“Passing Moods May Reflect The Passing Moods Of Others”

"I could see that something was coming along the passage, something dark and crouching."

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.


“I Can Discover Facts, Watson, But I Cannot Change Them”

Somewhere in the vaults of the bank of Cox and Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch-box with my name, John H. Watson, M.D., Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid.

"With his cane he struck the ledge several times without leaving a mark."

The Problem of Thor Bridge is remarkable for that tin despatch box, the first mention of an item which would become a thing of lore in Sherlockian circles, and indeed in the fiction that would be written about Holmes by others. This interest in the Holmesian legacy lends the story from the off a more substantial character than that of many of the other stories in the Casebook. It reads in several ways like the earlier adventures – exciting, evocative and adroit.

The central mystery revolves around the marriage of the American gold millionaire Neil Gibson, perhaps the richest of all Holmes’s clients, to a Brazillian woman, Maria Pinto, whom he has come no longer to love. (What is this interest in mysterious South American women so late in Conan Doyle’s career?). The arrival at Gibson’s Hampshire estate of a beautiful new governess, Grace Dunbar, breeds resentment in Gibson’s wife, whom he treats brutally in an attempt to kill the love she still holds, unrequited, for her husband. (“If I have been harsh to her, even brutal as some had said,” Gibson says, “it has been because I knew that if I could kill her love, or if it turned to hate, it would be easier for both of us.” It’s not a defense Holmes has much time for.)

The distinctiveness of this set-up – and of the crime scene itself, a lonely patch of woodland with that memorable bridge, deserted except for the body of the lady of the manor – lends the story a richness, as does the excellent characterisation: Gibson, if in some ways a stereotypically brash American, is given a real ebb and flow of (a not entirely likeable) character; Sergeant Coventry, the local policeman Holmes allows to manage the case, is one of the canon’s more memorable incompetents; and the battle of wits between the story’s two women is striking.

Unfortunately, the women remain defined principally by their beauty. Watson, as ever the ladies’ man, is struck somewhat dumb by the sight of the governess: “I can never forget,” the good doctor breathes, “the effect which Miss Dunbar produced upon me.” The principal matrimonial failing of Maria, meanwhile, is to age and lose her looks: “It was only when the romance had passed,” sighs Gibson, “that I realized we had nothing – absolutely nothing – in common.” D’oh! Holmes’s hope at the end of the stort that a man who has driven his wife to insane jealousy “has learned something in that schoolroom of sorrow”, and will come to marry the lovely and faultless Miss Dunbar, rings a little hollow.

Still, if the women revolve around their man, their personal affiliations form the bedrock of the case – unusual in a Holmes story, which more ordinarily revolves around the type of dirt encrusted upon a man’s shoe. “We’ve got to understand the exact relations of those three people if we are to understand the truth,” Holmes insists, and perhaps his usual aversion to such psychoanalysis is the reason for, as he berates himself, his “wanting in that mixture of imagination and reality which is the basis of my art.” Whatever the cause, that feeling of the investigation being stretched just enough is a tricky one to evoke – more often a story will be overly drawn out or too easily resolved. This successful balance, and the emphatic manner in which Holmes ultimately tips it, is what makes The Problem of Thor Bridge, its Victorian sexual politics aside, a late mini masterpiece.

“You Have Been One Too Many For Me, Mr Holmes”

It may have been a comedy, or it may have been a tragedy.

"Two pistols were pointed at his head."

The Three Garridebs is proof, in case we needed it after the last few weeks, that Conan Doyle late in his career was still capable of spinning a tight tale. In the fashion that is customary for most Holmes tales in the context of the canon, the story’s relative success proceeds from its deft handling of Conan Doyle’s recurrent themes: the foreign past, the mysterious career criminal, the unlikely hermit. Even Birmingham – which we remember as the site of a hoax in The Stockbroker’s Clerk – serves a similar capacity here. Yet these elements are yoked together convincingly, and Holmes enjoys a sufficiently magnetic spell, which makes the satisfying whole much more than the sum of its potentially rather tired parts.

