“We Had Thought It Some Wild Tale Of Foreign Parts”

Holmes had read carefully a note which the last post had brought him.

"I chanced to glance at Holmes and saw a most singular intentness in his expression."

The Sussex Vampire is notable for the manner in which Conan Doyle allows Sherlock Holmes the last word. The author, of course, was in later life a great believer in the supernatural and occult. Holmes, naturally, is far more sceptical: “The world is big enough for us,” he says. “No ghosts need apply.” This is why the Granada adaptation of this case, in which the master is asked to investigate an apparent case of English vampirism, got it so disastrously wrong: the point of this story, unusually for Conan Doyle’s more flamboyant concepts, is not the sensationalism of the set-up but the rationalism of the denouement.

That is not to say the story is particularly good: there are a number of unanswered questions about the actions of the characters which probably don’t have any sensible answers. What struck me about the story, though, was its similarity in many ways to the Road Hill case as written about by Kate Summerscale in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: set in 1896, there is here, as was not apparent in The Three Gables, a properly Victorian modesty. Outsiders aren’t welcome, and the scandal must not get out. As usual, the other fall-back position is the exotic history of one of the house’s inhabitants.

The lady of the house is from Peru, and her resultant inscrutability is key to the story’s success (or otherwise). If we can believe that, alien as she is, she may well hold “this horrible, this incredible secret” of vampirism, we will be gripped. If, as modern readers are likely to feel, we find Conan Doyle’s insistence on the strangeness of the Latin unconvincing, we are simply waiting for the other shoe to drop. Holmes, too, is not as obfuscatory as he sometimes is, aiming almost all of his questions in the direction of his client’s elder son.

For all that, however, Holmes’s method is at the centre of the story – as if the occultist author is testing the rationalism of his character. Conan Doyle’s integrity is too great simply to use Holmes as a fall-guy, however, and thus the great detective’s methods are vindicated. He protests that Watson “has given an exaggerated view of my scientific methods.”  Certainly there is imagination at work, too – “It has been a case for intellectual deduction,” Holmes explains, allowing that his method is essentially to make up a story and then see if it fits. As most notably in Silver Blaze, however, this concoction of a theory, and then the testing of that theory “point by point by quite a number of independent incidents”, is of course a fundamentally scientific method.

The telegram with which this story opens is replied to in its final lines. Characteristically, Holmes’s response is terse, matter-of-fact and without sensationalism. It is to Conan Doyle’s credit that he allowed his characters such strong and consistent voices, even when he himself might have disagreed.

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