Plot Summary of the Adventure of Black Peter

Updated on September 15, 2018

The Adventure of Black Peter is a short Sherlock Holmes story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and would first appear in Collier’s Weekly, being published on 27th February 1904. A few days later it would subsequently be published in the March edition of the Strand Magazine.

In 1905, The Adventure of Black Peter would also be republished as one of the stories that make up The Return of Sherlock Holmes; appearing after The Adventure of the Priory School.

The Adventure of Black Peter is one of the stories of the Sherlock Holmes canon that is often overlooked, partially because it was one of the stories not adapted by Granada TV, for the series where Jeremy Brett played Holmes.

Despite the lack of dramatisation, the story of Black Peter is a classic Sherlock Holmes tale, where Holmes sets about solving the murder of Black Peter Carey, by persons unknown. The fact that Black Peter had been murdered with a harpoon of course makes the case even more interesting.

Many of the most famous elements of Conan Doyle’s Holmes come out in the tale, and whilst the police, in this case Inspector Hopkins, take the first solution as fact, Holmes looks beyond the obvious for the real solution. Of course the fact that Holmes also manages to make use of his disguises is an added bonus.

Holmes with Harpoon in Hand

Sidney Paget (186--1908) - PD-life-70
Sidney Paget (186--1908) - PD-life-70 | Source

Spolier Alert - Plot Summary

In The Adventure of Black Peter, Watson recounts details of a case from 1895 dealing with the death of Captain Peter Carey.

Holmes was working on a case, where he had created a persona of Captain Basil, a sea-going captain; although Watson had not been involved in the details of the case thus far. Holmes though had to provide some details when the detective interrupted the doctor’s breakfast, when he entered the shared rooms with a large harpoon under his arm.

Holmes explains how he has been to the butcher’s, attempting to spear a pig with a single throw of the harpoon, something that Holmes had not been able to achieve.

Holmes alludes to the test being in connection with the events at Woodman’s Lee, but before he can elaborate, Inspector Stanley Hopkins arrives. The inspector is one of the few regular police men that Holmes respects, but immediately Hopkins has to confess that he has made no progress in his own investigations.

To guide him Holmes asks about the tobacco pouch found at the crime scene, but Hopkins thinks it is insignificant, as the victims’ initials were on it, but Holmes of course thinks that the pouch is a major clue.

Of course, Watson is still in the dark about what Holmes and Hopkins are talking about, and so Hopkins fills some details in. The pair are talking about Captain Peter Carey, the one time commander of the Sea Unicorn and a former successful whaler. Carey had retired a few years earlier to Woodman’s Lee in the Weald, and had there been murdered.

The household consisted of a wife and daughter, and two female servants; the household though was not a particularly happy one, for Carey was known for his quick temper and drunkenness, and was even noted for flogging his own wife and daughter. These traits had been present when Carey was at sea as well, traits which had earned the captain the nickname of Black Peter.

Carey would primarily reside in a wooden outhouse away from the main house, and the captain had made it look like a seaman’s cabin. One night, a couple of days before his death, Carey was spotted talking to a second man within his cabin, and whilst the man, and the content of the discussion was unknown, it was recognised that the meeting of the two men had put Black Peter into a foul mood.

The next day Black Peter was dead, the body being discovered by a maid, and Inspector Hopkins was quickly at the scene. Carey had been murdered with a harpoon that had been driven through the captain, and into the wood wall behind.

The harpoon itself was Carey’s and Hopkins had surmised that Carey knew his killer, as it seemed the captain was prepared for a meeting when he died, as there was a bottle of rum and two glasses out. Carey’s sheathed knife had also been found within reach of the victim.

Hopkins though had failed to find and footprints, but had discovered the aforementioned tobacco pouch, as well as a notepad with the initials JHN inside. The notepad seemed to list Stock Exchange securities, and the values involved seemed to be an indication of motive for the murderer.

The Cabin Examined

Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908)  - PD-life-70
Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) - PD-life-70 | Source

Holmes suddenly decides to travel down to Woodman’s Lee, a decision which Hopkins is extremely pleased with, and soon Holmes, Hopkins and Watson are travelling down to Sussex.

Holmes is introduced to the wife and daughter of Carey, and the daughter seems especially pleased about the death of her father, although Holmes seems to pay little attention to that. Soon though, Holmes is examining Black Peter’s cabin, and find evidence that someone has been trying to break in, attempts that seem to have occurred after the death of Carey.

Holmes quickly surmises that the would be burglar will try again, and as the cabin is not giving up any other clues, Holmes, Hopkins and Watson decide to lie in wait for the return of the burglar.

