Monday, May 27, 2013

Sherlock Holmes - The Final Stories

It is well known that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle so resented the popularity of Sherlock Holmes which he felt was taking the focus from his more "serious" works, that he even killed off his most famous creation. But the Holmes had become a "tiger by the tail" kind of situation from which he couldn't extract himself and hence he had to resurrect Holmes a few years later. "The Hound of the Baskervilles", arguably the most famous of his works came after he  resurrected Holmes. "The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes" was published in 1894 which had "The Final Problem" and the final collection "The case book of Sherlock Holmes" was published in 1927, a quite a big period of 33 years. It is perhaps too much to expect the same quality (if not increase in) in the works of a writer over a period of nearly 40 years (taking into account the period from 1887 when 'A Study in Scarlet' was published), but re-reading the entire Holmes canon, one is struck by the subtle but marked decline in the quality of the later works, particularly those in the collection "The case book of Sherlock Holmes" which we will look into briefly in this post.

The canon has always required a certain suspension of disbelief, a buying into the preternatural abilities of Holmes by the reader.  He is an extremely unique character yes, probably one of the most popular and well known, but there is a gravitas to him which makes him believable even though he seems to have come from another world, credit going to Sir Arthur, who painstakingly explains (through Holmes himself) that all the conclusions reached by Holmes are of a logical bent and can be attained by anyone only if he deigns to 'see' instead of just 'look' (though it may not be practically possible). There is no doubt that a lot of thought has gone into the plot and narration the stories/novels and considerable effort has been expended by Sir Arthur to ensure that Holmes doesn't become a caricature. But the the last collection seem to have been written a bit hastily, a random collection of plots with incidents that are cobbled together which do not lead up to the denouement in as logical a manner as the stories in the earlier collections. 

Let's take 'The Mazarin Stone' in which Holmes gets the culprit himself to reveal where a precious stone is hidden. This is reminiscent of the story 'The Adventure of the Dying Detective' (and in one trope 'The Adventure of the Empty House') in the collection 'His Last Bow' which is much better staged. In this story, the manner in which Holmes gets to the truth does no justice to the great detective's prowess. The feeling of deja-vu intensifies in the story 'The Adventure of the Three Garridebs' whose plot is basically a rehash of 'The Red-headed League'. Where is the diabolical ingenuity of the 'The Adventure of the Speckled Band', the deceptively simple mystery of 'The Adventure of the Copper Beeches' or the 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men'. Some stories in this collection begin at the end, with Holmes relating at breakneck speed how he came to the conclusion, in some the reason for the mystery and endings are very contrived like in 'The Adventure of the Illustrious Client' or 'The Adventure of the Creeping man'. In both, you have a very intriguing set up, but the end and indeed the journey towards it, both let the story down. The complexity of a problem in any mystery is has to be complemented by the manner which it is taken apart and finally resolved. If it's too complex then the reader may not get it and on the other hand if it's explained too simplistically the reader would not feel the expected impact. The plot of 'The Problem of Thor Bridge' is so diabolical that it could have been a classic, but the denouement is so swift and simple, that there could be only one of 2 emotions at the end, one which completely overlooks the plot's complexity and the other which cringes at the offhand way such a problem is resolved. 

It this post sounds like a run down of the collection it is not. To be fair, it must be said that Sir Arthur has indeed gone out of his comfort zone in this collection. Far from the atmospheric, foggy London, we have stories which are set in other climatic conditions. It may seem a small thing, but when one thinks of Holmes, the first things that come to mind are the foggy London, the rainy days (sometimes the dark moorland), the trotting of hoofs as cabs run up and down the city and a very natural tendency must have been to keep setting the stories in the same environment. There are also a couple of stories that shake up the Holmes template. In 'The Adventure of the Lion's Mane' the solution to the mystery is very natural (literally and metaphorically) and is a pleasant surprise. 'The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger' is actually not a mystery, but about the guilt that one carries after committing a crime, a burden that kills one even if the law doesn't.  These are not your typical Holmes mysteries but are actually the best stories in this collection.

One wonders the pressure on Sir Arthur to keep churning out the Holmes stories and the impact it had on their quality. I don't know how this final collection was received on initially publication, but it's a good thing that no other works featuring Holmes were published after this, thereby keeping our memories of Holmes intact and not sullied by stories that do him no justice.  This is not a complete knock off on the collection and definitely not the entire Holmes canon, but only a general observation that even the best can get it wrong sometimes. Rankin and Mankell may have taken over and rewriting the rules of the game now and I may feel closer to Erlendur, Rebus and Wallander, but I will always be in a bit of awe of the egoistic, clinically cold (except in rare cases), sometimes druggie, lover of practical jokes, 'Holmes'. And yes the London fog too. 


  1. I completely agree with your assessment. I absolutely love the earlier Holmes books but this is the collection that I reread the least. I don't mind the Veiled Lodger story but it is more in the style of Conan Doyle's non Holmes short stories. I have a feeling Holmes and Watson have been shoehorned in to what would have been a decent story without them.

    Funnily enough, the Granada tv series reflected the decline in quality and I find the TV programmes less interesting as the series progress.

    Nice review!

    1. What you have said about rereading this collection rarely applies to me too Sarah. IMHO the first 3 collections are the best of the lot.