City after his recovery, he drew something like £300 in notes, and left the office at his usual hour to catch the 5.30. He was never seen again alive, as far as the public have been able to learn. He was found at Brewster in a first-class compartment on the Scotch Express, which does not stop between London and Brewster. There was a bullet in his head, and his money was gone, pointing plainly to murder and robbery.”
“And where is the mystery, might I ask?”
“There are several unexplainable things about the case. First, how came he on the Scotch Express, which leaves at six, and does not stop at Pegram? Second, the ticket examiners at the terminus would have turned him out if he showed his season ticket; and all the tickets sold for the Scotch Express on the 21st are accounted for. Third, how could the murderer have escaped? Fourth, the passengers in the two compartments on each side of the one where the body was found heard no scuffle and no shot fired.”
“Are you sure the Scotch Express on the 21st did not stop between London and Brewster?”
“Now that you mention the fact, it did. It was stopped by signal just outside of Pegram. There was a few moments’ pause, when the line was reported clear, and it went on again. This frequently happens, as there is a branch line beyond Pegram.”
Mr. Sherlaw Kombs pondered for a few moments, smoking his pipe silently.
“I presume you wish the solution in time for to-morrow’s paper?”
“Bless my soul, no. The editor thought if you evolved a theory in a month you would do well.”
“My dear sir, I do not deal with theories, but with facts. If you can make it convenient to call here to-morrow at 8 a.m. I will give you the full particulars early enough for the first edition. There is no sense in taking up so much time over so simple an affair as the Pegram case. Good afternoon, sir.”
Mr. Scribbings was too much astonished to return the greeting. He left in a speechless condition, and I saw him go up the street with his hat still in his hand.
Sherlaw Kombs relapsed into his old lounging attitude, with his hands clasped behind his head. The smoke came from his lips in quick puffs at first, then at longer intervals. I saw he was coming to a conclusion, so I said nothing.
Finally he spoke in his most dreamy manner. “I do not wish to seem to be rushing things at all, Whatson, but I am going out to-night on the Scotch Express. Would you care to accompany me?”
“Bless me!” I cried, glancing at the clock, “you haven’t time, it is after five now.”
“Ample time, Whatson—ample,” he murmured, without changing his position. “I give myself a minute and a half to change slippers and dressing gown for boots and coat, three seconds for hat, twenty-five seconds to the street, forty-two seconds waiting for a hansom, and then seven minutes at the terminus before the express starts. I shall be glad of your company.”
I was only too happy to have the privilege of going with him. It was most interesting to watch the workings of so inscrutable a mind. As we drove under the lofty iron roof of the terminus I noticed a look of annoyance pass over his face.
“We are fifteen seconds ahead of our time,” he remarked, looking at the big clock. “I dislike having a miscalculation of that sort occur.”
The great Scotch Express stood ready for its long journey. The detective tapped one of the guards on the shoulder.
“You have heard of the so-called Pegram mystery, I presume?”
“Certainly, sir. It happened on this very train, sir.”
“Really? Is the same carriage still on the train?”
“Well, yes, sir, it is,” replied the guard, lowering his voice, “but of course, sir, we have to keep very quiet about it. People wouldn’t travel in it, else, sir.”
“Doubtless. Do you happen to know if anybody occupies the compartment in which the body was found?”
“A lady and a gentleman, sir; I put ’em in myself, sir.”
“Would you further oblige me,” said the detective, deftly slipping half-a-sovereign into the hand of the guard, “by going to the window and informing them in an offhand casual sort of way that the tragedy took place in that compartment?”
We followed the guard, and the moment he had imparted his news there was a suppressed scream in the carriage. Instantly a lady came out, followed by a florid-faced gentleman, who scowled at the guard. We entered the now empty compartment, and Kombs said:
“We would like to be alone here until we reach Brewster.”
“I’ll see to that, sir,” answered the guard, locking the door.
When the official moved away, I asked my friend what he expected to find in the carriage that would cast any light on the case.
“Nothing,” was his brief reply.
“Then why do you come?”
“Merely to corroborate the conclusions I have already arrived at.”
“And might I ask what those conclusions are?”
“Certainly,” replied the detective, with a touch of lassitude in his voice. “I beg to call your attention, first, to the fact that this train stands between two platforms, and can be entered from either side. Any man familiar with the station for years would be aware of that fact. This shows how Mr. Kipson entered the train just before it started.”
“But the door on this side is locked,” I objected, trying it.
“Of course. But every season ticket-holder carries a key. This accounts for the guard not seeing him, and for the absence of a ticket. Now let me give you some information about the influenza. The patient’s temperature rises several degrees above normal, and he has a fever. When the malady has run its course, the temperature falls to three-quarters of a degree below normal. These facts are unknown to you, I imagine, because you are a doctor.”
I admitted such was the case.
“Well, the consequence of this fall in temperature is that the convalescent’s mind turns towards thoughts of suicide. Then is the time he should be watched by his friends. Then was the time Mr. Barrie Kipson’s friends did not watch him. You remember the 21st, of course. No? It was a most depressing day. Fog all around and mud under foot. Very good. He resolves on suicide. He wishes to be unidentified, if possible, but forgets his season ticket. My experience is that a man about to commit a crime always forgets something.”
“But how do you account for the disappearance of the money?”
