It is a most singular thing that a problem which was certainly as abstruse and unusual as any which I have faced in my long professional career should have come to me after my retirement, and be brought, as it were, to my very door.
The Lion’s Mane will convince no one that the young Sherlock Holmes, in choosing the profession of detective over that of writer, missed his calling. As befits the man whom Watson has depicted as routinely disdainful of his own style as an author, Holmes’s voice is pernickety and long-winded, lacking in both passion and poetry. That is not to say he does not betray his flare for the dramatic, leaving the reader on tenterhooks even as he puts his moment of revelation to paper: “Yes, it was indeed a far-fetched and unlikely proposition, and yet I could not be at rest until I had made sure if it might, indeed, be so. It was late when I retired, with my mind eagerly awaiting the work of the morrow.” Rather, Holmes’s more complex sentence structures and focus on physical, rather than emotional, description produce a different – and colder – air than that created by Watson.
All of which is to say, to leave behind the Sherlockian game of pretending fiction to be reality, that Conan Doyle is, as I’ve noted many times by now, singularly skilled in the matter of characterisation. Here, he risks making his great creation too commonplace by over-exposure: as in The Blanched Soldier, Holmes must show us his working more than Watson might. But by capturing what our many hours with Holmes have taught us about him, and distilling this into a means of imparting a narrative, Conan Doyle succeeds in bringing Holmes closer to us whilst maintaining the great detective’s distance. “I was forced to shake my head,” Holmes tells us of his reaction to some conspicious compliment. “To accept such praise was to lower one’s own standards.” This aloofness is key to Holmes – and his creator is wise to retain it at the cost of penning a frosty tale.
Indeed, other than the voice the story has little to recommend it. The fourth of the Casebook quartet to be dismissed as drivel by Meyer’s Watson, The Lion’s Mane perhaps deserves it more than some of its peers (I presented the defense case for The Creeping Man, for one, last week); it feels like a parade of identikit country suspects – pale imitations of the denizens of The Boscombe Valley Mystery or The Priory School – before, as in The Stockbroker’s Clerk or The Second Stain, we watch Holmes solve the case by, well, reading something. Had Watson penned the case, perhaps Holmes would have disappeared for a day and returned energised by secret knowledge. Reading directly about him puttering in his library for a bit and then being coy with his reader about the exact tome in question is a bit of a let-down, as is the final reveal. (“‘Cyanea! Cyanea! Behold the Lion’s Mane!'”)
The Lion’s Mane, then, is far from a classic. It is, though, pleasant for the Sherlockian in its opening paragraphs: “My villa is situated upon the southern slope of the downs, commanding a great view of the Channel. At this point the coast-line is entirely of chalk cliffs, which can only be descended by a single, long, tortuous path, which is steep and slippery.” The story is set in 1907; in another seven years Holmes will look across the Channel more darkly – and engagingly. Here, his pedantic voice is both burden as much as boon. “You certainly do things thoroughly, Mr. Holmes,” a constable breathes in wonder at one point. “I should hardly be what I am if I did not,” Holmes sniffs in reply. Quite so, sir. Quite so.