First published: UK, John Murray, 1920
This volume brings to an end the tales of the exploits and adventures of the most famous detective in fiction. Not only does this novel complete the amazing career of the great Sherlock, but it ends, even finely, the successful series of romances-in-reality in which he has played his parts.
The last and weakest collection of Sherlock Holmes stories.
The Mazarin Stone
A remarkably poor story, told in the third person—and rather awkwardly at that, with purple prose oozing out all over the floor. (Was this ghost-written?) The plot (such as it is): the P.M. and the Home Secretary ask Holmes to investigate the robbery of the Crown diamond. Waxworks and airguns are recycled from “The Empty House”; and the gramophone trick is unconvincing. Count Negretto Sylvius doesn’t live up to his splendid name. A bad start to the volume, with one loose end: why is the case “half finished”?
The Problem of Thor Bridge
This is more like it! A genuine detective problem for Holmes: to prove a woman didn’t murder an American senator and gold magnate’s Brazilian wife. Holmes is superb throughout. The seemingly insignificant chip in the stone parapet of the bridge is the principal clue to an ingenious problem with a surprising solution.
The Creeping Man
For some reason, this story is often attacked as one of the worst Holmes stories. I, with my instinct for contrariness, love it. Its mixture of horror and science-fiction with the detective story reminds me of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. The problem: why has Professor Presbury gone mad, and why has his faithful wolf-hound twice attacked him? (Like “Shoscombe Old Place”, the dog is the principal clue.) The solution is ingenious and original, and may have inspired G.K. Chesterton’s “The Terrible Troubadour”: “To find something that goes very high in Nature, one must go very low.”
The Sussex Vampire
Not to be confused with the Jeremy Brett TV film, which was in the nature of a Diana Rigg Mrs. Bradley adaptation: keep the title, and construct a new story. That had Roy Marsden as “the last Vampyre” (note the Gothick spelling) in a tribute to Hammer. The vampirism here is simpler and horrifying: a mother is caught drinking the blood of her baby. From a study of character and a wounded dog (another dog!), Holmes reaches a psychologically interesting solution. Rather slight, however.
The Three Garridebs
A variation on “The Red-Headed League” and “The Stockbroker’s Clerk“, and less interesting than the former. Clues are good, particularly a treatment of U.S. vs. U.K. English. The excellent climax reveals Holmes’ affection for Watson.
The Illustrious Client
Watson called this tale “the supreme moment of my friend’s career”, and it is easily the best tale in this collection. Holmes has to break up an unwanted engagement – and nearly gets killed. Baron Adelbert Gruner is a most superior villain; the dialogue is superb, the scenes are dramatic, and the climax is excellent. Flawless.
The Three Gables
Again, a descent into the abyss. This is loosely constructed, the ending is an anti-climax, and the storytelling is dull and awkward. It opens badly – “a savage” threatens Holmes, who gains the upper hand by being unpleasantly racist – and goes downhill from there.
The Blanched Soldier
Great build-up, shame about the ending. Why should a father imprison his son? Spoilt by an anti-climactic solution. One of two stories Holmes himself narrates.
The Lion’s Mane
And here’s the other. Holmes is retired, and narrowly avoids making a mistake based on the victim’s towel. Like “The Blanched Soldier”, the situation is excellent: a man dies horribly on the beach, apparently whipped to death, living only long enough to gasp “The lion’s mane!” before he dies. But the solution is disappointing. SPOILER (highlight to read) While human villains using animals as murder weapons is cool (c.f. “The Speckled Band”, The Hound of the Baskervilles), it is disappointing to find that the victim was accidentally stung to death by a jellyfish.
The dog in this one is also killed by the jellyfish.
The Retired Colourman
Holmes and Watson in a more realistic story, with a sordid, down-to-earth little murder. Josiah Amberley, a retired manufacturer of artistic materials, asks Holmes to find his wife and her lover, who took with them his life savings. Has (gasp!) an intelligent and eccentric policeman, one Inspector MacKinnon, who helps Holmes produces an air-tight case against the killer. Unfortunately, Watson and Holmes are separated for most of the story, reducing the opportunity for scenes between the regulars, but allowing Doyle to depict the miserly Amberley.
