When one considers that Mr. Sherlock Holmes was in active practice for twenty-three years, and that during seventeen of these I was allowed to cooperate with him and to keep notes of his doings, it will be clear that I have a mass of material at my command.
The Veiled Lodger begs the question of Watson: why, then, choose this piece to publish? There is no mystery to solve – this is the story of a woman talking to Holmes and clearing up some minor questions he had about a newspaper report some years before. That woman, furthermore, exhibits idiosyncratic behaviour in her choice of Holmes as a confidante in the first place. “I do not promise,” he tells her, “that when you have spoken I may not myself think it my duty to refer the case to the police.” Ever the free agent, Holmes’s refusal of client confidentiality somewhat undoes the woman’s desire simply to unburden her heart.
The woman is a lodger of a Mrs. Merrilow, who appreciates the good and timely rent she is paid but, after months of seclusion – shades of The Red Circle there – has seen the face of her guest, and thus knows she must have a terrible secret: “you would hardly say it was a face at all,” she tells Holmes, and then imparts that the woman wishes to meet him. “If he won’t come,” the scarred lodger insists, “tell him I am the wife of Ronder’s wild beast show.” This is enough: Holmes remembers the case of Ronder and his wife, two circus performers apparently attacked by a lion, he killed, she disfigured. “It was so deucedly difficult to reconstruct the whole affair,” Holmes remembers, and his interview with the woman routinely fills in the gaps.
“The most terrible human tragedies were often involved in those cases which brought him the fewest personal opportunities, and it is one of these which I now desire to record,” Watson writes at the start of the story, and the woman’s tale is to be sure gruesome and sad. Ultimately, though, any story – however tragic – must have narrative momentum. Here, Conan Doyle simply writes a story in which a woman tells Holmes a story.
In his essay on Sherlock Holmes published in two February 2005 issues of The New York Review of Books, and collected in his 2008 collection, Maps and Legends (which I’ve been reading), Michael Chabon remarks that Holmes stories are “storytelling engines, steam-driven, brass-fitted, but among the most efficient narrative apparatuses the world has ever seen.” This is usually true – Conan Doyle’s stories are a series of nested narratives, each interlocking and each with extraneous, vital, life of their own – but here the engine is low indeed on fuel, and the story one of the shortest in the canon. This veiled lodger’s story is memorable in its own way, but somehow, without all that surrounding framework, it isn’t made to matter.