Plot Summary of the Adventure of the Dancing Men

Updated on March 10, 2018
Colin Quartermain profile image

Colin has been reading as long as he can remember, and the works of Conan Doyle were some of the early works that kept him reading.

Sherlock Holmes and the Dancing Men

In the canon of Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Dancing Men is one of the most famous and memorable of cases undertaken by the detective. In this case, Holmes has to decipher the code hidden in what appears to be a child’s drawing.

Publication of the Adventure of the Dancing Men

The Adventure of the Dancing Men was written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for publication in the December 1903 edition of the Strand Magazine; being published the month after The Adventure of the Norwood Builder.

Subsequently, The Adventure of the Dancing Men would be republished in 1905 as part of the collection work, The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Short Review of the Adventure of the Dancing Men

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would rank The Adventure of the Dancing Men as one of his favourite short Sherlock Holmes stories.

On the face of it, the drawings of dancing men may seem to be a childish prank, and that is what Watson assumes they are, but the fact that the figures are frightening a grown woman half to death of course means that there is something more sinister to them.

The case is one where the reader can work alongside Holmes, not just in solving the case, but also in deciphering the message, for the Dancing Men figures are reproduced in most reprints of the story.

Despite having a very high success rate with the most difficult of cases, in The Adventure of the Dancing Men, whilst Holmes does eventually solve the case, his client is not alive to witness the success. In this case the client is killed as Holmes is on the verge of deciphering the messages; this is similar to the case of The Five Orange Pips.

The Adventure of the Dancing Men has been adapted for stage and screen on several occasions. The first famous adaptation starred Peter Cushing as Holmes in the 1960s, but a second adaptation was undertaken by Granada TV when Jeremy Brett starred as Sherlock Holmes.

Examining the Code

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

Spoiler Alert - Plot Summary of the Adventure of the Dancing Men

The Adventure of the Dancing Men commences with Holmes and Watson in their shared rooms at 221B Baker Street; and it seems that Holmes has developed a new mind reading skill, for the detective correctly deduces that Watson is not going to invest in South African securities.

Watson is of course astounded by Holmes’ deduction, although the explanation given by the detective is fairly mundane, as the doctor had not asked for his cheque book, which is locked away.

Soon Holmes has more important things to consider than South African securities, as a letter has arrived from one Mr Hilton Cubitt of Ridling Thorpe Manor, Norfolk. Included in the letter is a drawing of matchstick figures apparently dancing. Watson assumes that it is a drawing made by a child, although immediately Holmes considers that it indicates something far more serious.

Hilton Cubitt soon arrives at Baker Street and tells Holmes and Watson his strange tale.

Cubitt himself would not be overly concerned about the dancing men, but the appearance of the childish drawings is frightening his wife, Elsie Cubitt nee Patrick. Cubitt had married the American Elsie a year earlier, but one of the conditions of marriage was that Cubitt was not to ask his wife about her life prior to their meeting. It was a strange request, but being a gentleman, was one Cubitt was willing to agree to.

For a year the couple had been happy together, but then two weeks earlier, a letter had arrived from America, and Elsie, after reading it had promptly destroyed it.

A week later, the dancing figures had started to appear around the Norfolk estate, and whilst Cubitt was worried he would not directly ask Elsie about them; Cubitt keeping his previous promise. Cubitt though, did not feel that this promise meant that Sherlock Holmes could not investigate the matter.

Cubitt would return to his home, but there was at the time little Holmes could do, for one set of figures did not offer enough for Holmes to go on.

The Dancing Men

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle PD-life-70
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle PD-life-70 | Source

Two weeks later though, Cubitt returns to Baker Street with more examples of the Dancing Men. Cubitt also tells Holmes that he had caught sight of the man drawing the figures, but Elsie had prevented him from shooting at the man.

The new copies of Dancing Men give Holmes more to go on, and it seems that within a few hours of Cubitt’s latest departure, the detective has deciphered the code. Soon Holmes is dispatching telegrams, although he doesn’t fill Watson in on the progress made.

Two days would elapse before a response was received to Holmes’ telegram, and at the same time another set of drawings, forwarded by Cubitt has the detective worried. Holmes wanted to set off immediately for Norfolk, but the lack of trains meant that his journey would have to wait to the next morning.

Holmes and Watson do travel down to North Walsham the next morning, but by then it is too late, as the station master informs them of the death of Hilton Cubitt. It seems that Cubitt has been shot by Elsie, before she has then turned the gun on herself, although the wife of Cubitt is not dead.

Holmes and Watson continue their journey on to Ridling Thorpe Manor, and there they are met by Inspector Martin of the Norfolk Constabulary. Martin is more than happy to have the assistance of Holmes on the case, and soon Holmes is examining the crime scene.

To Martin it seems a clear cut case, but when Holmes digs out a third bullet at the crime scene, it is evident that a second gun, and therefore a third person, was present when Cubitt was shot.

Mysteriously, Holmes then sends a message to Elrige’s Farm, a message that Watson spies is addressed to Mr Abe Slaney.

Holmes, Watson and Martin, then sit in the house’s drawing room for a response to the note. Whilst the three wait, Holmes explains his deciphering of the Dancing Men, and then also explains his telegram to the New York police force in regards to Abe Slaney. The telegram response to Holmes’ own telegram was simply “the most dangerous crook in Chicago”.

The wait ends when Abe Slaney himself walks into the drawing room; Slaney having been tricked by a Dancing Men message that he presumed was from Elsie Cubitt.

Abe Slaney is soon in handcuffs, and is actually upset when he learns that Elsie is seriously injured. Slaney himself was once engaged to Elsie, for he and her father had both been members of the criminal organisation named “the Joint”. It was “the Joint” who had created the Dancing Men code, and Slaney figured that no-one outside the organisation could decipher it.

Elsie had broken the engagement, and left America, as she could not condone the criminal activity of “the Joint”.

Abe Slaney had eventually tracked Elsie down, and then came the fateful confrontation. It seems that Hilton Cubitt had fired first, and missed, and then Slaney had not. Slaney had fled immediately afterwards, and so had not seen that Elsie, seeing her husband dead, had tried to take her own life.

Subsequently, Abe Slaney would be tried and convicted of murder, and whilst the death penalty was given, it was later commuted to life in prison. Elsie Cubitt would eventually make a full recovery, and would live for many years afterwards running her late husband’s estate.

A case has been solved, but Holmes’ client has not been saved.

A Killer Caught

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

The Adventure of the Dancing Men

  • Date of Events - 1898
  • Client - Hilton Cubitt
  • Locations - Ridling Thorpe Manor, Norfolk
  • Villain - Abe Slaney

Questions & Answers

  • In the book, The Adventure of the Dancing Men, who were the dancing men?

    The Dancing Men were the figures written down and drawn, on paper and elsewhere, which represented letters of the alphabet, and hence were used as a secret code.


Submit a Comment
  • Colin Quartermain profile imageAUTHOR

    Colin Quartermain 

    5 years ago

    Many thanks for the comment - The story of the Dancing Men is one of my favourite tales of all the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

  • FatBoyThin profile image

    Colin Garrow 

    5 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

    First-rate summary of The Dancing Men, and great illustrations - I love this story because of the matchstick figures, as it adds another level of mystery to the tale. Great Hub.


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