Once upon a time, a young, impecunious Scottish physician had a brilliant idea for making a bundle of money, and, more importantly, for squeezing some pulp out of his burgeoning creative juices. He would concoct a story that would combine the latest elements of forensic science with the camaraderie of old knighting tales, and throw in some historical relevance for good measure. After a sufficient amount of superficial research, he had come up with the names of his protagonists, a suitable method for introducing them (one would narrate the tale, the other would star in it), and a topical setting that evoked a wide array of interest and emotion. The year is the palindromic 1881, and another physician of likely Scottish provenance has returned from an Afghan war to the tranquility of London. Needing a room, as bachelors those days were expected not to be able to do anything for themselves, he learns of a man also looking for lodgings whose "studies are very desultory and eccentric" and who "has amassed a lot of out-of-the-way knowledge which would astonish his professors." Our physician, a humble soul by the name of Watson, is rather impressed by this man with "a passion for definite and exact knowledge," precisely the type of desires that should plague a man of medicine, but which, in the case of Watson, most properly do not. How odd that the trained scientist is then the Romantic, and that his thin, ferocious, animated and highly mood-driven partner with the soul and wit of a poet is the man of unadulterated rationality; stranger still that this thinker would have an encyclopaedic command of all the crime committed in London in the last two decades. This "walking calendar of crime" is, of course, Sherlock Holmes, and his first novel and appearance, A Study in Scarlet, is mimicked in structure by this unusual narrative, his last novel.
Unlike other tales which commence with a brief example of Holmes's deductive genius, Holmes and Watson are hardly at home or at peace for much time before Holmes receives a mysterious coded message from a man with the erudite pseudonym of Porlock. Never identified or actually present in physical form in the novel, Porlock is one of the oddities in the Holmesian universe, an underling of the satanic Professor Moriarty who dares disobey his patron. Money may be behind his betrayal, although Holmes unusually discusses the salary ("more than the Prime Minister gets") of Moriarty's prime henchman and Holmes's antagonist in this story; more likely is the reason Holmes surmises almost immediately: "because he feared that I would make some inquiry after him in that case, and bring trouble on him." The case in question is deciphered with the help of Whitaker's Almanac:
There is danger/ may come very soon/ one Douglas rich/ country now at Birlstone/ confidence is pressing.
It is then far from shocking when, shortly thereafter, a Scotland Yard inspector by the name of MacDonald visits the duo to inform them that "Mr. Douglas of Birlstone Manor House was horribly murdered last night." John Douglas to be exact, a Sussex resident of a large moated house equaled in size only by his wealth and boyish vigor. He was "somewhat offhand in his manners," suggesting that "he had seen life in social strata on some far lower horizon," freely mingled with people of all classes including the nearby villagers whose businesses he patronized again and again, and "had spent a part of his life in America." He was married to "a beautiful woman, tall, dark and slender, some twenty years younger than" her fiftyish husband, and very often visited in his residence by a dangerous-looking man called Cecil Barker. But the most interesting thing about the late John Douglas was his tenacity:
The good impression which had been produced by his generosity and by his democratic manners was increased by a reputation gained for utter indifference to danger. Though a wretched rider, he turned out at every meet, and took the most amazing falls in his determination to hold his own with the best. When the vicarage caught fire he distinguished himself also by the fearlessness with which he reentered the building to save property, after the local fire brigade had given it up as impossible. Thus it came about that John Douglas of the Manor House had within five years won himself quite a reputation in Birlstone.
It is said that in premeditated crimes the character of the victim will reveal the culprit. Determine what kind of man John Douglas was and you will soon have the reason for which he was killed; the gruesome method of execution – a sawed-off shotgun literally blowing his head to pieces and the perpetrator bounding out a tower window into the moat – will greatly distract the modern mind from this more essential matter. And so, Holmes proceeds with great alacrity through the palette of possible solutions before arriving at one of the best thought-out plots and most satisfying explanations that Doyle would ever devise.
Yet the novella is hardly perfect. As it were, it suffers from the same shortcoming that diminishes both A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four: a rambling, wholly unwarranted back story. Whether readers truly care about the origin of a crime may be less pertinent than Conan Doyle's limitations as a novelist. In any case, a quick flip through the book's second half will demonstrate how one writer possessed by a spirit of genius and originality – a font of sustained brilliance rarely matched in English literature – can produce dull prose that reads like a cross between a macabre fable and something from this legendary German author of westerns. For those readers who have not tried non-Holmes tales by Conan Doyle, there is happy news: his best work always featured Holmes and always featured Watson. So when critics chide Conan Doyle's forays into the fantastic, the Arthurian, and the spiritual, we would do well to recall his description of MacDonald: mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius. And, occasionally, genius doesn't quite realize what it has accomplished.