ANTHONY HOROWITZ: Holmes and the Mystery of the Killer Christmas Cards

Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Killer Christmas Cards: A stolen priceless clock, chilling messages through the post… launching a week of fabulous festive fiction, an exclusive, spine-tingling tale from acclaimed thriller writer ANTHONY HOROWITZ

It is a matter of some regret that, throughout my long and intimate acquaintance with Mr Sherlock Holmes, I was never able to persuade him of the simple pleasures afforded by the Christmas season. Not for him the goose roasting in front of the fire or the steaming plum pudding.

The notion of a tree supplanted from its natural environment and brought into the home he regarded as an abomination, even though it was a practice first championed by the Royal Household.

Never once did I see him go to church . . . unless it was in pursuit of an investigation. Indeed, I can recall a memorable occasion when he followed a known adventuress to a wedding ceremony only — to his great surprise — to find himself officiating as best man!

He was, above all, a man of science and although he might find the spiritual in a sunset or a blossoming flower, he eschewed any notion of the supernatural. The performance of a Christmas carol, which brought tears to my eyes, he would dismiss as an irritation.

It is a matter of some regret that, throughout my long and intimate acquaintance with Mr Sherlock Holmes, I was never able to persuade him of the simple pleasures afforded by the Christmas season

It was the third week of December when I came upon him in his lodgings, gazing out of the window, wrapped in his purple dressing gown with a fire blazing in the hearth.

The scene before him was a cheerful one. There had been a heavy snowfall the night before and Baker Street was a long stretch of almost pristine white, the gas lamps and pillar boxes shrouded and a few ragamuffins hurling snowballs at each other in gay abandon. Their youthful laughter punctured the strange silence that had fallen with the snow.

I could hear no sound of the coachman’s whip or the creaking of the four-wheelers. The very air seemed still, as if the entire city were presenting itself to us as a photograph.

‘Ah Watson!’ my friend exclaimed, without turning around and giving no indication of how he had known it was I who had entered the room, for Mrs Hudson had not announced me. 

‘You time your arrival with your usual expediency. I trust you have been keeping in good health?’

‘I am very well, thank you. And yourself?’

He turned and in those bright and piercing eyes and the welcoming smile on his lips I knew that I had found him in good spirits and not inclined to one of the dangerous torpors that sometimes overcame him.

‘I am happy to tell you that I am expecting a client. The criminal classes do not appreciate winter. It is hard to lurk in the shadows when the cold is so intense and the very snow will record their footprints and signpost their movements. Drainpipes become slippery. Windows are closed. But unless I am mistaken, our visitor has arrived. Please take a seat, my old friend. As always, I will be grateful for your observations.’

A moment later, the door opened and the boy in buttons showed in an angry-looking gentleman with long black hair that had been swept back as if to reveal the heavy eyebrows and the lips twisted into a grimace. He drew off his overcoat, allowing snow to scatter on the carpet and revealing a well-cut, grey suit with an embroidered waistcoat and a watch chain looping across his chest.

‘Good morning, Mr Holmes,’ our visitor began.

He was clearly a man with no shortage of confidence or self-esteem. He had sat down without being asked and now launched himself into his explanation with no further ado.

‘My name is Clifford Barrowman. You may well have heard of me. I am a theatrical impresario whose productions have been seen across the country, but particularly at the Gaiety Theatre and the Alhambra here in London. I specialise in musical burlesques and comedies and have had many notable successes.

‘However, that is not why I am here. Last night, Mr Holmes, I was robbed. In my own home! The thief took something of great value to me, a clock that once belonged to Gustave Flaubert and which was very dear to me. The value of such an item, I can assure you, is incalculable. Quite apart from its past ownership, it is solid gold, a Louis XVI striking mantel clock with cupids and angels. The workmanship is exquisite. It was taken from my library in the dead of night and I want it back and the thief apprehended.’

‘I assume you have reported your loss to the police,’ Holmes remarked.

‘Pshaw!’ Barrowman dismissed the idea with a wave of a hand. ‘The police say it is a burglary. A common-or-garden burglary such as takes place every night in the capital. I know differently!’

He leaned forward as if drawing us into his confidence. ‘I was waiting for something just like this to occur. For the past few days I have been in dread. You might say that I was warned.’

‘However, that is not why I am here. Last night, Mr Holmes, I was robbed. In my own home! The thief took something of great value to me, a clock that once belonged to Gustave Flaubert and which was very dear to me. The value of such an item, I can assure you, is incalculable’

‘And what form did this warning take?’ Holmes inquired.

‘I was the recipient of seven Christmas cards. They arrived on three consecutive days: two of them, then three more, then two after that. They were addressed to me, but they were signed only by ‘a friend’.

‘The images presented by these cards were, however, far from friendly. They were so macabre that I was inclined almost to tear them up. It is fortunate that I did not do so because I can present them to you now.’

Having thus spoken, our visitor reached into an inner pocket and, with a flourish, removed the seven cards of which he had spoken and laid them out on the table for us both to see.

Before I describe them, I should interject that a great many Christmas cards were presented to the public at this time with quite unsettling, even violent images as elements of folklore, pagan myths and allegory were drawn into the Christmas message. 

Dancing cockroaches, fighting ants and grimacing clowns were regular features. Krampus, a monster who was half man and half goat might be depicted leading children away in chains. A dead robin or nightingale could be a symbol of the deprivations of the poor.

But the examples shown to us by Clifford Barrowman were more extreme than anything that I had ever seen.

In the first, a bearded man sat in a chair with a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other. His festivities had been interrupted by a spear which had penetrated his chest. The second showed a man lying in a wintry field with a pool of blood around his head. A horse stood watching him, and there were three sheep that seemed to have been injured, too.

In the third, an emaciated man in a dressing gown appeared with his head wrapped in bandages, sticking plaster over his mouth and — if this was not bizarre enough — a Japanese warrior looming over him with a raised sword.

The fourth card had a woman opening what must have been her Christmas present. But the gift was revealed to be a pair of human ears. Then there was a man being attacked by a furious dog, another being bitten in the throat by a venomous snake and, finally, a man leaping out of a window into a moon-filled night, escaping death at least, but at the expense of a thumb which had been severed from his hand.

What made these images perhaps more horrible was the fact that they had been executed with some skill. The message in each one was the same: ‘With the compliments of the season.’ These words had been printed. Beneath, someone had signed each card — ‘a friend’.

Holmes had studied all this with the keenest interest and I could tell at once that we had here exactly the sort of mystery that would engage his brilliant mind. Not for him the mundane or the simply brutal. He was the greatest detective of his age and, I sometimes thought, he expected the malefactors whom he encountered to rise to his standards.

‘Do these images mean something to you?’ he asked.

‘Not at all,’ Barrowman replied. ‘But it struck me at once that they threatened me with harm. The fact that they are anonymous only added to my sense of anxiety. When the last two arrived, I questioned the letter carrier as to where they might have originated, but he could only tell me that he had picked them up at the General Post Office in St Martin’s Le Grand.’

‘And when was the clock taken?’

‘Two days later. The thief broke into my study where it was kept. I will confess to you, Mr Holmes, that I was somewhat foolish. I allowed the clock to be used in a production of Tartuffe. You know the play?’

‘It is not my custom to attend the theatre.’

‘You surprise me. It is a fine play by Molière. At any event, certain newspapers reported on the loan and the value of the item which, though helpful in terms of publicity, announced to the thief that it was in my possession.’

Holmes had finished his examination of the Christmas cards. ‘Do you have the envelopes?’ he inquired.

‘Of course.’ Barrowman produced seven envelopes. His name and address appeared in capital letters as if to disguise the hand that had written them.

‘This is most singular,’ Holmes exclaimed. ‘You will see, Watson, that on the first five envelopes — those stamped with the earliest dates — Mr Barrowman’s name has been misspelled. It has just one ‘r’. But a second ‘r’ has been inserted on the last pair to arrive.’

‘He eventually realised his error,’ Barrowman suggested. ‘So it would seem.’

I noticed that the letters ‘EC’ appeared after the final line. ‘To what does that refer?’ I asked.

‘I have no idea,’ Barrowman growled.

‘Eastern Central,’ Holmes explained. ‘You live in the east of the city?’

‘In Farringdon.’

‘It is as I thought. The sender wanted to ensure a faster delivery time.’ He smiled. ‘Your case interests me, Mr Barrowman, and I will pursue it. In due course, I will need to visit you at your home.

‘But first, Watson and I must take ourselves to Shadwell and, with your permission, we will take with us this unusual collection of cards.’

‘What is there in Shadwell?’

‘You did not remark upon the name on the front of each of the cards? Well, the inscription is tiny and almost concealed within the design. You see, Watson? Smythe of Shadwell.’

‘The name of the artist?’

‘It is very likely.’

‘Are you suggesting that Mr Smythe of Shadwell broke into my home?’ Barrowman demanded. ‘Should this turn out to be the case, then I would expect the fees for your services to be minimal, Mr Holmes. Any fool could have seen this.’

‘But you, Mr Barrowman did not.’ Holmes smiled. ‘However, I think it unlikely that Mr Smythe has any acquaintance with you. If you wish your clock to be returned, then you must engage my services at their customary rate. Do you agree?’

‘Whatever you say.’

‘Then we will be on our way and will contact you as soon as we have further news.’

We waited until our somewhat disgruntled guest had departed and shortly afterwards we left ourselves, taking a cab to Shadwell on the edge of the River Thames.

We had wrapped ourselves in heavy Ulsters with cravats around our throats — and wisely, for it became ever colder as we travelled east with the snow still thick on the ground, icicles hanging from the roofs and snowflakes spinning in the air. The sun was already sinking although it was barely mid-afternoon and it appeared to me that there were more shadows than actual people in the streets.

In the summer, the area would have been peopled by a fantastical crowd which would have gathered here from all over the world: lascars and Malays, Chinamen and Jews. The lodging houses would have been bursting with sailors, lightermen, stevedores and all those who earned their living from the docks. But in the last weeks of December a strange emptiness had come upon the place and the river lay steel-grey and hostile, trapped beneath a slowly widening layer of ice.

I waited until we had dismounted before I put to Holmes the question that had been preying on my mind. My breath frosted in the air as I spoke.

‘How are we to find this fellow, Smythe?’ I asked. ‘Shadwell extends some distance and we could walk for hours without success.’ I stamped my feet, aware that my years in India had better prepared me for the heat than for this.

‘What you say is indeed true,’ admitted my companion. ‘But there are only four stationers in this area and it may well be that the talented Mr Smythe sold his designs to one of them.’

Before we left Baker Street he had, of course, referred to the index and to the various encyclopaedias that occupied many of the shelves in his study. ‘All knowledge comes useful to the detective.’ How often had he told me that?

And so we set off on what might otherwise have been a wild goose chase, arriving after only two failed attempts at a somewhat lopsided establishment on Cable Street, where Holmes let out a cry of vindication. ‘Ha, Watson! You see? The game is very much afoot!’

Sure enough, another set of the seven Christmas cards was displayed in the window. We went in.

The shop was both a stationer’s and a printing establishment, presided over by a small, plump man whose bald head with its fringe of white hair and round spectacles put me in mind of Mr Pickwick.

The cramped premises had largely been given over to a cumbersome metal beast comprising wheels, levers and huge rollers which I knew to be a printing press. It was surrounded by shelves laden with pens and ink, different types of paper — scented, tinted or gold-edged — quill pens, steel pens, stub pens, different inks and so on.

There were many Christmas cards on display inside the shop, but only Smythe’s work had been given pride of place in the window.

‘They are not the cards I would choose to send myself,’ the jovial Mr Pickwick explained. ‘But I sold nine packets of them to just one customer a few weeks ago. It was such a sizeable order that I thought I might be on to something although I must confess that there has been no further interest since then.’ ‘Can you tell us who bought them?’ Holmes inquired.

‘Sadly not. It was someone wealthy; that’s for sure. They had sent an errand-boy with the cash to make the payment. He knew exactly what he wanted. He took the packets, paid and left but I fear he did not disclose the name of his employer.’

‘Did you print the cards yourself?’

‘Of course. The pictures and the message were delivered to me by the artist himself. I reproduced them and prepared the plates for the basic colours to be applied.’

‘So you are acquainted with the artist?’

‘Indeed, sir. Hubert Smythe lives not so very far from here and I have taken much of his work over the years. Poor fellow, he has fallen on hard times and can barely afford to support himself, although in my view he is not without talent. If only his subject matter had been a little less contrary! After that initial interest I had hoped that I would be able to sell a great many more of his cards, but unless you gentlemen are interested, I fear it is not to be.’

To my surprise, Sherlock Holmes did indeed purchase a packet of seven Christmas cards for the price of two shillings.

In all the years that I had known him, he had never sent me a card and apart, perhaps, from Mrs Hudson, his brother, Mycroft, and perhaps Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, I could not think of anyone else who might become a recipient.

However, I kept my thoughts to myself as we made our way back down Cable Street and turned off down a narrow, anonymous alleyway that brought us to the edge of Shadwell Basin itself. Here, we found a row of ancient, dilapidated houses that our friend, the printer, had described for us, each one resting on wooden stilts that strained to keep it above the mud and the river water that oozed beneath.

In neighbouring houses I could hear a dog barking, the shrill voices of a man and woman arguing. Someone was playing a violin, but not in the manner of Holmes and his Stradivarius. The instrument was untuned, the notes plucked out almost at random.

Smythe’s house, was silent. There was no movement behind the dusty windows.

Without my noticing it, the day had darkened as if hastening towards night. Our feet crunched on the ice as we approached the rickety steps that led to the front door. This was not the sort of house in which I would have expected an artist to live, even one who had never enjoyed success. It was too mean, too dismal; a place designed to break a man’s spirit.

Holmes rapped on the door. Silence. And then: ‘Who is there?’ The voice came from within.

‘My name is Sherlock Holmes,’ my friend replied. ‘I wish to speak with a Mr Hubert Smythe.’

The second silence was longer than the first. Standing in this dismal part of the capital with not a soul in sight, I found myself wishing that I had thought to bring my trusty service revolver.

It had accompanied me on many such journeys and I thought of it as much a talisman as a weapon.

And then came the crashing of wood as a door was hurled open on the other side of the house.

I heard someone drop to the ground and ran to the side of the building in time to see a man come charging towards me.

He was stalwart, wild-eyed and desperate, his mouth contorted in what could have been anger or fear. I reached out to grab hold of him but he barrelled into me, throwing me to one side.

I fell to the ground. The man turned the corner and then he was gone, his footsteps fading into the gloom.

n The Adventure Of The Seven Christmas Cards by Anthony Horowitz © Anthony Horowitz 2020.

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