“I don’t think that any of my adventures with Mr. Sherlock Holmes opened quite so abruptly, or so dramatically, as that which I associate with The Three Gables.”
The Three Gables in truth starts not so much with a bang as a sterotype: Steve Dixie, the “negro” who barges in on Holmes and Watson and proceeds to inflict upon them threats of violence and tortured minstrel grammar, is one of the most embarrassing characters in the canon – and quite at odds with Conan Doyle’s earlier treatment of African-Americans in The Yellow Face (although admittedly closer to his treatment of Tonga in The Sign of Four). We only need Dixie to burst into a rendition of Old Man River and all would be complete.
This incongruity is part of the fabric of the whole story – another which, along with The Mazarin Stone, Meyer’s Watson will dismiss as a forgery. It would be happy if such were the case: many of the stories collected in The Casebook, as the last stories an increasingly weary Conan Doyle would every write about Holmes, reek of fatigue and laziness. So, for instance, the central story here, revolving as it does around femmes fatale, sex and impropriety, feels far more like a story of the period in which it was written than the one in which it was set; likewise, Holmes’s presence is thin and at times poorly characterised – the moment he pulls a woman into a room by the arm feels most unlike the gallant-if-aloof detective we’ve come to know. Small details, too, echo this larger malaise – Lucerne is not in Italy.
“I suppose I shall have to compound a felony as usual,” Holmes breezily declares at the story’s end, and as he often does lays down his own particular – and extra-legal – kind of justice. The mystery preceding this dispensation, however, is so potted and ill-constructed (Conan-Doyle has done many ‘missing document’ mysteries, but this is by far his most soft-headed) that the reader has long since given up. It simply doesn’t feel like our Holmes. 48 short stories into our acquantance with him, this is a little much to take.