The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb is perhaps the least Holmesian of Conan Doyle’s earlier stories, barely featuring any deduction from the great detective. Still set firmly within the Holmes canon it is, as the title hints, more adventure than mystery. It’s also more the engineer’s tale than either Holmes’ or Watson’s.
We’re no worse for enjoying the tale though, especially situated within the collected Adventures of Sherlock Holmes immediately after The Adventure of the Speckled Band.
Following one of the greatest feats of deduction and surprise with a simpler tale helps the reader in the same way it perhaps helped Conan Doyle as he began another journey into his developing universe.
The story is mostly told by hydraulic engineer Victor Hatherley who arrives at Watson’s surgery earlier one morning distraught and missing a thumb. It’s as good of an opening scene as they get, immediately hooking us into a gruesome and bloody mystery. After stitching up his patient, Watson takes Hatherley to Baker Street and Holmes.
There, the engineer recounts his unusual story. Hired to inspect a faulty hydraulic press by a shady man for a high price, he found himself drawn into a situation that soon spiralled beyond his control. Swallowing his misgivings in favour of the payment, Hatherley agreed to visit the machinery under cover of night. Once at the house, he soon discovered the fault but made the mistake of provoking his employer by asking the true purpose of the press.
Enraged, the German trapped Hatherley inside the hydraulics and began the machine working. While the engineer barely escaped, he was then chased through the building to a window, where his thumb is lost to a cleaver swung from above as he clung to the windowsill. Stumbling into the night, Victor collapsed only to awaken the next morning near the local train station and make his way back to London.
Though The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb is one of only 19 stories not adapted during Jeremy Brett’s run as Holmes, it was covered by Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century. As a story that barely needs Holmes that’s no surprise, though it has been tackled oconvern both television and radio through other productions.
It’s a wonderfully imaginative tale of suspense and terror, aided beautifully by Sidney Paget’s atmospheric illustrations – the swinging cleaver preceding the deranged use of household tools for mayhem in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre by many decades. Conan Doyle pulls off the accomplished trick of having a survivor tell the story whilst the reader still fears for their life.
Either as part of a read-through or one-off read, I highly recommend The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb.