It is often said that reports of detective cases are like jokes and puzzles. That is, they can only be enjoyed once. Having got "it", you can not get it again. Not so with Sherlock Holmes. Would Shakespeare be spoiled if a groundling yelled "Macbeth done it" during Act 1, Scene 1? I have read the 60 cases of Sherlock Holmes, published in four books and five compilations of short cases, several times and enjoyed them each time. (For your convenience they are listed, with the codes by which I will refer to them, as Appendix 1)
The case which enthralls me the most, however, is a sort of meta-case, which could be called The Mystery of the Missing Manuscript. A couple of times within this canon of cases, Sherlock Holmes mentioned a book he was writing which summarized, in the form of a manual, the principles which guided him during those cases. When Holmes criticized Watson for sensationalistic aspects of his narratives, the patient Watson - in one of the few occasions in which he got annoyed at Holmes - said Why don't you write them yourself? Here is the reply:
I will, my dear Watson, I will. At present, I am, as you know, fairly busy, but propose to devote my declining years to the composition of a text-book which shall focus the whole art of detection into one volume [ABBE].Holmes hints that he was well advanced in his project early in his career:
-- young Trevor began to talk about those habits of observation and inference which / had already formed into a system -- [GLOR].Indeed, when Watson first met Holmes, he had already published a preliminary version, entitled The Book of Life, which expounded on the Science of Deduction and Analysis [STUD].
We know Holmes only through the writings of Watson, just as we know Socrates only through the writings of Plato. We tend to consider those "middle-men" as the world's foremost authority on their subjects. However, each person is the world's foremost authority on themselves. Whereas Holmes and Watson had a long and fruitful collaboration, there are large periods of the life of Holmes to which Watson did not have access. The most dramatic period was, of course, the "Great Hiatus", between 1891, when Watson assumed that Holmes had died [FINA], and 1894, when Holmes reappeared disguised as a book-seller [EMPT]. Even during the period of their collaboration (March 1881 - August 1914), they were not inseparable. In the very first case, we learn that Holmes
had invariably breakfasted and gone out before / (Watson) arose in the morning. Sometimes he spent his day at the chemistry laboratory, sometimes in the dissecting rooms, and occasionally in long walks, which appeared to take him into the lowest portions of the city [STUD].In a later case, Watson points out that he had not seen Holmes for some days [3GAB]. At one point, Watson was living not at 221 B Baker Street but in his own rooms at Queen Anne Street [ILLU]. In the two cases, written by Holmes himself, Holmes explained that the good Watson had deserted me for a wife [BLAN] and that the good Watson had passed beyond my ken [LION].
Watson is most unreliable as a witness of the late stages of the career of Holmes. As he notes himself - / have seldom drawn my cases from the later phases of my friend's career [ILLU]. He claims that Holmes moved to the Sussex Downs to raise bees and that he published a book entitled Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen [LAST].
I would modestly suggest that there was more afoot than Watson knew. It seems highly unlikely that someone with the mind of Holmes would retire quietly to the country in his early fifties and raise bees. On a number of occasions, Holmes gave us insight into his mind:
My mind is like a racing engine, tearing itself to pieces because it is not connected up with the work for which it was built [WIST].
To let the brain work without sufficient material is like racing an engine. It racks itself to pieces [DEVI].
My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my most proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exultation [SIGN].
Hence the cocaine. / can't live without brainwork. What else is there to live for? [SIGN].Watson himself recognized that his companion's brain was so abnormally active that it was dangerous to leave it without material upon which to work [MISS] and conceded that his razor brain could be blunted and rusted with inaction [VALL]. Does this sound like a mind content to retire to a little farm of my dreams and raise bees? [CREE].
Watson claimed that Holmes disliked the country:
--- neither the country nor the sea presented the slightest attraction to him. He loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, with his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour or suspicion of unsolved crime [CARD].Unless Holmes, with his considerable competence in chemistry had found some way to synthesize cocaine out of pollen, he would have been strung out on cocaine within weeks of moving to the country. Since he did indeed retire to the country, there must have been something to occupy his active mind. I contend that he retired to the country to write his magnum opus - The Whole Art of Detection - as he promised. The bee book was simply a front to justify his many visits to the local library and to distract, as a red herring, the less active mind of the solid, yet stolid, Watson.
Why would he delude his faithful colleague for those many years? I humbly suggest that he did not want to embarrass his friend with his low opinion of the accounts of the cases. He had indeed expressed such an opinion to Watson's face in occasional flashes of anger:
You have attempted to tinge it (detection) with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you had worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid [SIGN].
--- you have erred perhaps in attempting to put colour and life into each of your statements, instead of confining yourself to the task of placing upon record that severe reasoning from cause to effect which is really the only notable feature about the thing [COPP].However, the carefully documented publication of this opinion is an entirely different matter.
There is some evidence that Holmes was somewhat embarrassed by those "adventures" as told by Watson. Soon after they met, Holmes was already complaining that
There is no crime to detect or, at most, some bungling villainy with a motive so transparent that even a Scotland Yard official can see through it [STUD].Certainly, after he had defeated the only criminal who was almost a match for him in intellect - his arch-rival, Professor Moriarty - there was little left to challenge him.
From the point of view of the criminal expert, London has become a singularly uninteresting city since the death of the late lamented Professor Moriarty [NORW].What Holmes was really interested in were the larger mysteries of nature. The criminal cases were simply puzzle-solving exercises at a local and recent level. He made this most clear in practically the last statement he made to Watson before his disappearance.
Of late I have been tempted to look into the problems furnished by Nature rather than those more superficial ones for which our artificial state of society is responsible [FINA].That "of late" is a trifle suspicious since, even on their very first case, Holmes argues that One's ideas must be as broad as Nature if they are to interpret Nature [STUD].
I would contend that Holmes had already, unknown to Watson, worked on those larger mysteries, that his disappearance was less due to the avoidance of Professor Moriarty's gang than to the avoidance of Watson and the relatively trivial day-by-day problems into which he was sucked, and that his "retirement" was to enable him to focus on those larger issues.
During a sabbatical in the 1990-1991 academic year, I was able to pursue my theories. Following the first clue that the farm to which Holmes retired was five miles from Eastbourne [LAST], I took a train from London to Eastbourne. Using two other clues - that the farm commanded a great view of the Channel and that it was a half-mile from The Gables, a famous coaching establishment [LION], by triangulation I zeroed in to its approximate location. Taking the advice of Holmes himself, I inquired at the local public-houses about the farm [SOLI]. A regular at the third pub I entered, who fancied himself as a local historian, directed me to it. Fortunately, it neither continued its career as a farm or evolved, as had 221 B Baker Street, into a sort of shrine to the memory of Holmes-and-Watson but was being rented to tourists. Since it was off-season, I was able to rent it for the month of March 1991 and pursue my investigations at my leisure.
The attic revealed nothing. An apocryphal manuscript of Watson, describing a case with Sigmund Freud, was ostensibly found in an attic. 1 However, that was too obvious for a mind like Holmes. Following his advice once again, I measured the height of the farm-house, the height of the rooms, and the thickness of the ceilings [SIGN].
Simple subtraction revealed missing space and pointed to a false ceiling. Taking my cue from Holmes, I will not describe my emotion but simply state the fact that, in the space above the false ceiling, there lay my quarry - the manuscript of The Whole Art of Detection. What follows is a transcription of this wonderful document. I have taken the liberty of adding footnotes to place it in its modern context, trusting that Holmes would have approved since he conceded that even he had little capacity to foresee the future [HOUN].
1 Nicholas Meyer, The Seven-per-cent Solution: Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D. New York: Ballantine, 1974.