2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the publication of the last book of Sherlock Holmes adventures. In honor of the occasion, R.T. Raichev, a lifelong fan of English crime fiction, gives his assessment of the stories in that volume, entitled The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. Please be aware, if you have not yet read these stories, that there are spoilers in what follows.
R.T. Raichev is the author of a highly regarded series of mystery novels in the classical style starring Antonia Darcy and Major Payne. He writes short-story length cases employing them for EQMM. Don’t miss the Darcy tale in our current issue (“The Stranger at the Harrogate Hydro”); there’s another (“Murder at the Mongoose”) coming up in our November/December issue. The author currently lives in Dubai, where he teaches English. He has posted scholarly articles on this site before. See “Playful Ghoulishness of a Crime Queen: The Short Fiction of P.D. James” and “1962: The Savoy Party Photo.”—Janet Hutchings
And so, reader, farewell to Sherlock Holmes! I thank you for your past constancy, and can but hope that some return has been made in the shape of that distraction from the worries of life and stimulating change of thought which can only be found in the fairy kingdom of romance.
Thus ends Conan Doyle’s preface to his last collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories, published in 1927. Most Sherlockian cognoscenti consider The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes the “weakest” in the series and complain that compared to the earlier books it pales, that some of the mysteries read like curiosities, that two of them may not have been written by Doyle, that three are not told by Watson, that Doyle recycles plots from earlier stories, that the malefactors are either of foreign extraction or an animal. Something in that—however, it would be wrong to dismiss this last excursion into the fairy kingdom of romance lightly. Conan Doyle’s hypnotic narrative style, the boldness and originality of his ideas, his evident delight in delineating strange characters and settings, his skill at building up suspense and instilling a sense of dread, his frequently very witty dialogue render the stories in his last collection compulsively readable. Sherlock Holmes’s luminous intellect is very much in evidence as he sets about solving a number of seemingly insoluble conundrums whose very variety is impressive—apart from murder we get suicide masquerading as murder, the saving of a potential murder victim, the retrieving of a crown jewel, a sinister disappearance linked to a case of pseudo-leprosy, experimentation with a dangerous drug, what appears to be vampirism, what appears to be death by flagellation, a revenge novel, transvestism, and wall paint deployed as a decoy.
What follows are some of my very personal observations and comments on aspects of the stories that have captured my fancy.
“The Illustrious Client,” deemed by Doctor Watson the “supreme moment in my friend’s career,” features one of Doyle’s most memorable villains, Baron Gruner. The latter is Austrian and a true monster of guile and depravity. He is described as a “fiend” albeit “extraordinarily handsome, with a most fascinating manner, a gentle voice and that air of romance and mystery that mean so much to women.” His villainy is suggested both by his title and his foreign name*. Gruner means “greener” in German, which sounds innocent enough, but the word is linked to a species of snake, to a deadly fungus, to jaundice, and to a destroying angel. Gruner is also a baron and readers who pay attention to such oddities will have noticed that barons do not come out well either in fact or fiction. Barons are cads, eccentrics, extravagant profligates, and generally untrustworthy.** Doyle’s Baron has not only acquired his considerable fortune as a result of “some rather shady speculations” but he is a lady killer in both senses of the word: he has a mesmeric effect on the women he marries and then kills. He is a latter-day Bluebeard. “The Illustrious Client” involves Holmes’ efforts to extricate Baron Gruner’s latest infatuated victim from his clutches. It concludes rather melodramatically with Gruner having acid thrown into his face by a vengeful woman whom he has once wronged. As Watson vividly puts it, the baron’s features “were now like some beautiful painting over which the artist had passed a wet and foul sponge. They were discolored, blurred, inhuman, terrible.”
