The Priory School

Thorneycroft Huxtable, BA, MA, etc., arriving at Baker Street.
Illustration by Sidney Paget.

The Priory School

Musings of Dr. Sheldon Goldfarb, BA, MA, MAS, PhD, etc.

Priory? First of all, what is a Priory School? I’ve looked up “priory,” and it means monastery or convent, but that can’t be what we have here in Victorian England. Perhaps it means there used to be a monastery on the spot? And it is a boys’ school, so a bit monastic perhaps: and with lurid goings-on as in an old Gothic, like for instance The Monk. But still.

And who is the Priory Schoolmaster? A question of moment to me since I have assumed the title for the Stormy Petrels in our monthly discussions of things Sherlockian. In the story both Thorneycroft Huxtable, that pompous fool, and the German master who gets murdered have the title of schoolmaster applied to them. Not sure either is a good role model to follow. I will certainly not go speeding across moors on my bicycle. (Not that I have a bicycle or know where the nearest moor is.)

Moors and Bicycles: Common motifs at this point in the canon. Doyle does like to take us to barren places, and lately he has become interested in cycling. Not sure if that means anything.

Nasty Aristocrats: That’s another common motif, though the Duke at first seems pleasant enough, more so than his secretary, though of course the secretary turns out to be his illegitimate son, and thus from the same class, just a bastardized version of it, you might say. (Who was his mother, by the way? Oh, dear, I’ll be turning into a Great Game Sherlockian soon.)

         But at the end certainly the Duke is rather nasty in wanting to hush up his illegitimate son’s involvement in the kidnapping of his legitimate son, and also in that murder of poor Heidegger. Poor Heidegger. But why did he set off after the young heir? He didn’t even know him. Not a good thing to be a Good Samaritan, apparently. This story is full of questions.

Names: We don’t have to worry about Heidegger the German philosopher because he’s twentieth century, but Wilder is an apt name for the illegitimate son (as Joseph Kestner says). Wilder than whom, though? His father? The legitimate heir? And the legitimate heir is named Arthur! How many Arthurs are there in the canon?*  Poor Arthur, kidnapped and never seen, just like the unseen presence behind Holmes and Watson. How often does an author name a character after himself, and what can that mean? Certainly, Holmes’s main concern at the end is to protect young Arthur. Beyond that he is content to let James Wilder go free and hush up the involvement of the Duke. But we must save Arthur, though from whom? Reuben Hayes is under arrest, James Wilder is on his way to Australia; all that’s left at the Inn is the kindly wife of Hayes. But one can imagine that someone named Arthur would want to protect someone else named Arthur: save him from harm and get his parents back together.

Money: Holmes doesn’t usually care about money, but here he seems eager for it. Is that just a way to get at the Duke? He won’t report him to the police, but he’ll take his money. Hmm. Odd.

The gypsies did it: No, of course they didn’t. It’s never the gypsies (or the butler).**  Some critics say the Holmes stories reflect fear of the foreign, but sometimes they mock that fear. In “The Naval Treaty” there’s almost a celebration of things Italian, and here the “foreign” gypsies are perfectly innocent, while the German character is the well-intentioned victim. We need foreigners to help us, but here we go bashing them over the head. Is that what the story is saying? Be kind to foreigners? It’s the hereditary Duke and his illegitimate son who are the dangers, and also Reuben Hayes, none of whom I think are foreign, though the name Reuben is suggestive: Old Testament after all, but still I think we have homegrown villains here, especially aristocrats. They’re often the villains in the canon.

Children: That’s uncommon, though: the focus on a child. There’s even a reference to a children’s game: Holmes talks of getting warmer or colder when leaving or approaching the Inn, “as the children say,” says Holmes. Are there other children in the canon? Not that young Arthur quite makes it into the canon, being unseen and unheard throughout the story. Still. A concern for children. Quite unusual. I once reproached the author of a Sherlockian pastiche for writing a story in which Holmes is very concerned to rescue boys at a school: Holmes never cares about youngsters, I said, but I’d forgotten this story.

         And there’s the grimy stable boy. For a moment I thought he might be young Lord Saltire in disguise, and now I pause to think: why after all is the stable boy there? Is it to suggest the sort of thing the young lord might be forced into? The horror, the degradation. Is that what Holmes thinks young Arthur needs rescuing from, the decline into servitude? The canon after all is full of stories about respectable people fearing they will be dragged down by some disreputable secret from their past. Is this story expressing a fear that a young lord could be dragged into the muck by the disreputable past activities of his father?

The past: Yes, there is something to dwell on. Some unfortunate passage in the Duke’s past life has produced a serious threat to young Arthur. So it is the standard canonical motif after all. You may be a lord now, young Arthur, but someone could come along to snatch you away from all that and maybe deprive you of your inheritance. In other stories it is this threatened character who is likely to turn murderer or murder victim; young Arthur is lucky to get off with a kidnapping, while it is the German Good Samaritan who dies trying to save him.

Moving on from the past: So we have a priory school, conjuring up the monastic past, and an old aristocratic title, and a schoolmaster who writes about Horace and who ends up collapsing in the parlour at Baker Street. How the mighty are fallen, how the past has decayed, how worrying about inheritance leads into crime. Is this the message? And maybe it’s time to transfer money from the decaying aristocracy to the self-made men of the middle class, the detectives, for instance. And finally remember to protect the children, especially the ones named Arthur.

*   More than I thought, actually. Donald Redmond says there are eight.  Most of them are quite positive characters, either heroes or sympathetic victims (or both, like Arthur Cadogan West in “The Bruce-Partington Plans” and Arthur Holder in “The Beryl Coronet”). There’s also the falsely accused Arthur Charpentier in Study in Scarlet. The most prominent villain among them is Arthur Pinner in “The Stockbroker’s Clerk,” but I note that Arthur is not his real name.

**  Well, it is the butler in “The Musgrave Ritual.” But it’s never the gypsies. Sometimes it’s foreigners, but other times they’re just innocents wrongly accused.

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK. Also at MX Publishing.  The musings were originally written for the Stormy Petrels of British Columbia.

A Case of Identity

A Case of Identity

Depend upon it, there is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace: So says Sherlock Holmes, and it sounds profound. But what does it mean? That ordinary things are actually extraordinary? And thus the extraordinary are ordinary? That the most unusual things happen all the time in everyday life, more unusual than what the most extravagant artists could dream up? But as more than one commentator has noted, it is ironic (hilarious?) that Holmes makes this argument by dreaming up a completely fictional, even science-fictional scenario of flying over London, gently removing the roofs, and peeping inside. (A little voyeurism, by the way? I guess that’s what detectives do, though: spy on other people.)

