Simanaitis Says

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CLASSIC SUBTERRANEAN CRIMINALITY

SHERLOCK HOLMES knew about London’s underground, including Professor Moriarty, Colonel Moran, John Clay and the like. He also knew the London Underground, the world’s first and one of the grandest subterranean transportation systems.

In fact, Holmes’ Underground jaunt to Saxe-Coburg Square might well have inspired him to crack the case of “The Red-Headed League.” And, some 60 years later, Orson Welles playing con artist Harry Lime had a similar inspiration in Budapest while dealing with “Too Many Crooks.”

Holmes’ adventure took place in 1890 when pawnbroker Jabez Wilson presented him with a conundrum: Wilson’s flaming red hair had seemingly earned him a job, five days a week, 10 to 2, copying out the contents of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Then, without warning, on October 9, 1890, this Red-Headed League was dissolved, leaving Wilson £4 a week the poorer.

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Jabez Wilson, pawnbroker. Illustration by Sidney Paget, for the Strand Magazine, August 1891.

“As far as I have heard,” said Holmes, “it is impossible for me to say whether the present case is an instance of crime or not, but the course of events is certainly among the most singular that I have ever listened to.”

“What are you going to do, then?” asked Dr. John H. Watson, his friend and chronicler.

“To smoke,” Holmes responded. “It is quite a three-pipe problem.”

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Holmes in a cogitative mood. Illustration by Sidney Paget for the Strand Magazine, August, 1891.

Later, Watson reports, “We travelled by the Underground as far as Aldergate and a short walk took us to Saxe-Coburg Square.” Wilson’s pawnshop was in a shabby neighborhood only one street away from a decidedly upmarket area.

Perhaps thinking of his Underground trip, Holmes “walked slowly up the street and then down again to the corner, still looking keenly at the houses. Finally he returned to the pawnbroker’s, and, having thumped vigorously upon the pavement with his stick two or three times, he went up to the door and knocked.”

Wilson’s assistant responded when Holmes asked for directions. “I am sure that you inquired your way merely in order that you might see him,” Watson said.

“Not him.”

“What then?”

“The knees of his trousers.”

“And what did you see?”

“What I expected to see.”

“Why did you beat the pavement?”

“My dear Watson, it is time for observation, not for talk. We are spies in enemy country. We know something of Saxe-Coburg Square. Let us now explore the paths which lie behind it.”

One street over, among the fine shops and stately businesses abutting the shabby square was the Coburg branch of the City and Suburban Bank. Within the context of Holmes’ recent Underground travel, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. Hint: Wilson’s assistant is really John Clay. And the knees of his trousers…?

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Baker Street Station, the London Underground. Image from theguardian.com.

By the way, one of the Metropolitan Railway’s original stops is Baker Street Station, at the junction of this street and Marylebone Road. Today, served by five different lines, the station is decorated to celebrate the world’s greatest consulting detective.

Orson Welles played a small, but key role in the 1949 film The Third Man. His radio program, The Adventures of Harry Lime, originated in Britain and ran in the U.S. during 1951 – 1952 as The Lives of Harry Lime. Prequels to The Third Man, The Adventures/Lives presented Harry as con artist extraordinaire. Yet, more often than not, his capers end with someone else getting the lolly and Harry merely getting the reputation.

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George Orson Welles, 1915 – 1985, American actor, director, writer, producer. His portrayal of Harry Lime in The Third Man, 1949, led to radio prequels of Lime’s career.

In “Too Many Crooks,” Harry is summoned by Mr. Fekerty, a Budapest bank president, to abet in a sham bank robbery. The scam involves a flowershop across the street staffed by Lulu, whom Harry recognizes as old friend Lily. Then as now, she’s accompanied by the Corelli brothers, the best bank robbers in Central Europe.

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“The Lives of Harry Lime: Too Many Crooks,” August 3, 1951. Audio provided to YouTube by The Orchard Enterprises.

There are double-crosses, redoubled, and great highjinks. This time around, Harry ….

No, I’ll not spoil the fun. But the Corelli brothers’ trouser knees provide a hint of the scam. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

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