Sherlock Holmes was in a melancholy and philosophic mood that morning.
The Retired Colourman is in a way an anticlimactic end to a year’s worth of reading (and some thoughts on the project taken as a whole will no doubt follow). At the Guardian books blog, Darragh McManus has put the boot into Doyle by arguing that all his Holmes stories have the same hackneyed plot, closing with: “Holmes briskly outlines to an open-mouthed Watson the three pieces of evidence that cracked the case. The end.” The Retired Colourman features no fewer than two slack-jawed students – Watson and an Inspector MacKinnon – and Holmes spends much of the story hiding crucial pieces of information, disappearing into the London fog, and arranging mysterious appointments.
But McManus deserves the fileting he’s receiving in his comments, because, as by-the-number as it is structurally, The Retired Colourman also features the wit for which Conan Doyle is too often uncredited. In MacKinnon’s upbraiding of an arrogant Holmes, in the playful characterisation of Holmes’s client, and in the great detective’s own sharp mood – advising Watson, for instance, to ingratiate himself with a worker woman as Holmes himself did in that very first story – The Retired Colourman, with its memorable central mystery, is also redolent of all the things that make the Holmes stories pleasurable and surprising. McManus’s dismissal is simplistic and therefore wrong-headed.
“But is not all life pathetic and futile? Is not his story a microcosm of the whole? We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow – misery.” Holmes is not in a sprightly mood here, and the foregoing – one of his most memorable orations, alongside his ode to the rose in The Naval Treaty – lends the whole story a fitting air of retirement and fatigue. In a way, it’s a sad quirk of the publication of the collections that The Retired Colourman displaces Shoscombe Old Place as the last entry in the canon, but in another it isn’t: Holmes’s career is perhaps stuttering to an end, and new, younger men – efficient police inspectors, or private detectives inspired by Holmes, like Barker – have arrived to replace him. “You can file it in our archives, Watson,” Holmes says at story’s close. The reader, despite those creaks of bitter old age that echo throughout this final story, might be forgiven for being as morose as Holmes to be at the end of them.