Thursday, August 20, 2015

The "Death" of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes was featured in over 50 short stories and four novels, but it's only in "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" that he becomes a title character.

Set during the period where Watson lived with his wife, he is summoned to Baker Street to discover the great detective dying of an obscure Asian disease. Holmes resists any efforts by the doctor to cure him, claiming the malady will be far beyond his abilities. He instead dispatches Watson to bring one Culverton Smith to the flat, an expert in the disease. Soon it's revealed that the "dying detective" has Smith in his sights as part of an investigation.

Of course, given the way the adventures of Sherlock Holmes are plucked from different moments in time, readers know that he is not destined to die from a disease in this tale. Indeed, nearly all readers must suspect the truth, that the disease is part of a ruse designed to ensnare Culverton Smith. Holmes pays Watson a compliment-wrapped-in-an-insult at the end of this story, explaining why he refused to allow Watson to examine him and render medical care: Watson was obviously too good a doctor to fall for the ruse... but too bad a liar to bait Smith unless he truly believed Holmes was at death's door.

In crafting this story, Arthur Conan Doyle shook up the formula by essentially depicting no investigation. Holmes never leaves Baker Street, and Watson only travels to fetch Smith into the trap. But though this seems clever and different on paper, in practice it deflates the narrative considerably. It wouldn't necessarily matter that the reader knows Holmes is faking his illness and running a sting, if the journey to the conclusion were more interesting. Instead, things feel long in reaching the inevitable conclusion, despite the shortness of the story.

I'd say "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" merits a C+.

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