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The Return of the Notorious Canary Trainer

By Mark Wardecker
©2008 Mark Wardecker

“Canary bird out of cage may fly far.”


—Charlie Chan (Charlie Chan in Paris)

Before embarking upon his narrative of “The Adventure of Black Peter”, Dr. Watson first
lays before his readers one of those tantalizing glimpses of cases that never managed to make
their way into print:

In this memorable year ’95, a curious and incongruous succession of cases


had engaged [Holmes’] attention, ranging from his famous investigation of the
sudden death of Cardinal Tosca—an inquiry which was carried out by him at the
express desire of his holiness the Pope—down to his arrest of Wilson, the
notorious canary-trainer, which removed a plague-spot from the East End of
London.1

Though a commission from the Pope is undoubtedly impressive, it is the latter case of “Wilson,
the notorious canary-trainer” that tends to seem more “incongruous” and to excite a greater
curiosity. In fact, the notion that a canary-trainer could be so “notorious” as to create a “plague-
spot” on London’s East End has led many Sherlockians to theorize that the canary in this
reference is not a bird at all or that the canary-trainer in question had actually committed a crime
that had nothing to do with his moniker.2 Despite such conjectures, there is still good reason to
believe that this canary-trainer was exactly that and that he had been apprehended by another
famous detective before encountering Holmes, a detective who was almost as famous as Holmes,
himself: Martin Hewitt.
In 1893, with no more Sherlock Holmes stories forthcoming, The Strand Magazine
needed a new detective to fill the void, and Martin Hewitt became the magazine’s new star.3 The
choice was somewhat of a departure, since to readers of The Strand, it seemed that “[i]n looks
and behaviour Hewitt represent[ed] a conscious reaction—and almost the first reaction . . . from
the Superman detective.”4 Unlike Holmes, Hewitt appeared to be a very ordinary person: “He is
a ‘stoutish clean-shaven man, of middle height of a cheerful, round, countenance’, who
‘maintains that he has no system beyond a judicious use of ordinary faculties’.”5 Nevertheless,
these “ordinary faculties” led Hewitt to solve a variety of complex mysteries that were
chronicled in The Strand from 1894 to 1903 and then collected into four volumes: Martin
Hewitt: Investigator (1894), Chronicles of Martin Hewitt (1895), Adventures of Martin Hewitt:
Third Series (1896), and The Red Triangle: Being Some Further Chronicles of Martin Hewitt,
Investigator (1903).6 Like Holmes, Hewitt had an amanuensis, Bertrand Brett, a journalist.
Brett’s literary agent was Arthur Morrison, a writer known for his socially conscious novels and
stories of England’s working-class poor, such as Tales of Mean Streets (1895) and A Child of the
Jago (1896).7
“The Lenton Croft Robberies”8 is the first of the Martin Hewitt stories and was published
in The Strand Magazine in March 1894, one year before Holmes’ run-in with the “notorious
canary-trainer” in 1895.9 However, it is clear from the context that the events of the tale actually
occurred somewhat earlier. Though Brett is the one who commits the story to paper, he does not
actually appear in the account of the case. In fact, in the story’s introduction, Hewitt tells Brett he
is offering him the story “because you have known something of me and my doings for some
years” and “since you ask; you shall write something—if you think it worthwhile.” While it is
unclear as to how much time has elapsed between the events of the case and its publication, it is
fair to say that it could have been as much as “some years”. What is apparent is that Hewitt may
have met the “notorious canary-trainer” quite some time before Holmes.
In “The Lenton Croft Robberies”, this meeting occurs almost immediately after Brett’s
introduction, which recounts Hewitt’s rise from case-making young law clerk in the firm of
Crellan, Hunt, and Crellan to successful private detective. Vernon Lloyd, secretary to Sir James
Norris, seeks to engage Hewitt on behalf of his employer. When Hewitt learns that several guests
have been robbed of their jewelry while staying at Sir James’ home, Lenton Croft, Hewitt agrees
to investigate that very day. Upon arriving at Twyford, the nearest station to Lenton Croft,
Hewitt is met by Sir James, who explains that an item of jewelry has been stolen from the rooms
of three different visitors on three different occasions, the most recent robbery having occurred
only the day before. In each case, it seemed impossible for a person to have entered the guests’
rooms, at least without any of the other household members noticing. In every instance, a single
piece of jewelry was removed from the room, and in its place lay a match that had been lit and
then quickly extinguished.