So which is it, fiction or reality? Which is more extraordinary, unnatural? If reality is unnatural, then is Nature unnatural? It is very confusing. And of course made even more confusing by being a claim made in a work of fiction (my apologies to those who think these are non-fiction accounts). Could any story-teller invent something as bizarre as the husband throwing his false teeth at his wife? So says Holmes. But who after all invented that bizarre scenario except the story-teller Arthur Conan Doyle – or is there a real case of that? If not, what on earth is the significance of the teeth-throwing? One commentator says it points to the comedy in this story. Perhaps, and …?

False teeth, false teeth: Replacement teeth for the real thing. Just as Hosmer Angel is a replacement for a real lover? Poor Mary Sutherland is stuck with this make-believe delusion which Holmes refuses to disabuse her of, thus allowing her evil stepfather to succeed in his plan to control his stepdaughter’s money and, say some, maintain the evil patriarchal system of oppressing females. It does give one pause: Holmes justifies it with a sweeping generalization about women (you better not take away their delusions, he says, supposedly quoting a Persian poet). What is going on here?

Martin Wagner has an idea: This critic does an interesting analysis of Holmes’s opening analysis of the “interesting” Mary Sutherland. By the way, the well-respected Sherlockian Sonia Fetherston notes that this story sets up the whole canon, being one of the first to give us all the standard elements of Holmes and Watson, from their cosy fireside chat to the pipes and tobacco to the analysis of a client that never fails to astound. But let’s look at that analysis, or follow Martin Wagner’s dissection of it. He focuses especially on Holmes’s conclusion that Miss Sutherland is a typist (or typewritist, to use Holmes’s word) because of the marks on her plush sleeves. But, says Wagner, she wouldn’t wear her plush sleeves for typing. This makes no sense at all.

And typing’s not difficult even if you can’t see: Mary Sutherland says that, noting that an experienced typist knows where the letters are. This in response to Holmes’s suggestion that her short-sightedness must make it hard to do her work. This seems not really an error on Holmes’s part, and Wagner doesn’t push the point; it’s more that Miss Sutherland has made an accommodation to deal with the problem. But let’s look at that accommodation: she can type because she knows where the letters are? The letters on her keyboard, presumably, but every good typist looks away from the keyboard because their focus has to be on what they’re transcribing: some handwritten manuscript usually. How does she see that with her short-sightedness? Well, with her pince-nez, but still …

Is anyone telling us the truth? We have Holmes in essence jumping to an impossible conclusion because there should be no signs of typing on the plush sleeves. We have Mary Sutherland confusing the matter by referring to letters she already knows rather than the ones she has to discover. And yet the reader is willing to suspend disbelief and accept all this. Why? I think it’s Watson’s fault. Here is Watson celebrating his great companion, talking of his “incisive reasoning” and saying he had so many reasons (how we repeat that word) to believe in Holmes’s “subtle powers of reasoning.” Reason, reasoning, rationality – that’s what Holmes is all about, no? And yet, suggests Martin Wagner, it’s not true, it’s a fiction. The truth is a fiction, as one might put it in a moment of Holmesian (or anti-Holmesian) profundity. Figure that out.

And what about the incest? Well, yes, I know, they don’t actually commit incest, this stepfather and his stepdaughter, but there’s an icky quality to the story, or perhaps just a sense of a father figure keeping his daughter from rival males. Sort of an Oedipus complex inside out and upside down (I fear all this flying over the roofs of London has disoriented me). Later in the canon, and even in the earlier tale of Bohemia, we have Holmes himself (and sometimes Watson) seeming to step in between a young woman and her proper suitors, even if the suitors are fiancés. Nothing like that here, though Chris Redmond detects a whiff of it. Miss Mary Sutherland, a rather large woman with a vacuous face and a preposterous hat, doesn’t seem our heroes’ type. There is no Holmesian interruption of the course of true love; instead, it’s the stepfather who intervenes, disguised as an Angel.

Hosmer Angel: And he’s no angel, of course, except perhaps in the fact that he doesn’t exist (apologies to those who believe that angels do exist, and fairies too). He doesn’t exist, and yet Miss Mary Sutherland believes in him, a belief that Sherlock Holmes is loath to challenge: she would bite his head off, he suggests. She has a simple yet noble faith in her supposed fiancé; she swears loyalty to him on a Bible. This is religion of a sort, and not the only religion in the story. We do talk of these stories as a canon after all, with Holmes as a sort of God, and Watson, I will venture to add, as his prophet.

And why do we need this God and Prophet? Why, to deal with all the unnatural occurrences of everyday life. To bring order to the universe. That’s what Holmes can do for us: he’ll take the most mysterious of circumstances and make them clear. Whether he lets the villains go free or not, that is not the point. He explains things, that’s what’s important. Now we understand what Hosmer Angel is; we have settled the mystery; and we can go back to our own everyday activities, comforted in the thought that there is a reason for everything (even if it’s a fiction to say so).

Lingering Questions: Why is the mother angry? We don’t see her, but we learn that she was in on the plot and was – but wait, was she in on the plot? We have only Holmes’s conjecture for that. Was she taken in too? But how could she not recognize her own husband? On the other hand, how could Mary Sutherland not recognize her own stepfather? I know she was short-sighted and he was wearing a disguise, but really … Of course, we must suspend our disbelief. And what we do know is that the mother was all for the match and, as Mary puts it, was even “fonder of him [Hosmer Angel] than I was” – well, of course she would be fonder of her own husband, if she recognized him as her husband; would she be fonder of her daughter’s suitor even if she didn’t know it was really Mr. Windibank? Is she eager to have her daughter marry? Why? To free her of Mr. Windibank? But if she knew all along, then she was helping to bind her daughter to Mr. Windibank. But if that’s so, why be angry when Hosmer Angel vanishes? Or was that an act? Or was it just a spark of maternal affection springing up for her poor, deceived daughter – even if she was willing to go along with the deception at the beginning. Do we have mother-daughter rivalry here? Or mother-stepfather conspiracy? Or mother-daughter alliance? Or some mixture of all three? Oh, the strange ways of families.

And one more question: Why is Holmes sure Mr. Windibank will end on the gallows? Is this actually just some Holmesian social snobbery at work, looking down on the jumped-up wine salesman who thinks he’s better than a plumber, or anger at a heartless cad? But why should deceiving a stepdaughter lead to capital offences? Will he murder someone in his greed? Ah, well, who knows? Perhaps Holmes is just jealous of someone who so successfully uses a disguise, rivalling Holmes himself, reminding him of his defeat by Irene Adler, who also was good at disguise. So it’s a story of rivalry perhaps: Holmes versus Windibank, Windibank versus suitors, mother versus daughter. A story of rivalry and faith.

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK. Also at MX Publishing.  The musings were originally written for the Stormy Petrels of British Columbia.


Holmes and Watson by Sidney Paget.


Jessica Plummer just released her “definitive” list of all the original 60 Sherlock Holmes stories, ranked from worst to best.

