The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1927)

This is the final collection of twelve Sherlock Holmes short stories, published in the trusty Strand Magazine between October 1921 and April 1927. Incredible that the character associated with London pea-soupers, hansom cabs, gas lamps and Jack the Ripper, should live on into the Jazz Age and see the publication of Ulysses and The Great Gatsby, the Russian Civil War, the rise of Mussolini, the General Strike and talking movies. As Conan Doyle writes in the preface to this final collection:

He began his adventures in the very heart of the later Victorian era, carried it through the all-too-short reign of Edward, and has managed to hold his own little niche even in these feverish days. (Preface)

Cruelty and violence

But, possibly as a sign of the traumas the world had passed through viz. the Great War, the collapse of Europe’s land empires, and the tempestuous Bolshevik Revolution, the stories are notably crueller and harsher than previous ones.

  • A handsome man has acid thrown in his face.
  • A man finds himself among half-beasts and catches leprosy.
  • Holmes is severely beaten and repeatedly threatened.
  • When he seizes the diamond from Count Negretto Sylvius he holds a pistol to his head, more the act of a Philip Marlowe than the debonaire Holmes.
  • A boy infects his baby brother with incurable poison.
  • A woman shoots herself in the head.
  • A man takes medicine which turns him into a half ape.
  • A maniac traps his wife and lover in a gas chamber.
  • A deadly jellyfish kills its victims by flailing their backs to a bloody pulp.
  • A lion rips a beautiful woman’s face off.

Animal imagery

And the greater cruelty and violence of the stories is reflected in the much more frequent comparison of humans to animals:

  • ‘When one tries to rise above Nature one is liable to fall below it. The highest type of man may revert to the animal if he leaves the straight road of destiny.’
  • The Baron has little waxed tips of hair under his nose, like an insect.
  • How a beastman could have laid his vile paws upon such a being of the beyond I cannot imagine. You may have noticed how extremes call to each other, the spiritual to the animal, the cave-man to the angel. You never saw a worse case than this.
  • It seemed that none of them could speak English, but the situation wanted clearing up, for the creature with the big head was growing furiously angry, and, uttering wild-beast cries
  • A sudden wild-beast light sprang up in the dark, menacing eyes of the master criminal.
  • ‘You cruel beast! You monster!’ she cried.
  • From keeping beasts in a cage, the woman seemed, by some retribution of fate, to have become herself a beast in a cage.
  • Ruffian, bully, beast – it was all written on that heavy-jowled face.
  • Holmes sprang at his throat like a tiger and twisted his face towards the ground.
  • I tell you, Mr. Holmes. this man collects women, and takes a pride in his collection. as some men collect moths or butterflies.
  • ‘And is this Count Sylvius one of your fish?’ ‘

    Yes, and he’s a shark. He bites. The other is Sam Merton the boxer. Not a bad fellow, Sam, but the Count has used him. Sam’s not a shark. He is a great big silly bull-headed gudgeon. But he is flopping about in my net all the same.’

  • If I had said that a mad bull had arrived it would give a clearer impression of what occurred. The door had flown open and a huge negro had burst into the room.
  • She entered with ungainly struggle like some huge awkward chicken, torn, squawking, out of its coop.
  • ‘I see. You’ve tested them before.’ ‘They are good hounds who run silent.’ ‘Such hounds have a way sooner or later of biting the hand that feeds them.’
  • There have been no advertisements in the agony columns. You know that I miss nothing there. They are my favourite covert for putting up a bird, and I would never have overlooked such a cock pheasant as that.’
  •  With his dressing-gown flapping on each side of him, he looked like some huge bat glued against the side of his own house, a great square dark patch upon the moonlit wall.
  • In all our adventures I do not know that I have ever seen a more strange sight than this impassive and still dignified figure crouching frog-like upon the ground and goading to a wilder exhibition of passion the maddened hound, which ramped and raged in front of him, by all manner of ingenious and calculated cruelty.
  • It was a dreadful face – a human pig, or rather a human wild boar, for it was formidable in its bestiality. One could imagine that vile mouth champing and foaming in its rage, and one could conceive those small, vicious eyes darting pure malignancy as they looked forth upon the world. Ruffian, bully, beast – it was all written on that heavy-jowled face.
  • … the other, a small rat-faced man with a disagreeably furtive manner.
  • ‘For myself, I am deeply in the hands of the Jews. I have always known that if my sister were to die my creditors would be on to my estate like a flock of vultures.’
  • He clawed into the air with his bony hands. His mouth was open, and for the instant he looked like some horrible bird of prey. In a flash we got a glimpse of the real Josiah Amberley, a misshapen demon with a soul as distorted as his body.

