The Adventure of the Cardboard Box

Of all the kinds of murder mysteries, I think that the murder for revenge is the least fun. The basic problem with them, if it can be called that, is that they necessarily leave justice improperly served. That’s not quite entirely true, as it is possible for the death to be a justified killing, as in Murder on the Orient Express. In that case, though, the killer must not be convicted for murder. If that happens, justice has been served but in figuring out what happened the detective is mostly only satisfying his own curiosity. That can be an interesting story, but it lacks the satisfaction of the detective using reason to put right what was put wrong through a misuse of reason.

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box is very much a tale of revenge. If you haven’t read it, the short version is that Holmes is called in to a case where a respectable woman was sent a box filled with salt and in the salt were two severed human ears. Holmes does some detection and realizes that the ears are those of the youngest sister of the woman and the man with whom she was adulterating her marriage; her (now former) husband was the killer. It turned out that the package was not meant for the oldest sister, however, but for the middle sister. The middle sister, who had been in love with her sister’s husband, tried to seduce him, and failing this, had turned her sister against her husband and then introduced her sister to a captivating man she fell in love with. Holmes directs Lestrade where to find the husband, who is a sailor. Lestrade was, at first, worried because the husband was a large man, but he was haunted by what he had done and had given up living. He went in and gave a full confession, which Lestrade sent a copy of to Holmes, and fills in many of the details.

The story ends with some thoughts on the story by Holmes:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box was originally published in Strand magazine in 1893, which places it among the first Holmes stories published and among those short stories which made Sherlock Holmes so famous and popular. Its contents were so shocking, however, that for a time it was removed from publication and was not collected in the collection of short stories called The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. When it was removed, an initial section in which Holmes mind-reads Watson (in imitation of Edgar Allen Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin) was transferred to The Adventure of the Resident Patient.

It is, perhaps, a commentary on the great principles and sensitivity of our forebears that it was later published in the 1917 collection of Holmes stories, His Last Bow, in America, and added to later additions of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (first published in late 1893, where the rest of the Holmes short stories published in 1893 were collected). It took twenty one years to conclude that people were now so bad that they would not be corrupted by contemplating the sins described in the story.

It is a rather strange story, all things considered. It is pathetic, in the original sense of the word—creating pathos. It involves a certain amount of detection, but overall not a very great amount. In fact, Holmes says so himself:

Holmes scribbled a few words upon the back of one of his visiting cards and threw it over to Lestrade.

“That is the name,” he said. “You cannot effect an arrest until to-morrow night at the earliest. I should prefer that you do not mention my name at all in connection with the case, as I choose to be only associated with those crimes which present some difficulty in their solution.

Holmes solved it more quickly than the police did, of course, but it is likely they would have eventually found the solution, too. When Mary was reported as missing, they would have gone to look for her husband. He had given up on living, and confessed as soon as he was able. When they went to ask him about his wife, it is doubtful that he would not have confessed then. Alternatively, Sarah would at some time have come out of her “brain fever” and, since she was motivated by hate for her brother in law after he spurned her, she would in all probability have gone to the police and accused him.

In any event, finding out that a husband killed his wife in a fit of rage for her adultery is… a story without any twists. About the only twist in the entire story is that the box was only addressed by the initial, S, which both the older and middle sister shared, and since the middle sister had quit the premises recently, it was assumed that it was meant for the older sister when it was, in fact, meant for the middle sister.

It’s not a bad story, all told, though I do actually agree with the people who decided not to republish it that it is not really a story that people need to read. There are two types of good stories: the celebration of virtue and the lament of vice. This story does qualify as the second, but not in a useful way. It may, perhaps, be of some use as a warning to women who fall in love with their sisters’ husbands that nothing good will come of turning their sister against their husband then luring her into adultery with another man, but I’m not sure this is a warning many people need.

And the story has some real flaws in it. For example, the husband who committed the murders describes the three sisters, “There were three sisters altogether. The old one was just a good woman, the second was a devil, and the third was an angel.” Angels are not so easily manipulated into being unfaithful to their husbands.

Granted, the characterization is given by a broken man who has not been shown to have great judgment, but at the same time this is towards the beginning of a long explanation and is never challenged. Worse, the pathos of the story depends, to some degree, on the wife being angelic and innocent in spite of her obviously culpable sins. Framed properly, the story really offers no insight into human nature past the observation that if everyone is bad, the results will be bad. It’s not wrong, precisely. It’s just that I don’t see what good wallowing in it does. We already know that the evil man brings evil out of the evil stored in his heart. That the bad tree goes not produce good fruit.

And so we come again to Sherlock Holmes’ question at the end of the story.

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

There is an element of hope here, but not much of one. This non-answer could really have been improved upon a great deal; if nothing else he could have quoted the parable of the wheat and the tares. Even if the answer was not accepted, merely entertaining it would have been an improvement over this blank mystification.

As a curious side-note, at the time the story would have been set cardboard was a relatively recent invention, though that depends in part on what sort of cardboard it was. The two main candidates are paperboard (the sort of thing cereal boxes are made of) and corrugated fiberboard (probably better known as corrugated cardboard). The first paperboard boxes were readily available in the 1860s. Corrugated fiberboard was developed in the 1870s.

The Holmes stories were often set before their publication, many of them in the 1870s or possibly the 1880s. Cardboard would have been a relatively new thing, though not a complete novelty. Then again, it may possibly be an anachronism; by 1893 it would have been common enough that it would no longer feel new and Conan Doyle might, taking it for granted, not have bothered to remember when it first came into use.

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