From the years 1894 to 1901 inclusive, Mr. Sherlock Holmes was a very busy man.
The Solitary Cyclist is happy home to one of the most memorable images in the canon: Miss Violet Smith, statuesque governess of Farnham, Surrey, cycling along a deserted mile of road pursued at a distance by a unrecognised, black-clad stalker. It’s an image echoed for more motorised times by Steven Spielberg in Duel, and it works in the same way there: there is something very eerie about being chased down silent roads by an inscrutable foe who matches your movements and always stays at arm’s length.
The story coasts a good way on the strength of this image, and Miss Smith is presented as a capable individual who recalls the similarly proactive Mrs St. Clair in The Man with the Twisted Lip. Yet her beauty, not her brains, drive the plot – and appears even to sway Holmes, who overcomes the irritation of her interupting more pressing business in order to consult on her case. Watson, ever the ladies’ man, is even more taken, and perhaps partly as a result the mystery’s hinge swings on Smith’s charms. Nevertheless, she is strong enough to spurn advances (admittedly largely because she is already betrothed), and though by the story’s close she is a damsel in distress, in large part the rest of the tale is driven solely by her strength of mind.
Again the mystery’s solution is found in exotic climes – South Africa this time – but as with The Dancing Men, The Solitary Cyclist manages to supercede the similar stories which have come before. The importance in this of its central vignette has already been noted; in addition, the number of scenes the story has gives it a satsifying breadth. Watson’s trip to Surrey in particular gives the story some colour (and Holmes’s most withering dressing down of his friend in the canon), and Holmes’s account of his own trip adds a splash of action picked up in the chase sequence near the stories’ end. If there is less visible intellectual movement than in last week’s story, this is more than made up for by this physical to-ing and fro-ing.
Watson promises, in a fair definition of the difference between his own detective fiction and the crime fiction of others, a case which derives its interest “not so much from the brutality of the crime as from the ingenuity and dramatic quality of the solution”, but its hard to see the “unexpected tragedy” he trails: ultimately, the story has a happy ending and a solution-by-exposition. Still, memorable and quick-witted as it is, The Solitary Cyclist adds to the other stories since Holmes’s return to create one of Conan Doyle’s most consistent runs in the canon. The holiday had its effect.