We start out this story with Watson and his (now that we think of it, rarely mentioned) wife sitting around the breakfast table.
Watson gets a telegram from Holmes both asking and telling Watson to get his butt to Paddington Station at 11:15 that morning to catch a train to the west of England (where the weather, Holmes says, is currently lovely). Holmes needs help on a new case in a place called Boscombe Valley (fictional, so far as we can tell).
Watson's wife says it'll be good for Watson to get away, and that he always enjoys his outings with Holmes. So Watson goes.
(Watson says, "I should be ungrateful if I were not [interested in Holmes's cases], seeing what I gained through one of them" (Valley.5). He's paying his wife a compliment: the thing he gained is a reference to Mary Morstan herself, whom he meets in the second full-length Holmes novel, The Sign of Four.)
Watson meets Holmes on the train platform, and they board the 11:15 train together.
Holmes explains that this case is "one of those simple cases which are extremely difficult" (Valley.12).
The case is this: Boscombe Valley is in Herefordshire, a rural English county.
The largest landowner in the area is a guy who made his fortune in Australia and then returned to the U.K. to buy farms, a Mr. John Turner. One of the farms that Turner owns, he leases to another Australian, Mr. Charles McCarthy.
McCarthy and Turner seem friendly; they're seen together all the time, anyway. Neither of them are very social guys otherwise, and both of them have one child: Turner, a daughter, and McCarthy, a son.
June 3rd, the Monday before the story starts, McCarthy walks out of Hatherley Farmhouse (his home), telling his servant that he has an appointment at three.
Two people saw McCarthy walking in the direction of Boscombe Pool alone. Within a few minutes, one witness adds, the dead guy's son comes down the same road, carrying a gun.
Another witness sees the two McCarthy men having a huge argument. She has just run home to the game lodge to tell her mother she thinks the two McCarthys are going to fight when the younger McCarthy runs up and says he's found his father dead in the forest.
At this point, James McCarthy (that's the son) is not holding his gun or his hat, and his right hand is bloody.
The lodge-keeper follows him out to Boscombe Pool, where the elder McCarthy lies dead with his head caved in, in a way that could have been caused by blows from the butt of his son's gun.
So, what with the bloody hand, the loud argument, and the murder weapon apparently near the body and belonging to McCarthy the Younger, there's enough evidence to convict him of murder.
The case is about to appear before "the Assizes" (the Assizes were courts set up by circuit court judges who traveled around England to hear serious cases that were beyond the authority or expertise of the local magistrates).
There are lots of people who believe James is innocent, including the daughter of McCarthy Senior's friend Turner. She takes the case to Lestrade (a Scotland Yard detective who we met in the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet), who then kicks it over to Holmes.
Holmes is pretty sure that, even though everything looks rough for James, he can bring a fresh (and better) perspective on the evidence.
One thing that does look a little bad: in his first interview with the cops, James said he deserved to be arrested – but then he says he's still innocent. So what does he mean by saying he's getting his just desserts? Isn't that a confession?
Holmes thinks this I've-done-something-wrong-but-not-that statement is the best evidence of James's innocence, because what murderer trying to hide his crime would be honest enough to admit some kind of guilt when he's in the hands of the cops?
Upon his arrest, James gives this account:
James had been away from home for three days before the fatal Monday. When he gets home, he's just in time to see his dad walking quickly across the yard.
James, without knowing the direction his father had been walking, grabs his rifle and sets out to Boscombe Pool to do some rabbit shooting. He still doesn't know his father is in front of him.
As he approaches the pool, he hears his father yelling, "Cooee!" which is a signal between James and his dad. So James runs forward, and finds his dad at the pool.
McCarthy Senior is surprised and weirdly angry to see James, and they have words. Because his dad is in such a temper, James just heads back to Hatherley Farmhouse and skips the rabbit shooting.
Before he can get far, though, James hears a terrible struggle.
He runs back to the pool to find his dad dying. He goes to the nearest house (that of Turner's lodge-keeper) for help.
James adds that his father's last words were something about a rat, and that James absolutely will not say what the two were arguing about.
Also, James cannot account for the fact that his father appeared to be calling for him ("Cooee!") before he could possibly have seen James approaching the pool.
One last clue: James saw something out of the corner of his eye on the ground when he ran over to his father, something grey, but it was gone by the time he stood up and turned away from his dad to get help.
It's Lestrade who meets Holmes and Watson at the train platform when they arrive in the country town of Ross, where all these shenanigans are going on.
Lestrade takes them to a hotel, where they encounter Miss Turner, the gal who's sure James didn't kill his dad.
Holmes tells her that he doesn't think James killed McCarthy Senior either.
Miss Turner adds an important clue: that argument James had been having with his dad? Probably about her.
And it's not what we here at Shmoop thought. We were sure it was going to be a star-crossed lovers deal, but it's the opposite: James and Miss Turner love each other like brother and sister, but McCarthy Senior desperately wants the two of them to get married. Nobody else wants this marriage except McCarthy Senior.
Miss Turner also tells Holmes that, since McCarthy Senior's murder, her father, Turner Senior, has been in bed with a nervous breakdown.
McCarthy was the last man alive who knew Turner during his time in the gold mines in Victoria, Australia.
Miss Turner leaves, feeling hopeful thanks to Holmes's encouragement.
Lestrade agrees to bring Holmes to the prison to see James. Watson sits in the hotel reading a bad novel and waiting for Holmes to come back.
Here we get something really cool: Watson, bored, decides to reread the newspaper account of McCarthy's death to use his know-how as a doctor to find new clues. In other words, he's totally taking a page from the Bones handbook and getting his forensic pathologist groove on.
