“But why Turkish?” asked Mr. Sherlock Holmes, gazing fixedly at my boots.
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax opens with this non sequitur, though it has very little to do with the story that follows – except in so far as it is treated patiently by Watson only because of the deep friendship the pair by now share. This friendship powers the narrative – first when Watson is happy to travel to Lausanne to investigate a case on behalf of his friend, and then when he supports an extralegal search of the home of a private citizen.
Regular readers will know by now that what I value in a Holmes story are scope, rigour and character. All three appear here: Watson’s foreign trip offers an expansiveness rare in the Holmes canon; his investigation, like Holmes’s following it, is replete with detail, setbacks and clues enough to pretend to solvability; and in particular Holmes’s character shines through very strongly – yet nor are those around him neglected. The story has a tension and pace unusual in a Holmes story, too – Conan Doyle often crafts intellectual puzzles Holmes can solve at his leisue, yet here he is faced with a race against time made explicit in the final, breathless pages.
Does the story pull all these elements together? Perhaps not quite: Watson’s bumbling (“I cannot recall any possible blunder which you have omitted,” sighs Holmes), though as with his incurious approach last week somewhat out of character, slows and muddies the mystery; Holmes’s sudden appearance on the continent feels forced (unlike his revelation in The Hound of the Baskervilles, of which this moment most clearly reminds us); and Conan Doyle may even offer too many red herrings in so few pages. Still, if one can let the story carry them – and Holmes is notably thrusting and dynamic here, as if Conan Doyle realises we require a strong lead – then this is one of the most energetic of the late stories, remarkable too for the extent to which Conan Doyle allows his characters to get things wrong. Rare is it that a character is allowed to say, “Ah, you’ve blundered badly for once, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” without immediately being proven wrong, and the abandonment of this trope is refreshing.
Class, race and gender in the Holmes stories are not entirely unproblematic in their depiction. Here, for instance, Holmes describes a woman who, single her whole life and venturing abroad, must surely be self-sufficient and capable, as “a stray chicken in a world of foxes.” She is considered “helpless” and women of her eccentric and rootless woman “one of the most dangerous classes in the world. [...] She is the most harmless and ofen the most useful of mortals, but she is the inevitable inciter of crime in others.” Holmes is no modern man – his brilliance in deduction lies in his mastery of the society of his day, his understanding of the way in which it shapes human behaviour – and here he makes that plain.
Still, as the master himself declares of another kind of clouding of the mind towards the story’s end, “Such slips are common to all mortals, and the greatest is he who can recognise and repair them.” In his final concern for securing a body its “last resting-place”, Holmes shows he is humane enough – and in this mystery Conan Doyle proves himself able to recognise the faults of his more workaday stories and, when putting his mind to it, of repairing them.