The Resident Patient fuses two of Conan Doyle’s favoured motifs – the shadowy past and the mysterious benefactor – into a story which gives Holmes an opportunity to make one of his finest crime scene performances. Set in1881, the year Holmes and Watson met and set up rooms in Baker Street, the story nevertheless has a very different feel to some of the earlier stories: it is more confident, better structured and has a fresher approach. Whilst the close of the story mirrors the close of The Five Orange Pips, the story feels more like a bravura than an early foray.
This despite the fact that Watson follows last week’s criticism from Holmes with one of his own. I’ve regularly pointed out where the Holmes stories either make the detective immaterial to the story by over-exposition, or where his feats are based on little more than intuition. Watson here admits that he is aware of these faults: “For in those cases in which Holmes has performed some tour-de-force of analytical reasoning […] the facts themselves have often been so slight […] that I could not feel justified in laying them before the public. On the other hand, it has frequently occurred that […] the share he has taken in determining their causes has been less pronounced than I, as a biographer, could wish.” It is a part of following Holmes, we are told, that the story must at times be unsatisfying.
Here, though, we follow Holmes with a great deal of satisfaction. I recall the Granada production of this episode (aside from Patrick Newell’s vivid portrayal of Blessington) principally for Holmes’s evidence-gathering and masterly recreation of the story’s central crime. The story, too, places this front and centre: “We had all listened with the deepest interest to this sketch of the nights doings,” Watson marvels, “which Holmes had deduced from signs so subtle and minute, that even when he had pointed them out to us, we could scarcely follow him in his reasonings.”
It is Conan Doyle’s cleverness, of course, to lead us to expect a less well-built case than we get (“the part which my friend played is not sufficiently accentuated,” Watson writes of the tale), because of course Holmes’s reconstruction rests on a few cigar butts and some scratches on a door. Yet it is also in the nature of following Holmes that we accept that, somehow, his deductions are more than that: not that he observes that two of the cigars have been cut with a blunt knife and the other with a set of excellent teeth, but that he knows they have, and can therefore connect this inviolable fact to the other inviolable facts at his disposal: the ash, the screws, the footprints. This is why the Granada production gives so much time to Holmes’s silent scouring of the crime scene: if we believe in the process, we will believe in the solution.
The story, too, is carefully written to achieve the same effect. It is a strong contender for classic status, with an engaging client, an intriguing victim, and a diverting – if hastily stated – backstory. Holmes refers to the “sword of justice” at the close of the story, but in fact it is gratifying to see him investigate a real and irrevocable crime, rather than preventing one, for a change. It obviously suits him: “It’s an interesting case, at the bottom of it,” he deadpans. As is proving to be the case, it is usually when Holmes is fully engaged in a case that so too is his reader.