Nothing I do is definitive, but I’m game to follow her lead, and it should be easy because I belong to the Stormy Petrels of British Columbia and we rank the stories all the time, or at least rate them.  Problem is I’ve forgotten most of the ratings, and besides I keep changing my mind.

Can you really rank them anyway?  Can you distinguish between, say, The Resident Patient and The Greek Interpreter?  Except for the very best and the very worst (I’m looking at you, Mazarin Stone), who can sift these things?

So what I mostly hope you enjoy are my summaries: all 60 stories in bite-sized installments.  Why, you can master the canon in half an hour or less.

So herewith a list, but from best to worst: let’s start with the good stuff (but it’s mostly good stuff)

  1. Copper Beeches.  Watson shoots a mad dog.  The heroine finds her own hair in a drawer.  Another character is like Rapunzel in the tower.  You must sit here and here and here.  What is going on?  There’s horror, adventure, and detecting all in one.  And some of the detecting is done by, gasp, a woman.  No, not THAT woman but another woman who interests Holmes perhaps as much as Irene Adler.  Watson even hopes for a little romance, but …

  2. Silver Blaze.  The curious incident.  A horse race.  An explanation of what men really want (to win a horse race, of course).  Holmes gets his own back at an uppity colonel and makes sure that everything is fair and square (sort of).  And there’s binoculars.

  3. The Red-Headed League.  Hilarious.  A red-headed league?  Oh, come on.  But really it’s about robbing a bank.  Or is it?  Maybe it’s a chance to show off Holmes’s powers and have him debate rationality with Watson.  What is stranger, truth or fiction?  Trust a work of fiction to tell us (or don’t).

  4. The Cardboard Box.  Ooh, ears in a box, but what’s going on?  Very puzzling.  And some Holmesian mind-reading.  What could be better?  Oh, and adultery.

  5. The Naval Treaty.  It’s roses, roses, all the way.  Such free association.  Such problem-solving.  A locked-room mystery.  A boiling kettle.  And the bell that rang from the empty room.  And those beacons of the future, the Board Schools.

  6. A Study in Scarlet.  The brilliant first story.  Well, brilliant in its first part, then Utah?  Oh, well.  But Part One is worth the price of admission.  RACHE.

  7. The Man with the Twisted Lip: Birds, lighthouses, opium, disguises.  And the joy of begging.  True, Holmes gets things wrong, but it doesn’t matter.

  8. The Engineer’s Thumb.  Ooh, more gore.  First ears in a box, then a thumb that isn’t there.  And strange international intrigue.  And an engineer who can’t find worthwhile work.  Plus a thrilling escape.

  9. The Sign of the Four.  The horrifying face in the keyhole, the nervous Thaddeus Sholto, a chase on the Thames.  Oh, and a boring romance between Watson and Mary Morstan, but never mind that.  And don’t forget the blow darts and the wooden leg: Long John Silver, eat your heart out.

  10. Thor Bridge.  What a plot!  (I won’t give it away.)  And a tempestuous New World beauty, a Gold King, a fairy tale.  It’s from the Case-Book, but they weren’t all bad.

  11. The Creeping Man.  Another Case-Book entry.  Monkey glands!  The problems of old age (if old age means being 61).  Climbing, leaping, bounding.  Egad!

  12. A Scandal in Bohemia.  Here’s the one with THAT woman, the woman.  She’s very clever, she outsmarts Sherlock.  Some people really love it (and her).  But really this is the story where the relationship with Watson takes off: Watson throws a smoke bomb!  He’s on the team now.

  13. The Missing Three-Quarter.  Such comedy: You mean you don’t know who I am?  How can you not know who I am?  But then tragedy.  The funniest story and the saddest.

  14. The Second Stain.  Another intersecting story: a document is stolen à la Naval Treaty.  But then there’s a murder!  How do they fit together?  Well, maybe they don’t.  And maybe spouses should talk more.

  15. The Blue Carbuncle.  The Christmas story!  Who could fail to like it?  And poor Henry Baker and his marriage and his hat.  Sigh.  Keep your carbuncles; what you need is a goose to share with someone, though a woodcock will do.

  16.  The Beryl Coronet.  Keep your business close and your family closer.  Or something.  If you get it wrong, you’ll end up running down the street like a madman.

  17. The Musgrave Ritual.  Oaks and elms and catechisms.  Who can figure out the real meaning of the old ritual?  Sherlock Holmes, of course.  Brilliant!  But the ending deteriorates into speculation.  Ah, well.

  18. The Dancing Men.  Another one that begins well, with another cipher, but at the end isn’t it a bit of anti-climax?  American gangsters?  We hoped for something more other-worldly.

  19. The Solitary Cyclist.  Ooh, adultery, sort of.  Love triangle or quadrangle or who knows how many angles?  Bearded men on bicycles.  Holmes and Watson to the rescue!

  20. The Six Napoleons.  Statue, statue, who’s got the statue?  Clever plot.  And a journalist scooped on his own doorstep, with an allusion to Dracula.  A bit xenophobic, though.

  21. A Case of Identity.  Holmes solving.  Holmes awing Watson.  Holmes arguing with Watson.  And an Angel.  Some loose ends, though.  And icky quasi-incest.

  22. The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Some would rank it higher.  It drags in the middle, though, when Holmes disappears: what is a Holmes story without Holmes?  But when he and Watson are together, it’s the old magic after the long hiatus.  And there’s a Sherlock Holmes impersonator: what cheek!  Not to mention the Hound.

  23. The Priory School.  A counterweight to The Six Napoleons.  Here the foreigner is hero and victim, not villain.  And there’s a hilarious opening scene featuring Thorneycroft Huxtable, MA, PhD, etc.  And some nasty aristocrats.  And bicycles.

  24. Wisteria Lodge.  Suppose you slept over at a friend’s and when you woke up everyone was gone?  That’s an intriguing beginning.  But the end trails off into a political backstory, though there is voodoo.

  25. The Three Garridebs.  Comedy, sort of.  Not as funny as The Red-Headed League, which it resembles, but there’s the absurd Nathan Garrideb clearing bones away so that Holmes can sit down.  But it’s really about decline, isn’t it?  The passing of old glories.  Also friendship: Holmes cares about Watson!  Who knew?

  26. The Bruce-Partington Plans.  Speaking of resemblances, here’s one resembling The Naval Treaty.  A bit of a rehash, but I do like that Cadogan West (one of the good Arthurs in the canon).  And there’s Mycroft.  And the top of a train.

  27. The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax.  She disappears so well that we hardly see her in the story.  Instead, there’s one of those bearded villains again: or maybe he’s not the villain, or maybe he is.  And Holmes is in one of his let’s upbraid Watson moods when Watson actually did well.  Does one dislike the story as a result or relish the strange relationship?

