Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Tainted Canister: A Review/interview

Mr. Tom Turley has been busy preparing for his retirement, and working on his future contribution to Vol 5 of the MX Anthology of New Sherlock Holmes Stories.  Despite these demands he agreed to settle down for an interview regarding his earlier donation to MX: Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Tainted Canister. [1]

Some stories take time.  Neil Gaimen spent 20 years on Coraline, and a short story can be an accumulation of a lifetime of thinking.  Tom wrote this over a decade ago and has been waiting to talk about it—and here it is!

“If you don’t mind,” he wrote to me, “I’ll save your first question for last.”


Wilson:  Question 2: What inspired you to tell this story?

Turley: Oddly, the story started running through my head one afternoon while I was mowing the lawn.  I began pondering what it would take to make a man like John H. Watson commit a murder, and–if he ever did–whether he had the slightest hope of getting it past Sherlock Holmes. (I’ll save that part for Question 4.)  Having never subscribed to the “bumbling ass” view of Watson (see Question 3, and–yes–I realize that poor Nigel Bruce was not to blame for his interpretation), I felt sure that the doctor was capable of murder; but I felt equally sure that he would consider it only as a last resort and in a “moral” cause.  Obviously, strong emotion would have to play a part; yet, Watson was not one to commit murder in a fit of uncontrolled “hot blood.”  So it had to be a revenge killing, and probably one long delayed–revenge being, as we know, a dish best served cold.

Wilson: Very well put. Watson isn’t just the lodger with Sherlock Holmes: He is a two-edged sword of doctor and soldier, with a very strong sense of honor and loyalty.

Turley:  But what could provide sufficient motivation?  It occurred to me that Conan Doyle had never explained (indeed, had barely noted) Mary Morstan Watson’s death, so that was an open field for speculation.

Wilson:  And some people even think they were divorced! (Rant has been tabled for a more appropriate whingefest)

Turley: Unlike at least one recent MX author (the only pastiches I had read in 2005 were The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes), I believed that Watson and Mary had had a happy marriage, and that he had mourned her far more deeply than his (or Doyle’s) reticence would indicate.  But a simple death from accident or illness was no cause for revenge; nor could I imagine Mary herself giving anybody cause to murder her.  But what if the real motive had been to punish Watson?  It never made much sense to me that the remnants of Moriarty’s gang would not have taken their revenge on him–Holmes’ right-hand man–after the professor’s death.  (Others have thought so, too.  Shortly after joining MX, I read a pastiche that had Colonel Moran chasing Watson and Mary around London with his air gun.

Wilson: We know very little about the understanding between Moriarty and Holmes.  It may have afforded the Watsons a degree of protection, keeping the game of wits between two masters. This gives us a lot of leeway to explore either possibility: were the Watsons targeted or left alone?

Turley: Then, while re-reading BOSC[2] an apparently innocent remark of Mary’s–“Oh, Anstruther would do your work for you!”–struck me somehow as a double entendre.  What if the obliging Dr. Anstruther was an old boyfriend?  Even though Mary was not “that kind” of wife, and Watson as a murderous cuckold was too sordid to consider, Anstruther himself could still be carrying a torch.  Suppose a gambling habit led him into Moran’s clutches?  Wouldn’t he accept the opportunity to eliminate a hated rival?  After that, the story almost wrote itself!  It’s nice when characters of your own creation take on their own life.  I discovered a gentle humor in poor Mary that Doyle hadn’t seen was there.  With Anstruther, jealousy and thwarted ambition were obviously the dominant emotions.  I blush to admit that much of his personality must have come from me, because I seemed to know exactly who he was from the beginning.

Wilson: It is funny (50% ha-ha and 50% oddsfish!) that believing someone is not and never will be capable of murder is a little blinkered. For example, one of the core definitions of ‘murder’ is to take the life of a person ‘unlawfully.’ Right there we’re in a murky mire! Whose law? But as writers there will have to be some of ourselves in the people we portray.

