For financial convenience I have shared a flat at 221B Baker Street in London for over a decade now with a most extraordinary man named Sherlock Holmes, who fancies himself a skilled swordsman and boxer, reasonably good violinist, expert in British law, confirmed bachelor, enthusiast of sensational literature and the premier practitioner of forensic science. He is also my most loyal friend. I am Dr. John H. Watson.
Mr. Holmes’ clients hire him as a private detective, and they include Scotland Yard, European monarchs, wealthy aristocrats, captains of industry as well as common citizens aggrieved by a crime because he has earned the reputation of solving such crimes through parsing minutia and connecting the dots in a way that eludes the authorities and other less gifted observers.
On this day, a loud banging on the front door brings our alarmed landlady, Mrs. Hudson, down the stairs to see who is making such a racket. It is a member of the London Symphony and friend of Mr. Holmes who demands he see Mr. Holmes immediately, as a terrible crime has been committed, he insists.
“A terrible crime?” Holmes repeats as he opens his door at the top of the stairs and looks down at his old friend. “Send Mr. Reynolds up, Mrs. Hudson,” he directs. Bounding up the stairs meeting Holmes on the landing, the distraught man blurts out, “The maestro is dead!”
Arriving at the townhouse residence of the recently departed Hans Richter just blocks away from the Queens Hall, home of the Symphony, Holmes is led into the maestro’s study where members of Scotland Yard had arrived just minutes earlier. The late conductor’s body was on the floor next to a Victrola a few steps away from the fireplace and his writing desk. Strewn about the floor were the broken pieces of a 78 RPM phonograph record, and a tea set including the silver tray, porcelain pitcher and various cups and saucers.
“Have you examined the body?” Holmes asks the London Bobby nearest to him.
“Yes, sir,” he responds. “No blood. No signs of blunt force trauma. No strangulation marks.”
“Mr. Holmes, I presume?” says a plainclothes Scotland Yard detective stepping in.
“Indeed. A struggle and then the victim just dies? I think not. We must examine the tea set for traces of poison,” Holmes advises. He bends down and picks up a teacup with a broken handle. He scrutinizes it, sniffs it and then runs his index finger inside and takes a quick taste. “Hmm,” he grunts.
“What is it?” the Scotland Yard man asks.
“Coffee. Arabica, I believe. With a hint of whiskey. Perhaps Scottish single malt,” Holmes responds. He hands the cup to the detective. “See if your chemists can find any trace amounts of poison.”
The Scotland Yard crew begins to pick up the remnants of the broken tea set as two additional men enter with a canvas stretcher and proceed to transfer the deceased from the floor and carry it out.
“It’s odd,” Mr. Reynolds turns to Holmes and continues, “I’ve never known the maestro to drink coffee, or alcohol for that matter.”
“Did he live here alone?” Holmes asks.
“Since his poor wife died last year he did, yes,” Reynolds answers. “He has a son and daughter but they both live outside of London, I’m not sure where exactly.”
“We must find who was with him earlier today. Perhaps a neighbor saw someone come or go. See what you can find out while I examine this room.” Reynolds exits with the rest of the Scotland Yard people.
Holmes looks down at the broken pieces of the phonograph record and bends down to collect them. He takes them to a table and lays out the pieces, arranging them back in order as one would with a jigsaw puzzle. He puts on his reading glasses to view the label. “Finale to 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky,” he mumbles to himself.
He continues to look around stopping at the maestro’s writing desk. There he opens an appointment book, flipping through the various dates until he gets to today. Reading the maestro’s scratchy penmanship, he sees a noon appointment with one Arthur Bromfeld and a separate piece of paper with a handwritten shopping list that included “baguette, scones, milk, sugar and ground coffee.” Holmes folds the paper and puts it in his pocket.
The next day, at the invitation of Mr. Reynolds, Holmes and I visited Queen’s Hall to observe a rehearsal of the Symphony for their weekend concert. Mr. Reynolds was asked to step in as interim conductor. We were also there to interview members of the orchestra to see if we could glean any information about the maestro from those who worked closely with him. His first violinist overheard him complaining that he had been overlooked for a recording contract for the Gramophone Company having lost out to a rival orchestra. The harp player said he had confided in her that he had been depressed since the death of his wife and had invited her to join him for dinner several times but she turned him down fearing it might jeopardize her job if things weren’t going the way he wanted. But she also mentioned that she had observed him preparing Irish coffees backstage after a recent performance and drinking them with Mr. Reynolds as they were the last musicians to leave that night.
