In the story, Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard is baffled by a strange case involving an apparent madman bent on smashing plaster busts of Napoleon. When the case takes a violent turn, the inspector calls in his friend Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant consulting detective. While Lestrade concentrates all his efforts on the murder investigation, Holmes realizes that the key to the mystery lies in the smashed statues.
A fan favorite, "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" features not only an intriguing mystery but also a rare glimpse of the friendship between Holmes and Inspector Lestrade. The story was ranked eighth in the "Ten Best Contest" held by the leading Sherlockian publication The Baker Street Journal in 1959.
During a friendly visit one evening, Inspector Lestrade tells Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson about a peculiar case he is working on. Four days ago, a plaster bust of Napoleon was smashed at Morse Hudson's, a shop which sells pictures and statues. Then last night, someone broke into the nearby residence of Dr. Barnicot, took an identical bust of Napoleon, and smashed it outside against the garden wall. The doctor is a collector of Napoleon memorabilia and had purchased two of the same statues from Hudson's shop, one for the house and one for his surgery. Nothing else was disturbed at the house, but the other bust was later found smashed inside the surgery. Lestrade thinks it is the work of a lunatic who hates Napoleon. Holmes is intrigued and asks to be kept informed of any new developments.
Early the following morning, Holmes and Watson are summoned by Lestrade to an address in Kensington. The owner of the house, a newspaper reporter named Horace Harker, heard some sounds in the middle of the night followed by a horrible yell. He came down and found the sitting-room window wide open and the bust of Napoleon gone from the mantelpiece. Going out the front door to investigate, he stumbled upon a dead man on the doorstep. The man's throat was cut and he was lying on his back in a pool of blood.
Lestrade shows Holmes a photograph of a simian-looking man found on the unidentified victim. The stolen bust, identical to the others but purchased from Harding Brothers, was found smashed at an empty house a few hundred yards away. Lestrade invites Holmes and Watson to join him for the walk. After examining the shards in front of the house, Holmes brings to the inspector's attention the fact that the criminal passed another empty house on the way before choosing the particular location to break the statue. He then points to the street lamp above. Lestrade recalls that Dr. Barnicot's statue was also broken near a lamp.
Having finished examining the scene, Lestrade now intends to concentrate his efforts on identifying the dead man. Before leaving to pursue his own line, Holmes asks the inspector to tell Harker that he believes a Napoleon-obsessed lunatic is involved. He then borrows the photograph and tells Lestrade to come to Baker Street at six o'clock for a possible expedition.
Holmes and Watson visit Morse Hudson's shop and learn that the three statues came from Gelder & Co. in Stepney. Hudson recognizes the man in the photograph as Beppo, an Italian piece-work man who used to work at the shop. At Gelder & Co., records reveal that the three busts of Napoleon sent to Morse Hudson a year ago were from a batch of six. The other three were sold to Harding Brothers. The busts are made from two halves of plaster of Paris, put together and set out on a table to dry afterwards. The manager recognizes Beppo, a former employee. Over a year ago, Beppo injured another Italian in a knife fight in the street. He was arrested at work and sentenced to one year in prison. Holmes declines to interview Beppo's cousin who still works at Gelder and asks the manager not to say anything to him.
At lunch, Holmes and Watson read Harker's report in the newspaper stating both the police and Holmes believe it was lunacy and not a deliberate crime. Holmes chuckles and says that the press "is a most valuable institution, if you only know how to use it." In the afternoon, they visit Harding Brothers. According to their sales book, which is available for anyone to consult, the three busts of Napoleon were sold to Harker, Mr. Josiah Brown of Chiswick, and Mr. Sandeford of Reading. The shop employs several Italian workers, but Mr. Harding does not recognize the man in the photograph.
Holmes and Watson return to Baker Street and find Lestrade waiting. He has identified the dead man as Pietro Venucci, a member of the Mafia. Lestrade believes Venucci was sent after the man in the photograph as an assassin. Holmes wants an explanation for the smashed busts, but Lestrade is not interested in what he calls "petty larceny." He is eager to go down to the Italian Quarter with the photograph to look for the man. Holmes invites the inspector to come along to Chiswick instead to catch the criminal. He plans to leave after eleven o'clock, so he suggests they eat and get some rest first. As Holmes dispatches an express letter and starts looking through old newspapers, Watson realizes that the clever detective manipulated the press to make the criminal feel safe to continue.
Arriving in Chiswick, they find Josiah Brown's house dark except for the light over the door. As they wait in the shadows, a figure rushes up the garden path to the house. He enters through the window and comes back out a short time later carrying something. With his back to them, the man puts down the object and taps sharply on it. Holmes jumps on his back, and Lestrade and Watson grab his wrists and handcuff him. Turning him over, they see that it is the man in the photograph. Holmes, however, is more interested in the broken statue. As he finishes examining the pieces, the owner of the house comes out and says he received Holmes' message and followed his instructions.
