Books, sherlock holmes

“One Should Always Look for a Possible Alternative”

I have never known my friend to be in better form, both mental and physical, than in the year ’95.

"The candle was relit, and there was our wretched captive..."

"The candle was relit, and there was our wretched captive..."

Black Peter, like many of the stories collected in the Return, makes a virtue of Holmes’s fame. This is curious, given that we are told in The Empty House that the great detective has tasked Watson with keeping his reappearance under wraps. Nevertheless, Watson here tells us that Holmes has been employed by the Pope, no less, and that several of the cases he attends to in 1895 have become well known to the public. Holmes, who “lived for his art’s sake” rather than milking his talent for profit, has nevertheless gone from the small-time mysteries of the early years to finding missing cardinals at the behest of His Holiness. 1895 does indeed find Holmes at the very pinnacle of his career.

Hopkins, the young police inspector in this story, provides some detail to this picture: he is explicitly positioned as the student to Holmes’s master, aware of the detective’s methods and deliberately applying them to police work. Holmes has “high hopes” for Hopkins’s future, and frames the adventure as a “lesson” for the young man: “We all learn by experience,” he tells the policeman, “and your lesson this time is that you should never lose sight of the alternative.” This is a bit unfair of Holmes, since his own solution is born of investigations he made prior to the revelation by Hopkins of additional, and persuasive evidence – a notebook found at the scene of the crime. Still, he admits he might have followed the same line as Hopkins if he had known of the notebook, and his unfairness towards the younger man bears a resemblance to his frequent ribbing of Watson – affectionate and well-meaning, if frustrated by a failure to realise potential.

The puzzle itself is pleasingly layered, with a deeply unsympathetic victim – one of the most deserving corpses in the canon, in fact – and a confused crime scene which resolves into a cleverly dove-tailed solution. It’s a relatively short tale, but that focus recalls some of the tales of old. Perhaps this is a conscious attempt, as that first line might suggest, to call back the old, dynamic Holmes – all advertisements in newspapers, immersion in the underworld, and physical acts of bravery. If so, it doesn’t quite work: Holmes’s resources – his five bolt-holes and parallel lives across London, his apparently unquestioned authority within the police force, and his privileged position in society – have long ago erased his younger, more outlawish, self.

We arrive in the story half-way through, and Holmes almost has his solution before we join him – much of the story, in fact, is a mere wild goose chase. This makes for a fresh kind of structure – not always, it must be said, something on show in these stories – and Black Peter stands as a very nice depiction of the moment in which Holmes was in total command of his world. He is a more distant figure, perhaps, but no less compelling. And the crimescene itself – an old sea captain shot through with a harpoon, its tip embedded in the wall behind him – is one of the most memorable since A Study in Scarlet. If you tend not to read many of the stories, do spare a few moments for this short, sharp quintessential little yarn.

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