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Wednesday
Aug052009

The Sussex Vampire

It has been about fifty-five months since my fateful re-acquaintance with the world of Holmes and Watson in this bookshop, and perhaps owing to its rather provocative title my eyes fell first to this story.  A fifteen-minute read in the bookstore café and I left with the complete works in two rugged paperbacks (to be devoured in their entirety once I reached my sunny modern loft in Berlin).  Whether I truly remembered the tales from the summer now twenty years ago may be debated; more likely I retained only a few culprits, dialogues and twists, all of which were augmented by my love for the series featuring this late actor.  The story itself was considered promising enough to be expanded into a movie-length episode with Brett, and has remained a minor victory of style and concision. 

It is November, cold, mysterious, a month that drifts into perpetual gloaming, when the detectives receive a message from a certain Ferguson.  Ferguson was once Watson's regular opponent during their rugby days, a time that Watson typically recollects with exaggerated fondness (such is the machismo of the the average male that brutal, useless afternoons are transformed into a charming period of camaraderie).  Ferguson relates an almost impossible tale about the household of a close friend in which inexplicable events have cast a pallor upon the souls that therein reside.  This friend, whose personal life is known by Ferguson in suspicious detail, married a Peruvian beauty five years ago after his first wife died leaving him a son, Jack, now about fifteen.  While initially a happy pairing, their marriage soon becomes a conduit for suppositions that do not involve merit or mention, and the gentleman feels that he shall never come to know his wife:  

The fact of her foreign birth and of her alien religion always caused a separation of interests and of feelings between husband and wife, so that after a time his love may have cooled towards her and he may have come to regard their union as a mistake.  He felt there were sides of her character which he could never explore or understand.  This was the more painful as she was as loving a wife as a man could have - to all appearance absolutely devoted. 

A small stereotype of Anglo-Saxon and Latin relationships perhaps, but one that rings true in the matter of frankness and passion.  The mistrust could surely be imputed to the fact that they had known each other only a few weeks before taking their vows, yet another inherent difference persists even after they decide to have a child of their own, a difference buttressed by the description of the manor upon Holmes and Watson's arrival:

The room, as I gazed round, was a most singular mixture of dates and of places.  The half-panelled walls may well have belonged to the original yeoman farmer of the seventeenth century.  They were ornamented, however, on the lower part by a line of well-chosen modern water-colours; while above, where yellow plaster took the place of oak, there was hung a fine collection of South American utensils and weapons, which had been brought, no doubt, by the Peruvian lady upstairs.  Holmes rose, with that quick curiosity which sprang from his eager mind, and examined them with some care.  He returned with his eyes full of thought.

More specifically, full of thought on the horrific scene depicted by Ferguson, who is quickly revealed as both the author and subject of the long letter beseeching Holmes and Watson to help him discover what could be wrong with his wife – the same wife caught on more than one occasion sucking the blood out of her infant's neck.

Avid readers of detective fiction and horror will undoubtedly reach the right conclusion about the alleged vampirism, which Holmes refers to as "rubbish," "absurd," and something that "does not happen in criminal practice in England," an interesting way of avoiding a question regarding its actual existence.  As in many of Conan Doyle's later works, there are elements and clues already famous from other entries, a sidelight more indicative of fatidic patterning rather than any lack of creativity on his part.  To those not enchanted (alas, at one point I counted myself among them) by the miniatures of genius that these tales represent, our vampire and her appurtenances can proffer as fine an introduction as any of the more canonically recognized classics, most of which predate our sleuth's temporary demise.  In fact, reading them in order of publication suggests both that Holmes and Watson are necessarily wiser as time progresses and that their cases begin to echo past achievements.  Not that there could ever be any real-life vampires for two men of science apart from an occasional bat.

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