Good morning, kind readers. Today, I’ll be following up my last Sherlock Holmes post with a review of the next two books, in ascending order of quality.
After being disappointed with the first two Holmes novels (for reasons outlined in the aforementioned post), it was a relief to breeze through five very good books. Unfortunately, at the other end of the canon, came these two collections: neither of them a disaster, but both of them exhibiting the negative traits of Conan Doyle’s storytelling as well as the positive. Read on…
Unlike Agatha Christie, who remained committed to Hercule Poirot in spite of her love/hate relationship with the Belgian, Conan Doyle basically gave up on Holmes after four volumes, and really had to be coaxed back into continuing the series infrequently throughout the first 27 years of the 20th century. This collection gathers the last short stories* – although chronologically, they’re all set before WWI and the ‘final’ case in His Last Bow – and it’s fair to say that it isn’t a breathtaking volume.
[*Opinion is, and will remain, divided on which stories exactly constitute ‘canon’, and whether various unpublished snippets are part of the official cases. As an amateur Sherlockian at best, I’m staying out of it.]
Conan Doyle’s prose skills have developed considerably from the early days of A Study in Scarlet. His handling of atmosphere, and of the Holmes/Watson relationship, is rivalled only by The Hound of the Baskervilles. However, this is a 2-star work for a non-Holmes fan, and 2-and-a-half if you know and love the guy already.
One of the most frustrating elements of this book (admittedly a collection of individually-published short stories) is how often similar character tropes pop up. There are three – maybe four – fiery foreign ladies whose ethnicity is a key part of the solution.
The Adventure of the Creeping Man – the biggest letdown in the canon. This story – in which Holmes and Watson investigate odd goings-on at the county house of a professor – opens with an intriguing premise, and gives us by far the most arresting, chilling images that Holmes and Watson ever encounter. But it’s ruined by a gobsmackingly bad denouement which comes from a horror story, or a pulp sci-fi novel.
The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone – adapted from a play, this story takes place entirely within the confines of 221B Baker Street. Again, an intriguing premise for a story, but perhaps this adaptation could only fail: not only does it rely on previously unheard-of architectural features at Baker Street, but The Mazarin Stone fails to capture the reader’s interest or render any of the characters particularly realistically.
The Illustrious Client – just an odd little dimestore story, barely memorable. Moving on.
The thoroughly average
Intriguingly, many of the stories herein are structured less as ‘whodunnits’ and more as ‘howdunnits’. Very few of the stories (indeed, only really two) feature more than one suspect. Some stories never even attempt to hide the perpetrator; the question is instead “what is going on?”. This is not unprecedented in the canon by any means, but is highly concentrated here.
Thor Bridge – Holmes and Watson pursue a gunshot murder in which either the suspect, who claims to be innocent, must be guilty, or there can surely be no murderer at all! Thor Bridge is well characterised, but I cannot to this day decide whether the denouement is clever or wildly implausible. Either way, the remaining elements did not really stick in my mind, so I can’t decide. Interestingly, Watson notes that many of Holmes’ cases simply aren’t interesting enough to commit to print, and he keeps papers in a bank vault.
The Three Gables – this story of extortion is noted most for the questionable racial stereotype character who opens the piece. Personally,I’d argue that the character of Steve Dixie isn’t badly done: he has at least two dimensions, and the fact that he is black isn’t the reason he is bad; they’re just two elements of his character. I’m not arguing he’s a sensitive portrayal – it’s an edgy debate – but I don’t find it painfully racist, like some of Christie’s early anti-Semitic moments. The story is a pleasant read but, aside from having mild echoes of earlier stories, doesn’t really conceal a great secret or elusive mystery: it’s a thriller, really, but not all that thrilling.
The Lion’s Mane – one of two stories in this volume to be narrated by Holmes (and not to feature Watson at all). Holmes’ tone of voice is delightful, and the atmosphere here – the murky seaside in terror of an unseen killer – is well rendered. As with a much earlier story, The Five Orange Pips, this can’t help but be unsatisfying. For once, the fault is in no way Conan Doyle’s: suffice it to say, what was once mysterious is no longer. Modern readers will pick up on the solution by the second page.