And the fact that one story is about a vampire and another about a scientist who turns himself into a ape-man clinches the sense of the ab-human, of the human mutating into the Gothic creature or beast, which permeates the stories. Humans permanently poised on the edge of bestial violence.

The Strand Magazine, vol. 73, April 1927

The Strand Magazine, vol. 73, April 1927

Sex and seduction

There’s more sex, more overtly referred to, than in the earlier stories.

  • Baron Grüner is a smooth-talking seducer of women; the Illustrious Client hinges on Holmes purloining the Baron’s ‘Lust Diary’.
  • Similarly, the gorgeous Isadora Klein has seduced numerous young men, used them and then discarded them, and the case hinges (once again) on a text which records her sexual escapades, this time a roman a clef written by her lover.
  • Maria Gibson is jealous enough of her husband’s relationship with the maid to kill herself.
  • Professor Presbury is besotted enough with a young woman he’s met to experiment with a dangerous youth serum.
  • Leonardo the circus acrobat has ‘the self-satisfied smile of the man of many conquests’.

It is difficult to cast your mind back to the Victorian stories where the sex element is simply absent; where there is no reference to sex whatsoever, at any point; where men drop dead of heart attacks at the mere thought of their reputations being besmirched, where women are prepared to plunge their country into war rather than have their husband read an old billet-doux (The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plan).

This is the most obvious way that, despite the way the tales are still ostensibly set in the late ’90s or early noughties – in fact the post-War Holmes is operating in a new era with new conventions,

Anglo good, foreign bad

Foreigners are generally bad, such as the smooth Baron Grüner:

  • The fellow is, as you may have heard, extraordinarily handsome, with a most fascinating manner. a gentle voice and that air of romance and mystery which means so much to a woman. He is said to have the whole sex at his mercy and to have made ample use of the fact… His European reputation for beauty was fully deserved. In figure he was not more than of middle size, but was built upon graceful and active lines. His face was swarthy, almost Oriental, with large, dark, languorous eyes which might easily hold an irresistible fascination for women. His hair and moustache were raven black, the latter short, pointed, and carefully waxed. His features were regular and pleasing, save only his straight, thin-lipped mouth. If ever I saw a murderer’s mouth it was there – a cruel, hard gash in the face, compressed, inexorable, and terrible.
  • Isadora Klein was, of course, the celebrated beauty. There was never a woman to touch her. She is pure Spanish, the real blood of the masterful Conquistadors… She rose from a settee as we entered: tall, queenly, a perfect figure, a lovely mask-like face, with two wonderful Spanish eyes which looked murder at us both.
  • It was as if the air of Italy had got into his blood and brought with it the old cruel Italian spirit.
  • This gentleman married some five years ago a Peruvian lady the daughter of a Peruvian merchant, whom he had met in
    connection with the importation of nitrates. The lady was very beautiful, but the fact of her foreign birth and of her alien religion always caused a separation of interests and of feelings between husband and wife.
  • ‘She was a creature of the tropics, a Brazilian by birth, as no doubt you know.’ ‘No, it had escaped me.’ ‘Tropical by birth and tropical by nature. A child of the sun and of passion.’
  • He was looked upon as an oddity by the students, and would have been their butt, but there was some strange outlandish blood in the man, which showed itself not only in his coal-black eyes and swarthy face but also in occasional outbreaks of temper, which could only be described as ferocious.

But, thankfully, in contrast to the beast-people and dastardly foreigners, there are plenty of fine upstanding, Anglo-Saxon chaps (and the occasional chapess):

  • Mr. James M. Dodd, a big, fresh, sunburned, upstanding Briton.
  • ‘I have found out who our client is,’ I cried, bursting with my great news. ‘Why, Holmes, it is—‘ ‘It is a loyal friend and a chivalrous gentleman,’ said Holmes.
  • ‘He had the fighting blood in him, so it is no wonder he volunteered. There was not a finer lad in the regiment!’
  • “Of course I remembered him,” said I as I laid down the letter. “Big Bob Ferguson, the finest three-quarter Richmond ever had. He was always a good-natured chap.’
  • Our new visitor, a bright, handsome girl of a conventional English type, smiled back at Holmes as she seated herself beside Mr. Bennett.
  • Stackhurst himself was a well-known rowing Blue in his day, and an excellent all-round scholar.
  • Fitzroy McPherson was the science master, a fine upstanding young fellow…
  • ‘Forgive what is past, Murdoch. We shall understand each other better in the future.’ They passed out together with their arms linked in friendly fashion.
  • Who could have imagined that so rare a flower would grow from such a root and in such an atmosphere?.. I could not look upon her perfect clear-cut face, with all the soft freshness of the downlands in her delicate colouring, without realizing that no young man would cross her path unscathed.