One of the keys to this renewed vigour is the unusual premise: Holmes is approached by a Mr Garrideb, who has in turn been approached by a Mr Garrideb, on the matter of the will of … yet another. The latter two Garridebs are Americans – and we get a good deal of evocative Americana (Conan Doyle seems particularly fond of Chicago, which of course was a favourite haunt of both Altamont and the Red Circle) – and the will of the one has tasked the other with finding two more Garridebs, with whom to share a $15 million fortune. The name, however, is uniquely rare, and the search has therefore come to London – and to Holmes’s client.

This ruse is quickly seen through by the detective (long inured to the lure of unlikely fortune): “I was wondering, Watson,” he says in the mischievous form he spents much of this tale, “what on earth could be the object of this man in telling us such a rigmarole of lies.” Naturally Holmes discovers the object – and naturally it involves an exotic past and a lack of honour amongst thieves. What is remarkable about the solution is that it hangs together so well. One must buy the idea that Holmes’s client is a total hermit, but agoraphobes are not uncommon. Proceeding from that fact, all the others slot into place rather nicely.

Holmes, too, feels more like his old self than he often does in the Casebook. In 1902, we are told, he refused a knighthood for services rendered – alas, we never learn what those services were. What we do learn about him, however – or perhaps what Watson learns – is one of the warmest moments in the canon. When a bullet grazes Watson’s leg, Holmes jumps to his side: “You’re not hurt, Watson? For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!” Watson’s thoughts are worth quoting in full:

“It was worth a wound – it was worth many wounds – to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment,a nd the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that revelation.”

All the reader’s years of following the pair, too, may well be rewarded in this moment. And Holmes’s next expostulation? “You are right. It is quite superficial.” The Three Garridebs is indeed lovely stuff for the faithful.

“We Had Thought It Some Wild Tale Of Foreign Parts”

Holmes had read carefully a note which the last post had brought him.

"I chanced to glance at Holmes and saw a most singular intentness in his expression."

The Sussex Vampire is notable for the manner in which Conan Doyle allows Sherlock Holmes the last word. The author, of course, was in later life a great believer in the supernatural and occult. Holmes, naturally, is far more sceptical: “The world is big enough for us,” he says. “No ghosts need apply.” This is why the Granada adaptation of this case, in which the master is asked to investigate an apparent case of English vampirism, got it so disastrously wrong: the point of this story, unusually for Conan Doyle’s more flamboyant concepts, is not the sensationalism of the set-up but the rationalism of the denouement.

That is not to say the story is particularly good: there are a number of unanswered questions about the actions of the characters which probably don’t have any sensible answers. What struck me about the story, though, was its similarity in many ways to the Road Hill case as written about by Kate Summerscale in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: set in 1896, there is here, as was not apparent in The Three Gables, a properly Victorian modesty. Outsiders aren’t welcome, and the scandal must not get out. As usual, the other fall-back position is the exotic history of one of the house’s inhabitants.

The lady of the house is from Peru, and her resultant inscrutability is key to the story’s success (or otherwise). If we can believe that, alien as she is, she may well hold “this horrible, this incredible secret” of vampirism, we will be gripped. If, as modern readers are likely to feel, we find Conan Doyle’s insistence on the strangeness of the Latin unconvincing, we are simply waiting for the other shoe to drop. Holmes, too, is not as obfuscatory as he sometimes is, aiming almost all of his questions in the direction of his client’s elder son.

For all that, however, Holmes’s method is at the centre of the story – as if the occultist author is testing the rationalism of his character. Conan Doyle’s integrity is too great simply to use Holmes as a fall-guy, however, and thus the great detective’s methods are vindicated. He protests that Watson “has given an exaggerated view of my scientific methods.”  Certainly there is imagination at work, too – “It has been a case for intellectual deduction,” Holmes explains, allowing that his method is essentially to make up a story and then see if it fits. As most notably in Silver Blaze, however, this concoction of a theory, and then the testing of that theory “point by point by quite a number of independent incidents”, is of course a fundamentally scientific method.

The telegram with which this story opens is replied to in its final lines. Characteristically, Holmes’s response is terse, matter-of-fact and without sensationalism. It is to Conan Doyle’s credit that he allowed his characters such strong and consistent voices, even when he himself might have disagreed.

“You Have Overdone It On This Occasion.”

“I don’t think that any of my adventures with Mr. Sherlock Holmes opened quite so abruptly, or so dramatically, as that which I associate with The Three Gables.”