Perhaps most interesting is to see how public sensibilities changed over the years. The early works could only hint at impropreity, while the crimes in this and the previous collection are far more wide-ranging. Bodies – when they appear, which is actually quite rare here – are often brutally destroyed; people having affairs are clearly now having sexual ones; alcohol is far more prevalent. A window into a world.
The Veiled Lodger is a strange, haunting little piece, about a hideously mutilated lodger, and the tragic story of how she came to be that way. The Veild Lodger isn’t really a mystery at all, but a retelling of a “cold case”, with a dark and brooding central figure who has spent years following Holmes’ career. This is one of the better stories in the collection, and decidedly unsettling, however it’s distinctly un-Holmesian, as if the great detective wandered into another series altogether. An odd addition to the canon, but a welcome one nonetheless.
The Sussex Vampire – atmospheric and ripe for adaptation, yes. Silly? Even more so. Holmes investigates a case where his client suspects vampirism. The atmosphere in the Sussex house is neatly conveyed, with a creepy tone and deft handling of the reveal of the true villain. However – along with featuring one of our many fiery Latinas – the solution hearkens back to the exotica and melodrama of the early Holmes novels. Not really a success, but a story that stands out nevertheless.
The … satisfactory?
It’s tough to review stories published almost a century ago: how do we objectively rank and analyse them without giving in to our own prejudices, our own expectations for how a story is written, and – of course – inevitable claims of back-seat [type]writing? To be honest, we can’t: my best hope is to try and adopt the mindset of both the author and the intended audience, but at the same time, not to coddle someone if their work isn’t very good. The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes is not a write-off: I don’t begrudge Conan Doyle for publishing further tales of one of the 20th century’s most celebrated literary icons. Nor am I stunned that not every tale he wrote was a winner. But at the same time, even the four most typical stories in the volume are somewhat lacking.
Shoscombe Old Place and The Blanched Soldier – these stwo stories could easily have appeared in one of the early volumes without me batting an eyelid. They feature intriguing set pieces, a gallery of grotesques, and solutions which are both obvious and obscure. Notably, as mentioned above, the identity of the villain isn’t really concealed: it’s how they’ve committed the crime, and why that’s important. The latter is narrated by Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself, but neither of them have the panache of the earlier short stories.
The Three Garridebs – a well-plotted piece which, as expected by now, features very few suspects but some solid investigating from Holmes and Watson (and a cameo from Lestrade!). If you start with this volume, you’ll enjoy The Three Garridebs. Others will note that this is basically a shot-for-shot remake of an early (and very memorable) Holmes short story.
The Retired Colourman – the most Holmesian story in the collection, in which he is hired by an old Scrooge to track down his wife, who absconded with her lover. It’s broken record time, but: a few suspects would have been nice! It doesn’t take long to figure out vaguely what happened, but it’s all in the details, and Holmes’ investigation makes complete sense. Along with some lovely secondary characters, this is possibly the best story in the collection, even if it still can’t stand up to the earlier stories.
I apologise for the length, but this sums up both the story and the collection: Conan Doyle had tired of Holmes to an extent, and what we get here are stories that focus on the complexity of how the crime was done, rather than making the surrounding elements – suspects, primarily – a mystery. As a result, we generally get a puzzle followed by a chase. Not always unsatisfying, but never as captivating as the earlier works.
His Last Bow – as the title suggests – was one of many efforts in which Conan Doyle effectively retired Sherlock Holmes, with the title story being the last chronological case in the canon. Although this volume was ultimately followed by The Case-Book, it is a much more fitting finale for Holmes and Watson. These stories really display all the central elements of the series: bracing atmospheres, a delightful central pairing, and many clever acts of murderous legerdemain on the one hand; stilted dialogue, limited suspects, and one-dimensional characters on the other.
Each of the stories in this collection is enjoyable, although I’d probably not rank any of them in my “Top Ten”. The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge, which opens the collection, is almost a novella, and it certainly has a lot in common – thematically and structurally – with the early novels. It’s no less ludicrous, certainly, but the characters and situation are highly polished, and Inspector Baynes is a delightful new “friendly adversary” for Holmes, adding some much-needed extra zest.
