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The Problem of Thor Bridge

Most men have a little private reserve of their own in some corner of their souls where they don't welcome intruders.

A fortune for one man that was more than he needed should not be built on ten thousand ruined men who were left without the means of life.


We wonder at times why it seems so easy for certain people to devote their lives to money while so many go on at subsistence or below-subsistence levels. Occasionally, at dark moments of my day, I will espy a garish object and covet it, or, I should say, my imagination will create a future or alternative world in which I and that object – however useless and expensive it may be – co-exist happily. The most obvious candidates for such daydreaming are luxury items guised as useful appurtenances: clothes, cars, televisions, kitchen appliances, linens, or other everyday, unnoticeable things that suddenly need to be as beautiful as a sonnet or painting. In some quaint corner of my mind, this object and I sit and stare at one another in mutual understanding: I own the object and the object owns me because it has brought me to value it when what I really want in life – love, friendship, passion, learning, joy – cannot be purchased, lent, stolen, or leased. But these are just moments. Moments in which the basic ease of a materialistic approach to the world becomes as clear and smooth as the diamond bevels that define its status. When I awake from these small journeys into a lesser realm, I become immediately aware of the need for something heartening, a repair of pure artistic delight that is best found on a page or screen. It is clear looking at the motives of men that only a minor percentage of us share these ideals, and that most of us are urged forth by that primordial fear of going backward. Which brings us to this rather unusual entry in a famous collection of stories.

Watson begins his tale on "a wild morning in October," when his peerless companion is found at the breakfast table in a state of "sinister cheerfulness." Connoisseurs of the Holmes tales will already remark that the eponymous sleuth rarely if ever eats in the morning unless he has been up the whole night pondering the intricacies of a case, and agree with Watson that bad weather often affects Holmes in the most dire fashion, "for, like all great artists, he was easily impressed by his surroundings." Yet Holmes is in a fabulous mood because a most bizarre case has been foisted upon him by the police force in Winchester, and it involves the American robber baron J. Neil Gibson:

This man is the greatest financial power in the world, and a man, as I understand, of most violent and formidable character. He married a wife, the victim of this tragedy, of whom I know nothing save that she was past her prime, which was the more unfortunate as a very attractive governess superintended the education of two young children. These are the three people concerned, and the scene is a grand old manor house, the centre of a historical English state.

What is remarkable about this description is its unswerving accuracy: the vast majority of domestic tragedies find their reasoning in a love triangle that is seldom equilateral. That Gibson, a cutthroat industrialist with hardly a gram of pity for the less economically evolved, would be the fulcrum of such a balance beam is not unlikely given the sway that a life of ease can have on a sequacious mind. And Gibson himself is a gunnysack of sorry clichés (a "successful man of affairs, iron of nerve, and leathery of conscience"; "a tall gaunt figure [that] had a suggestion of hunger and rapacity," reminiscent of a line in this play; a man "with a lot of firearms of one sort and another [who] .... sleeps with a loaded revolver in the drawer beside his bed"), unsurprising given his unimaginative ambition to be very rich and to make his competitors very poor. Throw in the typical Americanisms – adjectives used as adverbs, rapid speech, aggressive and colorful language – that Conan Doyle tended to inflict upon all his characters from across the pond apart from the titular heir in this sublime novella, and Gibson cannot but talk with a ferocious overfamiliarity that makes every word sound like a threat (witness the first quote at the beginning of this entry). He is the "Gold King," and bears great resemblance to the figure incused on America's smallest coin if "keyed to base uses instead of high ones." And his attentions will be divided between two women – his wife, Maria Pinto, the daughter of a government official at Manaus and "tropical by birth and tropical by nature," and that "very attractive governess," Grace Dunbar, author of the second quote, who has another end in mind for Gibson's money.

Some details of the crime that should not hint or allege anything in particular: Maria Pinto is dead, "a bullet through her brain and no weapon near her"; a gun was found in the room of Ms. Dunbar, "on the floor of her wardrobe"; and, after a bit of coaxing on our detective's part, Gibson admits that he grew enamored with Ms. Dunbar and swore to leave his wife for her if that's what it would take. Then there is the matter of that bridge:

This bridge – a single broad span of stone with balustraded sides – carries the drive over the narrowest part of a long, deep, reed-girt sheet of water. Thor Mere it is called. In the mouth of the bridge lay the dead woman. Such are the main facts.

That she "was a creature of the tropics, Brazilian by birth," is a revelation akin to one made of a female in another famous Holmes tale – and here cease, alas, the revelations. This story is also noteworthy for its casual mention of three "unsolved cases" that are brought to light in this book penned jointly by the author's son and one of the most famous mystery writers of all time. "Thor Bridge" has long been considered the best tale from Doyle's last collection of stories published shortly before his death in 1930, thanks in no small part to the detail of character and the explanation that seems, upon retrospect at least, both perfectly plausible and perfectly ingenious. Is it significant that, in this case more than in any other, Holmes becomes the moralist we always suspected he might be and reprimands Gibson with the admonition, "some of you rich men have to be taught that all the world cannot be bribed into condoning your offences"? Perhaps the corners of some men's souls do not merit close inspection.

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