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The Boscombe Valley Mystery

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Publication date  1891
Author  Arthur Conan Doyle
Originally published  1891
Illustrator  Sidney Paget
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Series  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Similar  Arthur Conan Doyle books, Other books

"The Boscombe Valley Mystery", one of the 56 short Sherlock Holmes stories written by the British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is the fourth of the twelve stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It was first published in the Strand Magazine in 1891.


Plot summary

Lestrade summons Holmes to a community in Herefordshire, where a local landowner has been murdered outdoors. The deceased's estranged son is strongly implicated. Holmes quickly determines that a mysterious third man may be responsible for the crime, unraveling a thread involving a secret criminal past, thwarted love, and blackmail.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson take a train to Boscombe Valley, in Herefordshire. En route, Holmes reads the news and briefs Watson on their new case.

John Turner, a widower and a major landowner who has a daughter named Alice, lives there with a fellow expatriate from Australia, Charles McCarthy, a widower who has a son named James. Charles has been found dead near Boscombe Pool; it was reported that he was there to meet someone. Two witnesses testify that they saw Charles walking into the woods followed by James, who was carrying a gun. Patience Moran, daughter of a lodgekeeper, says that she saw Charles and James arguing and that, when James raised his hand as if to hit his father, she ran to her mother, and while she was telling her mother what she saw James rushed to their house seeking help. The Morans followed James back to the Pool, where they found his father dead. James was arrested and charged with murder. Alice Turner believes that James is innocent and has contacted Lestrade, a Scotland Yard detective who in turn has asked Holmes’ help.

James confirms the testimonies of the witnesses, but explains that he was going into the woods to hunt, not to follow his father. He later heard his father calling "Cooee" and found his father standing by the pool, surprised to see him. They argued heatedly, and James decided to return to Hatherley Farm. Shortly after that he heard his father cry out, and returned to find his father lying on the ground. James insists that he tried to help him, but his father died in his arms. James refuses to give the cause of their argument, despite the coroner's warning that it could be damaging to his case if he does not reveal it. James also remembers that his father’s last words were something about "a rat", but James is uncertain of their meaning in the situation. He also thinks he saw a cloak disappear nearby while he was trying to help his father.

Alice meets Holmes, Watson and Lestrade in the hotel, and she hopes that Holmes has found a way to prove James's innocence. She also believes that she was the subject of the argument between James and Charles, for Alice had asked James to marry her, but James had refused, and Alice's father was also against the union. Holmes asks Alice if he could meet her father, but she says his health worsened after the death of Charles, whom he had known since they were in Victoria. Holmes decides to see James.

Holmes mistakenly surmises that James knows who killed his father and is protecting someone. Alice is right about the cause of the argument between James and Charles. What she does not know is that James actually loves her and wants to marry her, but could not do so when she asked him because he had already married a barmaid before Alice returned from boarding school. This burdened him, but he could not tell his father about his marriage because he would have been kicked out of the house and left unable to support himself. When his wife heard of his troubles, however, she confessed that she was already married before they met, and therefore their marriage is invalid and James is free to propose to Alice.

Holmes, Watson and Lestrade go to Hatherly Farm, and examine Charles's and James's boots. They then head to Boscombe Pool, following the track from the courtyard. After examining the ground Holmes finds evidence of the presence of another man, besides Charles and James, whom he believes to be the murderer. Holmes deduces that the killer is left-handed (because Charles was struck neatly on the left side of his head from behind, where a right-handed man would have struck him on the other side), and that the stranger is tall, has a limp, and smokes cigars. Lestrade is not convinced.

At the hotel Holmes explains to Watson that "Cooee" is an Australian cry and that the apparent reference to "a rat", overheard by James, in fact comprised the last syllables of "Ballarat", a place in Australia. The person Charles was meeting was, therefore, someone he knew from Australia. John then comes to their room, entering with a limp, and, realizing that Holmes has deduced the crime, confesses.

In his confession John explains that he was a member of the Ballarat Gang, a group of bushrangers in Australia. They robbed a gold convoy in which Charles was the wagon driver, and John spared his life, despite knowing that Charles could later identify him. The loot made the gang rich, and they moved to England. Resolved to change, John parted ways with his friends. He bought land and got married, and then Alice was born. Some time later, John met Charles again by chance, and Charles threatened to blackmail him. In response, John gave Charles Hatherly Farm and money. Eventually, this was not enough, and Charles demanded the marriage of James and Alice. Although he liked James, John did not want Charles' "cursed blood" mixed with his family's, so he resisted the union. After much pressure, John agreed to meet Charles secretly at the Pool. Seeing Charles and James there arguing, John waited till James left, and then killed Charles to preserve his freedom and spare his daughter. James heard his father's death cry and returned, but John was able to hide in the woods. He had to return later to retrieve a cloak that he had dropped in his haste.

John signs his statement, and Holmes vows to keep it secret unless it is needed to free James. In the end, Holmes's objections are sufficient enough to acquit James, and John dies seven months after the meeting with Holmes and Watson, leaving James and Alice free to marry.

Possible basis for Boscombe Valley

En route to the murder scene Holmes tells Watson that "Boscombe Valley is a country district not very far from Ross, in Herefordshire." There is no real location matching this description. Leslie S. Klinger, in his The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, calls it "a disguised name" and lists possible locations for the setting of the story as posted by other researchers.


The 1968 television series Sherlock Holmes, starring Peter Cushing as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Dr. Watson, dramatized this story for its sixth episode. Lestrade is replaced by a local policeman, Inspector Lanner, and Charles McCarthy's first name has been changed to Bill. John Turner dies immediately after confessing to Holmes.

"The Boscombe Valley Mystery" was adapted in 1990 for BBC Radio 4 by Bert Coules, as part of his complete radio adaptation of the canon, starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson. It also featured Samuel West as James McCarthy and Donald Gee as Inspector Lestrade.

In the 1991 TV adaption starring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke, Boscombe Valley is in Cheshire in the northwest of England. Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard does not appear; instead Holmes cooperates with one Inspector Summerby. A young James Purefoy stars as James McCarthy.

The events of the story were adapted into a promenade-style play for the 2007 Edinburgh Festival, now under the name of Murder in the Gardens. In this version of the story, although most of the names and histories of the characters remain unaltered, the events of the mystery are relocated to Edinburgh, with the murder of McCarthy taking place in Princes Street Gardens and Holmes and Watson being called in while attending lectures on police methods in Edinburgh University. The killer is revealed to be Jane Turner's mother rather than her father, her father having died long before the events of the play, with James McCarthy cleared of the crime after Watson's diagnosis of the body confirms that it would have been impossible for the son to kill his father due to the angle and location of the wound on the back of the head.


The Boscombe Valley Mystery Wikipedia