Books, sherlock holmes

“I Am Liable To These Sudden Nervous Attacks”

It was some time before the health of my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, recovered from the strain caused by his immense exertions in the spring of ’87.

"Bending over the prostrate figure of Sherlock Holmes..."

"Bending over the prostrate figure of Sherlock Holmes..."

The Reigate Squires takes place during what Watson had hoped to be a quiet country holiday but which “took a turn which neither of us could have anticipated.” Of course, Watson’s eternal optimism that Holmes might be capable of anything but a busman’s holiday is the victory of hope over experience; The Reigate Squires is an entertaining study of an inveterate workaholic.

The story begins in the wake of one of those affairs of state Watson tells us Holmes was sometimes involved in, but about which he always refuses to give details. This one, he writes, “too intimately concerned with politics and finance, to be a fitting subject for this series of sketches.” A Contintential adventure which consumed Holmes’s time and energies, the case of the Netherland-Sumatra Company is solved but leaves Holmes in a parlous physical state. Watson ascribes this to physical exhaustion, but the reader may be willing to read between the lines: “At a time when Europe was ringing with his name,” Watson writes, “I found him a prey to the blackest depression.” For Holmes, the exertion in pursuit of a problem is what keeps him in good health; the absence of a problem sends him not into a physical but mental trough.

Indeed, Holmes plays on this confusion in the course of the story, twice worrying Watson and others around him merely to gain an upper hand in his investigation. The others him expect him to be below par and exhausted, but in fact the introduction of a new case during his convalescence is a better tonic than any rest. “I shall return, much invigorated, to Baker Street tomorrow,” he exclaims at the close of the case – further exertion, not rest after the exactions of previous efforts, is always what he needed.

The first words we hear directly from Holmes’s mouth in this story are elicited by the introduction of a problem. “For Heaven’s sake, don’t get started on a new problem when your nerves are all in shreds,” Watson begs, but Holmes takes an almost theatrical pleasure in submitting to this rebuke without any real intention of following its strictures (just as later in the story he will without a thought use poor old Watson as a decoy). When he is given the excuse of a police summons to the crime scene, Holmes laughs out loud that, “The Fates are against you, Watson!” and proceeds to tear around fields for an hour and a half.

To Holmes, however, the physical excercise is less important than the mental diversion. Indeed he solves the case merely by close attention to a sample of handwriting, and his lecture on the implications of a single torn corner of paper, with no more than six words scrawled upon it, is a classic piece of Holmes logic (which means it is simultaneously utterly convincing in its conclusions and fairly questionable in its assumptions). It is doubtless this pitting of wits which reinvigorates Holmes so effectively. As well-wishing and well-meaning as Watson is, he still doesn’t quite understand his friend.


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