As stated elsewhere, due to copyright locks, this is where I part ways with the Stephen Fry narration as they are unavailable here in the States. But I have my trusty version narrated by Simon Vance, so I’m still in great hands.
With this story, we officially begin the final collection of the Great Detective’s tales, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. The twelve tales that comprise this collection are all written post-war, from 1921 to 1927, but they are not in chronological order, nor are they post-war tales. This is important to note because a century on from the Great War, most historians consider World War I to be the forge of the modern world as we understand it today. The post-war mindset is very different than the era before it. All of these tales — or rather, most of them — take place before the events of last week’s story, “His Last Bow.” As mentioned, “His Last Bow” is the final official tale before Holmes set off into retirement, though the implication is that he’s still out there somewhere because he can’t leave well enough alone. That’s the general understanding, one that the author himself challenged in this collection. There is one tale in this set that is narrated by Holmes, taking place after his retirement, “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane.” We’ll get there. In any case, these final stories are considered by and large to be something of lesser-known and lesser-regarded curiosities, the ones that only the true diehards ever read, let alone more than once. And given that they are written post-war, it needs to be noted that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is also in a very different place in his life, as virtually everyone was at that time. That has an effect on the types of stories he’s telling, sometimes subtle, sometimes not so much. You be the judge.
Our first tale comes from November 1924, and Watson gives us the date of the story as September 3, 1902. I’m going to say this up front, as it does affect the reading of the tale. Our titular Illustrious Client is never identified for the reader. Watson learns who it is at the end of the story, however, and there is heavy implication that it’s none other than King Edward VII.
Violet, the young daughter of General de Merville described as a “wonder woman in every way” (a good 17 years before the publication of the now-familiar superheroine) has fallen in love with Baron Adelbert Gruner of Austria, a sadistic rogue who is compared in passing to Professor Moriarty and Colonel Moran (because Holmes rightfully compares everyone with the title of “most dangerous man in the world” to them). Sir James Damery comes to Holmes and Watson on behalf of his Illustrious Client in this matter, and Holmes and Damery agree that Gruner is a murderer and philanderer. His last wife was his victim; Gruner was acquitted on a technicality and the untimely death of a witness. Most convenient. As with all rich and powerful types, Gruner has expensive tastes and an Achilles’ heel that Holmes can exploit: he’s a collector and recognized authority of Chinese pottery.
Upon the first meeting between Holmes and Gruner, the latter is amused by Holmes, claiming that his own charm is more potent than even a post-hypnotic suggestion. Young Violet will actively reject anything negative that could said about him. Gruner then relates the tale of Le Brun, a French agent who was beaten by thugs after making similar inquiries into Gruner’s personal business. Le Brun was crippled for life, Gruner tells Holmes, with direct implication.
Holmes enlists former criminal Shinwell Johnson, who in turn connects Holmes to Miss Kitty Winter, the Baron’s last mistress. She’s willing to do anything to help Holmes in the name of vengeance. She tells how the Baron “collects” women, chronicling them as conquests in a book, kept in the Baron’s study. Holmes, of course, knows he can use this book to undo Violet’s singular devotion.
Holmes and Kitty go to see Violet, but their words fall on deaf ears. Kitty, enraged to the point of public spectacle (narrowly avoided), says in no uncertain terms that Violet will likely end up dead if she goes on to marry the Baron.
Holmes is then attacked by two men, the newspapers claiming he is near death. Watson goes to his friend’s side to learn that the injuries were exaggerated in classic Holmesian fashion in order to give the idea that he’ll be down for the count and out of action for a while. He’s recovered enough after a few days to be out of bed. Just before the wedding, the Baron is planning a trip to the United States, leaving in three days time. Holmes knows the book he needs will be on the Baron’s person, never daring to leave something like that behind. Watson is ordered to learn all that is learnable about Chinese pottery in the next 24 hours, and the next day he is presented with a fake business card claiming his identity as “Dr. Hill Barton,” as well as a saucer from the Ming dynasty. He is to go to the Baron’s house, posing as a connoisseur in an attempt to sell the saucer.
The ruse is a bust, and Gruner knows who’s behind it. As Watson prepares to face him, a noise from another room alerts the Baron, who rushes into his study just in time to see Holmes bail out of the window. As the Baron reaches the window in pursuit, Kitty, who has been hiding outside, throws vitriol in his face. [Note: this is an old name for a sulfate compound, basically a crystalline powder that will cover his face and get in his eyes, giving the Baron a bad day as its effect is similar to acid.]
With the book now in Holmes’ possession, and the Baron hideously disfigured, all that remains is to turn Violet away from him. While the disfigurement won’t do the job, the book in Gruner’s handwriting most certainly does the trick. It’s listed in the newspaper the following morning that the marriage is off. Vitriol-throwing charges are pressed against Miss Kitty Winter, but extenuating circumstances reduce the sentence to the lowest possible. That there are such charges always makes me wonder just how prevalent such crimes were at this time. In the wake of the Ripper murders, I can easily see something this nasty becoming commonplace by the time we get to this time period. Holmes, of course, makes away from it all without prosecution for burglary. It’s good to have a client in high places, it seems.