“There Is But One Step From The Grotesque To The Horrible”
Posted August 26, 2009on:
I find it recorded in my notebook that it was a bleak and windy day, towards the end of March in the year of 1892.
The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge – a lengthy story in two parts which originally appeared, in 1908, under the title, A Reminisence of Mr. Sherlock Holmes – starts in a slapdash manner. 1892, of course, is one of the years swallowed up the Great Hiatus: Holmes was in this year believed by Watson to be dead whilst in fact travelling the world, not solving mysteries from the comfort of his Baker Street rooms. Published in 1908, the story was thus a problem for Baring-Gould, but proves to be a memorable one for the less pedantic reader.
Thanks to its length, it proceeds through a series of changes of focus from beginning to end, beginning with the “singular experience” of John Scott Eccles, and ending with Central American high politics. The narrative is for sure jumpy – in particular, the involvement of a “mulatto” cook who is a “savage” and a “voodoo-worshipper” is an unfortunate reminder of Tonga in The Sign of Four. At the same time, it’s refreshing to read a mystery which truly develops, rather than one which is merely solved, and the adventure feels to that extent like a proper investigation.
As the voodoo might suggest, however, it is also a lot of hokum: a fictional country, a secret society, an elaborate scheme to secure an alibi … none of the story’s elements truly hold up, but as part of one of Holmes’s pulpier adventures they do nevertheless all entertain. Inspector Baynes, the provincial detective assigned the Wisteria Lodge case, is part of that effect: a sort of down-at-heel Holmes, he is the only police detective in the canon to equal the great detective for his powers. The scene early on in which Baynes describes precisely a note he has found after a meticulous search of the crime scene is an enjoyable moment of turned tables. Holmes gets nothing wrong here, of course; but unusually he is not made astonishing by the artificial stupidity of those around him.
The mystery, however, is made mysterious by operating at one remove from the crime. It is impossible for the reader to solve the case themselves, since the motives of those involved are so remote from the English country house which is the focus of Holmes’s investigation. This sort of thing is common in Conan Doyle’s ‘exotic’ tales – those stories in which the key is an unusual life in some unimaginably different tropical clime – but it is particularly egregious here. Baynes reveals things with a flourish, but we’re less impressed by his prowess than if the clues had been there from the off.
Alas, with the collection His Last Bow, Sidney Paget is no longer with us. Neither is an active Holmes: in a preface Watson tells us that, “He has, for many years, lived in a small farm upon the downs five miles from Eastbourne, where his time is divided between philosophy and agriculture.” This permanent retirement makes all the stories we will now read retrospectives, each one a last hurrah. It gives them a sadder air for devotees of the master, perhaps; but at the same time, Wisteria Lodge, right from that troublesome date at its beginning, exhibits a freedom (at times a chaotic abandon) which perhaps the contemporaneous chronicles of Holmes’s career did not possess.