  28. The Sussex Vampire.  Vampires?  There’s no such thing as vampires.  Holmes figures out what’s really going on.  Watson realizes he’s growing old.  Holmes realizes Watson is not very bright.  (Why does Watson share these things with us?)

  29. The Reigate Squires.  Oh, those nasty squires.  And the Holmes-Watson relationship, with Watson totally misunderstanding what Holmes really needs (a case).  And why does Holmes need a case?  Because he loves solving puzzles, and we love watching him solve them, especially when he can get in some cryptic remarks that baffle the local constabulary.

  30. The Speckled Band.  I know, Conan Doyle ranked it first, but he couldn’t even remember its name.  Swamp adders, evil things from abroad, even more evil things from at home.  Don’t listen to your fiancé.  And watch out for the phallic symbolism.

  31. The Norwood Builder.  What is art?  Holmes gives a lesson here: don’t spoil your masterpiece by making one last revision.  Oh, and where there’s smoke there’s a Norwood Builder.

  32. The Yellow Face. Trying not to be racist, is the story racist all the same?  But the real point is the husband-wife relationship and the recurring theme of trusting your spouse.  Very touching.

  33. The Greek Interpreter.  Mycroft!  His first appearance, and Conan Doyle gets so caught up in introducing the smarter brother and developing the fraternal rivalry that he forgets to make sense of the plot.  Still, Mycroft!

  34. The Noble Bachelor.  Runaway bride!  America and England united!  Holmes making fun of Lestrade!  No actual crime, but does that matter?

  35. The Retired Colourman.  Time to say goodbye.  One last hurrah by Holmes, confronted by a criminal so brazen he calls in Holmes himself to solve the crime.  Interesting, but it’s the end.

  36. The Illustrious Client.  Oh, that Kitty Winter.  So vitriolic.  Not like Violet de Merville.  And ooh, the evil Baron Gruner.  Not much mystery here, though, except to figure out why this Violet is so foolishly above it all.

  37. The Blanched Soldier.  No Watson, but James Dodd fills in nicely.  Leprosy – or is it pseudo-leprosy?  Good detective work by Holmes, mostly.  A bit of a misfire about the Lancet.

  38. The Resident Patient. A struggling doctor adopts an unusual approach to make ends meet.  Conan Doyle’s autobiography?  No, no: a story in which Sherlock Holmes proves it’s not suicide, but murder.  (It’s never suicide, is it?  No, that’s not true.)  Mostly backstory, though.

  39. The Crooked Man.  Another backstory tale.  What really matters is what happened in India long ago.  Oh, and a Biblical quotation.

  40. The Stockbroker’s Clerk. A bit of a rehash of The Red-Headed League.  Some clever deduction by Holmes about Watson’s medical practice (except maybe he’s sort of wrong).  Amusing jab at anti-Semitism.  Lots of doubles or doubling.  And brothers.

  41. The Abbey Grange.  Domestic violence stirring Holmes’s sympathies, but first he has to figure out what’s really going on, which means starting afresh after being misled.  How to be a good detective – and a good human being?

  42. The Golden Pince-Nez.  Another criminal smoked out.  Well, not a criminal perhaps, or is she?  Not for now, but back then?  More political backstory.  Holmes does good deducing, though.

  43. Black Peter.  Harpoon practice. Good use of the hiring hall.  Be careful about initials.  Don’t jump to conclusions.  Good detecting advice.  But we lack a client, and the ending is mystifying.

  44. Boscombe Valley.  Blackmail is worse than murder.  Moonshine is better than fog.  Watson should learn to shave.  A pretty standard reputation-is-the-motive story, but it’s hard to accept letting the murderer go like that.

  45. The Three Students.  An anti-xenophobic story, so that’s nice.  There’s a staircase and a Bannister (ha ha) and a kerfuffle over cheating on an exam.  Hmm.   Oh, well, cheat on an exam and you get sent to the colonies.  So there.

  46. Shoscombe Old Place.  This time Conan Doyle indulges in a little anti-Semitism of his own.  Still, an interesting story about the decline of England.  Clever use of a dog.  Echoes of the Fall of the House of Usher.  Not all that much detective work, unless you count hanging out at a crypt.

  47. The Three Gables.  I know, I know, racism, a sort of minstrel show, but an interesting mixture of that with a sad tale of unrequited love and the depiction of a  powerful but villainous woman.  And some Keats.

  48. The Gloria Scott.  Holmes’s first case.  But no Watson, except as an audience.  You lose something.  But the typical reputation-as-a-motive theme is here.  And the distant past.  But we miss Watson.

  49. The Lion’s Mane.  Another story without Watson, and no James Dodd to fill in.  And the criminal is a – well, I won’t say.  Don’t go swimming, that’s all I’ll say, at least not in Sussex tidal pools.  And such skin problems.

  50. The Veiled Lodger.  Another lion story.  Another domestic violence story.  But Holmes and Watson mostly listen to a confession rather than solving anything.  Still, there are all sorts of symbols and allusions.

  51. The Valley of Fear.  A cipher!  Holmes and Watson bickering.  Good times.  But too much theorizing (a capital error).  And Part Two?  The Scowrers in America?  It’s an interesting thriller, but is it Sherlock Holmes?  And such a gloomy ending.

  52. The Red Circle.  The lodger is not the lodger!  There’s another lodger.  Capital deduction.  But it’s downhill from there, ending with a long account of goings-on in a Mafia-like organization.  Like the Scowrers?  Like the Nihilists in the Pince-Nez?  Like the criminal gang in The Resident Patient?  The Central American politics in Wisteria Lodge?  I see a theme here.

  53. The Five Orange Pips.  Brain attics and lumber rooms.  Interesting stuff.  But what a mess Holmes makes of things.  The client dies, the criminals are never caught, and we never really figure out what it was all about.  Except perhaps that even god-like detectives have their limitations.

  54. The Dying Detective.  Is Holmes dying?  Not again!  No, no, it’s all a ruse because of the murder of somebody’s nephew.  Wait, the murder of somebody’s nephew?  Where is that story?  Indeed.

  55. The Empty House.  The return from the Dead.  But do we want Holmes back from the dead?  Wouldn’t it be good if we blew him up again with an airgun from the house across the street?  Ah, well, perhaps not.  We will have to subside into Tree Worship: do trees come back from the dead too?  Too bad there’s no case for Holmes to solve.

  56. The Final Problem.  This is not a Sherlock Holmes story; it’s an anti-Sherlock Holmes story.  Next thing you know we’ll have Watson wanting to settle down and give up adventures (oh, wait, he said that already before).  Conan Doyle really had to learn to stop trying to kill off the best thing he ever did.  Oh, and Moriarty?  Please.

  57. The Devil’s Foot.  Wow, hallucinations.  And bleak moors, and death trap bays.  A mysterious murder, but mysterious only in its means.  A howdunit.  Things are more interesting when we have to discover the why, not the how.  But Watson’s visions are impressive.

