The last of Sherlock Holmes

 

© Penguin Books

 

A few posts ago, I mentioned how I was working my way through an 1800-page volume containing all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and short-story collections about Sherlock Holmes.  Well, I’ve completed the job.  The other day I finished reading the volume’s final instalment, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, which contains the last 12 Holmes stories Conan Doyle published between 1921 and 1927 and which was itself originally published in 1927.

 

I thought I’d write something here about those dozen stories in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes because, by the normal standards of Conan Doyle and Holmes, they constitute a strange body of work.  I should add that by the same standards they aren’t a terribly good body of work.  Case-Book has often been dismissed as an end-of-the-road raggle-taggle written by Conan Doyle when he’d run out of both ideas and enthusiasm for his most famous creation.  Indeed, when the writer (and later filmmaker) Nicholas Meyer wrote his celebrated Sherlock Holmes pastiche-novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution in 1974, he had his narrator – Dr Watson – denounce four of CaseBook’s stories, The Adventures of the Creeping Man, the Lion’s Mane, the Mazarin Stone and the Three Gables, as forgeries and ‘drivel’.  Meyer evidently regarded the four as being so substandard that they were unworthy of their places in the canon.

 

Conan Doyle himself seemed relieved that Case-Book marked the end of his association with Holmes.  He furnished the collection with an author’s introduction, something that to the best of my knowledge he didn’t do with the earlier books, and in it he makes some revealing comments.  He opines that Holmes, whose first adventure appeared back in 1887, was by the late 1920s well-and-truly past it, “like one of those popular tenors who, having outlived their time, are still tempted to make repeated farewell bows to their indulgent audiences.”  (No doubt those over-the-hill operatic tenors in the 1920s were the equivalent of the many over-the-hill rock stars still performing in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.)  And Conan Doyle voices his impatience with the reading public and their apparent obsession with the character: “decrepit gentlemen who approach me and declare that his adventures formed the reading of their boyhood do not meet the response from me which they seemed to expect.”

 

While he concedes that writing the Holmes stories didn’t prevent him from devoting time to the sort of writing and research he was genuinely interested in – “history, poetry, historical novels, psychic research, and the drama” – he insinuates that the character had prevented him from being taken as seriously as he would have liked: “Had Holmes never existed I could not have done more, though he may perhaps have a stood a little in the way of the recognition of my more serious literary work.”

 

The ‘psychic research’ he mentions touches on a fascinating conundrum much discussed by Holmes scholars over the years.  Conan Doyle had always been interested in the paranormal and esoteric and after World War One such things greatly preoccupied him.  He was heavily into spiritualism and contacting the dead, no doubt spurred on by the deaths of his son and brother during the 1918-20 Spanish flu epidemic.  Due to their shared interest in this, he befriended Harry Houdini, though their friendship floundered when an increasingly sceptical and disillusioned Houdini started exposing phony mediums and seances.  And he publicly and embarrassingly believed in the veracity of the ‘photographs’ of the Cottingley Fairies in 1920.  Of course, such fanciful notions went against everything that Sherlock Holmes, the great practitioner of deductive reasoning – thought strictly speaking it was abductive reasoning – stood for.  If Holmes had been flesh-and-blood and in Conan Doyle’s company, you could imagine the romantic-minded Conan Doyle really not liking him or his no-nonsense rationalism.

 

You can sense this tension between the imaginative creator and his hard-headed creation in a passage in The Adventure of the Retired Colourman, Case-Book’s final story (actually the third-last one written chronologically).  Holmes sends Watson off on a reconnaissance mission and when the doctor returns he attempts to describe an important building to the detective:

 

“’Right in the middle… lies this old house, surrounded by a high sun-baked wall mottled with lichen and topped with moss, the sort of wall – ’

‘Cut out the poetry, Watson,’ said Holmes severely.  ‘I note that it was a high brick wall.’”

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

Many stories in Case-Book stray from the template of the earlier Holmes adventures.  One is a rarity in the canon in that it’s not narrated in the first person by Dr Watson but is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator.  (The only other story to share this distinction is the title story of the 1917 collection His Last Bow.)  Two other stories here are even more radical – they dispense with the character of Watson altogether and are narrated by Sherlock Holmes himself.

 

A couple of Case-Book’s stories involve little or no sleuthing.   Indeed, one takes the form of a deathbed confession, wherein somebody who was a participant in a mysterious case that years earlier Holmes hadn’t been able to solve summons him and explains to him what really happened.

