"The Boscombe Valley Mystery" is one of the cases from the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is the fourth of the twelve stories that are collected as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It was first published in The Strand Magazine in 1891.
Whilst having breakfast with his wife one morning, Dr Watson receives a telegram from Sherlock Holmes. Holmes wishes Watson to accompany him to Boscombe Valley for an investigation. Watson is unsure about deserting his medical practice, but, after a little persuasion from his wife he packs a bag and hurriedly sets out to meet with Holmes.
On the journey to Boscombe Holmes informs Watson that the case concerns the death of Mr Charles McCarthy. McCarthy was a tenant of Mr John Turner, the largest landed proprietor in the area. The two men had met in Australia years ago and although Turner was the wealthier of the two they seemed to be good friends and constantly in one another’s company. Both men were widowed. McCarthy had an eighteen year old son named James and Turner had a daughter, Alice, of the same age.
On the day of his death McCarthy had hurried to Boscombe Pool with the intention of keeping an appointment with an unknown person at three o’clock. Witnesses reported seeing Charles McCarthy making his way to the pool alone and that a short time later James McCarthy followed carrying a gun. Another witness saw the father and son together by Boscombe Pool having a heated argument. Shortly after this sighting James McCarthy ran to a nearby lodge and stated that he had found his father murdered in the woods.
The body of Charles McCarthy lay by the pool with the back of the head beaten in by a blunt, heavy object. James McCarthy’s right hand and sleeve were stained with blood and his gun was found a few paces from the body.
Holmes says that circumstantial evidence can point to very different conclusions depending upon the angle from which it is considered. Despite this Holmes agrees with Watson that the case against James McCarthy looks to be very strong. Miss Alice Turner believes that James is innocent and has retained Inspector Lestrade to work the case in the interests of the young man. Lestrade, being at a loss, has called in the great detective, Sherlock Holmes.
James McCarthy has firmly claimed to be innocent. In his statement the young man related that he was not following his father but met him by chance. They argued with one another and James left the scene. He claimed to have then heard a scream and rushed back to find that Charles McCarthy had been brutally attacked.
James then discarded his gun and held his father in his arms He stated that his father made some allusion to a rat which he presumed was a result of delirium before death. James also stated that he believed someone else was at the scene although he could not be more definite. When asked by the coroner what the substance of the quarrel between him and his father had been James refused to answer. The coroner warned James that this refusal would strongly prejudice the case against him but the young man still forbore making any explanation.
Holmes believes that James McCarthy’s statement may be true since if he was guilty he would be more likely to invent a reason for the quarrel and not make the strange comment about a dying reference to a rat. Holmes states his intention to approach the case with the hypothesis that McCarthy is innocent and see what results he gleans.
Holmes and Watson arrive in the town of Ross and make their way to The Hereford Arms Hotel in the company of Lestrade. They have not been there long when Miss Turner arrives and implores Holmes to approach the case knowing that James is innocent. Holmes astounds Lestrade by announcing that he does believe in the innocence of the young man.
Miss Turner says that the argument between father and son concerned Charles McCarthy’s insistence that there should be a marriage between her and James. Alice says that no one but Mr McCarthy was in favour of the union and that this caused frequent conflict between him and his son.
Holmes asks to interview Mr John Turner but is informed that the old man is in failing health and the recent events have completely broken him. James McCarthy was the only man to have known John Turner in Victoria, Australia, during the times he made his money at the gold mines.
Holmes and Lestrade interview James McCarthy and discover that the reason James argued against his father’s wishes for marriage with Miss Turner was that two years previously, when he was still very young, he had secretly married a barmaid much older than himself.
Although James loved Miss Turner with all his heart he could not marry her because he had a wife already and he could not explain matters to his father for fear of his reaction. This was the reason for their quarrel on the day of his father’s death. Since James’ arrest the barmaid wrote to inform him that she had a husband already so there was in fact no legal tie between them.
The next day Holmes and Watson learn that John Turner was very generous with Charles McCarthy even going so far as to give him his tenancy rent free.
Holmes makes an investigation of the crime scene and finds a stone which he informs Lestrade is the murder weapon. He also describes the boots, clothes and choice of cigar of the murderer. Lestrade receives this information very disdainfully and Holmes demurely informs the Inspector that he has wasted his chance to be credited with the solution of the mystery.
By studying a map of the colony of Victoria Holmes knows that there is an area in the colony called Ballarat. As McCarthy died he was giving the name of his killer and the place the man came from. James McCarthy only happened to catch the last few syllables his father uttered. The evidence now points to John Turner being the murderer and upon a summons from Holmes the old man arrives at the hotel.
John Turner realises that Holmes knows the truth and assures him that if James McCarthy was deemed to be guilty at the Assizes he would have confessed. Rather than have Turner arrested and condemned to spend his dying days in jail Holmes asks him to relate his story as he notes down the facts. Once signed by Turner Holmes can use the document as a confession to save James McCarthy if he cannot persuade the jury of his innocence.
Turner explains that in Australia he had been a highway robber and earned himself the name “Black Jack of Ballarat.” One day Turner and his gang attacked a gold convoy and robbed it. McCarthy was the driver and Turner spared his life. The surviving members of the gang came to England with their wealth and Turner split from them in order to settle down.
After some years McCarthy chanced upon Turner and blackmailed him with the knowledge of his previous, wild life. Turner was bound to answer all of McCarthy’s demands but stood firm in his opposition to marriage between Alice and James. It was this disagreement that was to be discussed at the three o’clock appointment on the day of Charles McCarthy’s death. Knowing that his own death was fast approaching and not wishing Alice to be shadowed by the influence of McCarthy Turner took his chance and killed him after James had walked away.
Holmes manages to get James McCarthy acquitted without using the confession. Watson rounds off his narrative by reporting that Alice Turner and James McCarthy are likely to marry and live in happy ignorance of the stormy past which brought them together.
- Holmes was first seen wearing a deerstalker in Sidney Paget's illustration for this story, although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never wrote Holmes as wearing one.
- Dr. Watson appears to have no familiarity with Ballarat in this story, despite apparently having been there before; this was mentioned in his description of illicit mining there in The Sign of the Four.
- "The Boscombe Valley Mystery", an episode of the 1960s BBC television adaptations, from the programme's second series. Shot in colour, first aired in October 1968. Starring Peter Cushing and Nigel Stock.
- BBC Radio 4 adapted the short story under the same name in 1990, 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.
- "The Boscombe Valley Mystery", the 1991 episode of the ITV / Granada Television series, starring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke.
- "Murder in the Gardens", a looser theatrical adaptation of the story that premiered at the 2007 Edinburgh Festival. Though the plot and characters are largely unchanged, the setting is moved to Edinburgh, and to the time of Holmes' and Watson's younger years.