High society and superlatives

These stories continue the trend of hobnobbing with the rich and famous – giving the reader a flattering Downton Abbeyesque feeling that they are rubbing shoulders with the glamorous, rich and aristocratic. If not actual aristocrats, the adversaries are generally men and women at the top of their field.

  • It is hinted that the illustrious client in the first story is the Prince of Wales.
  • All the doctors are the most eminent in their field – Sir Leslie Oakshott, the famous surgeon, Sir James Saunders the great dermatologist
  • The soldiers are all medal-winning heroes – Colonel Emsworth the Crimean V. C.
  • Ronder, of course, was a household word. He was the rival of Wombwell, and of Sanger, one of the greatest showmen of his day.
  • ‘There are the Shoscombe spaniels,’ said I. ‘You hear of them at every dog show. The most exclusive breed in England.’
  • ‘That is a colt you are running?’ ‘The best in England, Mr. Holmes.’
  • And the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary come calling in person about the Mazarin stone!

The stories

The Adventure of the Illustrious Client (1924)

Set in 1902. The dapper Sir James Damery visits on behalf of an anonymous client who wishes to prevent sweet & gullible Miss Violet Merville from marrying the Austrian Baron Adelbert Gruner, not only a cad to women but probably a murderer. While Watson is distracting the Baron with the offer of a rare Chinese antiquity, Holmes sneaks in the back and purloins the notebook the Baron keeps of all his conquests. There is little or no deduction involved. What is involved is shocking violence as a) Holmes is badly beaten up by two of the Baron’s men b) the Baron has vitriol thrown in his face by an embittered lover, Kitty Winter. The Wikipedia entry on vitriol-throwing says the French press coined the word La Vitrioleuse after a wave of 16 vitriol attacks in 1879, all of them crimes of passion. In 1894 the French artist Eugene Grasset (1841-1917) created a haunting lithograph title La Vitioleuse. Kingston.

La Vitrioleuse by Eugene Grasset, 1894 (Wikimedia Commons)

La Vitrioleuse by Eugene Grasset (1894)

The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier (1926)

Set 1903. First story narrated by Holmes himself. Fine upstanding soldier James Dodd fought side by side with good man Godfrey Emsworth, son of the famous Crimean VC. Rumoured to be wounded but then disappeared and family are strangely cagey about him. Holmes goes to Tuxbury Old Park and quickly deduces that the missing soldier has in fact contracted leprosy in South Africa and is hiding from the world with his family’s help. Near Bedford.

The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone (1921)

Set in 1903. First use of 3rd person narrator. Holmes has a mannekin of himself in the window to distract his watchers. By adroitly swapping places with it he persuades Count Negretto Sylvius to take out the stolen £100K jewel to show to his accomplice at which Holmes simply swipes it. Baker Street.
The Adventure of the Three Gables (1906) Set 1903. Steve Dixie, a black boxer bursts in to warn Holmes off Harrow Weald which is a coincidence because he’s just had a letter from Mary Maberley who lives there. Off we go to meet her and hear her story, that an agent suddenly offered her a fortune for her house and everything in it. Through various clues Holmes deduces the involvement of the imperious Spanish beauty Isadora Klein who has dallied with half the men in London, including Mary Maberley’s dead son. Turns out he wrote a novel dramatising Isadora’s wicked ways and she suspected it was in his luggage, hence the offer for the house and all its contents. Harrow Weald.

The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire (1924)

Set in 1896. Good solid rugger player Bob Ferguson comes to Holmes stricken: after some suspicions he caught his wife at the throat of his little baby, and she turned with blood on her lips! then ran off weeping to her rooms and won’t emerge. On a visit to the rundown house Holmes quickly sees the lie of the land: the 15 year old son of the first wife is deadly jealous of the new baby by the second, Peruvian, wife and had nipped it with an south American arrow tipped with poison. The wife was gallantly sucking it out only to be completely misaccused. The prescription for 15 year old Jacky is a year at sea! Near Horsham.
The Adventure of the Three Garridebs (1924) Set 1902. An American named Garrideb reluctantly appears before Holmes after an English eccentric with a vast collection of bric-a-brac named Garridenb has messaged him. His irritation and worn English clothes belie his cock and bull story about a multi-millionaire American back in Kansas named Garrideb who bequeathed his millions to whoever could find three Garridebs in the world. He claims to have found the third one in Birmingham and packs the eccentric off to meet him but, of course, Holmes and Watson stake out the now empty house where they reveal the first Garrideb to be none other than ‘Killer’ Evans from Chicago, who’d killed a confederate in London and served five years fr it during which time the eccentric Garrideb moved into his flat, thus blocking access to the forger’s kit in the basement. Ryder Street, St James’s.