  58. Charles Augustus Milverton.  Reputation, reputation, reputation, I will commit a murder for my reputation and in plain sight of Holmes and Watson, so we know exactly who did it – and where’s the mystery in that?  Very dramatic, though, and there’s a cat.

  59. His Last Bow.  An east wind.  Motorcars.  Sherlock Holmes goes to war.  All that’s missing is a mystery to solve and narration by Watson.  All.

  60. The Mazarin Stone.  Well, we couldn’t end with His Last Bow, but is this the best Conan Doyle could do as a revival?  No Watsonian narration, a rehash of the airgun and the dummy plot, a boring sleight of hand trick.  Some old furniture and the pageboy Billy.  Sigh.  The story that gave The Case-Book a bad name.

For more details on each of the stories, see my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK. Also at MX Publishing.

The Man with the Twisted Lip

Holmes musing on an Eastern divan.
Illustration by Sidney Paget.

The Man with the Twisted Lip

Like birds to a lighthouse: Well, that’s nice. People in grief flock to see Watson’s wife. But I began to think about this simile. Do birds flock to lighthouses? Indeed, they do, attracted by the light, and they hit the buildings and die. Hmm. Is there something dangerous about Watson’s wife? Or at least boring? The story opens with Watson yawning in her presence. It’s a tender domestic scene in the Watsons’ sitting room, Watson in his armchair, his wife at her needlework, and yet where is the exciting repartee we get when Watson is with Holmes, or for that matter when Hugh Boone is plying his trade as a beggar?

Hugh Boone is good at being a beggar: There’s the witty repartee and the professionally done make-up, making him quite a character on the streets of the City, known to Sherlock Holmes even before his involvement in this case. And what a strange case it is: the disappearance of the respectable Neville St. Clair, thought to have been murdered by Hugh Boone, only for it to turn out that Neville St. Clair [SPOILER ALERT] is Hugh Boone. There is no murder, no disappearance – well, I guess a disappearance, a disappearance that takes place every day, as Neville St. Clair transforms himself into a hideous- looking beggar in an opium den (but usually transforms himself back every night, except not this time, because his wife intervenes, and the police, and Sherlock Holmes, and he is stuck in his secret identity: a Superman who can’t find a phone booth to change back into Clark Kent; instead he ends up in a jail cell in the guise of his alter ego).

So what are we to make of that? I am all in the dark, says Watson at the beginning, and so is Sherlock Holmes, who gets the wrong end of things altogether and keeps trying to figure out how a murder took place, dismissing any difficulties with the murder theory in the best manner of the slow-footed policemen he usually mocks. Only when he settles onto an Eastern divan, meditating and puffing smoke like a Zen Buddhist (or like someone in an opium den) does the real answer come to him. Is this a plea for intuition over logic? He does praise woman’s intuition over logic in this story, when Mrs. St. Clair says she just knows her husband is alive; she would feel it if he were dead. And of course she has a letter from him to encourage this knowledge, though Holmes at first tries to explain that away – because he has that murder theory to hold onto: very un-Holmesian. But then he smokes a little opium – sorry, tobacco – and he can see straight.

Can opium make you see straight? No, no, that was tobacco. We do see opium smokers, of course. The story opens in an opium den – well, scene two at least after the opening in which Watson’s yawning is interrupted by the arrival of Mrs. Whitney, whose husband Isa has gone off on a two-day bender to the Bar of Gold in Upper Swandam Lane. Mrs. Whitney, by the way, is dressed all in black, including a black veil: why? Is she in mourning? Her husband is an opium addict, and is in essence dead? Is that what this means? Is their marriage essentially dead? Because after all opium does not make you see straight; it makes you confused even about what day it is, and it means Isa Whitney cannot function properly: what would he be functioning at, by the way? What is his profession? His brother was the head of a theological college, and he read De Quincey at college (most men read Classics or Divinity, but there you go), but what does he do now? Nothing?

That opium den: Watson goes to the Bar of Gold to rescue Isa Whitney and bring him back to domesticity, and it is there that he runs into Holmes disguised as an addict, who is there looking for the vanished Neville St. Clair, last seen at an upper storey window. Why is all this taking place at an opium den? Why does Neville St. Clair make an opium den his dressing room? What has opium to do with it?

Evil opium: From the Far East, brought in by nefarious foreigners, like the “sallow Malay” and the “rascally Lascar” (a native of India) and, oddly, a Dane: something rotten there, perhaps. Anyway, in the late nineteenth century there was quite a panic about opium and the evils of the East, which some commentators see Doyle channelling, and perhaps he is. But there is always this doubleness in Doyle: the foreign can be dangerous, can in this case destroy you and your ability to pursue a livelihood, but it can be liberating too. Is opium liberating? Maybe, though we don’t quite see that here, unless the fact that Neville St. Clair uses an opium den as his base of operations indicates something liberating about it.

Liberating from what? Well, Neville St. Clair gets liberated from the arduous work of journalism and makes five times as much just sitting around. Holmes, too, just sits around, on his self-built Eastern divan: is that a better way to go than pursuing logic or journalism? Is begging better than a real job in the City? Is being a detective better? Or a writer of  detective stories? (Some, like Stephen Knight, see Neville St. Clair as a self-portrait of Arthur Conan Doyle slumming among the potboilers instead of being a serious author or eye doctor.)

And Neville St. Clair works with the rascally Lascar, so in a way he’s involved in the opium trade, making money through it, at least by association, and thus much like the British government and its involvement in the opium trade. Is this an indictment of British imperialism? Or praise of it?

Liberating from what, Part Two: Opium liberates Isa Whitney from his wife. The opium adventure also liberates Watson from his wife. Tell her you’ve thrown in your lot with me, says Sherlock Holmes in getting Watson to go off on the Hugh Boone expedition. So is it opium versus domesticity? Detective work versus domesticity? Which side are we supposed to be on?

But at the end Neville St. Clair is sternly told that there can be no more Hugh Boone. Of course, being Hugh Boone in itself was no threat to domesticity. It was only being caught in the midst of transformation that kept Hugh/Neville from his wife. You should have trusted your wife, Holmes tells Hugh/Neville, patting him on his arm. And then what would have happened? What will happen now? If Neville St. Clair renounces Hugh Boone, will he go back to a “normal” job? Should he? Will he be happier with his wife? Or will he yawn at her like Watson?

Is this a story about settling down? You can’t be a beggar (or a detective) forever? Why not? True, you can’t be an opium addict forever: in fact, being an opium addict is a bad thing already: Isa Whitney is a mess. But is Neville St. Clair a mess? Is Watson? It’s a conflict between respectability and adventure, and in fact aren’t a lot of the Holmes stories about that? At least they’re about respectability or reputation and the threats to it. Here you are, a respectable landowner or whatever, and someone shows up who blackmails you because you were a criminal in Australia; you can’t have that.

