Bad Luck Beppo: A Sherlockian Challenge

I had occasion to re-visit Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons” and came away thinking that Beppo has a reasonable claim on the title of “Most unlucky character in the canon”. By that I don’t mean that he came to the worst end per se. Moriarty was thrown into the falls of Reichenbach after all, but that wasn’t due to ill luck. It was because he chose to physically confront the greatest champion of law and order of his generation, which was simply a bad decision.

Beppo in contrast makes shrewd decisions throughout, but is undone largely by fortune. Let’s consider the game he is playing [SPOILER ALERT].

Having cleverly hidden the Borgia pearl in one of the set of six drying Napoleonic busts, he starts the game as the only player. No one else knows about the pearl, so there is no competitor and no need for haste. He then, again cleverly, obtains a position which allows him to glean the names and addresses of the owners of the six busts.

Each bust he obtains represents a one in six chance of getting the pearl. But with each bust he breaks unsuccessfully, the risks of the game rise exponentially, in terms of arousing the interest of police but more importantly by bringing into the game some competitors, one of whom is not that bright but can make serious trouble (Pietro Venucci) and a second who is smarter and could beat Beppo at his own game (Holmes).

The smashing of the first bust at Morse Hudson’s would be put down as a strange incident at most, certainly not one demanding Inspector Lestrade’s attention. It’s a chance for riches with little downside. Beppo isn’t that fortunate, but given that it was only a 1 in 6 shot, he can’t really rail at the Fates with too much emotion at this point in the story.

In a real turning point of his luck into worse than average territory, he then goes after Dr. Barnicot, who owns not one but two busts. Risk is now higher as the breaking of two busts will give Lestrade something sufficiently unusual to tell Holmes about, but on the other hand with two of the five remaining busts in hand this is very nice chance for Beppo, and he can get away before the police figure things out. But he loses again. Half of all criminals would have been rich and free at this point, but not poor Beppo.

The karmic evils committed by Beppo’s ancestors must have been on his mind after his experience smashing the fourth bust, owned by Horace Harker. Not only does he strike out again with the bust, but he also runs into Pietro, whose murder brings Holmes into the case in earnest.

Even then, Beppo, despite all this ill fortune, might have won if he had gone to Reading and tried for Mr. Sandiford’s bust next. Even if Sandiford had left already to deliver the winning bust to Holmes by the time Beppo got there, he would have known the game was up and could at least have fled. But no, having already improbably struck out 4 times he loses a further a 50-50 proposition when he decides for Chiswick, where of course Holmes catches him (84% of criminals at this point would at least have had the satisfaction of seeing the Borgia pearl even if they didn’t get away, but pitiable Beppo didn’t even get that).

I am sure there are some Irregulars among RBC readers. Anyone care to nominate someone else in the canon as more badly spurned by Lady Luck?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

3 thoughts on “Bad Luck Beppo: A Sherlockian Challenge”

  1. I like the Holmes stories, but am very far from an Irregular, amd am not familiar with this tale. But, based on your account, it seems to me that Beppo followed an unwise strategy in breaking Dr. Barnicot’s two busts. Surely that is more likely to attract attention than breaking two busts owned by different people. Barnicot should have been left for last, I think.

  2. I think Moriarty deserves a special place, for having actually killed Holmes yet *still* lost. That’s pretty sorry luck.

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