Friday, May 02, 2014

House Party

After the "prequel novel" The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle soon decided to resurrect his famous character of Sherlock Holmes and return to the short story form. The first of his new stories was "The Adventure of the Empty House." As good as it might be to have Holmes back in action for more adventures, this return itself is a largely unsatisfying story, for a number of reasons.

First, there's the explanation of Holmes' non-death. Holmes says he faked his death in order to go into hiding, so he could track down Moriarty's remaining lieutenants. This statement is completely at odds with Holmes own declarations in "The Final Problem," in which Holmes made a point of noting that he'd already mopped up the entire organization save for the criminal mastermind himself. The explanation of how he faked his death seems similarly revisionist of the facts as Doyle laid them out -- as one would expect, given that he'd originally intended exactly what it had seemed, to kill off Sherlock Holmes. Poor Watson, often the buffoon in a Holmes adventure, comes out looking even more foolish for having been taken in by such a threadbare and spontaneous ruse.

Second, Holmes' miraculous return undermines all the earlier trumpeting of Moriarty's greatness. If Moriarty was truly all he was said to be, then why is it he is concretely dead when Holmes somehow managed to survive? In subsequent adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, the character of Moriarty was expanded far out of proportion with his role in the original tales; one is left wishing Doyle himself had thought to do the same, and revived Moriarty for repeat adventures as well.

Third, much has transpired in the intervening years that goes without sufficient explanation. Watson's wife Mary has died, leaving the doctor a widower, and yet this gets barely a mention from the man himself. It's all just machinations to get Watson and Holmes back living together on Baker Street, and utterly lacking in any of the emotional heft that such a profound loss ought to have. To say nothing of what the loss -- and return -- of Watson's friend himself must have meant.

Lastly, the case itself in this story is given short shrift. Obviously, Holmes' return is the important story to tell here, but so little space is given to the mystery that it barely makes sense. Holmes comes out of hiding in order to draw out the last of Moriarty's remaining henchman... but it seems, paradoxically, that the man has already hidden himself in the house across from the Baker Street residence so that he can spy on Holmes? Perhaps the chain of events is not as nonsensical as I perceive it, but Doyle's writing does a poor job in this case of making clear the facts. In any event, the baiting of this henchman with a simple ruse merits only a page or two, wrapping things up in too neat a bow and too quickly returning Holmes and Watson to business as usual. A revival ten years in the making seems like it deserved matter.

In fact, I'd gave to say "The Adventure of the Empty House" ranks as one of the worst of Doyle's Holmes tales, notable only in that it contains the character's return. That is, without this story, there wouldn't have been any others. But that doesn't really excuse the story itself in my esteem. I would grade it a D+.

No comments: