Most of us learned cursive writing in elementary school, but our personal style of writing is, in theory, unique to us. I’ve read, and watched, a lot of mysteries over the years and occasionally a bit of handwriting becomes crucial in discovering who the villain is or isn’t. Handwriting analysis is a process that relies on extensive knowledge of the way people form letters, which characteristics of letter formation are unique and the physiological processes behind writing – the ways in which a person’s fine-motor skills can affect his or her handwriting and leave clues about the author’s identity. It is also possible to have two samples and distinguish if it’s probable that they were both written by the same hand. I wrote the little bit above quickly and, to be honest, I don’t think I want to know what it says about me. The dot on my i looks like an apostrophe.
In Game Drive by Marie Moore, which I just finished and will be reviewing later this month, the sleuth becomes convinced that a certain individual is the bad guy because two notes are written in the same hand-writing. Turns out she’s right, the same person did write them, it just wasn’t the person she though. I’ll be talking about the whole book on the 22nd, when S will be for South Africa.
But H is Holmes and I wanted to take a quick look at one of his cases that made extensive use of handwriting analysis, “The Reigate Squires” by Arthur Conan Doyle, written in 1893.
Watson takes Holmes to the estate of a friend, Colonel Hayter, near Reigate in Surrey to rest after a rather strenuous case in France, but, since this is a Holmes story, it turns out his talents are needed. There has recently been a burglary at the nearby Acton estate in which the thieves stole a random assortment of things, but nothing valuable. Then one morning, the Colonel’s butler tells them of a murder at another nearby estate, the Cunninghams’. The victim is William Kirwan, the coachman. There is only one physical clue: a torn piece of paper found in William’s hand with a few words written on it.
Holmes takes an instant interest. Holmes immediately heads to the Cunnighams’ to investigate and interview the two Cunningham men, Alec and his father. Alec tells Holmes that he saw the burglar struggling with William when a shot went off and William fell dead. Holmes knows that he and his father, who backs up the story, are lying.
We don’t learn until the end of the story, after the killer is caught, how much Holmes was able to tell from the scrap of paper. It was written by two people, one younger and one older. The younger was the ring-leader, writing his words first and leaving spaces for the other to fill in. The two writers were both men and blood-related. Sherlock explains that he is only giving them the “leading results now of [his] examination of the paper. There were twenty-three other deductions which would be of more interest to experts than to you.” Of course, he is Holmes and seemingly outrageous deductions are his forte.
In an essay by Richard Lancelyn Green which follows this story in my copy of The Baker Street Dozen, Green tells us that in 1893 Alexander Cargill sent an article title “Health in Handwriting” to Doyle who used is as the basis for “The Reigate Squire.” In that article, Cargill admits that handwriting analysis is an uncertain art, but tells how a person’s physical characteristics and even age can be seen in their handwriting. It also goes on to say that a feature the writing of the insane is the unnecessary use of capitals and that the elderly tend to not dot their is.
While there are certainly weaknesses in “The Reigate Squires,” including the killer not just hiring someone to do the robbery, it’s a good story and shows several of Homes’ strengths, including his deductive reasoning and quick-thinking. I especially like how he uses the idea that he is still recovering from the stress of a previous case to help in his investigations, allowing the culprit to think he is sickly and not up to his usual brilliance.