The Return of the Notorious Canary Trainer By Mark Wardecker ©2008 Mark Wardecker ³Canary bird out of cage

may fly far.´ ²Charlie Chan (Charlie Chan in Paris) Before embarking upon his narrative of ³The 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 Tosca²an inquiry which was carried out by him at the express desire of his holiness the Pope²down 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 ³Wilson, the notorious canary-trainer´ that tends to seem more ³incongruous´ and to excite a greater curiosity. In fact, the notion that a canary-trainer could be so ³notorious´ as to create a ³plaguespot´ 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 ³[i]n looks and behaviour Hewitt represent[ed] a conscious reaction²and almost the first reaction . . . from the Superman detective.´4 Unlike Holmes, Hewitt appeared to be a very ordinary person: ³He is a µstoutish clean-shaven man, of middle height of a cheerful, round, countenance¶, who µmaintains that he has no system beyond a judicious use of ordinary faculties¶.´5 Nevertheless, these ³ordinary 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 ³The 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 ³notorious 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 ³because you have known something of me and my doings for some years´ and ³since you ask; you shall write something²if 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 ³some years´. What is apparent is that Hewitt may have met the ³notorious canary-trainer´ quite some time before Holmes. In ³The 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 ³Wilson, 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 ³notorious´ 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 ³plague 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 tale²working in conjunction with Hewitt may not have allowed Holmes¶ star to shine as brightly as it does in ³Black Peter´. Then again, perhaps ³The Return of the Notorious CanaryTrainer´ is a ³story for which the world is not yet prepared.´

Doyle, Arthur Conan, Sir. ³The 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.


Doyle, p. 977-78, annotation 6.


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

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

Symons, p. 82.


McFadden, Frederick Rankin, Jr. ³Arthur Morrison.´ In Critical Survey of Mystery and Detective Fiction: Authors, edited by Frank N. Magill, Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 1988, pp. 1244-45.

MacFadden, p. 1241.


Morrison, Arthur. ³The Lenton Croft Robberies.´ In The Project Gutenberg eBook of Martin Hewitt, Investigator.´ Project Gutenberg. (accessed 8/4/2007). MacFadden, p. 1242.



This idea was suggested by the web site of The Notorious Canary-Trainers of Madison, WI: (accessed 8/4/2007).

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