The Sign of the ‘400’ (223B Casebook series)

ad-Sherlock-Holmes-1904-safe-adToday’s entry is one of the more popular pastiches. “The Sign of the ‘400’ by R.K. Munkittrick appeared in the Oct. 24, 1894, issue of Puck magazine, where Munkittrick was the editor. It was republished in Ellery Queen’s “The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1944) and “The Game is Afoot” anthology.

Here’s how Queen described the story:

“It was brought to your Editors attention by Mr. Christopher Morley, “Gasogene” of The Baker Street Irregulars and a charter-enthusiast in all matters Sherlockian. Printer’s copy was generously provided by Edgar W. Smith, Hon. “Buttons” of the same devotional organization}. “The Sign of the ‘400’ ” an exceptionally felicitous parody-trifle that belongs to the “Punch” school of burlesque. Like the Picklock Holes series by R. C. Lehmann and “The Adventure of the Table Foot” by Zero (Allan Ramsay}, it exploits the reductio ad absurdum technique, leaning heavily on mere farce and lacking the really clever plot framework which is so essential to classic permanence.

Richard Kendall Munkittrick (1853-1911) was a humorist and editor of Judge magazine (1901-1906). He was born in Manchester, England, but moved to Jamaica and then the U.S. He was editor of Puck from 1881-89. When the New York Times asked him to contribute some biographical notes, he replied with this:

“Descended from a race of clergymen and drunkards, I am a natural born lotus eater. Would rather loaf a week than work an hour. Left school at 15 and went into the dry goods business. Remained five years, and knew less of the mysteries of business than when I started. Then a position was secured for me on an East River steamboat. I once received a load of bran in a thundershower, and I showed my sympathy for the family of Gen. Rawlins by shipping his body to Connecticut for 50 cents — putting him through at the rate charged for a barrel of apples. Then I quit. Have been hammering a living out of writing since ’76.”

He was the author of “Some New Jersey Arabian Nights.”

The complete list of stories from the 223B casebook — parodies and pastiches published during Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lifetime (plus later ones I liked) — can be found here.

The Sign of the ‘400’

For the nonce, Holmes was slighting his cocaine and was joyously jabbing himself with morphine — his favorite 70 per cent solution — when a knock came at the door; it was our landlady with a telegram. Holmes opened it and read it carelessly.

“H’m!” he said. “What do you think of this, Watson?”

I picked it up. “COME AT ONCE. WE NEED YOU. SEVENTY-TWO CHINCHBUGGE PLACE, S.W.,” I read.

“Why, it’s from Athelney Jones,” I remarked.

“Just so,” said Holmes, “call a cab.”

We were soon at the address given, 72 Chinchbugge Place being the town house of the Dowager Countess of Coldslaw. It was an old-fashioned mansion, somewhat weather-beaten. The old hat stuffed in the broken pane in the drawing room gave the place an air of unstudied artistic negligence, which we both remarked at the time.

Athelney Jones met us at the door. He wore a troubled expression. “Here’s a pretty go, gentlemen!” was his greeting. “A forcible entrance has been made to Lady Coldslaw’s boudoir, and the famous Coldslaw diamonds are stolen.”

Without a word Holmes drew out his pocket lens and examined the atmosphere. “The whole thing wears an air of mystery,” he said, quietly.

We then entered the house. Lady Coldslaw was completely prostrated and could not be seen. We went at once to the scene of the robbery. There was no sign of anything unusual in the boudoir, except that the windows and furniture had been smashed and the pictures had been removed from the walls. An attempt had been made by the thief to steal the wallpaper, also. However, he had not succeeded. It had rained the night before and muddy footprints led up to the escritoire from which the jewels had been taken. A heavy smell of stale cigar smoke hung over the room. Aside from these hardly noticeable details, the despoiler had left no trace of his presence.

In an instant Sherlock Holmes was down on his knees examining the footprints with a stethoscope. “H’m!” he said; “so you can make nothing out of this, Jones?”

“No, sir,” answered the detective; “but I hope to; there’s a big reward.”

“It’s all very simple, my good fellow,” said Holmes. “The robbery was committed at three o’clock this morning by a short, stout, middle-aged, hen-pecked man with a cast in his eye. His name is Smythe, and he lives at 239 Toff Terrace.”

Jones fairly gasped. “What! Major Smythe, one of the highest thought-of and richest men in the city?” he said.

“The same.”

In half an hour we were at Smythe’s bedside. Despite his protestations, he was pinioned and driven to prison.

“For heaven’s sake, Holmes,” said I, when we returned to our rooms, “how did you solve that problem so quickly?”

“Oh, it was easy, dead easy!” said he. “As soon as we entered the room, I noticed the cigar smoke. It was cigar smoke from a cigar that had been given a husband by his wife. I could tell that, for I have made a study of cigar smoke. Any other but a hen-pecked man throws such cigars away. Then I could tell by the footprints that the man had had appendicitis. Now, no one but members of the ‘400’ have that. Who then was hen-pecked in the ‘400,’ and had had appendicitis recently? Why, Major Smythe, of course! He is middle-aged, stout, and has a cast in his eye.”

I could not help but admire my companion’s reasoning, and told him so. “Well,” he said, “it is very simple if you know how.”

Thus ended the Coldslaw robbery, so far as we were concerned.

Of course, Jones got all the credit. I showed the newspaper accounts to Holmes. He only laughed, and said: “You see how it is, Watson, Scotland Yard, as usual, gets the glory.” As I perceived he was going to play “Sweet Marie” on his violin, I reached for the morphine, myself.