“The money has nothing to do with the matter. If he was a deep man, and knew the stupidness of Scotland Yard, he probably sent the notes to an enemy. If not, they may have been given to a friend. Nothing is more calculated to prepare the mind for self-destruction than the prospect of a night ride on the Scotch express, and the view from the windows of the train as it passes through the northern part of London is particularly conducive to thoughts of annihilation.”
“What became of the weapon?”
“That is just the point on which I wish to satisfy myself. Excuse me for a moment.”
Mr. Sherlaw Kombs drew down the window on the right hand side, and examined the top of the casing minutely with a magnifying glass. Presently he heaved a sigh of relief, and drew up the sash.
“Just as I had expected,” he remarked, speaking more to himself than to me. “There is a slight dent on the top of the window-frame. It is of such a nature as to be made only by the trigger of a pistol falling from the nerveless hand of a suicide. He intended to throw the weapon far out of the window, but had not the strength. It might have fallen into the carriage. As a matter of fact, it bounced away from the line and lies among the grass about ten feet six inches from the outside rail. The only question that now remains is where the deed was committed, and the exact present position of the pistol reckoned in miles from London, but that, fortunately, is too simple to even need explanation.”
“Great heavens, Sherlaw!” I cried. “How can you call that simple? It seems to me impossible to compute.”
We were now flying over Northern London, and the great detective leaned back with every sign of ennui, closing his eyes. At last he spoke wearily:
“It is really too elementary, Whatson, but I am always willing to oblige a friend. I shall be relieved, however, when you are able to work out the A B C of detection for yourself, although I shall never object to helping you with the words of more than three syllables. Having made up his mind to commit suicide, Kipson naturally intended to do it before he reached Brewster, because tickets are again examined at that point. When the train began to stop at the signal near Pegram, he came to the false conclusion that it was stopping at Brewster. The fact that the shot was not heard is accounted for by the screech of the air-brake, added to the noise of the train. Probably the whistle was also sounding at the same moment. The train being a fast express would stop as near the signal as possible. The air-brake will stop a train in twice its own length. Call it three times in this case. Very well. At three times the length of the train from the signal-post towards London, deducting half the length of the train, as this carriage is in the middle, you will find the pistol.”
“Wonderful!” I exclaimed.
“Commonplace,” he murmured.
At this moment the whistle sounded shrilly, and we felt the grind of the air-brakes.
“The Pegram signal again,” cried Kombs, with something almost like enthusiasm. “This is indeed luck. We will get out here, Whatson, and test the matter.”
As the train stopped, we got out on the right-hand side of the line. The engine stood panting impatiently under the red light, which changed to green as I looked at it. As the train moved on with increasing speed, the detective counted the carriages, and noted down the number. It was now dark, with the thin crescent of the moon hanging in the western sky throwing a weird half-light on the shining metals. The rear lamps of the train disappeared around a curve, and the signal stood at baleful red again. The black magic of the lonesome night in that strange place impressed me, but the detective was a most practical man. He placed his back against the signal-post, and paced up the line with even strides, counting his steps. I walked along the permanent way beside him silently. At last he stopped, and took a tape-line from his pocket. He ran it out until ten feet six inches were unrolled, scanning the figures in the wan light of the new moon. Giving me the end, he placed his knuckles on the metals, motioning me to proceed down the embankment. I stretched out the line, and then sank my hand in the damp grass to mark the spot.
“Good God!” I cried, aghast, “what is this?”
“It is the pistol,” said Kombs quietly.
* * * * * * * *
Journalistic London will not soon forget the sensation that was caused by the record of the investigations of Sherlaw Kombs, as printed at length in the next day’s Evening Blade. Would that my story ended here. Alas! Kombs contemptuously turned over the pistol to Scotland Yard. The meddlesome officials, actuated, as I always hold, by jealousy, found the name of the seller upon it. They investigated. The seller testified that it had never been in the possession of Mr. Kipson, as far as he knew. It was sold to a man whose description tallied with that of a criminal long watched by the police. He was arrested, and turned Queen’s evidence in the hope of hanging his pal.2Queen’s evidence is testimony a suspect gives against other suspects in order to reduce his or her own sentence. It seemed that Mr. Kipson, who was a gloomy, taciturn man, and usually came home in a compartment by himself, thus escaping observation had been murdered in the lane leading to his house. After robbing him, the miscreants turned their thoughts towards the disposal of the body—a subject that always occupies a first-class criminal mind before the deed is done. They agreed to place it on the line, and have it mangled by the Scotch Express, then nearly due. Before they got the body half-way up the embankment the express came along and stopped. The guard got out and walked along the other side to speak with the engineer. The thought of putting the body into an empty first-class carriage instantly occurred to the murderers. They opened the door with the deceased’s key. It is supposed that the pistol dropped when they were hoisting the body in the carriage.
The Queen’s evidence dodge didn’t work, and Scotland Yard ignobly insulted my friend Sherlaw Kombs by sending him a pass to see the villains hanged.
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Barr, Robert. "Detective Stories Gone Wrong: The Adventures of Sherlaw Kombs." The Idler, vol. 1, no. 5, 1892, pp. 413-24. Edited by Taylor Topham. Victorian Short Fiction Project, 1 August 2021, https://vsfp.byu.edu/index.php/title/detective-stories-gone-wrong-the-adventures-of-sherlaw-kombs/.
5 January 2018
1 August 2021