The Adventure of Black Peter
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|"The Adventure of Black Peter"|
Peter Carey and Patrick Cairns, 1904 illustration by Sidney Paget
|Author||Arthur Conan Doyle|
|Series||The Return of Sherlock Holmes|
"The Adventure of Black Peter" is a Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle. This tale is in the collection The Return of Sherlock Holmes, but was published originally in 1904 in the Strand Magazine and Collier's.
Forest Row in the Weald is the scene of a harpoon murder, and a young police inspector, Stanley Hopkins, asks Holmes, whom he admires, for help. Holmes has already determined that it would take a great deal of strength and skill to run a man through with a harpoon and embed it in the wall behind him.
Peter Carey, the 50-year-old victim and former master of the Sea Unicorn of Dundee, was a very unpleasant man, especially when he was drunk. He also had a reputation for being violent, even having been prosecuted once for assaulting the local vicar. Perhaps not surprising, his daughter is actually glad that he is dead. She and her mother have endured years of abuse from the old whaler and sealer, who moreover had some remarkably peculiar habits. For instance, he did not sleep in the family house, but in a small cottage that he built some distance from the house, the interior of which he had decorated to look like a sailor’s cabin on a ship. This is where he was found harpooned. Hopkins could find no footprints or other physical evidence. However, a tobacco pouch made of sealskin and with the initials "P.C." was found at the scene, which was full of strong ship’s tobacco. This is rather unusual, as Peter Carey — or "Black Peter" as people called him — seldom smoked. Indeed, Hopkins found no pipe in the cabin.
The only clue from an eyewitness comes from a stonemason named Slater, who says that he saw the shadow of a head on the blind in one of Carey’s cabin windows, and he is sure that it was not Carey. The next day, Carey was in his foulest mood, and then early the next morning, at about two o’clock, his daughter heard a scream from the direction of the cabin, but took no notice, as Carey often screamed when he was drunk. The murder was not discovered until about midday, when the ladies summoned enough courage to look in on him. Hopkins was soon on the scene. Carey was fully dressed, suggesting that he was expecting a visitor, and there was some rum laid out along with two dirty glasses. There were brandy and whisky, too, but neither had been touched. There was also a knife in its sheath at Carey's feet; Mrs. Carey has identified it as her husband’s.
A little notebook was also found at the scene. It contains the initials J. H. N. and the year 1883. It also says C. P. R. on the second page, which Holmes reckons stands for Canadian Pacific Railway. The first set of initials is likely a stockbroker’s, as the little book is full of what appears to be stock exchange information.
Holmes decides to accompany Hopkins to Forest Row, and upon arrival, Hopkins observes that someone has tried to break into Carey’s cabin, but failed. After examining the inside of the cabin, Holmes deduces from the lack of dust that something has been taken from a shelf, even though the burglar did not get in. The stolen item was a book, or possibly a box. Holmes believes that the burglar will likely try again, this time bringing a more useful tool for the job.
Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Hopkins all lie in wait for the burglar that night, and they are not disappointed. Along he comes, he breaks into the cabin, and goes through one of Carey’s old logbooks, cursing when he finds that the information that he wants is missing, having been torn out of the book. As he is leaving the cabin, Hopkins moves in and arrests him.
He is John Hopley Neligan — which matches the initials in the notebook — the son of a long-vanished, failed banker. He claims he was looking at Carey’s logs to test a theory of his. His father disappeared with a box full of securities after his bank failed. He took them on a yacht bound for Norway. He believes that his father’s boat may have been driven north on the North Sea by bad weather, and met the Sea Unicorn, captained by Carey. He believes that Carey knew something about his father’s disappearance, and that possibly his father was murdered by the man who has now himself become a murder victim as he has traced some of his father's long lost securities back to Carey.
Hopkins takes Neligan off to the station, even though Neligan swears that he has nothing to do with the murder. Holmes believes this to be true. Neligan is, after all, a slight, anemic thin man, hardly capable of running a man through with a harpoon. Furthermore, that kind of attack requires a practiced wielder such as a professional harpooner.
Holmes saves Neligan from the noose by finding the true killer in a most unusual way. He advertises for a harpooner, posing as a sea captain named Basil. He gets three applicants at 221B Baker Street for the job, and one of them is indeed Peter Carey’s killer, as confirmed by his name, Patrick Cairns, and the fact that Holmes had established that he was once Carey’s shipmate. Holmes also felt sure that a murderer would want to leave the country for a while. Holmes handcuffs the unaware Cairns, but the latter furiously denies that he murdered Carey, claiming self-defense, as Carey was reaching for his knife. He was actually at Carey’s cabin to extort hush money from him. Neligan’s father had indeed come aboard the Sea Unicorn with his tin box of securities, and Carey had murdered him by throwing him overboard while no-one was looking (but actually, Cairns had seen). Carey did not take kindly to being forced in this way by his old subordinate, prompting Cairns to take the action that he did after Carey drew his knife on him. Cairns then examined the box of securities, but finding them impossible for him to sell, escaped, leaving his tobacco pouch on the table.
The rum was another clue. Holmes was sure that it, and the fact that the brandy and whiskey had been left alone, were sure signs that the killer was a seaman. Neligan is released and the securities returned to him, although the ones that Carey sold cannot be recovered.
"Black Peter" was dramatised for BBC Radio 4 in 1993 by David Ashton as part of Bert Coules' complete radio adaptation of the canon, starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson, and featuring Alex Norton as Cairns.
The first episode of the 2013 Russian TV series Sherlock Holmes is based on the story.
In March 2017, the US TV series Elementary (a modern version of Sherlock Homes) used the Black Peter story as the basis for an episode called "Dead Man's Tale".