The Three Gables
"He swung a huge knotted lump of a fist under my friend’s nose. "

The Three Gables in truth starts not so much with a bang as a sterotype: Steve Dixie, the “negro” who barges in on Holmes and Watson and proceeds to inflict upon them threats of violence and tortured minstrel grammar, is one of the most embarrassing characters in the canon – and quite at odds with Conan Doyle’s earlier treatment of African-Americans in The Yellow Face (although admittedly closer to his treatment of Tonga in The Sign of Four). We only need Dixie to burst into a rendition of Old Man River and all would be complete.

This incongruity is part of the fabric of the whole story – another which, along with The Mazarin Stone, Meyer’s Watson will dismiss as a forgery. It would be happy if such were the case: many of the stories collected in The Casebook, as the last stories an increasingly weary Conan Doyle would every write about Holmes, reek of fatigue and laziness. So, for instance, the central story here, revolving as it does around femmes fatale, sex and impropriety, feels far more like a story of the period in which it was written than the one in which it was set; likewise, Holmes’s presence is thin and at times poorly characterised – the moment he pulls a woman into a room by the arm feels most unlike the gallant-if-aloof detective we’ve come to know. Small details, too, echo this larger malaise – Lucerne is not in Italy.

“I suppose I shall have to compound a felony as usual,” Holmes breezily declares at the story’s end, and as he often does lays down his own particular – and extra-legal – kind of justice. The mystery preceding this dispensation, however, is so potted and ill-constructed (Conan-Doyle has done many ‘missing document’ mysteries, but this is by far his most soft-headed) that the reader has long since given up. It simply doesn’t feel like our Holmes. 48 short stories into our acquantance with him, this is a little much to take.

“I Believe You Are The Devil Himself”

“It was pleasant to Doctor Watson to find himself once more in the untidy room of the first floor in Baker Street which had been the starting-point of so many remarkable adventures.”

"... on tiptoe, his thick stick half raised, he approached the silent figure."
"... On tiptoe, his thick stick half raised, he approached the silent figure."

The Mazarin Stone is, in the opinion of the Watson who appears in Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Per-Cent Solution, “forged drivel”. In fact, it is simply a half-hearted adaptation of a stage play, The Crown Diamond. Watson hardly features in the play, and is therefore written out here, too – the extent to which Holmes’s creator here allows himself to be a slave of his source material is very strange – and this results in, after His Last Bow, the second of the two third person narratives in the canon. This one, however, has none of the energy of the first.

Confined to one room and conveyed almost entirely in dialogue, the story is practically a script with very little of any interest added by Conan Doyle (a terrifically terrible final scene featuring Holmes’s client should be ignored). The third person voice is tired and detached, something about Holmes’s characterisation seems not quite right, and the plot itself is both hackneyed and unconvincing. Not only does it recycle the old dummy-in-the-window trick from The Empty House; it has significant shades of The Blue Carbuncle to boot. And yet despite this mining of the canon, still the maneuver by which Holmes sneaks, via a heretofore unknown secret passage in 221B, first behind a curtain then into the chair previously occupied by his wax double, is so strained as to rob the denouement of any tension at all.

The villain, too, is perfunctory – in the play originally Sebastian Moran, here he is Count Negretto Sylvius (though his proclivity for airguns remains). We must assume that Conan Doyle felt he couldn’t in good faith publish so obvious a rip-off of his own stories, and so varnished over matters with a name change. In the event, the reader is still left feeling the story to be embarrassing filler. Even its setting feels odd: is it a late story, as suggested by Holmes and Watson’s awkward reunion? Or is it earlier, as posited by Brad Keefauver, given that Holmes seems so active? The truth, sadly, is that the story doesn’t quite fit anywhere.

“We can make the world a better place by laying them [the villains] by the heels. But that is not what I am out for. It’s the stone I want.” Holmes’s characteristic focus on the problem, not law and order, is the one bright spot in an otherwise very weak story. The worst of the 56? In many ways, undoubtedly. Such adaptation is beneath both Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle.

“I Have Trained Myself To Notice What I See.”

The ideas of my friend Watson, though limited, are exceedingly pertinacious.