“The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” introduces another highly dubious representative of the Continental noblesse—a Count Sylvius. (His first name is, well, “Negretto.”) One gets the idea that counts are as bad as barons, possibly worse. “Sylvius” is a name that is fancifully flowery and a trifle effeminate, though the man himself is a “big, swarthy fellow, with a formidable dark mustache . . . with a long curved nose, like the beak of an eagle.” His dress exudes vulgarity: he wears a “brilliant” necktie, a “shining” tie-pin, and “glittering rings that are flamboyant in their effect.” Sylvius’s eyes are “fierce”—but he is a coward who “suspects a trap at every turn.” “The Mazarin Stone” is a crown jewel of tremendous value. It is also, in my opinion, the only real dud in the collection. Apart from the overdone villain, the story hasn’t got much of a plot. Watson appears only fleetingly. It is a third-person narrative that consists almost entirely of dialogue. (It was originally a play.) The trick played on Count Sylvius—the use of a wax effigy fashioned in the image of Holmes—is absurd and it only manages to add stupidity and short-sightedness to the already long list of the Count’s physical, sartorial, mental and moral defects.
In the wake of the two nefarious Continental noblemen, “The Adventure of the Three Gables” starts with a huge, grotesque-looking black American barging menacingly into Sherlock Holmes’s quarters. As Watson observes, “he would have been a comic figure if he had not been terrific” with his “flattened nose” and “sullen dark eyes with a smoldering gleam of malice in them.” He is belligerent to start with, but is quickly cowed by Holmes. “The Three Gables” contains a curious plot device which is worth mentioning—a novel conceived as a form of revenge. (An idea used in the recent Tom Ford film Nocturanl Animals.) In the Doyle story an upstanding young Englishman relates the terrible treatment he has suffered at the hands of a perfidious woman called Isadora Klein who, in addition to her Hebraic name, has Spanish-looking eyes, occupies an “Arabian Nights drawing room” and, when confronted with her evil deed, looks “murder” at Holmes and Watson. The black American is one of her stooges.***
“The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” is the first of two stories in the collection told by Sherlock Holmes. It has a marvelously entertaining opening with the Great Detective reflecting on his friend Watson’s ideas (“limited . . . exceedingly pertinacious”) and accounts (“superficial . . . pandering to popular taste.”) The narrator reversal is interesting as we see Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in what was to be the last decade of his life, experimenting with the conventions of the detective genre whose father he had become. Although it follows the familiar lines of a visit from a worried client, the presentation of a mystery, its investigation and denouement, the voice throughout is unmistakably that of Sherlock Holmes: his narrative style is precise and engaging but, unsurprisingly, drier than Watson’s. Holmes sticks to “facts and figures” and manages to preserve critical impartiality by relying almost exclusively on what the people involved in the case tell him. A young British soldier has vanished without a trace and his best friend is anxious to find what happened to him. Perceptive aficionados of the genre won’t fail to notice how much better than most of his successors (the so-called Golden Age practitioners) Conan Doyle is at imbuing a suspenseful puzzle with genuine emotion. (The only exception is perhaps Josephine Tey.)
“The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” starts as an exercise in the macabre, with the shadow of Bram Stoker hanging over it, but the solution Holmes reaches is a completely rational and scientific one. Doyle has played with the supernatural before in the 1903 The Hound of the Baskervilles, which concludes with Sherlock Holmes explaining that the Baskerville curse is nothing more than a ruse the scheming killer dreamt up in order to lay his hands on the Baskerville inheritance. “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” is ultimately revealed as an interesting study in pathological jealousy: it is the disabled teenage boy, earlier in the story described as “charming and affectionate,” who has been trying to kill his baby step-brother. And the grateful Peruvian woman whose innocence Holmes has succeeded in proving credits him with possessing “powers of magic.”
