As we begin the next collection of short stories in the Holmes canon, it’s always of benefit to first take stock of what it is we’re reading, especially as time moves forward into an era very different than what the Victorians understood. The collection The Last Bow, sometimes subtitled Some Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes, begins with a preface from Dr. Watson that informs us to the idea that Holmes has since retired as of the date of the collection’s publication, 1917. As Holmes would state in the first tale of this collection, “Audacity and romance seem to have passed forever from the criminal world.” Rather than tossing him unceremoniously off a cliff a second time, however, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tells us through Watson that his retirement is out in the country, where he suffers from a touch of rheumatism and divides his time between philosophy and agriculture. He would resist kingly sums, but ultimately he’d be pressed back into service to fight in the Great War against spies at the height of the war. Remembering that Holmes is often believed to be a real person, this was no doubt of comfort to some. For the rest, it’s some of the greatest wartime propaganda ever invented, a pattern that would set the standard for a number of other heroes we’re familiar with today.
I’ll be the first to admit that in my mind, Holmes is forever a product of the gaslight age, and to me, that’s where he best fits, just as Ian Fleming’s James Bond works best for me in the 1950s and early ’60s wherein his first adventures were written. Shifting time periods fundamentally changes the character on some level. Think of it like Jurassic Park: just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should. Time marches on for all of us, but I personally don’t want to see a character like Holmes, who was ahead of his time — the world’s only consulting detective and the only one to use modern forensics in a time of fear and superstition — to be caught up and passed by the very trails he blazed. Think about how many modern forensic scientists hold up Holmes as their inspiration for pursuing their careers. Consider how many fictional characters follow in his footsteps. To modernize him is to remove him from all of that, to create an inspirational vacuum. Consider, too, that Holmes has some bizarre and distinctive personality quirks that define and humanize him, but which could not survive into the modern era. Take, for example, his belief that the brain has limited capacity, therefore he must forget all knowledge (such as the idea that the earth revolves around the sun) that does not directly apply to his work. Likewise, the civil rights era undermines his misogynistic quirk that there’s only one woman in the world smart enough to keep up with him. I’m all for equal rights (how could I not be?), but without Holmes holding on to that peculiar weakness, Irene Adler holds no charm precisely because he’d see her coming a mile away. I personally don’t think he works at all in the world of modern forensics for all the reasons I just stated. In fact, it’s for these reasons that I feel Holmes cannot be modernized too far without reducing his greatness and uniqueness to become merely one of many in a now-crowded field, where only his name stands out. In such company, it’s a prestige of ages, that magnificent reputation that modern versions of the character cannot and will not earn because he ceases to be special. It’s for that reason Holmes has been supplanted on that front by the likes of the Batman, who has long since claimed Holmes’ mantle of “The World’s Greatest Detective.” We don’t have to like it. The truth merely speaks for itself.
But as with anything, there’s always room for some exception. I do love that Holmes made it into the war era of the next century simply because forensics and other scientific truths haven’t yet caught up to him to undermine him, and because the wider political landscape works so very well to offer him limitless intrigue, especially since the introductions of Mycroft and the Diogenes Club. To treat Holmes as a character of his time is to acknowledge that time still moves forward within the character’s lifetime. New situations breed new adventures. Indeed, Batman and his fellow superheroes would not be so easily modernized if not for the fact that Holmes paved that path for them. Holmes joined the Great War in the pages of his original stories, which proved to be fertile ground, and one generation later, his on-screen counterpart joined World War II in like manner in the form of Basil Rathbone, fighting behind the scenes so as not to undermine the effort and morale of the troops doing the actual fighting. Likewise, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman were unable to confront the Axis directly (as it would end the war too quickly), but they supported the war effort by defending the home front against spies and saboteurs. It’s the same formula. Reboots do the rest; it remains personal taste as to what works and what doesn’t. The popularity of the character endures, especially now that the first lines have been crossed into the public domain. And yet, Holmes remains forever impervious to the increasingly tiresome reimagining that undermine specific, classic character traits and historical underpinnings. As with real people, identity matters in the world of fiction, and stagnation rots. There are always going to be people who think Holmes should face the supernatural. There are always going to be those who think he needs a girlfriend or a wife. There are going to be those who think he needs to be a reimagined as a hologram or a robot. There are even those who will never figure out that only his brother Mycroft gets to call Holmes by his first name. All of this and much more are inevitable. Characters can bend to such things even when they make no sense whatsoever to the original intent. And even within the bounds of his logically imposed limitations, there are always new stories to tell. If this were otherwise, Holmes would not be as imminently popular as he has so clearly remained. So it is that the worse someone’s misguided interpretation may be, the better other interpretations seem by comparison, and the more solid becomes the foundation of ACD’s original character and canon upon which all other doppelgangers are built. Nothing surpasses the power of the original.
Having said all that, the downside to the stories being a product of their time is that sometimes you get some unfortunate word choice that reflects poorly to modern readers. This first tale is one of those times.
