It was a strange case, Inspector Hopkins had said. A reasonably young man, in the bloom of health, found stone dead by his housekeeper as she retired for the night. There was not a mark on the body. Hopkins examined the body and believed the rigor mortis present indicated Mr. Carrew had been dead for eight to ten hours but the housekeeper insisted he had been alive and well just four hours ago.
Hopkins took that as a reason to fetch Sherlock Holmes.
Intrigued, Holmes accepted the case . . . and asked Watson to come along.
"Oh . . . yes . . . certainly, Doctor, if you wish," Hopkins had stammered. His tone was polite but it was clear to all present that Hopkins would have preferred to take along only Holmes. But Watson, ever the gentleman, had graciously overlooked this.
Now Holmes rose from his examination of the body with dark look. "Strychnine poisoning," he reported briefly. "Watson?"
The doctor took Holmes's place on the floor and commenced an investigation of his own.
"Strychnine poisoning causes the muscle contractions and spasms prior to death," Holmes explained with, to his credit, only a hint of exasperation in his voice. "After expiring, there is an immediate pseudo rigor mortis. Watson, can you pinpoint the time of death?"
"It is a trifle difficult but I should say no more than three hours ago, possibly two."
"There now, Inspector, the housekeeper in question was accurate in her report. Now what remains is to identify how he came by strychnine and why."
Watson, in the meantime, had turned his attention to the sideboard where a particular little bottle had seized his attention.
Hopkins hesitated. "Well, I should say the poison was slipped into his food or drink for the purpose of murder."
Watson looked up from his find. "Why do you say that, Inspector?"
Hopkins blinked. "Well, obviously, the man was murdered!"
" 'Obviously?'" Watson scoffed gently. "The only thing that is obvious is that he died of strychnine poisoning."
"Well, Doctor," Hopkins retorted with some heat, "can you think of a scenario in which a man dies of strychnine poisoning without it having been murder?"
"Certainly," came the amiable answer. Watson gestured to the sideboard. "A tincture of strychnine is used to treat irregular heart beats and cardiac murmurs. The dosage is usually between 1.1 milligrams and 3.2 milligrams because as little as 5 milligrams can be fatal. Now, Mr. Carrew had within his possession such a tincture found in this bottle here, and next to it his physician's instructions to take the tincture only when symptoms arise.
"Here on the sideboard is also a letter from his physician, warning him in the strictest terms that the tincture is to be taken only when symptoms are present and not to take it as a daily prophylactic. 'I cannot emphasize enough the importance of adhering to the prescribed regimen,'" Watson continued, quoting from memory as he passed the letter to Holmes. " 'I will admit to having concerns to that effect after your consultation yesterday.' The letter was dated Tuesday, by the way."
Hopkins eyebrows shot up. "He was taking a strychnine tincture daily?"
"So it seems. Judging from the little amount left in the bottle, I'd wager he ignored that letter. Hypochondriacs often do. This case was a poisoning, I suppose, but I hardly think you can arrest Mr. Carrew for that now."
"That is an excellent point, Watson," Holmes said, finally dragging his attention from the papers in his hand. "I don't know that it can rightly be called a suicide either, as death was clearly the furthest from Mr. Carrew's goals."
The young inspector continued to look distressed. "The letter could be a ruse!"
"Oh, certainly," replied Holmes without rancor. "The easiest way to determine that would be to question the physician who supposedly wrote it. He will also be able to tell you if Mr. Carrew was that much of a hypochondriac or not. I trust you may handle that portion of the investigation without incident."
"Don't be too disheartened, Inspector," Watson offered in his most soothing manner. "All it takes is a little observation and deduction."