The following day, Holmes visited Scotland Yard in the morning to see if their chemists found any trace of poison in the cups; they had – thallium sulfate, a highly toxic compound commonly used as a rat poison. In the afternoon, I accompanied Mr. Holmes to the home of Mr. Reynolds to find what he knew about the name on the maestro’s appointment book, Arthur Bromfeld.
Reynolds tells us Arthur Bromfeld is the personal representative of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the Russian composer, and conductor. The maestro was inviting Tchaikovsky to be a guest conductor and Reynolds had not heard if the great Russian had accepted or not. But by the smashed Gramophone record found on the maestro’s floor, he guessed Bromfeld had turned the offer down.
Reynolds was a gracious host, offering us tea or coffee. While we both are tea drinkers, Holmes immediately requested coffee, and Reynolds was happy to brew a pot, and invited us to join him in the kitchen while he did so. The small but tidy kitchen housed a generously stocked wine rack, a fine selection of canned jams and jellies, a dozen cans of a variety of teas and one jar marked “coffee.”
While boiling water and transferring scoops of ground coffee into a glass pitcher (that would later become known as French Press), Reynolds was chatty to the point of distraction. He was rambling on about how much he admired and respected the maestro and how taking his place to conduct this weekend would feel odd. I turned to Holmes and indicated my disbelief. Something was definitely amiss with Reynolds’ verbosity.
Holmes gestured to me to get Reynolds to turn away from the coffee jar and I complied, walking around the table to inspect his wine rack, while Holmes pinched a sample of the coffee into a small piece of paper he folded and quietly put in his pocket. After the coffee was brewed, Reynolds served us and we returned to the living room where we spent the good part of an hour probing Reynolds about who he thought had a motive to kill the maestro.
“He didn’t have an enemy in the world,” Reynolds insists. “Perhaps the motive was robbery. Do we know if any of his valuables are missing?”
Since none were, Holmes had probed enough and we thanked the man and left. On the street, Holmes turned to me and immediately declared, “We have our murderer. And the coffee will prove it.”
“The coffee?” I asked.
“If the sample I took from his kitchen matches the trace samples left at the crime scene, then Reynolds is our man. We’re off to Scotland Yard to visit the chemists.”
It only took the Scotland Yard chemists a short time to examine Holmes’ coffee sample and make a match to the previous sample taken at the crime scene. Holmes lays out his case, “Reynolds prepared the coffee after Bromfeld left. The maestro was in a foul mood being tuned down by Tchaikovsky. Reynolds arrives to comfort him. He benefits by becoming the new conductor if the maestro dies. He knew what the smashed phonograph record was on the floor without seeing the label. And finally, the shopping list I took from the maestro’s desk matches Reynolds’ handwriting. He had motive and opportunity. Time to get a warrant.”
Holmes and I arrive at Queen’s Hall with officers from Scotland Yard just prior to the evening concert. Entering through the stage door, the tinkling of instruments being practiced and unpacked can be heard. We spot Reynolds adjusting his white bow tie in a mirror as he is about to put on his tail coat when Inspector Henderson approaches him with the warrant in his hand.
“Clive Reynolds?” he asks, as Reynolds looks up completely surprised. “You are under arrest for the murder of Hans Richter.” A collective gasp is heard from the musicians within earshot.
“How did you know?” he blurts out.
Holmes chimes in, “It was the coffee, my friend. Arabica from Yemen.”
Reynolds pleads, “But, but, I am about to conduct tonight’s concert. The orchestra cannot play without a conductor. There is no one to replace me on such short notice.”
Holmes walks over to the table and takes the conductor’s baton in his hand. “On the contrary. I am quite familiar with tonight’s program and I’ve always wanted to conduct a symphony orchestra, so tonight will be my debut.”
As the police take him away, Reynolds laments, “Oh God, prison coffee. I should die first.”