“The Adventure of the Creeping Man” is a peculiar melange of Gothic horror and pseudoscience. Professor Presbury’s behavior has become a source of serious concern to his daughter and secretary as they believe he is transforming into something . . . inhuman. He is observed walking on all fours in the middle of the night and later “ascending” the wall of his house. In Watson’s words, “With his dressing gown flapping on each side of him, he looked like some giant bat glued to the side of his own house, a great square dark patch upon the moonlit wall.” This description is strikingly similar to the one Bram Stoker gives of Dracula crawling down his castle wall, “. . . his cloak spreading out around him like great wings . . . with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.” ‘‘The Adventure of the Creeping Man’ is a tense and suspenseful cautionary tale. Like Mary Shelley’s Doctor Frankenstein, Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and H.G.Wells’s Griffin (The Invisible Man) before him, Doyle’s Professor Presbury tries to challenge Nature and play God—with disastrous results. The story first appeared in magazine form in 1923 and, one could assume, was inspired by the sensational news in 1920 that a certain Dr. Voronoff had found the fountain of youth. Dr. Voronoff had in fact started injecting monkey glands into willing middle-aged patients who claimed to feel rejuvenated as a result.**** Professor Presbury—on the brink of a marriage with a much younger woman—believes that age can be halted, even reversed with the aid of monkey glands—he gets a standing order from a Prague supplier—the monkey glands do work and the professor’s energy and strength increase prodigiously—but the once highly respected scholar starts behaving with the irrationality and aggressiveness of an ape—at the end of the story he is savaged by his own dog. At one point Holmes sends Watson a message, whose imperative drollery might have come from an Oscar Wilde comedy: “Come at once if convenient. If inconvenient, come nevertheless.” “Creeping Man” has been dismissed as “risible” by Sherlock Holmes scholar David Stuart Davies.
“The Adventure of the Three Garridebs” re-deploys a—thoroughly preposterous—wildcat scheme from an earlier story, “The Red-Headed League.” A man is wrenched away away from his premises which provide passage to/contain something highly robbable by making him believe he is in some way “unique.” In the case of the “Garridebs” he is one of three men bearing the unusual name Garrideb—only Garridebs are entitled to a huge inheritance. What makes the story fascinating—to me at least—is the use of American spelling in a letter as a clue—plow instead of plough—which alerts Holmes to the villain’s American identity. This may well have been the inspiration behind the verbal clue used by Agatha Christie in The Murder on the Orient Express (published in 1933), in which Mary Debenham unwittingly betrays to Poirot the fact that she has lived and worked in America—by describing a trunk call (British English) as “long-distance” (American English).
Another story which may have suggested to Agatha Christie an ingenious method of bamboozling the reader is “The Problem of Thor Bridge.” A woman crazed by jealousy commits suicide and she does it in such a way as to make it look as though she has been murdered by her children’s governess. (She suspects the latter of having an affair with her husband.) The suicide-made-to-look-like-murder was used three times by Agatha Christie—in the short story “The Market Basing Mystery” (1923), the novella Murder in the Mews (1937), and in her most famous novel And Then There Were None (1939). In the last listed it is not only the idea but the mechanics of the deception that are very similar to the ones employed in the Doyle story. Sherlock Holmes elucidates the mystery thus: “a stone is secured to one end of a string, the other end to the handle of the revolver . . . As she shoots herself in the head the stone is hung over the parapet of the bridge so that it swung clear above the water. The pistol, after being fired, is whisked away by the weight of the stone and vanished over the side of the water.” In None, Justice Wargrave explains how he did it: “. . . to my eyeglasses is attached what seems a length of fine black cord, but it is elastic cord . . . My hand, protected with a handkerchief, will press the trigger . . . the revolver, pulled by the elastic, will recoil to the door handle, it will detach itself and fall . . . The elastic, released, will hang down innocently . . .”
In “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” we read about enigmatic last words uttered by the dying victim, which is exactly what happens in the earlier (and better) “The Speckled Band.” Both stories feature malevolent creatures resembling, respectively, a lion’s mane (Cyanea Capillata, a species of a poisonous jellyfish) and a speckled band (deadly swamp adder). “Lion’s Mane” is a whodunit, with at least two men having a motive to kill popular schoolmaster McPherson. Sherlock Holmes is again the narrator. He describes his own conclusion to the problem as “far-fetched and unlikely”—yet it is the correct conclusion. Holmes has managed to reach it thanks to his extensive fund of esoteric knowledge. He admits that he is an “omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles,” that his mind is “like a crowded box room with packets of all sorts stowed away therein.” An element of perversity is introduced early in his investigation with the suggestion that McPherson’s death might have been the result of a deadly flagellation with a cat o’ nine tails—a multitailed whip originally used to inflict punishment in the Royal Navy.