The Veiled Lodger
Without any doubt, this melodramatic and perfunctory tale is the poorest story in the Canon. Watson writes that it “brought him the fewest personal opportunities”, as Holmes does nothing but listen to the veiled lodger, thereby preventing her suicide. There is much pointless discussion before this point is reached, so the tale suffers from theorizing without data.
Why weren’t we given the tale of the politician, the lighthouse and the trained cormorant? That sounds more intriguing!
Shoscombe Old Place
The last words Doyle ever penned in the Holmes saga stand as an epitaph for the series and the detective: “got away scathless from this strange incident in a career which has now outlived its shadows and ended in an honoured old age”. We may all be thankful that this solid and ingenious tale, and not “The Veiled Lodger”, was the last Holmes tale. Set, like “Silver Blaze”, in a racing milieu, and concerns the quarrel between the gentleman jockey, Sir Robert Norberton, and his sister, Lady Beatrice Falder. Holmes does a good job of solving the crime, reasoning from yet another dog (the original title was “The Adventure of the Black Spaniel”). The atmosphere is suitably macabre: human bones and mummies, and a fine climax in a crypt.
Times Literary Supplement (E.E. Mavrogordato, 23rd June 1927):
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle issues The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes almost as a concession to the children of all ages who have been wheedling the great detective to tell them just one more story before bed-time. There is to be no more Holmes after this. Sir Arthur appears to take little pride in his association with Holmes, and his dismissal of Watson is contemptuous. His attitude to Watson is intelligible; there are ugly rumours about the paternity of Watson; some say he is a changeling introduced into the Baker-street household by a public who fastened on “Holmes, you amaze me!” and refused to recognise it as the utterance of the competent fellow Holmes would have preferred to work with. But Holmes, though like other people he had more than one parent, inherits his vigour from Sir Arthur; he was a man of action as well as of thought, and he gives us not only the solution of a puzzle but the thrill of a set-to.
Of the characters created by living writers of fiction none is known to so many readers as Sherlock Holmes; and it is not merely his trade that is suggested by the mention of his name, but also his habits, his habitat, his henchman. Divide the people who had an opportunity of knowing Holmes into people who think and people who do not think, and the proportion who took advantage of the opportunity is probably higher in the first class than in the second. Holmes is not the idol of a clique; it is not a mark of culture to know him; but not to know him is a sign of lacking some common sense of humanity. The company does not stand up on the entry of Holmes, it makes room for him with a laugh. The laugh may be at him as well as with him; but that still leaves Sir Arthur an achievement upon which he might, one would think, congratulate himself. The laugh at what is exaggerated in the portrayal of Holmes is a tribute to the lucidity with which he is drawn. We all know what Holmes is at. It helps us to realise how intricate the puzzle is that Holmes should fill his oldest and foulest pipe before sitting down to it. So, too, with his drugs; they are prescribed by that cunning physician, Sir Arthur, for their effect on the reader’s imagination, not for their effect on Holmes’s intellect. It is to the same end that Sir Arthur, a writer of plain English, sometimes uses orgulous words:
Exactly! But does the name Isadora Klein convey nothing to you? She was, of course, the celebrated beauty. There was never a woman to touch her. She is pure Spanish, the real blood of the masterful Conquistadors, and her people have been leaders in Pernambuco for generations.
But that is about all the attention his women get from him, as women. It is one of the reasons for his success in his own line that he keeps no cats that do not catch mice; all that he writes is to the point. The matter is arranged in the most effective form. His readers can trust him to play fair in the important matter of clues.
Is one conscious of a falling off in these later stories? Almost inevitably so; for with the method no longer novel they would otherwise have to be better than the first batch. But the reviewer found that at bed-time he bargained with himself for just one more.