The Sherlock Holmes buddy read returns. We’re a week later than planned — sorry — but still faster about it than Holmes’ resurrection to his original audience. We didn’t make you wait the better part of a decade. You’re welcome.
The first rule of any great murder mystery, and indeed in any story of heroes and villains these days (ask any loyal comic book reader), is that if you don’t see a body (and sometimes even if you do!), the character isn’t really dead. Anything is possible in fiction so long as it’s remotely plausible, even if it requires some suspension of disbelief. So it is that, due to popular demand, Sherlock Holmes is resurrected. First it was via The Hound of the Baskervilles, which took place before his death. Popular though it was, it was not the resurrection the public demanded. Public outcry meant financial opportunity, and it was ultimate the lure of money that brought Sir Arthur Conan Doyle back to the exploits of the Great Detective. There were more than enough plot holes and vague clues offered in “The Final Problem” that allowed for Holmes to escape his intended fate and return to an expectant world. The dark times between the clash with Moriarty and this story are known to the diehard Sherlockians as “The Great Hiatus.” And thankfully for us, the number of stories ahead of this point are even greater than the number we’ve gone through thus far.
As Stephen Fry points out in his introduction to The Return of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1903-1904, the world had changed considerably during The Great Hiatus. Queen Victoria died, ushering in the Edwardian Era. The Wright Brothers flew. And while he doesn’t say it, I will do so: the gaslight age of Jack the Ripper and H. H. Holmes (the American serial killer who named himself for our stalwart detective because he believed himself to be that intelligent) gave way to that of Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla. Superstition and spiritualism began to give way to science, and there would be no shortage of villains who would turn that science to horror in the years to come. With the dawn of the 20th century, Sherlock Holmes entered the modern era that was, in large part, inspired by him.
The only question remaining, in terms of the story itself: if Holmes were alive all this time, why is Watson only coming forward now? Wouldn’t he be chomping at the bit to tell the world? According to his own words, he was ready and willing to shout the news from the rooftops, but he was restrained by a promise. Holmes himself issued a prohibition, claiming simply that he was “retired” and wished no further stories to be published. Anyone else want to buy that? I didn’t think so. Holmes in retirement means no more adventures and far more cocaine. Not likely for a man whose worst enemy is boredom. But this is why it’s called suspension of disbelief. It’s more than enough of an excuse to suffice so we can get on with this story and the further adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
Our tale opens in 1894, three years following the events at the Reichenbach Falls. Watson — now a widower (these years must have been insanely trying for him) — has retained an interest in crime, leading him to an investigation of the seemingly unsolvable locked-room murder of Ronald Adair. Adair was the son of the Earl of Maynooth, a colonial governor in Australia. After a seemingly inconsequential game of cards, Adair was discovered in his room, locked from the inside, with his head mutilated by an expanding bullet. No weapons were found in the room, and nothing of value was missing. The only way out was the open window, with a 20 foot drop and a flower bed beneath showing no signs of having been disturbed. None in the area heard a shot.
Investigating the matter some time later, Watson encounters an elderly, deformed book collector by accidentally knocking several books to the ground. They go their separate ways after the man’s angry response, but a short time later the same man arrives at Watson’s study to apologize. Distracting Watson for a moment, the man’s disguise is dropped, revealing Sherlock Holmes, alive and well. Watson reports that this is the first and only time he has ever fainted.
Holmes offers his apologies for his silence, relating the “true” events of the Reichenbach Falls and his need for Watson and the world to believe him dead. He reveals that Moriarty fell, but he himself did not. Moriarty’s confederates, however, would surely hunt him down, and he determined to bring them down first. Necessity dictated his actions. While climbing from the Falls, one of those confederates tried to kill Holmes by dropping large rocks on him. Holmes managed to escape and ran for his life, ending up in Florence by the next week. He relates to Watson of how he spent the next three years, traveling through Tibet, Persia, Khartoum, and France in various guises. Only Mycroft would know the truth as Holmes needed his brother to secure funding.
Holmes recruits Watson on the spot for an adventure that very evening, wherein they travel all around the city before entering the abandoned Camden House, the building across from their own Baker Street lodging. More surprising to Watson is that their rooms are brightly lit with the shades drawn, and the silhouette appears to be that of Holmes himself, a lifelike bust in wax that Mrs. Hudson moves every 15 minutes or so to give the illusion of the room’s occupation. The dummy is employed as bait, for Holmes suspects an attempt on his life that very night by Moriarty’s confederates.
They wait only a couple of hours before the sniper strikes using a specialized air rifle, using Camden House as his vantage point. As soon as the dummy is shot, Holmes and Watson are on the assassin, summoning the police by whistle. Inspector Lestrade arrests the gunman who is revealed by Holmes to be none other than Colonel Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s right-hand man who tried to kill Holmes by rocks at Richenbach, and the killer of Ronald Adair. A forensics check matches the bullet in the wax dummy to the one that killed Adair.
The Baker Street apartment has been kept by Mrs. Hudson thanks to Mycroft’s supervision, and Holmes and Watson retire to their old digs to discuss the case. The motive for killing Adair is mere conjecture, but Holmes believes Adair to have discovered Moran cheating at cards and threatened to expose him. Such would cause Moran to be banned from the clubs, and he made his livelihood these days as a crooked cardsharp. Thus Adair would need to be silenced if that were to continue.
“It will be verified or disproved at the trial. Meanwhile, come what may, Colonel Moran will trouble us no more. The famous air-gun of Von Herder will embellish the Scotland Yard Museum, and once again Mr. Sherlock Holmes is free to devote his life to examining those interesting little problems which the complex life of London so plentifully presents.”
Before I wrap this entry, I would offer a footnote that The Great Hiatus is often the subject of all manner of “previously lost” manuscript accounts from Watson of Holmes’ missing years. While these stories are not ones the “true Sherlockian” would bother reading, the monster kid in me never gets tired of the idea of Holmes battling wits with some of the great monsters. There are a hundred thousand renditions of Holmes vs. the Ripper, and quite frankly if I never read another one, it’ll be too soon. But what if I told you that Holmes’ time in France during The Great Hiatus put him toe to toe with The Phantom of the Opera? Some versions of Gaston Leroux’s original novel will have this account as a backup tale, and one can readily find a similar story from the pen of Nicholas Meyer that also reunites Holmes with Irene Adler (who, one will recall, is a singer). Ordinarily, I find such pastiche novels to be tiresome and ill-conceived, but in this particular case, I make an exception. While it’s certainly not perfect, it’s fun for what it is. No doubt the original audiences felt the same as I do when Holmes returned, however: there’s nothing out there that’s even half as good as the original.