 

And then there is Case-Book’s heavy reliance on the macabre.  Three stories have Holmes tackling cases that appear to involve monsters – one monster from the natural world, one the result of scientific meddling and one a fixture of popular supernatural fiction.  In only one of these cases does the monster turn out to be a hoax.  There’s also a troubling focus on facial disfigurement, with two deformed characters in two stories living in hiding like Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1910).  A third story culminates with a villain getting disfigured, thanks to a packet of ‘vitriol’ being thrown in his face by a vengeful ex-lover.

 

And the very last Holmes story that Conan Doyle wrote sees Holmes and Watson rooting for clues and signs of skulduggery in a crypt, “dismal and evil-smelling, with ancient crumbling walls of rough-hewn stone, and piles of coffins, some of lead and some of stone, extending upon one side right up to the arched and groined roof which lost itself in the shadows above our heads.”  By now Holmes has stepped out of the pages of detective fiction and into those of gothic fiction.

 

But as I’ve said, this unconventionality doesn’t make Case-Book a particularly good collection.  The pair of stories narrated by Holmes, The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier and The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane, feel unsatisfactory because hearing them told in Holmes’s voice strips the character of his mystique – the distance provided by the mostly-admiring, occasionally-exasperated Watson is sorely missed.  “Ah!  Had he been with me,” says Holmes of Watson, “how much he would have made of so wonderful a happening and my eventual triumph against every difficulty!  As it is, however, I must tell my tale in my own plain way…”  And unhappily, the results are plain rather than wonderful.  The Lion’s Mane also makes a quaint read nowadays because the mystery that propels its narrative is one that in 2018 could be solved in 30 seconds with a search on Google.  .

 

The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, the story written in the third person, was originally a one-act play called The Crown Diamond, penned by Conan Doyle in 1921.  Because Holmes’s cerebral reasoning was presumably too un-dynamic to portray on a stage, it focuses instead on some shenanigans involving a dummy that are a little more visual.  On the page, though, the result is perfunctory.

 

Elsewhere, a couple of the stories are marred by depictions and sentiments that even by the standards of 1920s Britain are unpleasantly racist.  The Adventures of the Three Gables, which qualifies as one of the collection’s worst stories anyway, is encumbered by a non-funny comedy-relief black character (“Look at that, Masser Holmes!”), while the otherwise reasonable The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place has an in-debt character who, we’re told repeatedly, faces ruin at the hands of ‘the Jews’.

 

Nonetheless, there is some good stuff here.  The conceit behind The Problem of Thor Bridge is quite clever, as is that of the light-hearted The Adventure of the Three Garridebs – even if it’s unlikely that, as happens in the story, a foreign confidence trickster who’s lived in Britain for years would give himself away so readily with a misunderstanding of British English.  And The Adventure of the Creeping Man, about an elderly academic who suddenly starts to behave in a strange, out-of-character, downright frightening manner, conveys a genuine chill.  It’s reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) even if the final denouement has more in common with a hoary old 1940s horror movie starring Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist.

 

Interestingly, one of the weakest stories here – The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone – and one of the strongest – The Adventure of the Three Garridebs – were combined for an episode in the final series of TV adaptations featuring the great Jeremy Brett as Holmes, 1994’s The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.  What makes this odd combination even odder is the fact that Holmes hardly appears in the episode – no doubt because Brett was in declining health at the time.  As a result, Dr Watson (Edward Hardwicke) has to solve the Three Garridebs on his own, while Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (played by the wonderfully supercilious Charles Gray) is drafted in to sort out the Mazarin Stone.  And still on the subject of Holmes screen adaptations, The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane provides us with a glimpse at Holmes in his post-Baker Street retirement, living near some cliffs on the Sussex coast with only a housekeeper and some hives of bees for company – which forms the setting for Bill Condon’s melancholy 2015 film Mr Holmes starring Sir Ian McKellen as a 93-year-old Sherlock.

 

© BBC Films / See-Saw Films / FilmNation Entertainment

 

2 thoughts on “The last of Sherlock Holmes

  1. Hope all’s well with you, Ian.

    It’s always interesting to read people’s take on Holmes and ACD. I always felt ACD worked too hard to dismiss Holmes (kind of like Graham Greene does with his ‘entertainments’) and secretly enjoyed the recognition it brought him.

    I didn’t read any Holmes until my mid-twenties when I was working in Urumqi, far-west China/central Asia. It was the only English-language reading material in the bookshop other than Wuthering Heights.

    The place and reading material were a great mix. The city’s winters are brutally cold, and there’s an air of menace to the place given the ethnic tensions. Would be a great setting for a ‘Holmes on tour’ series.

    • It sounds like the world is ready for a series of novels about a jaded, melancholic, slightly alcoholic, middle-aged, Inspector Rebus-style detective fighting crime and righting wrongs on the wintry mean streets of Urumqi. And maybe you are the man to write those novels, Mr Jones!

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