"He was outside the window, Mr. Holmes, with his face pressed against the glass."
"He was outside the window, Mr. Holmes, with his face pressed against the glass."

The Blanched Soldier is narrated by one Mr Sherlock Holmes. With The Lion’s Mane, it is one of only two of the 56 stories told in the voice of their main character – and I choose that word ‘voice’ carefully’. It’s easy sometimes to suggest that Conan Doyle was an artless writer, but this story is a calm refutation of that accusation. Though Holmes admits that Watson was right all along – bald facts do not an engaging story make, and concessions must be made to the reader – The Blanched Soldier nevertheless has a different character than Watson’s stories. It is stonier and colder; less interested in human colour, more in process.

Indeed, this focus on methodology leads to one memorable moment when Holmes must reveal his sleight of hand (or, in this case, nose): “Alas, that I should have to show my hand so when I tell my own story! It was by concealing such links in the chain that Watson was enabled to produce his meretricious finales.” Still, as when the Fonz became his show’s main character, or Spike was made a regular, something is lost in this demystification. Holmes’s voice is not one of singular genius. By the story’s close, it is in fact rather pedestrian – more so than Watson, who at least has a flair for the dramatic.

Holmes, though, admits his lack of facility for fiction. “And here it is,” he writes as he approaches his denouement, “that I miss Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he could elevate my simple art, which is but systematized common sense, into a prodigy.” Holmes’s modesty is also Conan Doyle’s sceptisim; perhaps here he attempts to murder his creation more surely than he did in The Final Problem. Holmes’s art isn’t so exciting when seen from the inside. He is even shown to be something of a showman, reusing his own catchphrases: “Your problem presents some very unusual features”; “It is my business to know things”; “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.

But the story is too well characterised to be a total hatchet job. We get some nice little details: Holmes always situates his clients in the chair facing the window, to see them by the light;  he has “found it wise to impress clients with a sense of power”; he insists that his need for a companion is not a sentimental one. And when earlier in the story he suggests that Watson’s principle skill is his lack of imagination, he is showing that familiarly blasé cruelty. All this is just as well, since the story itself is a little flat, and tailed with an unconvincing happy ending, as if Conan Doyle or his editor isn’t quite comfortable with the rather bleak corner into which the story has painted its characters. Holmes tells us Watson wasn’t around to record this adventure; had he been, he might not have done at all. Still, Holmes’s voice is enough to carry us through the few pages this story takes up, and it’s an intriguing, and ultimately far from disappointing, experience for his long-term readers.

“If The Matter Is Beyond Humanity It Is Certainly Beyond Me”

“In recording from time to time some of the most curious experiences and interesting recollections which I associate with my long and intimate friendship with Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I have continually been faced by difficulties caused by his own aversion to publicity.”

"There, black upon yellow, was the terrible news-sheet.."
"There, black upon yellow, was the terrible news-sheet.."

The Devil’s Foot was, scandalously, skipped by me last week, in accidental favour of the final story in its collection, ‘His Last Bow’. This was a shame, because, although it is a story much like, for instance, The Speckled Band – over-reliant on the memorable qualities of its central image (in this case victims literally scared to death in an empty and isolated home) and an unlikely solution (here, as ever, exotic in origin) – it also boasts a much stronger structure than did most of the other stories of this type. It also benefits from the fact that Conan Doyle hasn’t picked up this tool in his box for quite some time, and he has clearly improved in its use since last he did: here, a break in the Cornwall countryside turns sinister and, in a trope which would become familiar in all subsequent stripes of detective fiction, the holidaying sleuth is robbed of his relaxation. (Except – of course! – he is far happier when detecting than when not.)

Holmes is on excellent form, too. When his quarry expresses astonishment that Holmes has followed him and yet he has seen nothing, the detective coolly replies, “That is what you may expect to see when I follow you.” This sort of confidence is quintessentially Holmesian, as is the story’s denouement, where once again his private status lends him authority to flout the law and apply his own justice. If all this activity and brilliance circles around a grotesque but unlikely case, it does at least lend the story enough meat to carry the sceptical reader along regardless.

