‘Watson, I’m Back’

Arthur Conan Doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle; drawing by David Levine

The Last Sherlock Holmes Story,…well, one would like to think so. In the last five years we have had Holmes as a man of the theater and time traveler (Robert Lee Hall’s Exit Sherlock Holmes), the revival of Moriarty in a trilogy by John Gardner, and of course Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Add to this fiction the revival of William Gillette’s play, with John Wood as a marvelously convincing Sherlock, a Sherlock Holmes scrapbook, a new illustrated edition of the stories, and a bigger than usual batch of books dealing with Holmes scholarship, among them D. Martin Dakin’s A Sherlock Holmes Commentary, which discusses every story in detail, and Ian Mc-Queen’s Sherlock Holmes Detected, and you have enough to fill a small shelf. The last Sherlock Holmes story? It does not seem likely.

Michael Dibdin’s book is a fair example, in kind and quality, of the current Sherlock Holmes fiction. It is set in the form of a memoir by Watson, who is said to have died in 1926, and it is explained that Watson knew Conan Doyle, and that the novels and stories were written by Doyle with Holmes’s agreement. This, however, is Watson’s own narrative. It is concerned with Holmes’s investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888. (Some years ago Ellery Queen wrote Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper, as a free adaptation of a film called A Study in Terror.) The murders are described in accurate detail, with some emphasis on the most gruesome disemboweling details, and I suppose there can be no harm in saying—since it is revealed little more than halfway through the book—that Sherlock Holmes is Jack the Ripper and that Watson, after seeing Holmes cutting up a dead prostitute, has to decide what to do about his friend. Mr. Baring-Gould, in his “biography” of Holmes published in 1962, has a chapter in which the detective catches Jack the Ripper, who proves to be a policeman. Mr. Dibdin, however, may have thought the chapter inauthentic, noting perhaps that in it Melville Macnaghten is associated with the Jack the Ripper case as a “high official” of Scotland Yard in the year before he joined the Metropolitan Police, and is also called “Sir Melville” some twenty years before he was knighted.

Almost all of this recent Holmes fiction is essentially boring. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is an exception because it contains two brilliant jokes—the idea that the drug-addicted Holmes should become Freud’s patient, and a joke concerning Moriarty that perhaps shouldn’t be given away. Solecisms in such a work are excusable, because the whole thing is a lark. But the average piece of Holmes fiction is boring because it attempts faithfulness to the letter of the Holmes canon while never getting close to the spirit. The virtues of the Holmes stories rest in Doyle’s weighty but sensitive use of contemporary language, in his…

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