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Already in the table of contents of this book, we encounter a mystery. The Kindle edition that I read includes 11 Sherlock Holmes adventures in this book, as do most American editions and some British editions of this book. The very first edition, however, contained 12 stories. Fear not; “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” will eventually turn up, most likely in “His Last Bow,” where it has been added to most American editions. The reason for this has something to do with censorship and public morals, but I won’t go into that here. What you want to know about this book is that it is the second set of short stories featuring Holmes, collected from the monthly installments that Conan Doyle published in The Strand Magazine between 1892 and 1893.
In these eleven stories, we first meet Holmes’ brother Mycroft. We hear Holmes mention “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” We learn about some of Holmes’ earliest cases, before he met Watson. And we encounter Holmes’ great nemesis, Professor Moriarty, in a final adventure that seems to end in the death of both men. It looks as if Conan Doyle wanted to move on with his writing career and thought the thing to do was kill Holmes off. Since several more books of Holmes adventures followed this, including one titled The Return of Sherlock Holmes, it evidently didn’t stick. While it is sometimes apparent that Conan Doyle was growing tired of Holmes, the public was captivated. Just imagine the outcry when it seemed Holmes had died! I fancy it must have been the 1894 equivalent of “Bring back Firefly!” The main difference is that in the earlier event, it worked.
In “Silver Blaze,” Holmes solves the puzzle of a racehorse’s disappearance on the eve of an important race, together with the strange murder of its trainer. In “The Yellow Face,” a young husband’s jealousy is aroused by his wife’s conduct toward a strange family that has moved in next door—and the appearance of a ghastly face at an upper window does nothing to soothe his feelings. Most unusually, Holmes’ deduction in this case proves to be incorrect! “The Stockbroker’s Clerk” may bring to mind an earlier story (“The Red-Headed League”) as it depicts a robbery caper made possible by an innocent dupe.
In “The Gloria Scott,” Holmes reminisces about one of his first cases, concerning a seemingly harmless letter that somehow frightened a man to death. Another early Holmes case is “The Musgrave Ritual,” in which two trusted servants in an aristocratic household suddenly begin acting erratically, then disappear altogether. In “The Reigate Squire,” Holmes tries to take the country air to settle his overworked nerves, only to get mixed up in a case of burglary and murder. “The Crooked Man” is a riff on the good old Locked Room Murder, featuring a wife suspected of bashing in her husband’s skull. The real question, which the lady is too feverish to answer, is how their happy marriage came to blow up so suddenly and spectacularly.
“The Resident Patient” is the tale of a physician whose business partner begins acting paranoid, then hangs himself, apparently for reasons connected to another patient who has also been behaving strangely. Both Watson and Holmes are called in to consult, but it is the sleuth rather than the doctor who hits on the right diagnosis. “The Greek Interpreter,” in which Mycroft Holmes is first revealed to exist, has to do with a man being held hostage by an adventurer who wants him to sign over his sister’s fortune. “The Naval Treaty” is a document whose disappearance threatens the career prospects and mental health of an old schoolfellow of Watson’s. And in “The Final Problem,” Holmes meets his match—the genius pulling the puppet-strings of Europe’s greatest criminal organization. Checkmate at Reichenbach Falls.
In retrospect, it isn’t hard to detect signs that Conan Doyle was running out of ideas for his Holmes stories. It was probably the demand for a new adventure every month that bled him dry. At all events, one has to notice the repetition of things that have happened before, mainly in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The stockbroker’s clerk caper has too much in common with the affair of the Red-Headed League: the theme of a dupe being kept busy while robbers case the joint has been played before. And so has “The Gloria Scott”‘s theme of a scoundrel making a fortune in Australia, returning to England under a false identity, and seeming respectable enough until he is discovered and blackmailed by a former victim (cf. “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”). “The Crooked Man” resorts to two previously aired themes: disgraceful things done during the Sepoy mutiny coming back to haunt the survivors (cf. “The Sign of the Four”), and a wife finding out that the true love she believed to have died is still living (cf. “The Noble Bachelor”). “The Resident Patient” reprises the theme of villains avenging themselves on a comrade who betrayed them (cf. “The Five Orange Pips”). “The Greek Interpreter” repeats many of the same moves as “The Engineer’s Thumb,” such as an expert consultant being kept in confusion as to where his employers are taking him, etc. “The Naval Treaty” has echoes of “The Beryl Coronet,” with respect to a man’s professional reputation being ruined when something priceless is stolen from under his nose.
And as for “The Final Problem,” apart from a dramatic chase and a gruesome plot twist, there isn’t really much to it except the idea of Holmes being willing to accept his own destruction in order to ensure his adversary’s ditto. After the shock of Holmes’ apparent death settles down (and it’s had over a century to do so, by now), we are at liberty to observe that neither Conan Doyle nor Holmes ever goes into specifics about what Moriarty has done. There are no earthy, fleshy, interesting examples. It’s all generalizations without details, with little effort until almost the end to fill the canvas with descriptive color. It is almost possible to think of it as one of those dreams from which, on TV, one would awake to see Bobby Ewing stepping calmly out of the shower. I suppose we could put this vagueness down to Conan Doyle’s lack of total commitment to killing off Holmes. Be comforted. He will return. And besides that, Watson still has his notes on their earlier adventures to go through. Next up: The Hound of the Baskervilles.