The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez

The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez

The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez, one of the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is one of 13 stories in the cycle collected as "The Return of Sherlock Holmes".


One wretched November night, Inspector Stanley Hopkins comes to see Holmes at 221B Baker Street to tell him of a murder that defies solution. The dead man is Willoughby Smith, secretary to Professor Coram, an old invalid. The murder happened at Yoxley Old Place near Chatham, Kent. The most perplexing thing about the case to Hopkins is that it is apparently motiveless. Willoughby Smith seems to have nothing untoward in his background, and not an enemy in the world. He was the third secretary to the professor, the former ones not having worked out. The murder weapon was a sealing-wax knife belonging to the professor.

The maid found Smith, and the last words that he uttered as he lay dying were “The professor–it was she.” The professor, however, is a man.

This same maid told Hopkins while he was at Yoxley that she had heard Smith leave his room and walk down to the study. She had been hanging curtains and did not actually see him, only recognizing his brisk step. The professor was in bed at the time. A minute later, there was a hoarse scream from the study, and the maid, after hesitating for a moment, went there to find a murder scene. She later tells Holmes that Smith went out for a walk not long before the murder.

The murderer’s only likely means of entry was through the back door after walking along the path from the road, and Hopkins found some indistinct footmarks running beside the path, the murderer obviously having tried to avoid leaving a trail. Hopkins could not tell whether the track was coming or going, made by big or small feet. The road was a hopeless quagmire and nothing could be discerned there.

The professor’s study contained a bureau; nothing seemed to have been stolen. Its drawers were left open, as always, and the cupboard in the middle was locked. The professor kept the key.

One important piece of evidence was found in Willoughby Smith’s hand: a pair of golden pince-nez glasses. Holmes examines these and from them alone deduces several things about the murderer:
*It is a woman;
*She is of some good breeding;
*She dresses like a lady;
*She has a thick nose;
*Her eyes are close together;
*She has a puckered forehead, a peering look, and likely rounded shoulders;
*She has been to an optician at least twice over the last few months.
*She has a lot of money

Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Hopkins all go to Yoxley the next day, and Holmes makes a careful examination of everything. In the study, he notices a recent scratch on the bureau, and reasons that the murderer’s purpose was actually to fetch something from in there. Smith was killed merely because he had interfered with a burglary. No-one saw the murderer leave, nor did anyone hear a door opening.

Holmes notes with some interest that both the corridors, the one leading from the back door and the one leading to the professor’s bedroom, are about the same length, and lined with cocoanut matting.

Holmes interviews the professor in his bedroom, smoking many Egyptian cigarettes while there, dropping the ashes everywhere. The professor claims utter ignorance as to what has happened in his house, and ventures the hypothesis that Smith’s death might have been suicide. Holmes asks about the locked cupboard in the bureau. The professor hands over the key. Holmes looks at it and then hands it back, not bothering to look in the bureau.

Shortly afterwards, Watson asks Holmes if he has a clue, and Holmes enigmatically replies that the cigarettes might show him.

Holmes meets the housekeeper in the garden and has a seemingly unimportant chat with her about the professor’s eating habits. Apparently he has been eating quite a lot today.

The three men go back to see the professor in his room early in the afternoon and Holmes deliberately knocks the cigarettes over to provide an excuse for grovelling on the floor. At this point, he solves the mystery, and the murderer, who looks exactly as Holmes deduced, emerges from a hiding place in a bookcase. Holmes has seen her tracks in the cigarette ashes.

The business unfolded thus: The woman came to the professor’s house to get hold of some documents having obtained a duplicate key from one of the former secretaries. She came without the professor’s knowledge. She was surprised by Smith, whom she killed without meaning to, grabbing the nearest thing to defend herself — the sealing-wax knife. She lost her glasses in the scramble to escape, and was quite helpless. She turned along the wrong corridor and wound up in the professor’s room. He hid her. It turns out that she is the professor’s wife, Anna, and they are both Russian. The document in question would exonerate her friend in a Siberian prison. She and this friend were both betrayed by the Professor for gain.Anna had met Smith while he was taking his walk, explaining Smith’s last words.

The professor’s increased appetite is of course explained by his having to feed a second, hidden person.

Anna also commits suicide by poisoning. She asks Holmes to deliver the documents to the Russian Embassy, which he duly does.

Doyle's story was published within a very short time of The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel. While very different from each other, the two share the same background, highly relevant for the time - the struggle between the Russian Czar and the revolutionaries who were soon to overthrow him, enacted by exiles on British soil.


*The Granada TV series with Jeremy Brett followed the original story, except that at the end the Professor is killed by a Revolutionary whom he had betrayed, and Dr. Watson is replaced by Sherlock Holmes's brother, Mycroft Holmes.

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