“The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge” is a two-part story: “The Singular Experience of Mr. John Scott Eccles” and “The Tiger of San Pedro,” the latter of which bore the original subtitle “A Reminiscence of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.” It’s worth mentioning up front that of the entirety of the original canon, this is the only story that features a police inspector — Inspector Baynes of the Surrey Constabulary — who is competent enough to receive nothing but praise from Holmes.
The case begins when John Scott Eccles needs to discuss something “grotesque” with Holmes. As Watson points out, this is hardly unusual for the type of cases Holmes has accepted. Within moments of Eccles’ arrival, Inspector Gregson and Inspector Baynes arrive at 221B, desiring a statement from Eccles regarding the murder near Esher the previous night. According to the note in the dead man’s pocket, Eccles said he would be at the victim’s house that very night. That’s a fine greeting, don’t you think?
Eccles is shocked by the news. The victim, Aloysius Garcia, was beaten to death. Eccles had spent the night at Garcia’s rented house, Wisteria Lodge, but upon waking that morning, Garcia and all of his servants had vanished. He was alone in an empty house. His last memory of Garcia was around one in the morning when he’d come by to ask if he’d rung.
The two had met through a mutual acquaintance and hit it off rather well. Garcia had extended an invitation to stay at the house for a few days, but Eccles could tell something was wrong the moment he arrived. The mood was somber, and Garcia was clearly distracted. A note from a servant later that evening drove Garcia into an even darker mood. Upon leaving, Eccles inquired at the estate agent’s to learn that the rent had been paid in full. At the Spanish Embassy, no one had heard of Garcia.
Inspector Baynes reveals the note, a code of come sort, written in a woman’s hand. Theories abound, but the only real deduction that can be made is that the murderer lives near Wisteria Lodge, in a big house. Baynes wants to make his mark, independent of Holmes, but Holmes avails himself all the same lest he be needed. The two carry on parallel investigations accordingly.
The constable guarding Wisteria reports a brutish-looking man staring through the window, confirmed by footprints outside. Inside the house, there are some creepy things discovered that point Holmes towards voodoo. Five days after the murder, Holmes learns from the newspaper that Baynes has made an arrest: Garcia’s cook, the man who’d been staring in the window. Holmes is convinced he’s not the murderer, but Baynes declines advice.
Holmes spends the next day doing recon of the local houses, finding the Henderson estate, whose master had spent time in the tropics, and whose secretary, Lucas, is a foreigner. Henderson’s two girls have a governess named Burnet. From a sacked gardener, Holmes learns Henderson is violent, rich, and scared of something, though no one can say of what, or even from where he hails.
Holmes deduces the note came from this house, and the writer was Miss Burnet, unseen since the night of the murder. Holmes decides to go there and strike at the heart of the mystery, but this plan is immediately waylaid. The gardener, John Warner, announces the Hendersons have fled by train. They attempted to take Miss Burnet with them. She was wrestled into a cab and taken to the inn where Holmes and Watson are staying, drugged with opium.
Baynes identifies Henderson as Don Juan Murillo, the Tiger of San Pedro. He was a dictator from Central America, feared and overthrown. Garcia was likewise from San Pedro, not from Spain, and was killed in a revenge plot. Miss Burnet wrote the note, but she was caught by Murillo’s secretary. Murillo confined her then killed Garcia. Miss Burnet’s real name is Mrs. Victor Durando. Her late husband was San Pedro’s ambassador to Britain, a potential political rival to Murillo. Durando had been recalled and shot to eliminate the threat he posed to Murillo. Murillo and his accomplices escape the police in London, resurfacing in Madrid under new aliases. They are both murdered. Their killers are never caught.
For those who like to dig a bit deeper, the story is presumably set in 1892… a year that was part of the “Great Hiatus.” A reference Holmes makes to a colonel whom he has arrested makes it most likely the year is 1894.
Even though this is a two-parter, it’s really not too much longer than the average short story in the canon. It’s also not entirely certain why ACD felt he needed to invent a Central American country when there are so many from which to choose. Likely it comes down to a matter of prudence, not wishing to actually insult anyone nor put himself in some crosshairs.
The story itself has some great character moments in it, but it’s not one that really stands out for me, so I don’t really have much to say about it. Probably not a bad thing since I went on and on about the collection as a whole up top. What does stand out is just how far it went in the popular culture. You know how Sherlock Holmes continues to inspire in the most unlikely of places?
What if I told you the murderer of this story existed in jazz? Really, I’m serious. Trumpeter John LaBarbera wrote “The Tiger of San Pedro,” popularized by trombonist Bill Watrous in 1975 with his band, the Manhattan Wildlife Refuge. Remember, the story was written in 1908 and took place almost 15 years earlier, and… well, most people wouldn’t think to be inspired by a 4th tier villain who barely even gets a mention in his own story. Check out this piece:
Because when I think Sherlock Holmes, I think Latin jazz. Or vice versa. Doesn’t everyone? It’s like they go together, like bacon and eggs, death and taxes, Superman and the Daily Planet… lol. Ok, maybe not, but I love it anyway. You know, I don’t get to get to spring that little bit of trivia on people everyday, so it’s totally worth it just on account. My only regret is I don’t get to see anyone’s incredulous faces.