Holmes’s brio is despite of a precarious mental state. In The Reigate Squires, he was taken ill after over-exerting himself in the case of the Netherland-Sumatra Company. Here, too, he is shipped off to cleaner airs to escape the “absolute breakdown” which his physician insists will be the result of any further work. That breakdown never comes, but – particularly in the Granada adaptation of the story, which focuses on Holmes’s drug use – its spectre hangs across the story, especially during the scene in which he chooses to test his theory that a burning powder has caused the mysterious deaths by exposing himself and Watson to the same fumes. After predictably dire results, he admits that this was a stupid and irresponsible thing to do in one of his rare, and therefore touching, eliptical nods to Watson’s loyalty: “It was an unjustifiable experiment even for one’s self, and doubly so for a friend. I am really very sorry.”

Holmes’s judgment, however, does appear to falter more regularly in the later stories. The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax had another example of this hinted dimunition of powers, and so too does the first story in the collection, “The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes”. The Illustrious Client – and we are coyly denied knowledge of whom that client might be – sees Holmes repeat his trick of The Dying Detective, exaggerating in the newspapers injuries he has sustained in a street attack so that the villain who ordered it, Baron Adelbert Gruner, will take fewer precautions against him. He then sends Watson to Gruner’s home (we are conveniently informed Gruner is a connosieur of Chinese pottery, and Watson is dispatched with a priceless specimen), and, during his friend’s interview with the Austrian nobleman, Holmes enters Gruner’s home in search of the Baron’s “book of lust”.

Gruner has murdered his wife and been freed on a technicality, only to cut a swathe through Europe’s women (even Watson, the perennial ladies’ man, must admit that Gruner is “remarkably handsome”), finally to reach Violet de Merville, the daughter of a powerful and well-connected retired general. To protect her, Holmes must obtain proof written by Gruner’s own hand which might convince de Merville her love is in fact a fiend. Holmes’s error, however, is to take along with him one of Gruner’s old mistresses, Kitty Winter. His defense is that Winter will know the book by sight – yet we might remember A Scandal in Bohemia, in which Holmes simply deduced where an item was hidden without such help. We might forgive him because of injury and a lack of time – Gruner is bound for America in a few days – but Winter brings with her a vial of vitriolic acid and throws it in Gruner’s face as she escapes with the detective. This of course scars the man horribly – and perhaps fatally were Watson, who himself has been in mortal danger from the rightly suspicious Baron, not there to tend his wounds.

And so the dispenser of summary justice – here as in The Devil’s Foot – appears less in control than he once did. Watson bills both these stories as ones for which he has wrung from his old friend permission for publication. Welll might it be so. The Illustrious Client in particular is a late case – it takes place in 1902, one of the last five Baker Street adventures Watson records. The ghost of retirement, as much as of breakdown, haunts it.

“… but when an object is good and a client is sufficiently illustrious, even the rigid British law becomes human and elastic. My friend has not yet stood in the dock.”

“The One Fixed Point In A Changing Age”

“It was nine o’clock at night upon the second of August – the most terrible August in the history of the world.”

"How have the years used you?"
"How have the years used you?"

His Last Bow, for a work of propaganda, is unusually moving. In part this is a function of Holmes’s Arthurian role here – he returns in his country’s hour of need, and once again provides to it sterling service. A stronger pull of the story, though, is in the tenderness of Holmes and Watson’s friendship – they are old men now, though they flatter each other that they look no different – and Holmes, with a knowing grimness, warns that their conversation at the end of the story might be “the last quiet talk that we shall ever have.” Holmes has been in the world of espionage for two years as this story begins, but he cannot resist calling upon Watson to be there at the climax – and, of course, Watson drops everything and answers. Complete with references to past adventures and glories, the story is an elegy for the Baker Street years – and perhaps, too, the England which played host to them.

Indeed, despite Conan Doyle’s clearly hawkish pose in this story (he has the German characters scoff at the “self-absorption and general air of comfortable somnolence” of the complacent English, whilst only Holmes vows that the patient Englishman should not be tried too far), there is a regretful foreboding to the tale. “There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast,” Holmes famously intones, and the gloating war-mongery of the Germans gives us no hope that the coming war will not be harsh, will not change the face of England and Europe forever. This is the final story – chronologically speaking – in the Holmes and Watson sequence, and this is how it must be. The world will have no place for them after August, 1914 – the uncomplicated intelligencer of The Naval Treaty will be replaced by the more ambivalent spooks of Graham Greene or John le Carré.

