When I look at the three massive manuscript volumes which contain our work for the year 1894, I confess that it is very difficult for me, out of such a wealth of material, to select the cases which are most interesting in themselves, and at the same time most conducive to a display of those peculiar powers for which my friend was famous.
The Golden Pince Nez is in some ways emblematic of my experience of re-reading the Holmesian canon. A friend asked a few months ago whether or not familiarity was breeding contempt: the Holmes stories are comfort reading, the sort of thing we read as children and return to every now and then throughout life, yes. But to read one of these often creaky stories every week, and to go so far as to find something to write about each of them? Wasn’t this more than these poor old stories could take? Wasn’t I just asking to spoil a lifelong fondness for them?
Well, yes, probably that’s exactly what I’m asking for. Yet it’s to underestimate the stories – or perhaps more accurately my fondness for them – to think that reading all of them in a year will turn them sour. Because there is almost always something to take away from them if you are already invested: a memorable Baker Street scene, a bravura deduction, or a well-realised villain; some tart rejoinders from Holmes, or a witty bit of repartee between characters; in the country stories, perhaps a pleasingly rambling old house; in the city ones, maybe some wistful aphorism on metropolitan life. The Golden Pince Nez has all of these to one extent or another, and if the chance of working out the mystery alone is denied the reader, and if its denouement descends into perfunctory melodrama, well … it still has them. Very often with the Holmes tales, you enjoy the investigation without finding the mystery that engaging.
Such can be the way with detective fiction, and Conan Doyle knows well by now that his main ally and selling-point is Holmes: the readers of these tales love him, and will forgive a great deal to spend another 30 minutes in his company. He is often absurd – as he is here, solving a mystery on the basis of flooring materials – but manages to be so with such élan that to his devotees it doesn’t matter. This is emphatically not to say that the stories are wholly without more objective merits, but it is to say that, as irregularly as those merits may appear, the canon – and this story – somehow stands strong without them. This, my friends, is the power of fannishness.
And the story? Academia, myopia, cigarettes, Russia, Nihilism, poison yadda yadda. It’s going very well until the infodump of the final two pages, actually.