Mr. Sherlock Holmes was always of the opinion that I should publish the singular facts connected with Professor Presbury, if only to dispel once and for all the ugly rumours which some twenty years ago agitated the university and were echoed in the learned societies of London.
The Creeping Man, if indeed it was published on the insistence of Holmes, reveals that love of the grotesque which is one of the many tensions at the heart of his character. Time and again throughout the canon, Holmes has declared a primary interest in the weird and the unusual – illogic seems to be what most excites this most logical of men. This story also looks back to some of the earliest of Holmes’s adventures – The Speckled Band, for instance – in which Conan Doyle revealed his own love of horror. One of the last cases Holmes ever investigated, The Crooked Man is also something of a melodrama.
Despite this lurid quality, it was unfair of Nicholas Meyer’s Watson, in The Seven Per Cent Solution, to bracket this tale with some of the others in the Casebook as “forged drivel”. Holmes has investigated stranger cases than this, and if foreign powders and potions raise a more sceptical eyebrow when found in 1903 and when set in 1883, and Holmes’s deduction in this case is of the ‘inspired guess’ kind in which he occassionally induldges, the story itself develops a satisfyingly heavy atmosphere. It’s all a gothic drama, perhaps, but it’s not an incompetent one.
Interestingly, as in some of the other later cases, sex plays a far greater role than usual in Holmes’s adventures. The elderly professor at the centre of the mystery develops a passionate attachment to a much younger woman, and the solution revolves around an attempt to recapture his virility. The story is coy in other ways, however. Regulars will remember how, in The Three Students, we never learned the name of the university town in which the nefarious deeds were done. Here, we are taken by train to the ancient colleges of ‘Camford’. For an Edinburgh man, Conan Doyle exhibits a strange Oxbridge squeamishness.
The frankness which does contribute to the story’s modest entertainment value, however, is all Watson’s. On this, the eve of Holmes’s retirement, the good doctor is clear-eyed about his relationship with his old friends. Watson has responsibilities and a thriving practice; Holmes, of course, remains isolated and dedicated to the investigation of crime. He even has new sidekicks: “Mercer is since your time,” Holmes tells Watson. “He is my general utility man who looks up routine business.” Watson knows his place these days: “As an institution I was like the violin, the shag tobacco, the old black pipe, the index books, and others perhaps less excusable. […] I was a whetstone for his mind. I stimulated him.”
Holmes, meanwhile, is again caught cursing his slowness. (Though who else might expect themselves to sole the supernatural?) He exclaims that it is indeed time for his retirement. Everyone in The Creeping Man, it seems, is experiencing dark thoughts.