His Last Bow was written in 1917, three years into what had quickly become a shockingly brutal conflict. Holmes’s crowing that, thanks to the false information he has been feeding the Germans, they will find British guns larger and British cruisers faster than they expected rings hollow in this context. The gentlemanly ‘sport’ of international diplomacy in which Holmes has for so long engaged seems unsuited to the context of 1917. As wonderful an idea as it was to enlist Holmes into the war effort – Conan Doyle was an out-spoken supporter of General Haig – the altered world of 1917 bears little relation to Holmes’s urbane air of triumph. The Great War is beyond even his intellect to predict and control.

Perhaps these problems, too, are the cause of the story’s failure as a spy thriller: why does Holmes reveal his identity instead of continuing to undermine the German war effort? Why is Von Bork released to the German ambassador? And is it a credible plan of espionage merely to adopt a funny name, arrive in Chicago, and proceed to be a bit crooked? (In a round-about infiltration, Holmes “gave serious trouble to the constabulary at Skibbareen, and so eventually caught the eye of a subordinate agent of Von Bork.”) Holmes and Conan Doyle belong to an older world of detectives and criminals, gentlemen and drawing rooms. His Last Bow is the final Holmes story in a conceptual as well as literal sense – and that, ultimately, is its most moving aspect of all.

“It Had Been Out Of The Ordinary.”

“But why Turkish?” asked Mr. Sherlock Holmes, gazing fixedly at my boots.

"An unshaven French ouvrier in a blue blouse darted out..."
"An unshaven French ouvrier in a blue blouse darted out..."

The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax opens with this non sequitur, though it has very little to do with the story that follows – except in so far as it is treated patiently by Watson only because of the deep friendship the pair by now share. This friendship powers the narrative – first when Watson is happy to travel to Lausanne to investigate a case on behalf of his friend, and then when he supports an extralegal search of the home of a private citizen.

Regular readers will know by now that what I value in a Holmes story are scope, rigour and character. All three appear here: Watson’s foreign trip offers an expansiveness rare in the Holmes canon; his investigation, like Holmes’s following it, is replete with detail, setbacks and clues enough to pretend to solvability; and in particular Holmes’s character shines through very strongly – yet nor are  those around him neglected. The story has a tension and pace unusual in a Holmes story, too – Conan Doyle often crafts intellectual puzzles Holmes can solve at his leisue, yet here he is faced with a race against time made explicit in the final, breathless pages.

Does the story pull all these elements together? Perhaps not quite: Watson’s bumbling (“I cannot recall any possible blunder which you have omitted,” sighs Holmes), though as with his incurious approach last week somewhat out of character, slows and muddies the mystery; Holmes’s sudden appearance on the continent feels forced (unlike his revelation in The Hound of the Baskervilles, of which this moment most clearly reminds us); and Conan Doyle may even offer too many red herrings in so few pages. Still, if one can let the story carry them – and Holmes is notably thrusting and dynamic here, as if Conan Doyle realises we require a strong lead – then this is one of the most energetic of the late stories, remarkable too for the extent to which Conan Doyle allows his characters to get things wrong. Rare is it that a character is allowed to say, “Ah, you’ve blundered badly for once, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” without immediately being proven wrong, and the abandonment of this trope is refreshing.

Class, race and gender in the Holmes stories are not entirely unproblematic in their depiction. Here, for instance, Holmes describes a woman who, single her whole life and venturing abroad, must surely be self-sufficient and capable, as “a stray chicken in a world of foxes.” She is considered “helpless” and women of her eccentric and rootless woman “one of the most dangerous classes in the world. […] She is the most harmless and ofen the most useful of mortals, but she is the inevitable inciter of crime in others.” Holmes is no modern man – his brilliance in deduction lies in his mastery of the society of his day, his understanding of the way in which it shapes human behaviour – and here he makes that plain.

Still, as the master himself declares of another kind of  clouding of the mind towards the story’s end, “Such slips are common to all mortals, and the greatest is he who can recognise and repair them.” In his final concern for securing a body its “last resting-place”, Holmes shows he is humane enough – and in this mystery Conan Doyle proves himself able to recognise the faults of his more workaday stories and, when putting his mind to it, of repairing them.