As I turn to my notes regarding the series of incidents that occurred in the early summer of 1897, events that would have lasting impact on the criminal trade in London, it is the fog on the evening of June 18th that I recall most vividly. I was then making my way from my surgery to the rooms in Baker Street, which I shared with Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and forced to walk through a fetid, yellow miasma so dense that I began to doubt whether I was progressing in the correct direction. Yet penetrate it I did, only to be rewarded by opening the door of our first floor flat to find it equally clouded with billows of smoke!
“Great Scott, Holmes, is the place on fire?” I enquired.
“Open a window if you like,” his voice called from somewhere in the living room.
Unlike the fetor of the streets, this granite-hued haziness bore an all-too-familiar scent: Holmes’s shag pipe tobacco, the kind he resorted to when contemplating a baffling puzzle. Instead of opening a window (which would have done little good, in my judgment) I left the door open to allow the smoke to flow out into the hallway. Hopefully it would not unduly upset our landlady.
With the room cleared enough to see, I spotted Holmes on the floor, sitting cross-legged with a stack of newspapers in front of him, puffing away at his clay pipe with a fury that would make a locomotive envious. “How on earth can you see to read?” I asked him.
“Smoke travels upwards,” he replied. “Standing upright, you bear the brunt of it. Down here, the air is considerably more breathable.”
Despite the soreness in my leg, the result of an old war wound that had of late been acting up, I got down onto the floor to discover that Holmes was quite right … the available oxygen was of a much purer nature. I then set about trying to discern what on earth he was doing. I noticed a small pile of clippings beside him, which presumably had been extracted from the heap of papers that had been carelessly thrown aside. Picking up the next one from the neat stack left in front of him, he carefully perused its pages until focusing on one particular story buried deep inside, and then took a scissors and removed it from the page before going onto the next newspaper. When he was finished, he had a stack of nine clippings. Holmes rose from the floor, his head obscured by the cloud. I similarly rose and decided to chance opening a window to the street, in hopes our private and personal pea soup would spill out onto Baker Street. “Now, would you care to tell me what this is all about?” I asked.
“Of that I have no doubt, but what crimes?”
“Did you not notice anything interesting about those newspapers on the floor?”
“Through this infernal cloud? I was able to make out only the headings for the Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Evening Standard, and the East London Observer, but that is all.”
“They are all from the same day, two days ago to be precise.”
“And each one describes the same criminal endeavour.”
“That stands to reason, doesn’t it? A crime is committed, reporters learn of it, and they all write up accounts for their respective papers.”
“That is not the situation here,” he said. “Each report contains the account of a petty theft in which someone illicitly entered a home or a business undetected, removed an object of little or no value, and then left equally undetected. Each such burglary happened on the late afternoon of Tuesday, June 15th, three days ago, yet in locations that span the entire map of London in all directions. The same crime, occurring at precisely the same time, and yet in different spots within the city. What do you make of that, Watson?”
“Frankly, I don’t know what to make of it,” I said. “Perhaps it is all coincidence.”
“One or two, perhaps. But nine? Hardly coincidental. And these are the only nine of which we know. There might have been more.”
“What do you propose to do about it?”
“What can I do about it? I have no client. I could go to the Yard and point out this pattern, but would anyone take it seriously?”