In short order, Hewitt figures out that it is Lloyd’s gray parrot, Polly, who is the culprit,
expertly trained to steal the guests’ jewelry by its master. In order to train the bird to carry off the
trinkets without dropping them and to keep the bird quiet as it entered the rooms, Lloyd taught
the bird to carry a spent match in its beak. Once the parrot found a suitably shiny object in the
visitor’s room it would then drop the match and abscond with its haul. Lloyd got the bird into the
rooms by standing upon the sash of his study window and placing the parrot onto the sills of
nearby guest rooms above. In this manner, he could then establish an alibi for himself, and even
if the bird had been caught, he could have ascribed the theft to simple mischievousness on the
bird’s part.
After Hewitt sees though Lloyd’s scheme, he dupes the secretary into fetching the police
and then has him arrested as soon as he returns with them. What happens to Lloyd after this is
not mentioned, but it is quite possible that he is the criminal that later emerges as “Wilson, the
notorious canary-trainer”. Whether the names Lloyd and/or Wilson are aliases or merely
pseudonyms employed by Watson and Brett to avoid legal liability is uncertain, but the felon’s
trajectory following his apprehension can be easily imagined.
While incarcerated, perhaps Lloyd/Wilson, instead of contemplating the error of his ways
and the means by which he might better himself, began to hatch even more insidious schemes.
Maybe he was even able to hone his bird-training abilities during his incarceration, much like
another convict would do on another continent, many years later. However he spent the interval
between his arrest at the hands of Hewitt and his showdown with Holmes, it is clear that
Lloyd/Wilson would have to have evolved from a petty thief into a “notorious” criminal and
would have to have come to prefer canaries to parrots. What is truly lamentable, though, is that
the reader will never know just what those canaries, and possibly other birds, might have been
trained to do. Did they continue to steal for Lloyd/Wilson or merely distract passersby while an
army of pickpockets went to work in a crowded street? Did they deliver messages amongst a
gang of villains assembled by Lloyd/Wilson or act as lookouts, alerting the gang to the approach
of authorities?10 Maybe they were even trained to attack human beings (though a more robust
bird than a canary would probably have been preferred for this) or to deliver small explosive
devices to victims or poison to exposed cups of tea.11 It is even conceivable that they were being
used to spread influenza, or merely just the threat of it. This would truly make Lloyd/Wilson
worthy of Watson’s “plague spot” description (but would probably move him to close to the
realm of cartoonish super-villainy).
Whatever these criminous canaries’ transgressions, we know that Holmes prevailed in the
end, maybe even with the aid of notes and documents pertaining to the Lenton Croft robberies
that he had filed in his common place books. He may even have consulted with Hewitt about the
case, a visit that could have resulted in one of the greatest collaborations in the history of
detective yarns. Such a collaboration could have been the reason for Watson’s neglecting to tell
the tale—working in conjunction with Hewitt may not have allowed Holmes’ star to shine as
brightly as it does in “Black Peter”. Then again, perhaps “The Return of the Notorious Canary-
Trainer” is a “story for which the world is not yet prepared.”
1
Doyle, Arthur Conan, Sir. “The Adventure of Black Peter”. In The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. Volume II, The
Return of Sherlock Holmes; His Last Bow; The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Leslie Klinger. New York: W.W.
Norton, 2005, pp. 976-77.

2
Doyle, p. 977-78, annotation 6.

3
Greene, Douglas G. “Arthur Morrison.” In Detection by Gaslight, edited by Douglas G. Greene. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover
Publications, 1997, p. 24.

4
Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: A History. New York: Viking, 1985, p. 82.

5
Symons, p. 82.

6
McFadden, Frederick Rankin, Jr. “Arthur Morrison.” In Critical Survey of Mystery and Detective Fiction: Authors, edited
by Frank N. Magill, Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 1988, pp. 1244-45.

7
MacFadden, p. 1241.

8
Morrison, Arthur. “The Lenton Croft Robberies.” In The Project Gutenberg eBook of Martin Hewitt, Investigator.” Project
Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11252/11252-h/11252-h.htm#CH1 (accessed 8/4/2007).

9
MacFadden, p. 1242.

10
This idea was suggested by the web site of The Notorious Canary-Trainers of Madison, WI:
http://www.madison.com/communities/canary/pages/history (accessed 8/4/2007).

11
The credit for this idea, with thanks, goes to my friend and colleague, Theresa Arndt.

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