Plot Summary of the Adventure of the Three Students by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Updated on February 8, 2018
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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.

The Adventure of the Three Students

The Adventure of the Three Students is an often overlooked story from the canon of Sherlock Holmes work written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; and perhaps The Adventure of the Three Students is overshadowed by the fact that it was preceded by two of the most famous Sherlock Holmes tales, The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton and The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.

The Adventure of the Three Students was first published in the Strand Magazine in June 1904, before appearing in Collier’s Weekly on 24th September 1904. Then, in 1905, the tale would appear as part of the compilation work titled The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Adaptations of the Adventure of the Three Students

Adaptations of The Adventure of the Three Students have been sparse, and the tale was not taken up for the famous Jeremy Brett Granada TV series; although Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce did appear in the 1940 radio adaptation of the story.

There has been but one adaptation of The Adventure of the Three Students for the big screen with a black and white silent film being produced in 1923 as part of the Stoll Pictures series of films.

Spoiler Alert - Plot Summary of the Adventure of the Three Students

In essence, The Adventure of the Three Students deals simply with a case of cheating in exams, a crime which is hardly on par with murder, blackmail or theft of crown jewels, but it was a problem given over to Sherlock Holmes because of the possibility of scandal. This possibility of scandal allows for Dr Watson to be vague in certain areas of the story.

Set in 1895 Holmes and Watson are visited by a university lecturer named Hilton Soames, whilst present in one of the great university towns; Soames came from the college of St Luke, but as to which university Soames is linked is never revealed.

Soames requires Holmes to act with all haste, for the next day were due to commence examinations for the Fortescue Scholarship, and Soames fears that a student has had advanced viewing of the exam papers.

Soames had left the papers upon his desk for about an hour whilst he visited a colleague, but upon his return he found that the door to his room, though still locked now had a key in the lock. Soames had discovered that the key was that of his own servant, Bannister, a man who had looked after Soames for some ten years.

It became apparent though that someone had made use of the key to enter Soames’ rooms, for the exam papers were not as they had been left.

Bannister was summoned and having denied touching the papers, virtually collapsed into a chair. Soames had himself examined the “crime” scene, and had discovered that someone had made use of a pencil, probably to make a copy of the paper. Additionally, Soames had identified a new scratch upon the writing table, as well as ball of clay upon the same table. Leaving, Bannister behind, Soames had then come straight to Holmes.


Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Three Students (1904), Illustration by Sidney Paget, in The Strand Magazine
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Three Students (1904), Illustration by Sidney Paget, in The Strand Magazine

Holmes and Watson return with Soames to the university buildings and Holmes immediately attempts to look through the window into Soames room, but has to stand on tip toe to do so; but as Soames says, no one could have entered his rooms via that window. Holmes then examines the room, but adds little to that already discovered by Soames, aside from the fact that, in terms of time, Soames must have come very near to discovering the cheat at his work.

A further discovery of more clay in Soames bedroom though, now makes it look like the cheat had been hidden in the bedroom when Soames had previously returned.

Three main suspects are identified, each being a student due to take the exam; one is named Daulat Ras, an Indian student whose Greek is his weakest subject; then there is Gilchrist a fine student and athlete, but is the son of the ruined Sir Jabez Gilchrist; and the third is Miles McLaren an extremely bright student when he applies himself.

Holmes visits the rooms of each student, and gets to meet Daulat Ras and Gilchrist, although Miles McLaren refuses to open the door to his visitor, something which might seem suspicious, but it appears that Holmes only sought to find the height of each the three students.

Holmes doesn’t come to any immediate conclusions, but whilst Soames thinks McLaren is the most likely student to cheat, Watson thinks Ras is more likely.

With the exam to be held the next morning, Soames is want to cancel the exam, but Holmes reassures the lecturer that a solution to the problem is likely to be furnished before the exam commences. Further investigations that night seem to provide no new clues

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Three Students (1904), Illustration by Sidney Paget, in The Strand Magazine
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Three Students (1904), Illustration by Sidney Paget, in The Strand Magazine

The next morning Watson is disturbed early by Holmes, with Watson somewhat shocked by the announcement by Holmes that the mystery is solved. Holmes was apparently up very early that morning, and can now produce clay identical to that found in Soames’ rooms.

Holmes and Watson travel to meet with the still agitated Soames, but Holmes proposes a discrete resolution to the problem, and sets up a mini-courtroom in Soames’ rooms.

Bannister is called for, and is basically accused by Holmes of having not told the truth. Holmes tells him of his own conclusions.

When Soames had called Bannister upon the discovery of the moved papers, Bannister had collapsed into the chair to hide an object that would have revealed who had been present. Then when Soames had departed, Bannister had let the man who was hiding in Soames’ bedroom out.

Bannister continues to deny everything, and so Gilchrist is summoned from his rooms, and Holmes accuses Gilchrist of being the guilty party.

Gilchrist thinks that Bannister has abandoned him, and again a denial emits from Bannisters lips, but Holmes calls upon Gilchrist to make a full confession. Instead, with Gilchrist overcome with emotion, Holmes recounts his findings.

Holmes had concluded that the guilty person must have known the papers were in Soames room, and to that end only a tall man could have looked into the room’s window to observe the papers; hence the previous work to discover the heights of each student. The accidental leaving of the key in the lock allowed for the temptation to become actuality.

Gilchrist was the tallest of them, and when it became known that he was a long jumper, then additional evidence also pointed to Gilchrist; for the lumps of clay came from a long jump pit, and the scratch in the table came from shoe spike.
The unexpected return of Soames had seen Gilchrist rush into the bedroom, indicated by the depth and direction of the scratch, but in his haste, Gilchrist had left gloves on the chair, which Bannister had recognised.

Gilchrist acknowledges all that Holmes has said to be correct, but Gilchrist has some news of his own, for in his possession is a letter to Soames, telling him that he is not going to take the exam. Gilchrist has already decided not to prosper from his lapse in judgement, and has instead decided to leave the university and become a commissioned officer in the Rhodesian Police.

Gilchrist then tells of how Bannister had given him guidance as to what the right thing to do was.

It is now revealed, that before coming to the university, Bannister had worked for Sir Jabez Gilchrist, who had not been an unkind employer, and so Bannister had looked after his son when Gilchrist had come up to University.

So ends the case of the Three Students, and wishing Gilchrist all the best in the future, Holmes and Watson depart for their breakfast.

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Three Students (1904), Illustration by Sidney Paget, in The Strand Magazine
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Three Students (1904), Illustration by Sidney Paget, in The Strand Magazine

The Adventure of the Three Students

  • Date of Events - 1895
  • Client - Hilton Soames
  • Locations - A University Town
  • Villain - Gilchrist

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    © 2018 Colin Quartermain

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