Turley: But let’s get back to Watson!

Wilson:  Question 3: What is it about Watson that appeals to you?

Turley: In an effort to rebut “Hollywood’s conception,” Adrian Conan Doyle once called Watson “an active, loyal man with a normal intelligence and more than his fair share of courage.” That’s really about all that’s evident in the original Canon, because Watson usually stays so far in the background.  Only on a few occasions (e.g., his one or two displays of “pawky humor”;[3] his unexpected proposal to Mary Morstan in SIGN[4]; his gallant interventions to wean Holmes off drugs or save him in DEVI,[5] the “zeal and intelligence” he showed in HOUN[6], which even earned a compliment from Holmes) do we get a glimpse of the personality behind the scribe.  Yet, somehow you understand that there is far more to Watson than meets the eye–the opposite of Holmes, who is always so “out there,” driving other characters almost off the page, that he becomes a little boring.  One thing I loved about the Brett/Burke/Hardwicke screenplays was that they juggled the dialogue to restore a more natural balance to detective/doctor interactions, instead of having Watson following around the Great Detective in near-silence, pen in hand.

“So much of Watson’s life beyond Baker Street is hinted at but not explored.  You, Marcia, in You Buy Bones, and Pompey in “A Young British Soldier,” did a wonderful job of showing what the doctor’s war experiences had done to him.  I must admit that I’d not thought a lot about the “early” Watson since finishing STUD[7]. As I told David [Marcum] earlier this week, I’ve lately considered writing about the doctor’s time in America with his “unhappy brother” and that mysterious first wife.  As for Watson’s second wife, Doyle quickly relegated Mary to the shadows, despite Holmes’ recognizing her as a potential partner in detection.  Perhaps a female detective was too much for even a forward-thinking Victorian male to contemplate!

Wilson: (See the appendix note to that at the bottom)[i]

Turley: Finally, aside from the morphine addict Asa Whitney, did Watson ever have a friend outside Holmes’ circle?

Wilson: It does pose the question.  We know that Watson has his sublibrarian friend Lomax, and Percy from NAVA[8], and surely he made more friends in his youth. In SUSS[9] we know he played for Blackheath, by which was the world’s oldest rugby club.  We knew he seemed to make friends easily, but we hear very little about them. It is possible his natural reticence of himself extended to his tribe of friends and family, for we do notice he only mentions them when they are a piece of the story.

Turley:  Maybe that’s why he was so easily taken in by “my” Anstruther, who seemed to have accepted Mary’s marriage, treating Watson as a fellow professional and friend.  Could Holmes’ faithful sidekick have been lonely?  In short (!!!), I find Watson interesting because–aside from his function as chronicler–Conan Doyle left him almost a blank slate.  You can do a lot with a blank slate, even though making one a murderer may go too far!

Wilson:  Question 4: It was my impression (and you may certainly correct me on this) that Watson was drawing at least indirect inspiration from Holmes’ declaration of being jury. Now I know it sounds anarchist, but…when no one else will take responsibility…who will?

Turley: To return to a point raised (long ago) in Question 2, I don’t think Watson ever expected to keep Holmes from discovering his guilt.  Let’s face it: his attempts to hide the execution would not have fooled Lestrade, had you been writing “Tainted Canister!”

Wilson:  Hah! Don’t be fooled!  Lestrade is probably average on IQ…but his cussed stubbornness and willingness to go the extra mile going up against pointless brick walls is what wins him his high solve rate! (That and the hope of a retirement pension, without which the average Victorian seniority was a terrifying concept.) So many acts of murder are impulsive and hasty, which leaves lots of messy clues.  Lestrade is good at dealing with that, but when someone sits down and thinks through a murder like a game of cards, he’d better bring in Holmes!