In this case there’s no Australia, just an opium den and playing a beggar, but again there’s a threat from a secret that may destroy a respectable appearance. And Neville St. Clair does want to keep up appearances; he doesn’t want shame visited on his children; he wants them to be able to build something proper with those building blocks he buys for them.

Well, then, he can’t keep on playing the beggar: That’s what the story says at the end, clearly. And yet what fun it was to do that. You can’t keep playing detective: is the story also saying that? There is a push all along in the canon to get Watson married and away from Sherlock Holmes. There’s even a push to kill Holmes off altogether. Enough of these childish adventures: you have to grow up, settle down, be an adult.

And yet who ends up really dead? Not Holmes, or not permanently, but Mrs. Watson. And whose bedroom do we see Watson in, even in this story: not the one he presumably shares with his wife but one he shares with Sherlock Holmes.

There are several couples in this story, but which one is the most likely to last? There’s Kate and Isa Whitney, but  Kate is already in mourning for her marriage because opium has killed it. The path of opium seems a mistake. There’s Watson and his wife, but that seems boring or deadly or both. There’s the St. Clair marriage, and that one does seem to involve real connection: Mrs. St. Clair can tell if her husband is still alive, and when she gets the note from him she dresses up in a seductive chiffon gown in eager anticipation of his arrival. But will that marriage survive if Neville can no longer go off on his Hugh Boone adventures?

And then there is Holmes and Watson: that’s the real couple in these stories, and they go on forever, continuing to satisfy our child-like interest in play, though partly we know this is just a game and we have to settle down – but not just yet.

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK. Also at MX Publishing.  The musings were originally written for the Stormy Petrels of British Columbia.

Lady Frances Carfax

Watson being assaulted while looking for Lady Frances.
Illustration by Alec Ball.

The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax

Wait, didn’t we just do this story? There’s the bearded man pursuing the young damsel. He’s forgotten his bicycle this time, and she’s maybe not so young, but … And he turns out to be a good guy, not the villain – except some commentators ask, What kind of good guy is this? More like a stalker. And Holmes and Watson leave him alone with the chloroformed damsel – stop.

So is this a rewrite of The Solitary Cyclist? In some ways. There’s the “savage” bearded guy who isn’t really a villain (just a stalker, ha ha). And then the really threatening guy, Dr. Shlessinger, this story’s version of Roaring Jack Woodley. Except Roaring Jack was, well, roaring, and Dr. Shlessinger is studying the Biblical Midianites. (Descendants of Abraham, by the way, and there’s an old Abrahams in this story – and that Biblical subtext just sort of peters out. But let’s see, the Midianites were enemies of the Israelites, the Chosen People, so that suggests … I don’t know, that Dr. Shlessinger is one of the bad guys?)

No adultery here: One can see an adulterous subtext in “The Solitary Cyclist”: the damsel is engaged but has to fight off various suitors. Well, maybe that’s not quite adulterous, but it does seem to reflect Conan Doyle’s quasi-adulterous situation at the time of the Cyclist. Now, though, times have changed, there’s no offstage fiancé, Lady Frances is totally unattached – a big deal is made of that, in fact. She’s the solitary one, a stray chicken in danger of being eaten up by foxes.

Male chauvinism? Leslie Klinger sees male chauvinism in this depiction, a reaction perhaps to the New Woman of this period, the early feminists, suffragettes, and so forth. Such women are dangerous, Holmes says, but when he goes on to explain, it seems the danger is mostly to them, so I’m not sure the story is painting women in a negative light, except that it’s perhaps suggesting they can’t manage on their own and need protection.

Protection, protection, protection: Actually, if anyone is portrayed in a negative light, it’s men, isn’t it? One of them is a bearded savage, and the other is a con man after Lady F’s jewels who is willing to go as far as murder. What kind of world is that for a woman to have to deal with?

Or for a Watson: Poor Watson. He’s feeling old and rheumatic, and look how Holmes treats him: Go to Lausanne, track down Lady Frances, keep me informed – But then I’ll show up unexpectedly and tell you you’ve done everything wrong (but has he? most commentators say no). And for good measure you’ll get beaten up by the savage stalker, who I’ll then tell you is the good guy. And the apparently good guy, that reverend studying the Midianites, turns out to be the bad guy. What a nightmare Watson finds himself in. Is this story a picture of a world gone nightmarish – or Turkish?

Turkish bath: A Turkish bath – what’s that doing here? Of course, it could just be a Turkish bath; they were common enough. Still, it makes me think of associations with the word “Turk”: for instance, the old slang sense of Turk meaning a barbarous man who treats people, especially women, badly. That does seem to be a motif in this story: barbarous men treating people badly. The Honourable (Honourable!) Philip Green, the nefarious Dr. Shlessinger, and the unfair, bullying Sherlock Holmes mistreating Watson, as the other two mistreat (or seem to mistreat) Lady Frances.

Who’s the client? At first it seems to be Lady F’s old governess (Miss Dobney, another unattached woman), or is it the family? But what family? Holmes says Lady Frances is “the last derelict” of what used to be a “goodly fleet.” Very naval, but doesn’t it mean there’s no one in her family left? It’s the disappearance of the aristocracy, that old foil for Holmes, but now is he, is Doyle, missing them? Perhaps they come back with the Honourable Philip Green, who is called the client at the end of the story. What is going on? Is it Miss Dobney or Philip Green? The unattached woman or the savage beast?

Multiple unattached women: Perhaps I should mention Rose Spender, the 90-year-old from the workhouse. An old nurse of Dr. Shlessinger’s wife, or so Dr. S says (but do we believe the story?). But maybe the point is to remind us of the Brixton Workhouse: is that where unattached women end up? Oh, the dangers: the aristocracy is vanishing, women are on their own, and bearded men assault Dr. Watson. What is the world coming to? And when you try to make sense of it and send off your findings to your “illustrious friend,” what do you get? Bizarre requests for information about Dr. Shlessinger’s left ear and then a general upbraiding for making “a very pretty hash” of things. Ugh.

Holmes’s blunders: Or so Dr. Shlessinger (aka Holy Peters) calls them – but they’re not blunders either. Not really. Holmes expects to find Lady Frances in the casket; he does not, at first, but only because he is premature: she will be in there eventually. So it’s only technically a blunder, and technicalities are being used to mock those who are essentially right, in this case Holmes. First we saw Watson unfairly accused of blundering; now it is Holmes. It can happen to the best of us; so there. But does that provide comfort? It still leaves Lady Frances undiscovered, at least for a moment. But then she is found and revived, so all is right with the world, except the Shlessingers escape, and Lady F is left with the man she was trying to escape from. Ah, well.

