Watson is astonished that Holmes was right and asks how he deduced the man’s profession. Describing the thought process as second nature, Holmes explains that the man’s tattoo, military manner, regulation sideburns, self-importance, and age were all clues. Holmes appears pleased at Watson’s resulting admiration, and shares the commissionaire’s note with him. Written by Tobias Gregson, the note asks for Holmes’ assistance on a case at Number 3, Lauriston Gardens, on Brixton Road. The corpse of an American man, Enoch Drebber, was found in an empty house with no apparent wound marks or robbery evident.
Though Holmes’ thought process is presented here as perfectly logical, it also demonstrates the “mixture of shrewdness and absurdity” of Holmes’ claims in his magazine article. Though Holmes seems to be operating on probability, he does not take into account the possibility that the messenger’s tattoo, manner, and sideburns could have other explanations. Reacting to Watson’s admiration of his deductions, Holmes inadvertently reveals his susceptibility to flattery.
Holmes describes Gregson as “the smartest of the Scotland Yarders,” and remarks that he and Lestrade are “the pick of a bad lot,” and extremely competitive with each other (like “a pair of professional beauties”). Expecting Holmes to assist on the case immediately, Watson is surprised at Holmes’ reluctance. Though Gregson asks humbly for Holmes’ help, Holmes claims that Gregson “would cut his tongue out before he would own” his inferiority to Holmes to anyone else, and says that he and Lestrade will probably claim all the credit for solving the case. Despite this, Holmes decides to go anyway, if only to amuse himself at the expense of Gregson and Lestrade.
Holmes’ half-hearted praise of Gregson and Lestrade is more of an insult than a compliment, as he considers all of Scotland Yard to be inferior to himself; Gregson and Lestrade are just slightly less inferior. By expressing his reluctance to solve the case because of the likelihood that Gregson and Lestrade will claim the credit, Holmes shows both his resentment of the detectives’ hypocrisy and his desire for attention.
As Watson has nothing better to do, he accompanies Holmes to Brixton Road. On the hansom ride there, Holmes chats about violins, refusing to theorize about the case as he has not yet seen the evidence. Arriving at 3, Lauriston Gardens, Watson observes the dilapidated and dreary façade of the building and the dying plants of its gardens. Though Watson expected Holmes to rush into the crime scene immediately, Holmes nonchalantly examines the grounds, the sky, the house’s surroundings, and the many footprints leading to the door before finally reaching the crime scene, where Gregson, a tall, pale, fair-haired man, greets them, informing them that Lestrade is also present.
Doyle presents Holmes as a scientist, who unlike Watson, relies on empirical data to form conclusions rather than trying to form conclusions without any data. Describing Watson’s and Holmes’ observations of the scene, Doyle further contrasts the two by highlighting the scope of their observation skills. Whereas Watson focuses on the building and the yard in front of it, Holmes studies the road and pathways leading up to the building, as well as the rest of the house’s surroundings and the sky.
The room is large, dusty, and without any furniture. Strips of wallpaper have begun to peel off the mildewed walls. On the floor is the body of a well-dressed dark-haired man in his forties. The man’s face is frozen in horror and hatred, and his limbs are positioned oddly, as if he had been struggling. Though Watson has “seen death in many forms…never has it appeared to [him] in a more fearsome aspect than in that dark, grimy apartment, which looked out upon one of the main arteries of suburban London.”
Despite Watson’s witnessing of death as a doctor and as a soldier, he finds Drebber’s death especially unnerving, because it occurred in “one of the main arteries of suburban London.” Drebber’s death is shocking because it occurs in “civilization” and suggests darker reasons for death than war or illness, contexts in which death is expected.
Though the man’s body has no visible wound, there are splotches of blood all over the floor. Holmes deduces that it is most likely the murderer’s blood. After he examines the body, he instructs the detectives to have it brought to the mortuary as there is “nothing more to be learned.” As Gregson’s men carry out the body, a ring falls to the floor. Lestrade picks up the small gold ring, declaring it to be a woman’s wedding ring. Though Holmes claims the ring simplifies matters, he doesn’t explain further and instead inquires about the contents of the man’s pockets. Gregson informs him that Drebber had a gold watch and chain, as well as business cards printed with his name, and letters from a steamship company, addressed to Drebber and to Joseph Stangerson, about their upcoming return to New York.
Holmes’ casual command to the detectives demonstrates his power over them (or at the very least, his sense of superiority to them). Holmes heightens this sense of superiority by hinting at but not revealing his opinions about the ring. By showing off to the detectives while simultaneously keeping them in the dark, Holmes remains a step ahead of them in the investigation, apparently intent on solving the case on his own rather than collaborating with or assisting the Scotland Yard detectives.
In the house’s hallway, Gregson tells Holmes that he sent out inquiries about Stangerson, but Holmes seems at once unsatisfied and superior about this, hinting that Gregson should have inquired about some “circumstance on which this whole case appears to hinge.” During Gregson’s and Holmes’ discussion, Lestrade has been in another room, but now returns triumphantly to inform Gregson of a discovery he’s made. On part of the wall, beneath the peeling wallpaper, the word “RACHE” had been written in blood.
Once again, Holmes hints at knowledge he possesses but does not reveal it, despite the fact that doing so may help the investigation. Holmes’ continual hinting and withholding of knowledge is perhaps due to his need to solve the case himself, suggesting that his priority is not necessarily catching the murderer, but catching the murderer first and in a dramatically pleasing way. Though Holmes had earlier mocked Lestrade’s and Gregson’s competition with each other, he doesn’t seem to realize that he too is competing with them.
Lestrade brags that he alone made the discovery and concludes that the murderer had meant to write the name “Rachel” but was unable to finish. While Lestrade is in the midst of explaining his hypothesis, Holmes laughs at Lestrade and proceeds to examine the room. Using a tape measure and magnifying glass, Holmes goes over the entire room, sometimes kneeling and lying down on the floor, all the while talking to himself. Watson compares him to a “pure-blooded, well-trained foxhound.”
Though Lestrade’s theory is quite reasonable, he is jumping to conclusions, a fact which Holmes openly mocks by laughing at him. Holmes’ measuring tape and magnifying glass (now a classic Holmesian icon), as well as his physical interaction with the room and mutterings to himself serve to accentuate his eccentricity. Watson’s comparison of Holmes to a foxhound anticipates his similarity to Hope.
Though Gregson and Lestrade watch Holmes “with considerable curiosity and some contempt,” they eagerly ask for Holmes’ opinions. Holmes sarcastically claims that he wouldn’t want to rob them of credit for helping with the case and decides to speak to the constable, John Rance, who found Drebber’s body. Before he and Watson leave, however, Holmes gives the Scotland Yard detectives “one thing which may help”: the murderer was a six-foot-tall man with small feet, square-toed boots, a florid face, and long fingernails on his right hand; he smoked a Trichinopoly cigar and arrived with the victim in a four-wheeled cab drawn by a horse with one new shoe and three old shoes. Astounding the Scotland Yard detectives, Holmes also informs them that Drebber was poisoned, that “rache” is the German word for “revenge,” and that searching for a “Rachel” would be useless.
Despite their resentment of Holmes’ superior detective skills and of Holmes’ superior attitude toward them, the detectives need Holmes, who can’t help but “one-up” Gregson and Lestrade, even if it means helping the competition. Holmes’ “one thing” turns out to be a slew of potentially useful details about the murderer. Lestrade’s reasonable though perhaps conventional assumption that “rache” was meant to be “Rachel” turns out to be the more sensational German word“rache,” meaning “revenge.”