I finished reading these stories a few weeks back, and even started writing this post. Then, I got hit with the one-two punch of the worst kind of lingering cold and a pervasive sense of gloom directly related to online Sherlock fandom and I unplugged a bit to deal with it all. (My thoughts on Season Four, the finale in particular, may differ substantially from a good portion of fandom and I’m honestly still feeling a little too rundown to dive into any of that now. Maybe once I can breathe consistently through my nose again and laugh without coughing I’ll be up to it.) So that’s why this is so late.
Also, vaguely related here and directly regarding this post, researching and writing about serial killers while feverish and heavily medicated leads to some seriously bizarre dreams. If you define “seriously bizarre” as “creepy, disturbing, and mildly terrifying.”
The four stories I had remaining in The Return of Sherlock Holmes had one very interesting detail in common: murder. None of these cases were simple burglaries or cases of basic intrigue. These criminals weren’t just out to befuddle the authorities – they had murder in mind. In “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” jealousy, obsession, and a woman’s reluctance to just be honest with her husband directly lead to his death, making it essentially a darker version of “The Adventure of the Yellow Face.” (In case you don’t remember, that story is an earlier example of a woman hiding letters and the reason they freak her out from her husband under the auspices of protecting him from something.) “The Adventure of the Priory School,” a story that includes my favorite character name ever – Dr. Thorneycraft Huxtable – is a tale of sibling rivalry gone too far that leads to kidnapping and the death of a teacher. “Abbey Grange” continues Doyle’s extended literary shaming of abusive and cruel husbands by giving us the justified (as declared by one-man jury John Watson) murder of Lord Treats His Wife Horribly and Throws Liquor Bottles at the Staff-fordshire, Sir Eustace Brackenstall. Then, in “The Six Napoleons,” we have a man murdered in the course of an apparently pointless and bizarre string of burglaries/serial vandalisms that turn out to be so much more.
This isn’t a trend just in these four stories, though. Out of the thirteen stories collected in The Return, ten feature a murder either as the inciting incident or part of the climax. Okay, technically the death in “Priory School” happens before the climax, but that’s generally a solid statement otherwise. Comparatively, the first two collected volumes – The Adventures and The Memoirs – only contain eight stories combined that fit the “murder mystery” mold. Of the twelve stories in The Adventures, only four turn on someone’s death. The Memoirs ration is 4 out of 11. Either pre-Great Hiatus Holmes took on far more low-key kinds of crime than his post-hiatus self, or Watson chose to write about them far less often.
Does that mean Holmes’ London was just a darker place from 1894 on (the canon date of “The Final Problem”)? Was Watson more interested in the darker cases after his wife’s presumed death? (Not getting into the argument of whether canon evidence that Mary Watson is definitely dead exists. At this point, the assumption is pretty much canon.) Or was it Doyle’s own wife’s ill health and impending death that cast the darker hue over the universe? Louisa Doyle died in 1906, a year after the stories were collected in book form and was likely in decline while her husband was writing Holmes’ resurrection. Tuberculosis isn’t a pleasant or easy way to die, so it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to think this could influence her husband’s writing.
Of course, it could have been a much simpler answer, though: maybe Doyle just had more fun writing about his boys running amuck and solving murder. Maybe those stories were easier for him to write. A more external incentive may have existed too. Doyle may have written murder stories because that’s what people wanted to read. Murder sells, after all. Considering Doyle’s decision to bring Holmes back from the dead was in large part financially motivated, that’s probably a good possibility, too. Doyle was a clever lad, after all.
I guess you can’t really talk about “The Six Napoleons” anymore without mentioning “The Six Thatchers,” at least broadly. Beyond the obvious feels (referenced in the entry just after the episode), I thought they found an interesting way to twist the canon, but did kind of wish they hadn’t made it such a small part of the overall narrative. It worked as a handy device, I guess, for packaging the true mystery of the episode; I just kind of wanted it to feature a little more prominently, considering they named the bloody episode after it. Kind of like how I wished “The Blind Banker” was more like “The Dancing Men” than it is. Meh.
Honestly, I liked this season, which I know is an unpopular opinion. I still have a few issues with things, though. I’ll be capable of talking about them in depth eventually.
So, that’s a wrap on The Return of Sherlock Holmes, the collection that starts with Holmes’ resurrection and ends with Watson’s announcement that the Great Detective has retired and put a moratorium on all future accounts of their stories. Of course, good old Watson doesn’t listen to his friend, which is how we still have His Last Bow and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes ahead of us. (And The Valley of Fear, too, but we’ve been there already.)