Turley:  Also, even though Watson thought long and hard about enlisting The Great Detective to bring Mary’s murderer to justice, I’m not sure he was being honest with himself, at least until he sat down in “1931” to write the story.  (It should have been 1929; I hadn’t read Baring-Gould or [David] Marcum in those days.)  Might not Lestrade have sanctioned Holmes hiding in the room to hear Anstruther’s confession, or even hidden there himself?  Perhaps you can answer that one better than I can.  Would Anstruther’s confession, and the testimony of Holmes and/or Lestrade, have held up in an 1894 British court of law?  I ought to know that, but I don’t; it seems at least conceivable.  Watson himself concluded that the chances of convicting Anstruther were slightly worse than 50-50. That simply wasn’t good enough.

Wilson:  Convicting Anstruther would have been sticky.  First of all, the burden is on Anstruther for trying to murder Watson, and he would be guilty of murder by transferred malice for Mary.  Plus, to commit murder one had to be both of age and sound of mind.  The testimony of those snoopy servants of Anstruther’s could have easily fired up a clever legal defense claiming that the man was driven insane with hate of Watson—and that is where my money would go.  Anstruther had good connections and that would speak too.  He could have spent his years in a fashionable madhouse, like Dr. Minor in The Professor and the Madman, who was allowed any comfort his money could afford, and even keep a knife.  Anstruther could have kept merrily on his way with his medical research, insulated from the world. Like Watson, I think that wasn’t good enough.

Turley: [continuing from last sentence] Why not?  Not just because he didn’t like the odds.  What stuck in the doctor’s craw, I think, was knowing that even if Anstruther was convicted, it would be Holmes, not he, who had brought Mary’s murderer to justice.  “Somehow,” he admitted, “that thought only filled me with depression.”  As a loving husband and (as you so rightly pointed out) a soldier, Watson owed it to his wife and his own honor to avenge her murder on his own.  Even if he had to become a murderer himself to do it!

Wilson:  You are lifting more questions to the light.  Watson was always ready to draw—and improve—upon inspiration.  If he had seem Holmes commit a similar action in the past, he would surely feel more solidly motivated to be his own judge, jury and executioner in the murderer of his wide. Ultimately we know Holmes and Watson share a kindred spirit, or a similar resonance.  We know from MILV[10] that they are both willing to go out of their usual comfort zones to solve a crime.

Turley: Once the deed was done, I feel sure Watson would have been prepared to take the consequences.  Did he believe he wouldn’t have to, knowing that Holmes had occasionally let murderers off the hook before?  Certainly, he could not have counted on it.  After all, The Great Detective essentially abstained from deciding if the doctor’s homicide was justifiable, leaving that decision to a higher court.  (Sherlock Holmes’ religious beliefs–or lack of them–could easily be another essay.)  Rather, he acquitted Watson because he couldn’t face the prospect of losing his partner in detection and biographer, and also–whether he admitted it to himself or not–his only friend.

Wilson: One reliable theme with Holmes is he seems to weigh the future as much as the past.  He does not appear to judge or condemn murderers who 1) acted to redress a crime and are 2) unlikely to break the law again.  We have a factual confession of murder with VEIL[11] and he does nothing. I like to believe that Watson was relying on Holmes’ ability to think outside emotions, because a part of him wanted to be judged by someone who did not trust feelings.

Turley:  After everything was over, and the decision had been made, the two men would have tacitly agreed never to speak of it again.  (I certainly don’t intend for it to be an issue in my future stories.)  But there’s no question, I believe, that Watson soon came to understand that he had made the wrong decision.  Asking “what Mary would have wanted” could have saved him.  Her loving spirit would have urged him to abstain, not out of any lingering regard for Anstruther, but because of what becoming a murderer would do to him.  By the time the doctor wrote down his confession, he saw himself as “no better than the man I murdered”; for he would also have held himself accountable (and I wish I’d put this in the story!) for the lives Anstruther’s research might have saved.  Yet, when John H. Watson faced whatever final accounting comes to all of us, I am sure he faced it with the same calm courage he had always shown.

