“In recording from time to time some of the most curious experiences and interesting recollections which I associate with my long and intimate friendship with Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I have continually been faced by difficulties caused by his own aversion to publicity.”
The Devil’s Foot was, scandalously, skipped by me last week, in accidental favour of the final story in its collection, ‘His Last Bow’. This was a shame, because, although it is a story much like, for instance, The Speckled Band – over-reliant on the memorable qualities of its central image (in this case victims literally scared to death in an empty and isolated home) and an unlikely solution (here, as ever, exotic in origin) – it also boasts a much stronger structure than did most of the other stories of this type. It also benefits from the fact that Conan Doyle hasn’t picked up this tool in his box for quite some time, and he has clearly improved in its use since last he did: here, a break in the Cornwall countryside turns sinister and, in a trope which would become familiar in all subsequent stripes of detective fiction, the holidaying sleuth is robbed of his relaxation. (Except – of course! – he is far happier when detecting than when not.)
Holmes is on excellent form, too. When his quarry expresses astonishment that Holmes has followed him and yet he has seen nothing, the detective coolly replies, “That is what you may expect to see when I follow you.” This sort of confidence is quintessentially Holmesian, as is the story’s denouement, where once again his private status lends him authority to flout the law and apply his own justice. If all this activity and brilliance circles around a grotesque but unlikely case, it does at least lend the story enough meat to carry the sceptical reader along regardless.
Holmes’s brio is despite of a precarious mental state. In The Reigate Squires, he was taken ill after over-exerting himself in the case of the Netherland-Sumatra Company. Here, too, he is shipped off to cleaner airs to escape the “absolute breakdown” which his physician insists will be the result of any further work. That breakdown never comes, but – particularly in the Granada adaptation of the story, which focuses on Holmes’s drug use – its spectre hangs across the story, especially during the scene in which he chooses to test his theory that a burning powder has caused the mysterious deaths by exposing himself and Watson to the same fumes. After predictably dire results, he admits that this was a stupid and irresponsible thing to do in one of his rare, and therefore touching, eliptical nods to Watson’s loyalty: “It was an unjustifiable experiment even for one’s self, and doubly so for a friend. I am really very sorry.”
Holmes’s judgment, however, does appear to falter more regularly in the later stories. The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax had another example of this hinted dimunition of powers, and so too does the first story in the collection, “The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes”. The Illustrious Client – and we are coyly denied knowledge of whom that client might be – sees Holmes repeat his trick of The Dying Detective, exaggerating in the newspapers injuries he has sustained in a street attack so that the villain who ordered it, Baron Adelbert Gruner, will take fewer precautions against him. He then sends Watson to Gruner’s home (we are conveniently informed Gruner is a connosieur of Chinese pottery, and Watson is dispatched with a priceless specimen), and, during his friend’s interview with the Austrian nobleman, Holmes enters Gruner’s home in search of the Baron’s “book of lust”.
Gruner has murdered his wife and been freed on a technicality, only to cut a swathe through Europe’s women (even Watson, the perennial ladies’ man, must admit that Gruner is “remarkably handsome”), finally to reach Violet de Merville, the daughter of a powerful and well-connected retired general. To protect her, Holmes must obtain proof written by Gruner’s own hand which might convince de Merville her love is in fact a fiend. Holmes’s error, however, is to take along with him one of Gruner’s old mistresses, Kitty Winter. His defense is that Winter will know the book by sight – yet we might remember A Scandal in Bohemia, in which Holmes simply deduced where an item was hidden without such help. We might forgive him because of injury and a lack of time – Gruner is bound for America in a few days – but Winter brings with her a vial of vitriolic acid and throws it in Gruner’s face as she escapes with the detective. This of course scars the man horribly – and perhaps fatally were Watson, who himself has been in mortal danger from the rightly suspicious Baron, not there to tend his wounds.
And so the dispenser of summary justice – here as in The Devil’s Foot – appears less in control than he once did. Watson bills both these stories as ones for which he has wrung from his old friend permission for publication. Welll might it be so. The Illustrious Client in particular is a late case – it takes place in 1902, one of the last five Baker Street adventures Watson records. The ghost of retirement, as much as of breakdown, haunts it.
“… but when an object is good and a client is sufficiently illustrious, even the rigid British law becomes human and elastic. My friend has not yet stood in the dock.”