“I am afraid, Watson, that I shall have to go,” said Holmes as we sat down together to our breakfast one morning.
Silver Blaze famously sees Holmes prove something with a negative. ‘The curious incident of the dog in the night-time’ is the mystery’s pivot, that fact so trival as to be beneath the notice of anyone but Holmes, but from which flows the entire mystery. The dog guarding Colonel Ross’s Silver Blaze, the favourite for the Wessex Cup, fails to bark on the night the horse is kidnapped and its trainer murdered; Holmes, of course, deduces from this overlooked truth that the kidnapper must have been known to the dog.
Holmes’s entire solution is based upon such conjecture, and here more than in many stories his leaps of logic seems ones of faith rather than reason. “My final shot was, I confess, a very long one,” he admits about his examination of Ross’s flock of sheep, but in truth Holmes is here following his instincts more than the trail of evidence. Perhaps tellingly, when at one point our heroes are following tracks in the mud, it is Watson, not Holmes, who spots that they double back on themselves. Holmes is far more wrapped up in his theses.
The story is characterised by this kind of basic competence in those surrounding Holmes: Watson makes several observations of importance, and the policeman in charge of the investigation, Inspector Gregory, is picked out regularly for praise from Holmes. (“My dear Inspector, you surpass yourself!”) Only Colonel Ross is given the role of Holmes’s foil, and the owner of the horse is punished a little by Holmes for his dismissive temperament, kept in the dark until the very close of a mystery on which much of his money rests. Yet ultimately all three share a lack of imagination. Competenece is not quite enough to solve so curious a mystery. Something more unconventional, more inspirational, is required.
“I follow my own methods and tell as much or as little as I choose. That is the advantage of being unofficial.” The joy of following Holmes lies in how readily he applies his idiosyncrasies not just to detection but also to justice: every player in a mystery investigated by Holmes is liable to be judged, whether they have committed a crime or not. Holmes’s superiority complex leads him regularly to act as the arbiter of moral imperatives. In those stories, such as this, when he leaves the city for the country there are too hints of the class-based society in which he moves, and of which he is a part and product: there is always some distaste that he hails from the capital (“I must say I am rather disappointed in our London consultant,” Colonel Ross remarks, emphasising Holmes’s metropolitan origin); yet at the same time Holmes’s gentrified manners (“Surely I met you in Plymouth at a garden-party some little time ago, Mrs Straker?”), and his patronising approach to the lower echelons of society, (he refers to Ross’s largess as being “liberal” with the servants) place him very much in the mould of a country squire, rather than upstart bourgeois. There’s a depth of reference in all this which is not always present in a Conan Doyle caper.
Silver Blaze is, then, a particularly well formed and well characterised story with a welcome new kind of premise. If the dots of the mystery itself are a little far apart in the joining, we must, as we are often called upon to do, simply place faith in Sherlock Holmes. He does not guess, however it may appear to a lesser sleuth. The story, fittingly for one so well conceived, is perfectly armoured against their accusations, and Holmes is given the defense: “We imagined what might have happened, acted upon the supposition, and find ourselves justified. Let us proceed.” There is a little madness in his method, but that’s what makes it so compelling to watch.