“The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” is notable for its lack of deductive reasoning on Sherlock Holmes’s part. He tells Watson, “The case worried me at the time . . . Here are my marginal notes to prove it . . . I was convinced the coroner was wrong.” But it is Mrs. Ronder, a former circus artiste and once “a very magnificent woman,” who explains how her beautiful face became “terribly mutilated.” The murder victim is Mrs. Ronder’s sadist of a husband, “one of the greatest showmen of his day” but also “a human wild boar . . . formidable in its bestiality.” He is killed by Mrs. Ronder’s lover, a circus acrobat. The murder weapon is one of the most outlandish in the Sherlock Holmes canon—a club with a leaden head in which five long steel nails have been fastened with the points outward, “with just such a spread as a lion’s paw.” Ronder’s death is made to look like a deadly attack from Sahara King, the circus lion, with whom Ronder performs. There is dark irony in the fact that, following the murder, it is the real Sahara King that turns on Mrs. Ronder and mauls her. Watson suggests it is a “retribution of fate.” The story can be given as an example of Doyle’s penchant for the the grisly and the outré. It is one of several tales that feature face disfigurement. (“The Case of Lady Sannox,” a non-Holmes story, is particularly hair-raising, certainly not for the squeamish.)
Doctor Watson refers to “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place” as a “singular episode”—though aren’t all Sherlock Holmes cases “singular episodes”? Its plot, like that of “The Adventure of the Silver Blaze,” revolves round a racing horse, Shoscombe Prince. This is another story with a strong Gothic flavour. We are told of “an old ruined chapel . . . so old that nobody could fix its date . . . under it there’s a crypt which has a bad name . . . a dark, damp, lonely place by day . . . few in that country that would have the nerve to go near it at night . . .” A long-dead body is dug up and a few bones of a mummy are discovered stored in a corner. A coffin is opened to reveal ‘a body swathed in a sheet . . . with dreadful, witch-like features . . . dim, glazed eyes staring from a discoloured and crumbling face.” The story involves an irresponsible baronet and a female impersonator.
The last story in the Case-book, “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman,” starts with Sherlock Holmes in a pessimistically philosophical mood: “But is not all life pathetic and futile, Watson? We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow? Or worse . . . misery.” The denouement reveals a double murder committed by a jealous husband—the retired colourman of the title. The smell of paint provides a vital clue. How likely is it that a husband who claims to be driven frantic about his wife’s disappearance should start painting the walls of a room? The real reason, as Holmes deduces, is that he was trying to mask the smell of gas which was the deadly penalty he had meted out to his unfaithful wife and her lover. Incidentally, the smell of paint provides a vital clue to the killer’s identity in Agatha Christie’s 1953 offering After the Funeral as well—when Poirot correctly interprets the importance of the fresh reek of oils in the house of a woman who has been brutally hacked to death.
* Conan Doyle gives his two most notorious English-born villains names that are not entirely English either: Moriarty and (Sebastian) Moran—both names, as French speakers will notice, are associated with death. An emblematic name is also given to the murderous doctor in “The Speckled Band”—Grimesby. Readers must decide for themselves whether to think of “grim” or of “grime,” neither of which has a pleasant association.
** Here are three related examples. Baron von Munchhausen, a notorious teller of tall tales whose name is used by psychiatrists to describe the syndrome of pathological lying. “Baron Corvo,” a fictitious cognomen employed by another serial fantasizer Frederick Rolfe. Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glenconner, bought the island of Mustique as a wedding present for Princess Margaret but then left a will making his black valet the main beneficiary of his fortune.
*** Racial stereotypes were quite common in the 1920s—with the Great War still a painful memory and Britain gradually losing its Empire—and Doyle might have been pandering to the ingrained tastes of his habitual Strand magazine readers. One is also reminded of Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate who declares, “Abroad is unutterably bloody and all foreigners are fiends.”
**** The monkey-gland rage went on till well into the nineteen-fifties, with aging celebrities of the stamp of Somerset Maugham, Pope Pius XII, Marlene Dietrich, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Noel Coward among its followers.
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