The Red Circle and The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax – stories which, again, don’t bother with suspects but go straight to the “how and why?” type mystery – offer nothing new, but the atmosphere is expertly rendered, the riddles neatly devised, and the established relationship of Holmes and Watson is strongly portrayed. By this point, Conan Doyle clearly knew where his strengths lay: in creating unsettling ambience through prose, and in the Holmes/Watson pairing. Now that he has spent decades with Holmes, Watson is able to provide insight into the great detective’s mindset, while we also get to see them bicker and joke like an old married couple. As in the later novels, Holmes also never misses a chance to set Watson up with some clues, and then dash his seemingly-logical conclusions.
[The quantity and longevity of Watson’s various wives is open to discussion, and apparently has been analysed by numerous Sherlockian scholars. I believe there’s an implication of a wife pre-Holmes (or at least pre-The Sign of Four), after which he marries Mary Morstan. However, implications in The Return of Sherlock Holmes suggest Mary’s death, and another (third?) wife entering the scene. Why Conan Doyle was so cagey about this is a mystery to me, as the few times when we see Holmes encroaching on Watson’s personal life – instead of just the tenth rendition of “I can shift my patients to another day, Sherlock” – are always intriguing. Perhaps the great Watson novel just never materialised.]
As with all Conan Doyle’s works, the dialogue can sometimes be stilted. Holmes, Watson, and the more prominent police inspectors have individual voices, but the guest characters can often come across as bland, spewing forth empty exposition rather than speaking with interesting cadences or syntax. This may be for the best; the few times the author tries obvious accented characters – Americans, particularly, as we’ll see in the better short story collections – it doesn’t always work. Then again, I’m not British, so it’s possible I’m missing out on a lot of subtle class distinctions.
The Devil’s Foot – like the three mentioned above – offers nothing new, and relies on that old Conan Doyle plot twist of an obscure method which only Holmes could have figured out. But the atmosphere – in which two brothers are found deranged and singing in their locked home, while their sister sits, dead, at the game of whist – is truly unsettling, making it a step up.
Yet again, the overall emphasis is on the implausibility or seeming incomprehensibility of the case, rather than the nature of the crime itself. Conan Doyle may offer us one suspect, or perhaps one suspect and one suspicious client, and go from there. The Dying Detective is my least favourite in this collection. Despite a lovely title, the plot twist inherent in the story will likely fool no-one. However, it’s one of the strongest examinations of the bond between Holmes and Watson, so holds some merit for fans.
The Bruce-Partington Plans may, on the other hand, be my favourite of these stories. It’s a fusion of spy and detective work which – although, again, means the revelation of the culprit is somewhat unimportant – has a fun, pulpy sense of ‘the chase’. In more action-oriented stories, Watson could become an equal member of the team, and the story moves thick and fast through London, with a cameo by Holmes’ evasive brother Mycroft. (Mycroft’s existence – hovering on the edge of the storyline, with his own club, his own quirks, and his connections to the government – fascinates both fans and writers of any new Holmes adaptation. Reasonably so, but on the other hand, Agatha Christie could’ve paused before she imitated him in The Big Four.)
Finally, there is the title story, His Last Bow. I’m not sure if this was genuinely written as a finale, but it certainly is the chronological end, set just days before the outbreak of WWI, in an exceedingly tense Europe. Overall, it’s a disappointment, not least because our heroes feature in the story for such a short period of time. The dialogue is arch, the villain lacks even one dimension, and the actions of Holmes and Watson at stories’ end would probably not be advised by the Home Office. However, there’s a true sense of separation and loss at the end – both a loss of pre-war life, and an end to Holmes and Watson’s relaxed friendship – that tore me up a little
In closing, His Last Bow is not the strongest collection for newcomers to Sherlock Holmes, but it’s certainly a vital part of the canon. Well worth a look.
Next time: To go forward, we must go backward. We stop by Holmes’ last novel – viewed by some as the dud of the canon – and check out some enjoyable, if melodramatic short stories.