In the evenings before bedtime I’ve been alternating between short stories by H. G. Wells and a volume of Sherlock Holmes tales comprising his final adventures. Conan Doyle’s storytelling is so superb that in many instances it doesn’t matter if you already know the ending. A case in point is “The Adventure of the Dying Detective.”
Mrs. Hudson, the landlady of Sherlock Holmes, was a long-suffering woman. Not only was her first-floor flat invaded at all hours by throngs of singular and often undesirable characters, but her remarkable lodger showed an eccentricity and irregularity in his life which must have sorely tried her patience. His incredible untidiness, his addiction to music at strange hours, his occasional revolver practice within doors, his weird and often malodorous scientific experiments, and the atmosphere of violence and danger which hung around him made him the very worst tenant in London… The landlady stood in the deepest awe of him, and never dared to interfere with him, however outrageous his proceedings might seem. She was fond of him, too, for he had a remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women. He disliked and distrusted the sex, but he was always a chivalrous opponent.
It is quintessentially Holmesian, since Conan Doyle’s stories really center on the character of the detective. He compels our interest as much as the mystery itself. Insofar as some of his tales—mainly the longer novels—depart from that, they are much less engaging (a point I made in an earlier post). “The Dying Detective” is a classic one-room drama and much of its power derives from both the simplicity and intensity of the story. A key to Sherlock Holmes’ literary success is that the tales are not overly convoluted. Conan Doyle is economical in his use of plot twists and even the number of people who put in an appearance.
Another excellent one-room drama is “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone.” It is also one of the few stories told by Holmes himself rather than by his biographer, Dr. Watson. The humorous tone of “The Mazarin Stone” is very different from the stark and somber mood of “The Dying Detective.” But both are alike in pitting the detective’s wits against dangerous adversaries. As an aside it is worth noting that many of the final adventures, published in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927), do not involve foul-play at all, though there is some mystery regarding an individual’s death or disappearance. These stories include “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier,” “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” and “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old place.” Yet so clever is Holmes’ unraveling of the affair that they are just as compelling as the cases involving more traditional villainy.