Lestrade comes to Baker Street the following evening eager to share the facts he has gathered on Beppo. As Holmes and Watson listen politely to the information, most of which is already familiar to them, the doorbell rings and an elderly man enters carrying a carpet bag. The visitor, Mr. Sandeford of Reading, has come in response to a letter from Holmes offering to pay ten pounds for the bust of Napoleon. Sandeford points out that he only paid fifteen shillings for it, but Holmes sticks to the offer and asks him to sign a paper transferring all rights to it.
As soon as Sandeford leaves, Holmes lays a cloth over the table and places the bust in the center. Then he strikes the bust with his hunting crop and shouts in triumph, holding up a piece in which a dark round object is embedded. He identifies the object as the famous black pearl of the Borgias. After a moment of silence, Lestrade and Watson spontaneously begin to applaud. Holmes takes a bow then begins to explain the case.
The pearl had been stolen from the Prince of Colonna's hotel room two days before Beppo was arrested at Gelder & Co. An Italian maid named Lucretia Venucci came under suspicion but no proof was found. Holmes believes Pietro was the brother she was known to have in London. Beppo, who had either received or stolen the pearl from Pietro, was forced to hide it quickly when the police came for him. Seeing the six busts being dried on the table, he made a small hole in one, inserted the pearl, and sealed the opening. After he got out of jail, he found out who bought the busts through his cousin and took a job with Morse Hudson. Not finding the pearl there, he then contacted an Italian friend at Harding Brothers. Pietro caught up with him at Harker's and was killed in the scuffle. Holmes knew the criminal was looking for something because he had carried Harker's bust to a light. Once the murdered man's name was known, he realized it was the pearl Beppo was after. He was likely to try the London address first, so Holmes warned the family before going down to Chiswick. Since the pearl was not there, he purchased the last bust.
Lestrade compliments Holmes on a most "workmanlike" case. He says that Scotland Yard is not jealous but is very proud of Holmes, and that everyone would be glad to shake his hand if he would come down the next day. Holmes thanks him and turns away, appearing (to Watson who knows him well) uncharacteristically moved for a brief moment before quickly becoming himself again.
The first screen adaptation of "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" was The Six Napoleons (1922), eighth of the fifteen short silent films of The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series starring Eille Norwood.
The 1944 American film The Pearl of Death starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson is loosely based on the short story. The movie replaces the Mafia with a master criminal, Giles Conover (played by Miles Mander), and his accomplices. Conover steals the "Borgia Pearl" from a museum when Holmes disables the security system in order to demonstrate its vulnerability. Chased by a guard, Conover runs into a nearby workshop and hides the pearl in a bust of Napoleon. A female accomplice helps track down the statues, and a murderous henchman known as The Creeper (played by Rondo Hatton) goes after them while Conover is busy making attempts on Holmes' life. Holmes figures out the Napoleon connection after separating plaster from pieces of china smashed by the henchman to mislead the police. Conover corners Holmes in the final confrontation, but the detective manages to trick The Creeper into turning on the master criminal.
The story has been adapted for television twice; as an episode of the BBC series starring Douglas Wilmer (1965) and for The Return of Sherlock Holmes Granada TV series starring Jeremy Brett. The Granada episode, which first aired on the ITV network on August 20, 1986, is a faithful adaptation featuring strong performances by Brett and Colin Jeavons as Inspector Lestrade.
There have been numerous radio dramatizations of "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" to date, including the 1993 BBC adaptation starring Clive Merrison as Holmes.
- ↑ The following seven stories were ranked ahead of "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" in the contest; "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," "The Red-Headed League," "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," "Silver Blaze," "A Scandal in Bohemia," "The Musgrave Ritual," and "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans."
- ↑ Chiswick is a district in western London.
- ↑ Reading is a town in Berkshire, about 40 miles to the west of London.
- ↑ There were many Italians living in Victorian London. The oldest of the Italian centers, "Little Italy" in Holborn known as "Saffron Hill," had a large population of Southern Italians who, at the time, suffered from a rather unsavory reputation.
- ↑ The Borgia family was one of the most powerful houses in Renaissance Italy with a reputation for being ruthless and treacherous. They produced two Popes, Pope Calixtus III (r. 1455- 458) and Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503), and many political figures. Cesare Borgia, an illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI who tried to establish a principality for himself, is cited in The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli.
- ↑ Another Sherlock Holmes short story, "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," also involves a jewel stolen from a hotel room.
- ↑ Rondo Hatton would reprise his role as The Creeper in two non-Holmesian movies, House of Horrors and The Brute Man (both released in 1946).