Readers looking for continuity in works featuring serialized characters are often unaware of the amendments (and resulting inconsistencies) that the authors themselves tend to make as the personalities of their creations grow and change. I remember reading as a child, for example, that there was much acrimony when a comic book artist switched the eye color of a certain super hero from dark brown to bright blue. Although it was unclear whether the change was made out of ignorance or preference, such tweaks turned out to be far cries from what has subsequently become known at retconning. If you are not familiar with this term, worry not — it is still in the embryonic stages of its dissemination. Yet you could define it yourself by thinking about any type of serialized fiction: it is the art of changing past events or facts to induce retroactive continuity. As you might imagine its most prolific use would be in soap operas or the comic book world, where heroes die and come back to life at alarming rates. Still, even in more serious literature, retconning allows the author to make up for some indiscretions at the genesis of an idea. We all know that hindsight is twenty–twenty; but time does often lend itself to less capricious characterizations, especially if the characters end up accompanying their creators through the long walk of life.
I have mentioned Conan Doyle’s two near–fatal mistakes with his prized sleuth, errata that would have changed the course of Holmesian history (if anyone cares about such matters, as I am suggesting they should). The first involved Holmes’s love life, which after a brief attempt at generating crossover romance readership, Conan Doyle smartly eliminated; the second, of course, was much more severe and involved the tardy resurrection of Holmes, who had never really died after all but gone traveling in, among other places, these parts. The masses surely rejoiced when Conan Doyle brought Holmes back to Baker street, although a small slew of detractors insisted that the new Holmes was not quite the same one who left. And how exactly could he be? Conan Doyle himself had gone through quite a few changes in his life in the intervening decade (1893–1902, although in the Holmesian chronology, the absence is from 1891—1894), and the Holmes who returns for this magnificent novella is older, wiser, a little less sprightly and a little more considerate of his brethren. Some of his more insolent, almost prankster qualities are toned down and replaced with a literary irony that belies the observations made by Watson (and we know what to think at times of the good doctor’s observations) in this other novella, Holmes’s first–ever appearance. Over time, Holmes becomes less of a forensic freak and more of a Renaissance man, which makes much more sense given his innate ability to deduce plausible conclusions from some of the most obscure details. Yet connoisseurs know that the detective has a few magisterial interests, one of which happens to be the various types of bicycle tire tracks, and his monograph on the subject covers forty–two different impressions. A rather handy bit of knowledge considering the plot developments of this story.
The son of the Duke of Holdernesse is reported missing, last seen, in fact, traipsing across the Lower Gill Moor with a rather presciently named German teacher called Heidegger. Actually, this is the assumed course of events. No one ever saw the departure of Heidegger and the boy — ten years of age and somewhat alone at the prestigious school in the shadow of his father’s massive estate — but both are missing as is the teacher’s bicycle. Upon the request of the school’s principal but ultimately on the behalf of the Duke himself, Holmes and Watson set off for Northern England. They talk with the Duke, who rejects the notion that the boy’s mother, his estranged wife living in Southern France, may have had anything to do with the abduction. The Duke’s secretary James Wilder has other ideas, however, and lets them be known surreptitiously.
Slowly but suspensefully, details come to light, including the boy’s hat in the possession of gypsies (who were also conveniently included in this story previously reviewed) and the much more grisly mud–laden fate of poor Heidegger. As in Silver Blaze, our four–legged friends have some role in assisting the investigation, owing in no small part to the fact that, unlike human beings, their actions and reactions can be predicted with much greater accuracy. Any aberration in their behavior, like a guard dog who doesn’t bark right when he is supposed to be guarding and barking, is more than a tip–off, it is often the key to whole solution. As one of the finest Holmes adventures, The Priory School benefits from the misty surroundings and murky dealings that make both Victorian London and the gorgeous moors and countryside of England the prototypical settings for the uncanny. Finally, the new and improved Holmes does something almost completely out of character at the end of this story. Maybe this is now in character for Holmes, whose values may have been altered by his wanderings, or maybe he’s just making an exception. A human exception, in any case.