Sunday, May 10, 2015

Three Student Monte

"The Adventure of the Three Students" is an odd but entertaining story in the Sherlock Holmes canon. Set at an unspecified England university, the case involves the theft of answers to an upcoming exam, and a professor who doesn't want to compromise the university's public image with any official investigation. He is able to furnish Holmes with three suspects, and leaves it to the detective to identify the guilty party and quietly deal with the situation.

Among all the cases Holmes ever tackled, this one has to be among those with the lowest stakes. The crime is minute -- and might not even be seen as such outside academic circles, since nothing was physically taken. What's more, the changing times in the century since Arthur Conan Doyle wrote it has blunted what little impact there might have been. It's hard to imagine today any truly serious university scandal arising from the stealing of answers from one part of one professor's one exam.

But with the matter so trivial in nature, full focus can fall on the investigation. And here, Doyle has crafted a rather intriguing puzzle. In the story itself, Holmes compares the situation to a game of Three Card Monte (though he doesn't name it thus); the target is one of three students, it's only a matter of picking the right one. Other Sherlock Holmes stories present false suspects, but I can't think of another one that so straightforwardly identifies them to the reader. And there's no twist here; the culprit is not revealed to be any fourth individual that wasn't under suspicion.

So here, more than in most Holmes stories, the reader has the chance to pit himself against the detective -- or, if not to solve the case, to at least spot the clues that are crucial in the solution. I've criticized the way Doyle hasn't "played fair" in past stories, so it's only fair to praise him for doing so here. If the case had a bit more heft to it, this might well be my favorite story from the collection. As it is, I still give it a respectable B.

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