In The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s sixth Sherlock Holmes book, Sherlock Holmes, the famed detective, returns.
“The Final Problem,” the last story of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, was set in 1891. “The Adventure of the Empty House,” the first story of The Return of Sherlock Holmes, is set in April 1894. Sherlockian scholars call the three years between “The Great Hiatus.” Doyle’s hiatus from writing Sherlock Holmes stories was even longer. Memoirs was published in 1894, but Return was published in 1905. There was an intervening novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, published 1902, but this was a prequel to many of the stories in Memoirs, including “The Final Problem.” As its title suggests, he intended “The Final Problem” to be the last Sherlock Holmes work, the end of the canon. I’m uncertain what motivated him to write Baskervilles, but in writing it, he created a renewed interest in Sherlock Holmes. The public wanted more. Though Doyle felt done with Holmes, he yielded to the public outcry for more stores.
I see him rolling his eyes, sighing a deep, heavy, sorrowful sigh, and returning to his desk to again write. Quoting Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth, not in the vociferous tones of an actor on stage, but in a resigned whimper, “‘Once more unto the breach.'”
But even then, Doyle expected this would be his last Sherlock Holmes adventure. The final story of this collection begins with Watson giving this disclaimer:
I HAD intended “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” to be the last of those exploits of my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, which I should ever communicate to the public. This resolution of mine was not due to any lack of material, since I have notes of many hundreds of cases to which I have never alluded, nor was it caused by any waning interest on the part of my readers in the singular personality and unique methods of this remarkable man. The real reason lay in the reluctance which Mr. Holmes has shown to the continued publication of his experiences. So long as he was in actual professional practice the records of his successes were of some practical value to him; but since he has definitely retired from London and betaken himself to study and bee-farming on the Sussex Downs, notoriety has become hateful to him, and he has peremptorily requested that his wishes in this matter should be strictly observed. It was only upon my representing to him that I had given a promise that “The Adventure of the Second Stain” should be published when the times were ripe, and pointing out to him that it is only appropriate that this long series of episodes should culminate in the most important international case which he has ever been called upon to handle, that I at last succeeded in obtaining his consent that a carefully-guarded account of the incident should at last be laid before the public. If in telling the story I seem to be somewhat vague in certain details the public will readily understand that there is an excellent reason for my reticence.
As followers of this blog know, I am reading and reviewing Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes canon in the order they were published in book form. My plan is to review one book a month, until I’m finished with the nine books of the canon, but I took my own hiatus in January and February. In March, returning to the project, I published my review of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Now it is time to tell you about The Return of Sherlock Holmes. This is the sixth book in the canon.
As Baskervilles was a prequel to Memoirs, The Return of Sherlock Holmes is the sequel. The three years prior to April 1894 were bad years for Watson. Not only did he lose his faithful friend, but also his wife Mary died. The details of her death are never given; the book only hints at the tragedy. But at the beginning of the first story in this collect, “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Watson is a sad, lonely man. He fills his time by following the criminal cases in the press and wondering how Holmes would approach them. In this way, he became interested in the murder of Ronald Adair. Wanting to apply Holmes’ techniques to the case, he visited the house. But whereas Scotland Yard would’ve invite Holmes, and Watson with him, into the house, there was no such invitation now. Like many onlookers, he had to stand outside the crime scene and speculate what was happening inside.
This is the setup to what is, so far in my reading, my favorite collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. Baskervilles is a better book, but that is a novel rather than a collection of short stories. The thirteen stories of The Return of Sherlock Holmes were published in The Strand in 1903 to 1904. Doyle had been writing Sherlock Holmes stories for eighteen years, and during those years, he had transformed himself from a novice writer who struck gold into a skilled writer. He had learned how to pace stories to build tension and create mystery. Though many of his previous stories, like those in the first collect, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, deal with intriguing problems, they often lack a crime. Not so in Return. Murder or the threat of murder often drives these stories, but even in the stories that lack murder, there is the violence we expect from detective fiction.
In “The Adventure of the Empty House,” it is Holmes’ own murder that the detective wishes to abort. He had spent three years hiding from an assassin, Colonel Moran, but now he is ready to confront the man. In other stories in this collection, Holmes saved a woman from a stalker, rescued a boy from kidnappers, and exonerated an innocent man of the murder charges he faced. We want to think of Holmes as infallible, but in one story, his solution came too late to avert tragedy. There is something very familiar about these cases, something very modern. In these stories, we meet abusive husbands, cheating students, abandoned women, blackmailers, would-be rapists, and Chicago gangsters. One story involves members of the Mafia. As I read that familiar term, I wondered if this was the first time that the Mafia appears in fiction. (My research in that question led into several red herrings but no clear answer.) In the final story, “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” Holmes even dabbles in international espionage.
Though Holmes is known as the observant detective, and though he often ridiculed Dr. Watson for seeing without observing, from the early stories on, Watson proves himself to be very observant. He observes Holmes and the people they meet in the cases. He observes London and the surrounding districts. And he observes the weather. I think a small and interesting study could be made of Watson’s climatic observations. They help to set the tone and create the dreary atmosphere we have grown to love in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries.
It was a wild, tempestuous night towards the close of November. Holmes and I sat together in silence all the evening, he engaged with a powerful lens deciphering the remains of the original inscription upon a palimpsest, I deep in a recent treatise upon surgery. Outside the wind howled down Baker Street, while the rain beat fiercely against the windows. It was strange there in the very depths of the town, with ten miles of man’s handiwork on every side of us, to feel the iron grip of Nature, and to be conscious that to the huge elemental forces all London was no more than the molehills that dot the fields. I walked to the window and looked out on the deserted street. The occasional lamps gleamed on the expanse of muddy road and shining pavement. A single cab was splashing its way from the Oxford Street end.
I fear description is becoming a lost art in literature. Today writers often minimize or even neglect it. I had once read one writer say–I don’t remember who–that she doesn’t write the “parts that no one reads.” It is true that bad description slows a story down and bores the reader. But there is nothing boring about the above passage. This is drama. There is a conflict between the silence inside Baker street with the howl of the wind outside, between the studious activity of Holmes with the palimpsests with the beating of rain against the window, between the “shining pavement” with “the iron grip of Nature.” After reading that description of the November storm, I knew when Watson saw the approaching cab that its passenger was not bringing good news.
I fear in my reviews of previous Sherlock Holmes stories that I haven’t spent enough time focusing on the art, the craft, of Doyle’s writing. As a writer, Doyle’s claim to fame is creating literature’s most intriguing detective. Arguably, even a bad writer creating Holmes would’ve made a success of him. But Doyle is no bad writer. Perhaps its saying too much to call him a genius–a word that’s over used–but The Return of Sherlock Holmes proves him to be an artist.
The Return of Sherlock Holmes is a collection of compelling stories by a master writer at the height of his creativity. Here we meet a writer, though reluctant, dedicated to his craft and to his goal to creating entertaining stories. Though I have recommended every Sherlock Holmes book I’ve review, The Return of Sherlock Holmes deserves a little extra push in that recommendation. Do read it. You’ll be doing yourself a favor.