Sherlock Holmes had been bending for a long time over a low-power microscope.
The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place was the last Holmes story Arthur Conan Doyle wrote (in a twist of the curious collection process, the final story in many editions of the Casebook is the Retired Colourman – which we come to next week). It’s nice to think that its first line is a sort of nod to that, but whether Conan Doyle knew this story would be his last is impossible to tell. Certainly, it is a sort of cover version, a late-period revival of a great hit of the past: Silver Blaze, written thirty-five years prior to Shoscombe Old Place, is also a story about a racehorse, a trainer, an owner, and a helpful dog.
Shoscombe Old Place is a far more gruesome tale, however, possessed of a hint of the gothic in the scenes set in an ancient crypt: “It was just the head and a few bones of a mummy,” Holmes’s client, the trainer John Mason says of the human remains he finds there. “It may have been a thousand years old.” When Holmes himself explores the crypt, he discovers “a body swathed in a sheet from head to foot, with dreadful, witch-like features.” This is a dark reflection of that earlier mystery, murky in the way of many of the later cases – the age of Victorian propriety has long since past.
Still, there are similarities between the two cases, too. In Silver Blaze, Holmes explained to Watson, “We imagined what might have happened, acted upon the supposition, and find ourselves justified.” Here, he proceeds along a similar path: Holmes makes “a scandalous supposition, a hypothesis put forward for argument’s sake,” that Mason’s master, Sir Robert Norberton, has murdered his sister (who holds their country house as a life interest from her dead husband’s brother). The reaction of the story’s dog – again as in Silver Blaze – is the key to confirming the supposition. Ultimately, Holmes isn’t quite right on the detail (again, matters are more complex than they might once have been), but his method remains always the same.
The final lines of Shoscombe Old Place refer to Norberton, who is guilty of irregular if not illegal behaviour; but one feels they might also refer to Holmes: “the lucky owner [of the horse Shoscombe Prince] go away scatheless from this strange incident in a career which has now outlived its shadows and promises to end in an honoured old age.” Holmes, of course, is retired with his bees on the South Downs as Watson writes this tale, all thought – perhaps – of the criminal fogs of London put to one side in favour of his work on apiarism. 1902, the year in which Baring-Gould argued this story was set, feels grubbier that Silver Blaze’s 1888; perhaps the master, too, is best off out of it.