Wilson:  Very good points, all of these—and to be Watson’s devil’s advocate…aren’t we assuming that Mary was the only person Anstruther ever killed? Would he have allowed a fever to continue past the stage of healing in order to record the data?  Anstruther thought long and hard to neatly murder Watson.  He could have stopped at any time, and his way was methodical, cold and scientific. ACD’s Holmes is guarded when he speaks of men of medicine being killers.  They do, after all, have the knowledge and the nerve.  Using another man’s proven murder weapon was a genius stroke there—not just because the police were not likely to know what it was, but also because of the parallels.  Watson’s murder weapon is actually an innocent being; and a fickle one.  It might have not even killed Anstruther—you can never tell when using animals to kill!

It is hard to reconcile any good that comes out of someone who is willing to do such terrible evil as murder in the pretense of friendship.  Mary complained that Anstruther’s feelings were not on the side of the innocent person, for his obsession was on the success.  He was thus willing to put Mary through the horror and agony of losing her husband so that he would win her hand!

Turley:  “There is no special hell for those who dabble in forbidden things; it would be superfluous.”[12]

Wilson: And all of this leads to Question 1: What do you feel are the most important points of your review?

Turley: If there is a “most important point” it is that I believe the “Canonical” Watson would have been capable of murder, had Conan Doyle ever placed him in the situation I did. In the hands of Doyle’s successors, Holmes and Watson have outgrown the human limits he imposed on them.  Maybe it took all of us who love the stories to transform his two protagonists fully into flesh and blood.

Wilson: Holmes and Watson were certainly a party to murder with MILV! This brings up the shade of “You may marry him, murder him, or do whatever you like with him” comment to William Gillette right now!  Doyle never dreamed that his detective would change the world.  Ultimately it must have been an Atlas-like burden for a man who was constantly moving forward. I couldn’t imagine being in his shoes.  Doyle himself said:

“So please grip this fact with your cerebral tentacle

The doll and its maker are never identical.”


Thanks, Tom!


Best regards,


Tom’s book can be found at MX Publishing

and at (America)

or (UK)

Further links as they become available!



[1] Keeping to the Canonical Abbreviated Key for the Adventures; TAIN is short for The Adventure of the Tainted Canister

[2] The Boscombe Valley Mystery

[3] Pawky: not used much in America, but means a sly sense of humor; shrewd.

[4] The Sign of Four

[5] The Devil’s Foot

[6] Hound of the Baskervilles

[7] A Study in Scarlet.

[8] The Adventure of the Naval Treaty

[9] The Sussex Vampire

[10] The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton

[11] The Veiled Lodger

[12] Dion Fortune, “The Subletting of the Mansion” 1926.

[i] Sleuthing in Skirts: While there were several female detectives and crime-solvers in the same era as Holmes, their characters and their creators (not to mention agents) struggled with financial solvency as much as any other.  Baroness Orcy’s Lady Molly of Scotland Yard comes to mind.  Luckily we can visit a few more of these in THE DEAD WITNESS, edited and introduced by Michael Sims ( The above link contains Mr. Sims’ excellent summary on the lack of front-row women detectives.  Also, if one is fortunate enough to find it, “Haunting the House of Fiction” (Ed. Carpenter & Kolmar, 1991) is an eye-opening demonstration of using the POV of women in ghost stories to illuminate crime without being ‘unfeminine.’ For those who really enjoy a supernatural psychology we have the last-end of the Victorian era into the Edwardian with Dion Fortune’s “The Secrets of Dr. Taverner” (1922).  Lastly, if one has to settle for but one book in the collection, there is “Creating the Fictional Female Detective: The Sleuth Heroines of British Women Writers, 1890-1940 (C.T. Kungl, MacFarland, 2006))


Published in: on February 15, 2016 at 12:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

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