This book by Arthur Conan Doyle is titled The Return of Sherlock Holmes because Holmes was thought to have died at the end of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle had wanted to end the Holmes series to concentrate on historical novels, but he published The Hound of the Baskervilles (set before Holmes’ supposed death though published after) a few years later, and it was such a success that he was pressured to revive the series. Holmes returns to a stunned Watson three years after his disappearance, explaining that though Moriarty died (at the same time Holmes was thought to), his men were still alive and knew that Holmes was as well – one of them sought to kill him in the moments after Moriarty’s death. But Holmes is on their trail and has returned in disguise back to London.
This book is a series of short stories that appeared first in a magazine called The Strand over 1903-1904. Holmes’s clients vary from a governess to the prime minister, and the cases include a missing heir, a stalker, a blackmailer, and crust ship’s captain, busted busts of Napoleon, a student cheating on an exam, a missing rugby player, a false testimony, and a stolen document which could lead to war if not found. Quite a variety! Watson says “As I have preserved very full notes of all these cases, and was myself personally engaged in many of them, it may be imagined that it is no easy task to know which I should select to lay before the public. I shall, however, preserve my former rule, and give the preference to those cases which derive their interest not so much from the brutality of the crime as from the ingenuity and dramatic quality of the solution.” Holmes accuses Watson once of sensationalism: “Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations. You slur over work of the utmost finesse and delicacy, in order to dwell upon sensational details which may excite, but cannot possibly instruct, the reader.” When asked why Holmes doesn’t write them himself, he replies that one day he will in textbook form.
Holmes’s personality continues to unfold in these stories. Here are a few of Watson’s comments:
“My friend, who loved above all things precision and concentration of thought, resented anything which distracted his attention from the matter in hand. And yet, without a harshness which was foreign to his nature, it was impossible to refuse to listen to the story of the young and beautiful woman, tall, graceful, and queenly, who presented herself at Baker Street late in the evening, and implored his assistance and advice.”
“Holmes, however, like all great artists, lived for his art’s sake, and, save in the case of the Duke of Holdernesse, I have seldom known him claim any large reward for his inestimable services. So unworldly was he—or so capricious—that he frequently refused his help to the powerful and wealthy where the problem made no appeal to his sympathies, while he would devote weeks of most intense application to the affairs of some humble client whose case presented those strange and dramatic qualities which appealed to his imagination and challenged his ingenuity.”
“Lestrade and I sat silent for a moment, and then, with a spontaneous impulse, we both broke at clapping, as at the well-wrought crisis of a play. A flush of colour sprang to Holmes’s pale cheeks, and he bowed to us like the master dramatist who receives the homage of his audience. It was at such moments that for an instant he ceased to be a reasoning machine, and betrayed his human love for admiration and applause. The same singularly proud and reserved nature which turned away with disdain from popular notoriety was capable of being moved to its depths by spontaneous wonder and praise from a friend.”
“My friend’s temper had not improved since he had been deprived of the congenial surroundings of Baker Street. Without his scrapbooks, his chemicals, and his homely untidiness, he was an uncomfortable man.”
“I may have remarked before that Holmes had, when he liked, a peculiarly ingratiating way with women, and that he very readily established terms of confidence with them. In half the time which he had named, he had captured the housekeeper’s goodwill and was chatting with her as if he had known her for years.”
“Sherlock Holmes was a past-master in the art of putting a humble witness at his ease.”
Some of what I have read concerning modern depictions of Holmes seem to cast him as socially awkward, even rude, and perhaps having Asberger’s. I think these samples show that he was not socially awkward at all – he was described as being quite genial when he wanted to be, and he could carry on a conversation with anyone. But he preferred working alone or with Watson and one or two others – a classic introvert, in my opinion.
There were a few cases before now and a couple of cases here where Holmes decided justice was served, and he did not see a reason to report his findings to the police even when he was working with them. In one case he said, “No, I couldn’t do it, Watson…Once that warrant was made out, nothing on earth would save him. Once or twice in my career I feel that I have done more real harm by my discovery of the criminal than ever he had done by his crime. I have learned caution now, and I had rather play tricks with the law of England than with my own conscience. Let us know a little more before we act.” I wouldn’t advocate that in real life, but it did make sense in the context of the story.
At the end of this book Holmes was said to have retired, and only allowed Watson to tell a few of the stories long after they occurred. Since there are three more books about him, however, either he didn’t retire, or those stories are more past cases.
Once again I listened to the audiobook version superbly narrated by Derek Jacobi. In my journey through the Holmes books, I look for versions read by Jacobi now. I also looked at some portions in closer detail in the online version of the book provided by Project Gutenberg.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)