Here's what Watson decides: McCarthy Senior's head injuries are consistent with a blow to the back of the head. And that mumble of "rat" must be meaningful because head injury doesn't cause delirium.
Holmes returns. His assessment of Young McCarthy? Pretty, but not too bright. James also doesn't know who killed his father.
Also – ruh roh! – James is in love with Miss Turner. That whole brother-and-sister thing? Turns out, that's only Miss Turner's feeling. He would love to marry her, but he can't because he's already married, to a barmaid in Bristol.
James doesn't want to be convicted of bigamy (that's when you're legally married to more than one person), so he can't do the one thing both he and his dad want him to do most in the world: marry Miss Turner.
So that stinks. But there's a light at the end of the tunnel. With all the bad news that James is suspected of killing his father, the barmaid has finally told James that she is the one guilty of bigamy: she already has a husband in Bermuda, so James's marriage is not legal. So now he could marry Miss Turner – if he weren't currently in prison. And, we suppose, if she didn't think of him as a brother.
There are two clues Holmes particularly wants Watson to notice: (1) McCarthy Senior had an appointment at Boscombe Pool that could not have been with his son and (2) he called to someone using "Cooee," again, before he could've known his son was nearby.
The next day, Lestrade comes by.
Lestrade tells Holmes (and we, the readers) that Turner Senior is dying.
Apparently, Turner Senior was very generous with McCarthy Senior, giving McCarthy his farmland rent-free and just generally tossing him money here and there.
Holmes comments: given that Turner gave McCarthy all this money, it was kind of daring for McCarthy to insist that his son should also get to marry Turner's daughter, wasn't it? Kind of overreaching?
Lestrade pooh-poohs this: Holmes is being too theoretical, he says.
They visit Hatherley Farmhouse, where Holmes carefully measures the boots of McCarthy Senior and James.
Then Lestrade, Holmes, and Watson head over to Boscombe Pool, where Holmes looks all around the mud. He sees many intriguing footprints, and picks up a jagged stone from the grass.
Holmes then goes to a nearby house to have a word with the lodge-keeper and to write a note.
On their way to lunch, Holmes hands Lestrade the rock and says, here's your murder weapon. How does he know? Because there was still grass growing under it, so Holmes decides that it's been moved recently.
The murderer, adds Holmes, is a tall, left-handed guy with a limp who smokes Indian cigars with a cigar holder, wears shooting boots and a grey cloak, and carries a small knife in his pocket. The mystery has been solved!
What? says Lestrade. He refuses to look all around the country for a left-handed guy with a limp. Holmes is like, all right, homes, I gave you your shot.
Lestrade clears out, and Holmes sits Watson down to explain the whole thing to him:
(a) "Cooee" is "a distinctly Australian cry" (Valley.163). (This is news to us, but if Holmes says so...) So whomever McCarthy Senior was meeting, the guy had to be Australian, too.
(b) That mumble James caught about "a rat" was actually "Ballarat," the name of an Australian city.
How does Holmes know all this stuff about what the killer looks like? His stride is really long, so he must be tall. One heel sinks deeper into mud than the other, so he must have a limp.
Watson himself had observed that the blow to McCarthy's head was on the left side, so, struck by a left-handed man.
Holmes found cigar butts on the ground, the ends of which were not gnawed on, so the killer must use a cigar holder. The ends are also frayed, so the culprit must carry a blunt knife.
Watson is impressed.
And, just at this exciting moment, in walks John Turner. He turns out to be the person Holmes addressed in that note before he and Watson went off to lunch with Lestrade.
Holmes tells Turner Senior that he knows all about McCarthy.
Turner says, oh no! But he also promises that he would've come forward if James had been convicted. He wouldn't have let the poor kid get hanged for a crime that Turner actually committed.
Turner's dying. He has diabetes (which was really a lot harder to treat in the late nineteenth century than it is now). He's got about a month left to live, and he doesn't want to spend his time in prison (spelled "gaol," but pronounced "jail").
Turner explains that, in Australia, he was part of a band of six highway robbers. His boys held up a gold convoy (of which McCarthy was a part) and made off with a ton of money that they took all the way back to England. In the Old Country, he settled down for a good, peaceful life with his daughter.
But then! McCarthy finds him back in England and blackmails him. If Turner doesn't provide for McCarthy and his son, McCarthy will go right to a policeman and turn in Turner.
Turner does everything McCarthy asks up to a point, but he refuses McCarthy's last request: that Alice Turner marry James McCarthy.
Turner knows James is an OK guy, but he refuses to have any of McCarthy's "cursed stock" (Valley.209) mix with his family.
McCarthy's appointment was with Turner, to talk over this marriage idea. When Turner arrived, he overheard McCarthy yelling at James to marry Miss Turner, and he gets so mad that he picks up a rock and hits McCarthy hard over the head once James leaves.
McCarthy's yell brings James back, but Turner makes it into the forest before James sees him. He has to go back to pick up the grey cloak he dropped as he's running away, but otherwise, he escapes.
Holmes says he's not going to do anything about Turner given that the man's dying anyway: he's about to meet "a higher court than the Assizes" (in other words, Turner's going to his final judgment; Valley.213).
Holmes tells Turner that he'll keep Turner's secret so long as James isn't convicted. If he is, Holmes will have to produce Turner's confession to keep James from doing time.
Turner thanks him and leaves.
Fate is cruel, comments Holmes. Thank God he's not Turner, he adds.
James is released based on some non-Turner-related commentary by Holmes, and he and Miss Turner settle down together (what was that Miss Turner saying about loving James like a brother?).
Turner lives on for seven more months, but eventually meets his maker.