Sunday, 2 February 2014

The Sumatran Devil

(The following is based upon a talk given by Alan Saunders at the inaugural meeting of The Head Llamas in 1994. It was published in Issue 2 of our newsletter, 'Llama Droppings')

"Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson," said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. "It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared."
(The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire)

The Giant Rat of Sumatra has captured the imagination of Holmesians probably more than any other of the unrecorded cases mentioned in the Canon and as such it has been responsible for inspiring many pastiches. Throughout these tales the rat appears in many guises. In some it is a fearsome monster, or monsters and the tale contains many elements of fantasy or scientific romance; Sterling E. Lanier's 'A Father's Tale'1 is a good example, being similar in conception to H.G.Wells' 'Island of Doctor Moreau'. In other stories there is less fantasy, but even these fail to record the case using all of the information given to us in the Canon. The aim of this piece is to look at what information we are given and suggest a possible solution to 'The Adventure of the Matilda Briggs'.

The following points are the main features we must include in any explanation of the case:
  • Morrison, Morrison and Dodd - This is the legal firm whose letter regarding the Sussex Vampire reminded Holmes of the Sumatran rat in the first place. They are described as a company that specialises in the assessment of machinery. Most pastiches conveniently ignore them.
  • The 'Matilda Briggs' - This ship is obviously a key feature of the case. It should be noted that the name of the ship is probably a Watson pseudonym; it is significant that the daughter of the captain of the most famous mystery ship of all, the 'Marie Celeste' was called Sophia Matilda Briggs.

  • Watson's non-involvement - Holmes reminisces about the case to Watson, and the whole tone of the reminiscence suggests that Watson knows nothing of the case up to this point. If Watson was not involved we can date the case as occurring during one of two periods; 1878-1880 which is before Holmes met Watson, or c.1889-1891 when Watson was married and living away from Baker Street. The second of these two periods is most likely, as the involvement of Morrison, Morrison and Dodd suggests a more mature, more established Holmes. Note Holmes' sly suggestion that Watson assumes Matilda Briggs was a young woman. A nice touch from a man generally regarded as humourless.

  • The giant rat of Sumatra - In at least two pastiches, no rat appears at all; but in most of the others some sort of fantastical creature is usually involved. However from an Englishman's point of view, any rat larger than our own Black or Brown rats could be considered to be a giant. We need not look for monstrous creatures for nature has provided us with a perfect specimen: Rhizomys sumatrensis, the Great Sumatran Bamboo Rat. The length of this creature, excluding the tail, is some nineteen inches, which is twice the size of either the Black or Brown Rat; truly a giant.

  • The world not being prepared - This feature is usually used to justify the more fantastical elements of an account of the case - we, the reader and the world of today are not prepared for the full details to be known. Holmes, however was speaking in 1896, the year of SUSS; the world of 1896 was not prepared. Perhaps we, the modern world, are prepared and perhaps we have had the true facts of the case under our noses the whole time, in of all places, another of Watson's narratives; one which also has a Sumatran connection.
In DYIN Holmes fakes an obscure Asiatic disease and in doing so tricks Culverton Smith into confessing to the murder of his nephew, Victor Savage, by administration of the same disease. What disease was Holmes faking ? We are not told its name directly, but we may be given it in the story. When Holmes is trying to convince Watson of how little he knows of obscure diseases, he mentions one called Tapanuli Fever. Tapanuli is an administrative district of North West Sumatra, and Culverton Smith is a well-known planter from - Sumatra. It is probably more than coincidence that Holmes mentions a disease from the same area of the world that the man he is trying to trap comes from; Tapanuli fever is almost certainly the disease Holmes is simulating.

Whilst in Sumatra, there was an outbreak of what we will call Tapanuli Fever on Culverton Smith's plantation. Cut off from any medical assistance, Smith studied the disease himself, with what Holmes describes as 'far reaching consequences'. What were these consequences?

Consider the following idea. Culverton Smith, an amateur expert in disease, recognises the potential of the virulent, invariably fatal Tapanuli Fever as a weapon of destruction. He plans to return to London and make a further study of the disease using the superior facilities which would be available to him there. (As a digression, Watson mentions rows of bottles and jars in Culverton Smith's study which contained disease-causing microbes. One wonders how much danger money his housekeeper and maids were paid to dust them!). Somehow he must take specimens of the disease causing organisms back with him; ideally in as natural a state as possible. We know that Tapanuli fever is transmitted by being injected into the blood; the box that Culverton Smith uses to infect Holmes has a device similar to a viper's tooth to inject the microbes into the victim's bloodstream. This suggests that in its natural state the disease is transmitted by some form of blood-feeding insect or tick. The best way to transport these blood-feeding animals would be on their natural hosts; is it too much to suggest that the mammal that the Tapanuli Fever carrying insect feeds on is our old friend Rhizomys sumatrensis - The Giant Rat of Sumatra?

From this it is not hard to conceive a scenario involving the ship 'Matilda Briggs' with an agent of Culverton Smith on board as a passenger and a secret cargo of crates containing Sumatran Rats. Tapanuli Fever breaks out on board the ship, the crew dies and various legal processes are set in motion. Morrison, Morrison and Dodd are called in, perhaps on some point relating to the ship itself; it is after all a piece of machinery. They investigate the cargo and find the crates of rats instead of more conventional Sumatran imports. Holmes is consulted and quickly clears up the mystery, at least as far as naming the agent and Tapanuli Fever as the joint villains. The true villain, Culverton Smith, escapes; Holmes can prove nothing. So well are his tracks covered that if Holmes were to attempt to implicate him, he would be accused of slander or libel. Holmes must bide his time and wait for Culverton Smith to make a mistake. All this takes place, as we have said, somewhere between 1889 and 1891. By 1896, the year Holmes mentions the case to Watson, Culverton Smith still remains at large. Thus Holmes does not regard the case of the Giant Sumatran Rat as concluded, and cannot relate it without slandering Culverton Smith. The world is not, therefore, prepared for the telling.

Six years later, in 1902, we finally see the conclusion as described in DYIN. Once again we must digress at this point and briefly consider the date of DYIN. Most chronologists place it in 1890 based on information in it concerning Watson's marital status. However, one writer has shown conclusively that this case in fact took place in 1902; most of the internal evidence fits this date rather than the earlier one. There is not room to repeat the evidence here; suffice to say that it is convincing enough for this piece to be based on a 1902 date for DYIN. By this time Culverton Smith is back in London. His nephew, Victor Savage, dies of Tapanuli Fever and Holmes recognises it as the same disease as was involved in the 'Matilda Briggs' case. The fact that he has encountered the disease before also explains how Holmes knew exactly how to fake its symptoms; remember that he fools the world's greatest expert on it. The rest of the story you can read for yourself; Holmes' expert malingering succeeds, and after a delay of over ten years Culverton Smith, The Sumatran Devil, is finally caged.

1. Collected in 'Sherlock Holmes Through Time and Space'; Edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenburg, Charles G. Waugh (Severn House).

2. 'The Dying Detective Re-examined' Denis Smith (Sherlock Holmes Journal Vol 18 No 1 Winter 1986)

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