The Problem of Thor Bridge (1922)

Set in 1900. Mr Neil Gibson, the Gold King, the richest gold magnate in the world, marries a Brazilian lady and settles in England but as her looks fade they argue a lot, and he becomes attached to his children’s maid, Miss Grace Dunbar. The wife Maria is found shot dead and the gun is found in Grace’s wardrobe. What could be simpler? Holmes deduces from the way the little bridge over the lake is chipped, that the wife planted a copy of the gun to implicate the maid, and then shot herself with a gun tied to a weighted string dangling into the lake! (The story is notable within the Sherlock Holmes canon for the initial reference to a tin dispatchbox, located within the vaults of the Cox and Co. Bank at Charing Cross in London, where Dr. Watson kept the papers concerning some of Holmes’ unsolved or unfinished cases.) Near Winchester, Hampshire.

The Adventure of the Creeping Man (1923)

Set 1903. Mr. Trevor Bennett comes to Holmes with a problem. He is Professor Presbury’s personal secretary engaged to the professor’s only daughter, Edith. After a trip to Prague the professor has been behaving strangely, with a new vigour but also, on some nights, loping around the house and climbing the walls! Holmes shows he has been taking an experimental youth serum extracted from apes in Madagascar. Camford ie fictional version of Cambridge.

The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane (1926)

Set 1907. One of the last of Holmes’s adventures and the second one to be narrated by Holmes himself! In his retirement on the South Downs cases still follow him. One of the teachers at the nearby ? academy is found stumbling up the cliffs from an early morning swim on the beach, his back horribly flailed and bloody. There is an interlude while speculation about his murderer implicates his rival in love for a nearby maiden. Only for Holmes to suddenly remember the same marks are made by a rare tropical giant jellyfish, but not before the chief suspect is himself stung almost to death. Sussex coast.

The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger (1927)

Set in 1896. The veiled lodger is the wife of the world famous circus owner ? He was a tyrant and sadist who whipped her. Her lover Leonardo the strong man cooked up a plan to stave the tyrant’s head in with a club with spikes in it to replicate a lion’s paw and release the lion they fed every day. The murder went ahead but, unfortunately the lion was maddened by the smell of blood and turned on Mrs, ripping her face off while the coward Leonardo ran off. She feels free to tell her story now she’s read that Leonardo is dead. And she has lived in retirement hiding behind a veil ever since. Holmes gallantly talks her out of committing suicide. South Brixton.

The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place (1927)

Set in 1902. Head trainer John Mason from Shoscombe Old Place, a racing stable in Berkshire, comes to Holmes about his master, Sir Robert Norberton. Mason thinks he has gone mad. The stables are actually owned by Norberton’s sister, Lady Beatrice, and the old man has huge debts. He is staking everything on the next race featuring his colt. Meanwhile Mason lists various odd events which capture Holmes’s attention: Lady B has stopped greeting her favorite horse; Sr Robert has become increasingly angry and stressed; in a fit of anger he gave Lady B’s dog away to the local publican; he’s been seen going into the local church crypt at night to meet a stranger; and then burnt human bones are found in the furnace at Shoscombe! Holmes deduces that Lady B has actually died, but Sir Robert is maintaining the fiction that she’s alive to prevent his creditors seizing the estate before his horse can win the Derby. Which it does, and with his huge winnings he pays off his debts. Berkshire.

The Adventure of the Retired Colourman (1926)

Set 1898. Holmes is hired by a retired supplier of artistic materials, Josiah Amberley, to look into his wife’s disappearance. She has left with a neighbour, Dr. Ray Ernest, taking a sizeable quantity of cash and securities. Amberley wants the two tracked down. Holmes deduces that Amberley himself did away with the couple, locking them in his strong room and gassing them and then throwing them down a disused well. Holmes prevents Amberley committing suicide, predicting he will end up in Broadmoor not swinging from a rope. Lewisham.

Town versus country

Despite Holmes’s association with pea-soupers etc, only four of these 12 stories actually take place in London. All the rest are located in the countryside.

Related links


Short story collections

%d bloggers like this: