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Douglas Wilmer as Holmes, Maurice Denham as Josiah Amberley and Nigel Stock as Watson in a screenshot from the 1965 BBC TV adaptation of "The Adventure of the Retired Colourman".

"The Adventure of the Retired Colurman"[1] is a Sherlock Holmes short story by the British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was first published in the December 10, 1926 issue of Liberty magazine in the United States and in the January 1927 issue of The Strand magazine in the United Kingdom. it would be republished in July 1927 as part of the anthology The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes.

Since it is placed at the end of most editions of The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, "The Adventure of the Retired Colourman" is often incorrectly identified as the last Sherlock Holmes story to have been published during Doyle's lifetime. In fact, "The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place", usually the penultimate story in editions of The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, was originally published three months after "The Adventure of the Retired Colourman".

The story's title character is a man named Josiah Amberley. After he has been to the police to report the disappearance of his wife, who appears to have taken a large amount of his money and run off with his friend Dr. Ray Ernest, Josiah Amberley is advised to contact the brilliant consulting detective Sherlock Holmes for further assistance. Holmes soon realizes that the case is not as simple as it appears to be at first.

"The Adventure of the Retired Colourman" has been adapted for radio and television.

Plot

One summer morning in 1899, Dr. Watson returns home to the Baker Street apartment which he shares with Sherlock Holmes. As he enters, Dr. Watson passes an old man who is leaving. Holmes asks Watson for his impression of the man. Watson says that he strikes him as a "pathetic, futile, broken creature". Holmes agrees but says that he has good reason to appear so. He tells Watson the man's story.

The man's name is Josiah Amberley. He used to be a partner in the firm Brickfall and Amberley, which manufactures paintboxes and other artists' materials. He retired three years ago. Early in the year after his retirement, Josiah Amberley married an attractive woman who was much younger than he was. Mr. and Mrs. Amberley settled in Lewisham. Josiah Amberley befriended a young doctor named Ray Ernest, with whom he often used to play chess. A week ago, Mrs. Amberley and Dr. Ernest disappeared, as did a large amount of Mr. Amberley's money. Holmes is occupied with another case. He therefore sends Watson to Lewisham to start the investigation.

That afternoon, Watson has difficulty finding Josiah Amberley's house. He asks directions from a "tall, dark, heavily mustached, rather military-looking man" who regards Watson suspiciously.

The Adventure of the Retired Colourman 02

Amberley destroys a photograph of his wife in front of Dr. Watson. 1927 illustration by Frank Wiles.

Josiah Amberley is disappointed that Holmes has not come to see him in person. He comments that it is probably because he cannot afford to pay enough money to get Holmes' undivided attention. He says that he feels betrayed by Dr. Ernest, whom he treated as a son, and his wife, whom he pampered and to whom he always gave everything that she wanted. He destroys a photograph of his wife in front of Dr. Watson, saying that he never wants to see her face again.

Amberley says that, on the night of his wife's disappearance, he had two tickets for the Haymarket Theatre. At the last minute, his wife said that she had a headache and Josiah Amberley went alone. He shows Watson his wife's unused ticket. Watson notices that the seat number is B31. Josiah Amberley says that, when he returned, his wife was not there and seven thousand pounds in cash and share certificates were missing from his strong-room. Amberley shows Watson the strong-room. It is a burglarproof room with a metal door and shutters. Mrs. Amberley, however, had a duplicate key to the room.

Watson describes Amberley's house as the worst-kept one that he has ever seen. Amberley appears to be aware that his house looks bad and has begun painting it, starting with the strong-room.

On the train back to Baker Street, Watson sees the same man whom he asked for directions earlier. Although Watson does not mention them, Holmes knows that the man was wearing gray-tinted sunglasses and a Masonic tie-pin.

After Watson gives Holmes his report, Holmes chastises him for not having asked the neighbors for more information about Mr. and Mrs. Amberley and Dr. Ernest. He then reveals that he has already received that information from other informants. Josiah Amberley has a reputation for being a miser and a "harsh and exacting husband". It is highly likely that Mrs. Amberley and Dr. Ernest were having an affair, although Holmes cannot be certain about that.

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Elman speaks to Watson and Amberley. 1927 illustration by Frank Wiles.

The following morning, Watson wakes up to find a note from Holmes which says that he will return at three o'clock that afternoon. Holmes returns at that exact time. Josiah Amberley arrives soon afterwards. Amberley has received a telegram from someone who claims to have important information for him. The telegram is signed Elman of the Vicarage in Little Purlington. Holmes consults his Crockford's Clerical Directory and finds that J.C. Elman is indeed the vicar of the village of Little Purlington in Essex. The telegram is obviously from a respectable person who would not have sent the message if it were not important. Holmes says that there is a train to Little Purlington at 5:20 that evening and that Watson and Amberley should take it. Amberley complains that the journey would be a waste of time and money because there is no way that the clergyman in Little Purlington could possibly know anything about his wife's disappearance. He reluctantly agrees to go after Holmes says that it would look very bad to the police if he did not. A telegram is sent to J.C. Elman, telling him to expect a visit from Amberley and Watson. Before Watson and Amberley leave, Holmes takes Watson aside. He tells his friend to make sure that Amberley really does go to Little Purlington. If at any point Amberley gets away, Watson should send Holmes a message of the single word "Bolted".

After a long and uncomfortable journey, Watson and Amberley arrive in Little Purlington. They are admitted into the Vicarage, where J.C. Elman is expecting them. Elman says that he did not send a telegram to Amberley, whom he had never heard of before, and thinks that somebody must be playing a joke. Watson telephones Holmes from the village inn. Holmes tells him that there are no trains back to London that evening and that he and Amberley will have to spend the night in Little Purlington.

On arrival back in Baker Street the next morning, Watson and Amberley find a note from Holmes which says that he is at Amberley's house in Lewisham. When they arrive there, they see Holmes with the mustachjoed man with gray sunglasses and a Masonic tie-pin whom Watson saw earlier. Holmes introduces the man as another private detective named Barker. He says that he and Barker would both like to ask Josiah Amberley the same question, "What did you do with the bodies?". Amberley tries to take a suicide pill but Holmes and Barker stop him. They take him in a cab to the police station. Holmes tells Watson to wait in the house and says that he will return in an hour.

The Adventure of the Retired Colourman 04

Amberley reacts to the question, "What did you do with the bodies?" 1927 illustration by Frank Wiles.

Sherlock Holmes returns with Inspector MacKimmon of the police. Holmes explains that Mrs. Amberley could not bear her husband's miserly ways and easily fell for his more pleasant friend Dr. Ernest. Amberley was also a very jealous man and suspected Dr. Ernest and his wife of having an affair. To provide himself with an alibi, he bought tickets for the Haymarket Theatre, Holmes has found out that seats B30, B31 and B32 were all empty that evening. Amberley lured his wife and Dr. Ernest into his hermetically sealed strong-room. An open gas pipe runs into the room. Amberley killed his victims by shutting them in the strong-room and turning on the gas. Holmes points out that, low down on the wall, Dr. Ernest began writing "We were murdered" in purple pencil but only had time to write "We we" before he died. Holmes suspects that Amberley may have dumped the bodies in a disused well, where the police find them later. Amberley began painting the strong-room to cover the smell of the gas with the smell of the paint.

Holmes suspected Amberley of murder but needed to break into his house to gather evidence. For that reason, he needed to make sure Amberley would not be at home. Holmes sent the telegram which was signed Elman, having found his name in Crockford's Clerical Directory. Barker, who had been hired by Dr. Ernest's relatives, had been watching Amberley's house for some time. After Barker surprised Holmes while he was climbing out of Amberley's window, the two detectives agreed to work together.

When asked about Amberley's missing money, Holmes says that Amberley has probably just hidden it somewhere. He would have been planning to eventually say that his wife and Dr. Ernest had returned it to him or that they had dropped it while they were running away and he found it. When MacKimmon asks Holmes why Amberley agreed to consult him, Holmes says that he did so to deflect any suspicions that his neighbors might have had. To anyone who suspected him of having anything to do with the disappearance of his wife and Dr. Ernest, Amberley could say, "I have consulted not only the police but even Sherlock Holmes."

Adaptations

The eleventh episode of the BBC TV series Sherlock Holmes, starring Douglas Wilmer as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Watson, is an adaptation of "The Adventure of the Retired Colourman". The episode, featuring Maurice Denham as Josiah Amberley, was first shown in the United Kingdom on May 1, 1965.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon 2

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson.

"The Adventure of the Retired Colourman" was adapted as an episode of the American radio series The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson. It first aired on the NBC Blue Network in 1940. In the episode's introduction, Dr. Watson explains the meaning of the word "colourman" and points out that it is not a military title.

A British radio adaptation of the story, starring Clive Merrison as Holmes, Michael Williams as Watson and George Cole as Josiah Amberley, was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on March 29, 1995. As the last in a series of adaptations of all fifty-six short stories from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes Canon,[2] the episode also features a sub-plot about Sherlock Holmes retiring and leaving Baker Street. The episode opens with Sherlock Holmes' brother Mycroft[3] trying to persuade him not to retire because he is too useful to the government. Holmes counters that there are many other detectives who could do the work just as well. Mycroft has to admit that this is true, however, it is only because other detectives now follow Sherlock Holmes' example and use his methods.

Footnotes

  1. A colourman (or colorman) is a person who makes or sells paints.
  2. BBC radio dramas starring Clive Merrison and Michael Williams based on the novels A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four and the other fifty-five short stories in the Sherlock Holmes Canon had already aired before the adaptation of "The Adventure of the Retired Colourman" was first broadcast. BBC radio plays starring Merrison and Williams based on the novels The Valley of Fear and The Hound of the Baskervilles followed in 1997 and 1998.
  3. The character of Mycroft Holmes only appears in three of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fifty-six canonical Sherlock Holmes short stories, "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter" (1893), "The Final Problem" (1893) and "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans" (1903). He has taken on greater significance in more recent Sherlock Holmes stories by other writers and in adaptations of Conan Doyle's works to other media.

External links