Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Three Gables


Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Three Gables in May of 1903. There is no real evidence for this date, but there nothing to contradict it either. We will further examine the story's chronology throughout our analysis (as well as the story's canonicity). The story was first published in September of 1926.


Sherlock Holmes has just received a letter from a Mary Maberley, of Three Gables in Harrow Weald, requesting his aid in interpreting a matter of some confusion. Imagine his surprise, then, when he is visited by Steve Dixie, a ruffian who threatens Holmes' life should he get involved in the Harrow Weald affair. This peaks Holmes' interest, and he is soon able to deduce that Mrs. Maberley has something hidden within her house that someone is desperate to get a hold of. This fact is confirmed when Holmes, after a visit to a gossipmonger, returns to Three Gables to find that Mrs. Maberley has been chloroformed, her deceased son's belongings burgled. The story is quickly resolved, Holmes tracking down the woman responsible and uncovering a story of love, betrayal, and narrowly averted scandal.

The Subtext:

Before we begin with our analysis of the subtext contained within this story, it is first necessary to examine the canonicity of this case. Many scholars have expressed doubt as to this story's authenticity, and, indeed, in examining the story we find ample evidence to suggest the possibility of an imitation.

To begin with, the story itself is pretty outrageous. The story's villain, Isadora Klein, in an effort to retrieve a manuscript written by Mrs. Maberley's son (and hence avoid a scandal) goes so far as to offer to purchase Mrs. Maberley's home (along with its contents). When that doesn't work, she then proceeds to hire a gang of ruffians to break into Mrs. Maberley's home and retrieve the document. True, this does make for compelling fiction, but the sense of realism which accompanied so many of Holmes' previous cases is distinctly lacking.

Watson's style is also slightly off; at first glance it seems quite genuine, but then, as we progress, it becomes quite obvious that the author is trying entirely too hard to write in the manner commonly used by Watson. The prose lacks Watson's natural grace.

Finally, and perhaps the most damning evidence of all, Sherlock Holmes is horribly out of character.

We shall begin with Holmes' treatment of Steve Dixie. Indeed, Holmes, largely due to his treatment of this character, has been labelled by some as a racist. This is quite unusual for Holmes, especially given his open-minded response to the events contained with The Adventure of the Yellow Face (which was published some 32 years earlier).

Then there are Holmes' forced attempts at humour; an act which seems incredibly out of place for the great detective. He is constantly joking and making barbs at the expense of others. Indeed, this is so unlike Holmes that he is barely recognizable.

In fact, most of Holmes' behaviour in this story is deplorable. At times he is downright annoying. He comes across as crude, rude and abrasive; so completely contrary to Holmes' usual self that one half expects a find a pod hidden in his wardrobe.

Finally, Holmes compounds a felony by allowing Klein to avoid punishment for her part in the burgling of Mrs. Maberley's home. This is not entirely new territory for Holmes, but it is the first time he has committed extortion --and this is particularly noteworthy when we consider that Holmes' sympathies did not rest with Klein.

This out of character behaviour on Holmes' behalf leads us, then, to a very poignant question:

Is The Adventure of the Three Gables a forgery?

This is by far the more popular theory, and yet, if this is the case, then we can completely ignore what little subtext is to be found within the tale. If this is not the case, then we must examine a possible alternative for Holmes' behaviour. Here, we feel, the answer is quite simple.

Sherlock Holmes is out of character, because Sherlock Holmes is high.

If we assume, then, that Holmes' unusual behaviour in this story can be chalked entirely up to his cocaine use, then we must dismiss Baring-Gould's date as wrong.

Recall that we have suggested that Holmes was finally able to wean himself from cocaine in 1897 (DEVI). In all likelihood this process began in 1896 (MISS), but it would take several years before Holmes could call himself clean.

Watson's confidence and competence in this tale are highly suggestive of a date post Holmes' return, so we can ignore anything before 1894. Further evidence for a later date is given in that Watson appears to be unmarried (although there is some debate as to whether or not he is residing in Baker Street). Ignoring our first assumption, at the very least we can dismiss the years during Watson's marriage to Miss Morstan.

Combining the two, we can now safely date the case between 1894 and 1897. As Holmes' reaction to the cocaine seems particularly intense (hence his singular behaviour) we can also suggest that it has been some time since he last took the substance. This would favour a later date (i.e. 1897). In fact, it is entirely possible that the events contained within this story took place during one of Holmes' final relapses.

Assuming, then, that Holmes was indeed under the influence of cocaine, and that this relapse was one of his last (allowing for a later date) we are now in a position to examine the subtext contained within the story.

I had not seen Holmes for some days and had no idea of the new channel into which his activities had been directed.

So Watson begins his narrative, and it is this statement which has caused Baring-Gould to assume both a later date and a second (third) marriage. Here, however, we must suggest two potential alternatives. If indeed we do accept Baring-Gould's date (1903) then it is quite possible that Watson has merely returned from Sussex. If, however, we assume an earlier date (1897) then we must also suggest that Watson, frustrated with Holmes' continued drug use, has temporarily left Baker Street (though whether he obtained alternate lodgings, or simply checked into a hotel, we cannot say).

Watson's next statement, in addition to suggesting that Watson might have returned to Baker Street for good, can also be seen as evidence for our 'Holmes on a cocaine bender' theory.

He was in a chatty mood that morning, however, and had just settled me into the well-worn low armchair on one side of the fire, while he had curled down with his pipe in his mouth upon the opposite chair...

We must, of course, acknowledge Holmes' excitement at seeing Watson, as well as his desire to once again ensconce Watson in Baker Street (hence the settling of Watson into a well-worn armchair), but here we are particular to note Holmes' chattiness. Indeed, although Holmes is, on occasion, quite the stimulating conversationalist, this does seem rather out of place. We must then question what it was that prompted Holmes' sudden need to engage Watson in conversation. Clearly, the idea of a stimulant (such as cocaine) is not altogether implausible.

Alternatively, we might also suggest that Holmes was feeling particularly giddy (Watson having arrived home for a bout of morning sex) and that he, in his gratitude, transferred Watson from the couch to his chair so that he might be comfortable. If this is the case, then we must acknowledge that Holmes is, on occasion, quite the considerate boyfriend.

Whatever the reason, their morning is soon interrupted by the arrival of Steve Dixie, a bruiser who takes little time in threatening Holmes with violence. Holmes seems completely unfazed by Dixie's threats, but Watson is clearly alarmed for Holmes' safety. He tells us:

...or it may have been the slight clatter which I made as I picked up the poker.

It is quite pleasing to note that, regardless of where they are in their relationship, Watson is still quite protective of his Holmes.

And Holmes is still quite observant (and appreciative) of his Watson, Holmes stating:

"I am glad you were not forced to break his woolly head, Watson. I observed your manoeuvres with the poker."

Dixie's visit, and his warning against Holmes' involvement in Harrow Weald, only serves to heighten Holmes' interest in the case. He and Watson soon head out to visit Mrs. Maberley, and it is there that Holmes first hears of her son's death.

Douglas Maberley is a celebrity of sorts, Holmes suggesting that all of London knows him (although Holmes admits to only knowing him second hand). It is curious, then, to note Holmes' comments regarding Maberley. Holmes tells us:

"What a magnificent creature he was!"

Going on to state:

"I have never known anyone so vitally alive. He lived intensely — every fibre of him!"

Here we must acknowledge that Holmes is suffering from a celebrity crush. One wonders what Watson made of Holmes' 'fanboy'-ish nature.

Deciding that Mrs. Maberley does not particularly want to hear his praise for her son, Holmes soon shifts gears, turning his attention to the case at hand. After hearing Mrs. Maberley's story, Holmes deduces that there is something in her house which is of great value. He then asks Watson's opinion on the matter, Watson agreeing wholeheartedly with Holmes' theory. Holmes' response, one must agree, is quite telling:

"Dr. Watson agrees, so that settles it."

We see here a measure of Holmes' trust and respect for Watson, that Watson's word could finalize a theory.

Shortly after suggesting that Mrs. Maberley have her lawyer spend the night, Holmes and Watson part ways, Holmes heading out in search of Langdale Pike, the infamous London gossip, while Watson returns, presumably, to Baker Street. Watson is, however, quite careful to mention that he does not see Holmes for the rest of the day, implying that he does see him that night.

Still, Watson is careful, telling us:

When I met my friend in his room early next morning, I was conscious from his bearing that all was well, but none the less a most unpleasant surprise was awaiting us.

Note, however, that Watson does not refer to Holmes' rooms (which he would have done had he been living away from Baker Street). Watson distinctly refers to Holmes' room, which we all know at this point has been converted into storage. We must, however, give Watson points for trying.

From this point, the story quickly comes to a conclusion, Holmes moving on to investigate the burglary of Mrs. Maberley's home, and then discovering the identity of the woman who orchestrated the entire thing. The story ends on an unusual note (although, not unusual for this particular story), with Holmes allowing the suspect to escape the clutches of the law. Not once does Holmes lead us through his process of deduction, and it is this, above all else, which has led many to question the authenticity of Three Gables. For our purposes, we must assume that Holmes, when under the influence of cocaine, is incapable of putting his process of deductive reasoning into words.

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