And more Turks: Philip Green is the son of the Admiral who fought the battle of the Sea of Azov in the Crimean War, the war in which England was on the side of the Turks. How can that be, England allied with Turkey? A sign of the disruption of the times, and perhaps of the fact that it is a perilous thing to leave Lady Frances with the Honourable, since he’s the son of a Turkish ally. Oh, well, perhaps we need to find comfort in religion (smiting the Midianites) or solidarity with the workers (as Holmes demonstrates by dressing up like one). Or perhaps we should just resign ourselves to feeling old, or go for a Turkish bath (ha ha), something to alter our situation, an “alterative,” as Dr. Watson puts it, and who better to prescribe for us than the old doctor?

Silent Women: These women are not only unattached, but silent. In fact, the silence of Lady Frances is what triggers the detective story. But her maid, Marie Devine (aha, more religion?) is silent too, though her lover gets a word in (well, we hear a summary of Marie’s ideas from Dr. Watson, but it’s not the same, is it?). Only Annie Fraser, Dr. Shlessinger’s wife, speaks dialogue. Women are endangered and silenced in the story. Such Turks we are to them.

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK. Also at MX Publishing.  Originally written for the Stormy Petrels of British Columbia.

The Veiled Lodger



The Veiled Lodger

Lion’s Mane, Lion’s Paw: Not a make-believe lion this time, no jellyfish masquerading as King of the Jungle. It’s the real thing this time, Sahara King, the ferocious lion from North Africa, where lions used to roam (though no more). It is perhaps appropriate that he ends up in a place called Abbas Parva, because Abbas is the Arabic word for lion – though Abbas is also old Latin for “abbot” or “father,” and here we have a story in which Sherlock Holmes acts as a father confessor. Abbas is part of a few English place names (such as Cerne Abbas in Dorset), and so is Parva (meaning “small” in Latin), though it is also a word from Sanskrit, meaning one of the eighteen books of a great Sanskrit epic of war and conflict, the Mahabharata, which also includes a discussion of the four major goals of life: dharma (virtue), artha (wealth), kama (pleasure), and moksha (spiritual liberation).

Wait, wait, wait: This is just a story about murder in an English circus; what is all this Eastern philosophy? But consider: in what other story is Holmes described as a “strange Buddha”? And isn’t the story about virtue, wealth, pleasure, and spiritual liberation? There’s the landlady, interested in wealth. There’s the two lovers, interested in, well, you know. There is the virtue of patience that Sherlock Holmes preaches that presumably will lead to spiritual liberation. And there is the world beyond, smuggled in again, when he says that there must be some “compensation hereafter” or else the world is just a “cruel jest.”

But back to lions and conflict: There’s certainly plenty of conflict in the story: the abuse of poor Eugenia Ronder by her pig-like husband, Eugenia and Leonardo’s plot to kill the husband, the mauling of Eugenia by the lion … And lions, or one lion, and a phony lion’s paw. Makes me think of a cat’s paw, which I looked up, and it’s an instrument or tool you use, a person really that you make use of, your dupe or stooge. From an old fable in which a monkey gets a cat to put its paw in the fire to pull out chestnuts.

A monkey? Yes, like in “The Creeping Man,” where some  see something positive in animal energy. Here there’s no monkey, and nothing much positive from the animals. There’s the actual lion that mauls Mrs. Ronder, and her husband who’s nasty like a wild boar, and the mercenary Mrs. Merrilow, who waddles like a duck. Well, it doesn’t say “duck,” but Watson insists on the verb waddle.

So sometimes animal energy is positive and sometimes not. Just like foreign things, and though there is nothing overtly foreign in this story, there’s Abbas Parva, with its double derivation, both local and exotic, and of course Holmes the Buddha.

But is the lion so bad? The lion’s just doing what lions do. In “The Lion’s Mane” Holmes calls the lion-like jellyfish a murderer, but here we’re told the lion was just reacting to the scent of human blood – and why was there human blood? Not from any real animal, but from the club created by Leonardo, the club meant to frame the poor lion. Sometimes Nature will get you, but sometimes it’s your fellow humans you have to look out for.

And sometimes a human taking on animal qualities, like the leaping Professor Presbury in “The Creeping Man,” can seem almost inspiring, and sometimes such a person is just bestial, like the horrible husband who abused his wife.

Abused wife or adulterous wife? Well, both I guess. We saw something similar in “The Abbey Grange,” but in that case, despite the other man, there was no actual adultery. And the other man in that story killed the husband in self-defence. Here the other man kills the husband from behind (coward!) and then runs away when his woman is attacked by the lion (doubly a coward). And the killing was premeditated this time, and the wife was definitely involved.

Oh, well, she pays for her crime with a life of virtual imprisonment and of course disfigurement. And she wants to kill herself now, but Holmes won’t let her: she must stand as a model of patience. Hmm. Isn’t she rather a model of villainy for killing her husband? True, he abused her, and one commentator (Joseph Kestner) calls her the most abused wife in the canon, but still …

Perhaps she is a model for patiently bearing one’s punishment.

And let’s not forget the cormorant: At the beginning Watson warns that he may publish the story of the politician, the lighthouse, and the cormorant if further attempts are made to suppress it. We’re in the land of reputation here, something more common in the earlier stories, but conjured up at times in the later tales to explain why some cases can just not be reported, or must be reported discreetly or after everyone involved is dead.

Yes, but what about the cormorant? This seems similar to the cat’s paw: a cormorant is a bird that is trained to catch fish and bring the fish back uneaten. So again a tool or instrument, like the fake lion’s paw or if we’re looking for a human instrument in the story, Leonardo? Was he really the Angel Gabriel, that announcer of the Christian glory, or was he being used by Eugenia to rid herself of a troublesome husband? Well, okay, a violently cruel husband, who whipped her, she says – do we have confirmation? Well, Sherlock Holmes seems to believe her, is sympathetic, and does not turn her in. Like a good confessor, he maintains her privacy.

And the lighthouse: Somehow that “politician, lighthouse, cormorant” trinity reminded me of the old sea shanty, the “Eddystone Light,” popularized in the 1950’s, but known much before that. “My father was the keeper of the Eddystone Light; he slept with a mermaid one fine night.” You know the one. “From that union there came three, a porpoise, a porgy, and the other was me.” That would be a scandal to hush up. And it’s more animal-human hybrid stuff. Where is Conan Doyle going with all this? He’s turning into a veritable Dr. Dolittle. All these animals in the later cases, along with mutilation.

And are we channelling Hamlet? Look on this picture and on this, says Eugenia, showing her husband and Leonardo. A pig-man and an angel. Like Hamlet comparing pictures of his father and uncle: Hyperion and a satyr, he says, his father being the godlike Hyperion and his uncle being the half-man, half-beast satyr. And the violent satyr (his uncle) committed murder so he could marry his brother’s wife. Except here it is the Hyperion (or Angel Gabriel) who commits the murder. Something has gone wrong. Maybe there are no more angels and Hyperions, sigh, just beasts. Is there any positive male figure in this story? There’s just the abusive circus owner and the predatory Leonardo, smiling over his conquests. Of course, there is also Griggs the clown, but he had not much to be funny about. This is no comedy, I don’t think. Not a Garrideb in sight.