It was 2:30am when the burglar arrived, and when the villain struck a match, a young, frail man was illuminated. Soon the young man is in the custody of Hopkins, although the first thing he says is that he has nothing to do with the death of Carey. The young man is John Hopley Neligan (initials that match those in the notebook), and his father was one half of the West Country bankers Dawson and Neligan. Their bank had failed causing the ruin of many.

It had been presumed that Neligan had stolen the securities but his son believed that his father was trying to sell them to cover all of the bank’s losses. Neligan had set sail for Norway on his yacht, but had never been seen afterwards. Initially it was believed that Neligan, the yacht and the securities had been lost at sea, but then some of the securities had reappeared on the market, and the younger Neligan had tracked down the seller of the securities, one Captain Peter Carey.

Somehow the paths of Neligan senior and Carey had crossed, and the son wished to ask the captain just what had happened, but by the time he had arrived in Sussex, Black Peter was dead. Neligan though still sought answers, and was searching for the log books of the Sea Unicorn to see what had happened.

Hopkins though takes Neligan into custody for his story does not ring totally true, for how did his notebook appear at the scene of the crime. Hopkins thinks he has the murderer but of course Holmes has already proved that no ordinary man could wield the harpoon with the force needed to skewer Carey, and the frailty of Neligan certainly ruled the young man out.

Holmes and Watson return to Baker Street where several letters have arrived, the contents of these letters seem to have solved the case, and the next morning Hopkins is invited to return to Baker Street.

Hopkins still thinks he has his man, but his belief starts to waiver as Holmes points out the flaws in his case. Holmes’ solution is about to come to fruition though for at their door are three men enquiring for Captain Basil.

All three were seamen, the first was James Lancaster, and Holmes sent him on his way with a half-sovereign, likewise the second, Hugh Pattins was dispatched. The third seaman though, a harpooner by the name of Patrick Cairns soon had handcuffs on him. A struggle ensued, and Cairns was only subdued when Hopkins and Watson aided Holmes.

Peter Cairns though is revealed by Holmes to be the murderer of Peter Carey, although Cairns immediately states it was self defence; cairns having thrown the harpoon when he feared Carey was about to use his knife on him.

Cairns had been a crew member onboard the Sea Unicorn when Neligan was rescued, along with a tin box. Cairns had later observed the captain having a long conversation with the rescued man, before black Peter had thrown the same man overboard.

Cairns had lost track of Carey when the captain gave up the sea, but eventually Cairns had tracked Black Peter down, and now wished to have some money for keeping his mouth shut. Initially, Carey had been amiable to the idea of paying off Cairns, the meeting when the second man was observed in the cabin, but when Cairns returned for the payoff, murder was in the eyes of Carey, and so Cairns had thrown the harpoon. Cairns had taken the tin box, but had left behind his own tobacco pouch (the two men sharing the same initials), the pouch that Holmes had initially believed to be important.

Cairns could do nothing with the papers he found in the tin box, and so had fallen for the trap set by Holmes; Holmes having advertised, as Captain Basil, for harpooners at high wages.

Holmes explains how he solved the case. The tobacco pouch was the starting point for he could not believe that it was Carey’s, and so it must have been that of a second man with the initials PC. The drinking of rum in the cabin also suggest that this man was a seaman. Logic dictated that this must have been an old crew mate of Carey’s and so Holmes made enquiries in Dundee of shipping lists for the Sea Unicorn, and amongst the crew members he found Patrick Cairns. So then it was just a case of enticing the harpooner to Baker Street.

Holmes tells Hopkins he must release Neligan, and return the remaining securities to the young man, giving the young man a chance to repay his father’s debts and clear his name.

The Story Told

 Sidney Paget (1860-1908) - PD-life-70
Sidney Paget (1860-1908) - PD-life-70 | Source

The Adventure of Black Peter

  • Date of Events - 1895
  • Client - Inspector Hopkins
  • Locations - Woodman’s Lee in the Weald
  • Villain - Patrick Cairns

Questions & Answers

  • In The Adventure of Black Peter, why was really Carey killed? What did Patrick Cairns want by murdering him?

    Carey was effectively killed for money, for Carey was in possession of valuable securities that he had killed for. Patrick Cairns wanted money from Carey for keeping quiet about just how Carey had come into possession of those securities, but when Carey decided it would be cheaper to kill Cairns instead of paying him, Cairns retaliated, killing Carey.

  • Who is Carey in the Adventure of Black Peter?

    Carey is Captain Peter Carey, the former captain of the Sea Unicorn, and the now deceased former retiree of Woodman's Lee in the Weald.


Submit a Comment
  • FatBoyThin profile image

    Colin Garrow 

    4 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

    Always thought this was a great story, though as you say, it doesn't get a lot of TV time. Excellent Hub.


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