Mrs. Hudson, the landlady of Sherlock Holmes, was a long-suffering woman.
The Dying Detective is testament to a fact with which Mrs Hudson might therefore agree: that Sherlock Holmes himself is the greatest mystery of all. Sherlockians play the Great Game of piecing him together from the many fragments Conan Doyle has left them, and ultimately – by accident more than design – he does emerge from the stories as a character a deal more complex than his popular image. This is not a matter of needing to explain away his contradictions: though at times Holmes seems less than his usual self, he is always in some way recognisable as the mercurial figure which dominates and defines these stories. Giving this pieced-together character imaginative form is the great joy for a reader of the Holmes stories.
Alas, there isn’t much joy in The Dying Detective, though it does make as explicit as the canon ever does that it is Holmes, as much as any crime, which is the true riddle. Here, Watson is called to his old friend’s apparent deathbed, and subjected to a good deal of deeply unusual behaviour and straight-out weird requests. Here lies the fatal weakness of the story: it requires too much credulity from Watson. He is, it is true, mostly a step behind Holmes; but by the very nature of his Boswellian trade, he always expects the unexpected from his subject. Here, despite Holmes’s deeply unusual behaviour, he does not begin to guess at what the reader surely does: the detective isn’t dying at all.
The reason Holmes is so frantically pretending to be faint is revealed, in Conan Doyle’s worst way, as an afterthought, a thin rationale for the memorable image (Holmes lying shivering and wasted in his bed). The reader has no investment in the mystery Holmes is trying to solve; and the one they and Watson are interested in – Holmes’s illness – is so clearly a set-up that the story’s tension simply dissipates. The early pages, not coincidentally those before the sickness isn’t so obviously a nonsense, include a lovely battle of wills between Holmes and Watson, and a surprisingly moving moment when Holmes callously questions his old companion’s medical qualifications. Still, this is small comfort. The Dying Detective is a sickly story indeed.