The problem is not to find, but to choose: So says Watson, and he has chosen this story for us. Because it is sad? Certainly not to show off the powers of Sherlock Holmes, as he says himself. To show what a sad world it is? A world in which men (and women) can become beasts? Eugenia herself ends like a beast in a cage, suffering retribution at the hands of the lion she would have blamed for her crime. Can she truly be a model for us in any way? She did protect her lover (though not her husband). She renounces suicide and goes along with the patient suffering Holmes urges on her. Is that the best we can do in this fallen world: suffer for our sins? But at least there is the hope of the world to come.

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK. Also at MX Publishing.

The Blanched Soldier

Portrait of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget (1904)

The Blanched Soldier

Our Man Godfrey: Godfrey, Godfrey, haven’t we had a Godfrey before? No, not the one who married Irene Adler … (by the way, in the Hollywood movie My Man Godfrey, Godfrey marries an Irene too; I wonder if the screenwriter read “A Scandal in Bohemia,” but that’s another story).

Another Godfrey: The one I was thinking of was the one in “The Missing Three-Quarter.” In fact, he is the missing three-quarter. So a missing Godfrey there and another one here. If you want a missing man, he has to be a Godfrey, I suppose (though originally it was going to be a different name, I learn from Klinger).

But why? I don’t mean why does the name have to be Godfrey, but why do each of these Godfreys go missing? I note a similarity in the two stories: in both cases Godfrey has a good friend who is looking for him. So is “The Blanched Soldier,” like “The Missing Three-Quarter,” about friendship? I think so. In both a good friend goes looking for the missing Godfrey. In “The Blanched Soldier,” as if to bring home the point, someone else has gone missing: Watson. Watson has deserted me for a wife, says Sherlock Holmes. In “The Missing Three-Quarter” that Godfrey has also deserted his friend for a wife. In this story, though, the latest Godfrey has deserted for – well, because of illness. A skin condition. Leprosy (maybe).

Leprosy? Or maybe it’s not leprosy, maybe it’s only pseudo-leprosy. Now, the first story this one reminded me of is the one just before, “The Illustrious Client,” in which Kitty Winter’s face is described as leprous and Shinwell Johnson also has a skin condition – not to mention the bad skin condition Baron Gruner ends up with. Is Doyle suddenly obsessed with skin conditions? And horror? Is this some sort of delayed reaction to World War I, as some suggest?

Horror: The blanched soldier at the window, like something out of Wuthering Heights. And leprosy. But it isn’t leprosy (probably). So, wait. In “The Illustrious Client,” the problem was that a real danger was being ignored (Violet is blithely going to go ahead with marriage to a predator), but here what seems like danger isn’t. Well, that’s okay then, we can just relax. Maybe we need to read these two stories in tandem: don’t ignore real dangers, but don’t get upset over false ones?

And danger from whom? Godfrey has been to Africa. Always something bad out of Africa? Though note that it’s a Boer hospital that he stumbles into, where he sleeps in the leper’s bed. Don’t go sleeping with lepers (people did think leprosy was sexually transmitted – though of course Godfrey didn’t have sex in the bed). And Boer lepers, not native Africans, but Dutch, another set of rival Europeans. Is there danger out of Europe? That’s what I thought the message of “The Illustrious Client” was. But here the danger turns out to be illusory. In fact, it’s thinking there is a danger that is the danger: if you think you’re going to come down with an awful skin condition, you will. If you think there is danger, you could create it with your thinking: sounds a bit like how World War I came about: if you mobilize for war out of fear of war, then you’ll get war.

But back to friendship: Chris Redmond’s father says the absence of Watson means we lose the usual Holmes-Watson interchange. But do we? James Dodd seems to fill in nicely, first by being amazed at the standard Holmesian parlour tricks (You’re from South Africa, the Middlesex Corps, etc. etc.) and then by getting in a Watsonian jab when he plunges into his story midstream and in response to Holmes’s bafflement says, But I thought you knew everything.

         So a friend can be replaced? But Holmes does seem to miss his Watson, and perhaps the point of the story is to tell us that the two should not be separated, certainly not for a marriage. James Dodd won’t give up his friend to illness. Should Holmes give up his to marriage? Is marriage an illness? Of course, in this story what we seem to have is a pseudo-illness. Perhaps Watson’s marriage is a pseudo-marriage?

When you have eliminated all which is impossible: That old quote, recycled from The Sign of the Four, but not so convincingly deployed here. What’s so impossible about Godfrey being insane or even a criminal? No, the dice are loaded here in favour of leprosy, because it is somehow important to get leprosy into this story, as in the story before. The strange obsession I have already noted.

         Still, Holmes deduces well here, though it is a bit of a misfire to ask about the newspaper which, if it had been the Lancet or the British Medical Journal, might have told him something. But instead it was the Spectator. So why bother even telling us about it? I suppose to let us know that that would have been further proof that the “keeper” in the garden was a medical man. But Holmes knew this was a medical man without that proof; was the deductive theorizing enough in this case? That would seem to go against all of Holmes’s usual emphasis on the facts. Oh, well, I suppose there just had to be leprosy, or pseudo-leprosy.

Bleached skin: One of the symptoms of the disease. And the disease, or something, has turned Godfrey Emsworth, a “frank, manly lad,” into “something slinking … furtive … guilty.” If “The Illustrious Client” showed us a predatory masculinity in Baron Gruner, here we have something much weaker. Is this a danger Conan Doyle sees, upstanding manly Brits being laid waste by foreign diseases? But it’s just a pseudo-disease, so maybe not.

But where are the women? There’s a phantom whom Watson has married. There’s Emsworth’s mother and the butler’s wife. In “The Missing Three-Quarter” there was an important female presence at the end which explained all: the dying wife. The men in that story are trying to save her. Here there’s no woman to save; the person who is sick is not the wife of the missing man; it is the missing man himself, and perhaps even though the illness is waved away at the very end, the story is betraying some anxiety about the health of British men. It is the missing man in this case who needs caring for or rescue, and who is indeed rescued more than once: by the doctor in the leper hospital and now by more doctors, along with Sherlock Holmes and his friend, and even his gruff but protective father.

         Once upon a time, it was Godfrey who could do the protecting, saving his friend Dodd in battle. “He was a fine man,” says the butler, but now … One critic I’ve read (Joseph Kestner) sees postwar anxiety in the later stories, reflecting a dissolution of “patriarchal structures.” Is that what’s going on? Is it the end of patriarchy that this story foresees? Though if it is, it’s strange that there are no women around to pick up the pieces.

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK. Also at MX Publishing.