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The Crooked Man

There was one thing in the case which had made the deepest impression both upon the servants and the police. This was the contortion of the colonel's face. It had set, according to their account, into the most dreadful expression of fear and horror which a human countenance is capable of assuming. More than one person fainted at the mere sight of him, so terrible was the effect. It was quite certain that he had foreseen his fate, and that it had caused him the utmost horror.

There is an old adage about forgiving betrayal because you cannot expect another person to love you more than he loves himself. That is only true, of course, in those cases where self-love is the catalyst; there is also the manifestation of malice. Malice as personal requital has been understood as both necessary and sadistic in the annals of literature, that chart and compass of the human soul, but I fear we all know such feelings quite well. The pinprick of the slightest treason strikes worst at the hearts of the very proud, of those who want to love and trust all and are confident in their ability, however overstated, to make their companions better by improving themselves. Revenge bubbles within such bodies as an extension of the spell of hatred that separates us from our good selves, from the ones who surely wish that life were not quite as meretricious. Yet perhaps the best revenge is still the gnawed conscience of the traitor that over a wicked life gains a voice and shadow. Which brings us to this story of crime.

The crime may not be a crime at all. Colonel James Barclay, late of a highly-decorated Irish regiment, is found dead in his library on a sultry September eve in the last years of Victorian England. And while his head incurred severe trauma, he may have already been dead by the time his body crashed into "a singular club of hard carved wood with a bone handle." Beside him lies his beloved wife, Nancy, a woman of exceptional beauty (in this regard, fiction makes exceptions seem the rule) in a dead faint; she will not revive by the story's end, nor will she need to do so, and Holmes and Watson proceed, mostly in flashback, to reconstruct what cannot be explained by conventional truths. Barclay and his wife have enjoyed "upwards of thirty years" of marriage, and despite the typical machismo expected of career military officers, it is he, to paraphrase this poet, who is the more loving one. He also boasts a few qualities uncommon in an erstwhile soldier:

Colonel Barclay himself seems to have had some singular traits in his character. He was a dashing, jovial old soldier in his usual mood, but there were occasions on which he seemed to show himself capable of considerable violence and vindictiveness. This side of his nature, however, appears never to have been turned towards his wife. Another fact which had struck Major Murphy and three out of five of the other officers with whom I conversed was the singular sort of depression which came upon him at times. As the major expressed it, the smile has often been struck from his mouth, as if by some invisible hand, when he has been joining in the gaieties and chaff of the mess-table. For days on end, when the mood was on him, he has been sunk in the deepest gloom. This and a certain tinge of superstition were the only unusual traits in his character which his brother officers had observed. The latter peculiarity took the form of a dislike to being left alone, especially after dark. This puerile feature in a nature which was conspicuously manly had often given rise to comment and conjecture.

"Comment and conjecture" have everything to do with the most vulnerable part of any man, his reputation. And as well they should: many soldiers are routinely visited by nightmares and obliged to forego any later interests in gunnery for fear of hearing the screams and explosions anew – but I digress. One need not be a soldier to comprehend the crimes on our colonel's conscience, and one need not have served a day in the armed forces to recognize a coward. A coward, as it were, still mindful of the indiscretions of the past.

If memory serves me rightly – and it usually is a galley slave – the BBC adaptation featuring this incomparable actor includes Holmes's ironic gratitude to Watson for the latter's quaint explanation of "military morality," Watson having been an old army doctor in Afghanistan back in his day. The line, which does not appear in the original text, has stuck with me and not only because of Holmes's cursory dismissal of Watson's suggestions. There lingers in the air of The Crooked Man the bitter scent of injustice that cannot be combated by ordinary legal avenues; one would almost dare to say that the impression of the British Armed Forces is one of indifference and cruelty. Internal rules and chain-of-command can stymie a group of unruly young men far more effectively than general philosophical tenets without any practical application. That may be why the destruction of individual thought processes has received such attention from critics of the military, even though the concept is hardly far removed from what is preached on fields, courts, and pitches all around the world in a variety of governments and political freedoms. I'm quite sure that our eponymous character, who shows up eventually, would love to "comment and conjecture" on that last point. And you might also want to brush up on your Book of Samuel.

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