Sherlock Holmes is hired by Josiah Amberley, a retired art supply dealer from Lewisham, to look into his wife’s disappearance. She has left with a neighbour, Dr Ray Ernest, taking a sizeable quantity of cash and securities. Amberley wants the two tracked down, though it is unclear if he is more concerned about his wife or the money.
Holmes is too busy with another case at the moment; so he sends Dr Watson to Lewisham to observe what he can, although Watson is keenly aware that this is more Holmes’s province. He does his best, observing that Amberley is busy painting his house, which seems a bit odd. He even sees Amberley’s wife’s unused theatre ticket; she and her young man disappeared while Amberley went to the theatre alone after his wife complained of a headache. Watson notes the seat number.
Watson also sees Amberley’s strongroom from which his wife had taken the valuables. She, apparently, had a key of her own. He meets a lounger with a rather military appearance in the street, and later observes him running to catch the train at Blackheath Station as he is returning to 221B Baker Street. Holmes recognizes the description; it is his rival in detection, Barker. Dr Ernest’s family has hired him to find the missing doctor.
A number of other things about Amberley are obvious. He is a miser, and as such is quite a jealous man. He is an avid chess player (indeed, so is Ernest, which is how they became acquainted), suggesting to Holmes that he also has a scheming mind.
Holmes suspects something, and so sends Watson and Amberley on a fool's errand to the remote village of Little Purlington, near Frinton in Essex, just to keep Amberley out of the way while Holmes breaks into his house to investigate it. He is “caught” by Barker, but they decide to work together.
They reach a conclusion, and later Holmes confronts Amberley with the dramatic question “What did you do with the bodies?” Holmes manhandles Amberley just in time to stop him taking a poison pill. Amberley is obviously guilty.
Holmes explains how he reached his conclusion. Amberley’s alibi fell apart when Holmes discovered that his seat at the Haymarket Theatre had not been occupied on the night in question, its number deduced from the ticket that Watson had seen. Also, the painting was a clue. Holmes realized that it was being done to mask a smell, and he soon discovered what that was: gas. He found a gas pipe leading into the strongroom with a tap outside. Amberley had lured his wife and her lover — for so he had believed Dr. Ernest to be — into the strongroom, locked them in, and turned the gas on, killing them out of jealousy. He had simply hidden the “stolen” valuables somewhere. In indelible pencil, one of the victims wrote “We we…”, perhaps meaning to write “We were murdered.”
The bodies are found in a disused well in the garden, hidden under a dog kennel, just where Holmes suggested that the police look.
Amberley apparently hired Holmes out of “pure swank”, believing that no-one would ever find him out.
Holmes believes that Amberley will likely end up at Broadmoor rather than on the scaffold, owing to his mental state.
Complete Story Text
- "The Retired Colourman", an episode of the 1960s BBC television adaptations, from the programme's first series. Shot in black and white, first aired in May 1965. Starring Douglas Wilmer and Nigel Stock.
- BBC Radio 4 adapted the short story under the same name in 1994, as part of a long-term series of BBC radio adaptations of the whole Sherlock Holmes Canon, directed by playwright and radio drama director Bert Coules. The radio adaptation starred Clive Merrison and Michael Williams.