Thursday, September 7, 2017

"The Adventure of the Dying Detective"

The Dying Detective.
The case begins Sunday, November 8, 1903.

"I listened earnestly to her story when she came to my rooms in the second year of my married life . . ."

"For three days he has been sinking, and I doubt if he will last the day."
"For these three days neither food nor drink has passed his lips."
"Poor Victor was a dead man on the fourth day — a strong, hearty young fellow."

"He took to his bed on Wednesday afternoon and has never moved since."
"Do you remember a box—an ivory box? It came on Wednesday."

"In the dim light of a foggy November day the sick room was a gloomy spot, but it was that gaunt, wasted face staring at me from the bed which sent a chill to my heart."

November 19, 1887. 

November 29, 1890.

"The Adventure of the Dying Detective" — was it just another case, or the last one Holmes ever undertook at Baker Street?

Previous chronologists have tried to shoehorn this case into the 1880s, thinking that the "second year" of Watson’s married life puts it past the end of Holmes’s career when Watson’s latest marriage is used as a guide. But at its most basic level, the phrase "in the second year" simply means that the case fell after his first wedding anniversary, which leaves it as hardly any impediment to that later period at all.
And there is much about "The Dying Detective" that feels like a later story: Holmes’s certainty of his friends’ reactions to his illness. His use of Morton instead of Lestrade, a good friend in those later days who might not have let him pull his charade on Watson. The sureness with which Watson expects he can get any doctor in London to treat Sherlock Holmes. And the simple fact that all the other tales in His Last Bow (with the notable exception of CARD, for well-known reasons) occur in the later period of Holmes’s career.

We know from "Illustrious Client" that Watson had moved out of Baker Street by September of 1902. As Holmes says later that Watson deserted him for a wife, we know that Watson’s move was at least preparatory for a marriage, if not due to the marriage itself. In September of 1903, Holmes is investigating "The Adventure of the Creeping Man," which is "One of the very last cases handled by Holmes before his retirement from practice."

But not "the" last case.

One intriguing fact about "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" is that Holmes might not have really been investigating anything at all when it came upon him. He seems to have aired some opinions about Victor Savage’s death, which Victor’s uncle has taken exception to, but we have no real evidence that Holmes was ever wandering dockside alleys looking into anything. Indeed, his later fictions en route to convincing Mrs. Hudson and Dr. Watson of his illness would make the Rotherhithe story seem just another ruse. 

In September of 1903, Watson has begun publishing the "Return" stories, so the public knows Holmes is alive again. With that unwanted publicity, any thoughts of retirement Sherlock Holmes was holding onto probably took center stage. By November of 1903, he might have even been packing for Sussex (which, given the litter upon his bedroom mantelpiece, wouldn’t be surprising). But when a criminal attempts your life by sending you a poisoned box in the mail, you just have to do something about it.

"It was clear to me, however, that by pretending that he had really succeeded in his design I might surprise a confession," Holmes explains at the case’s end. "That pretence I have carried out with the thoroughness of the true artist."
It is his last little cock-a-doodle-doo of victory, to be followed by one last victory dinner at Simpson’s.

Since Holmes took to his bed on Wednesday afternoon, then was "sinking" and not eating or drinking for three whole days, I’m going to also buck the chronology crowd on the day of this one and say Sunday was the day Mrs. Hudson came to Watson for help. And as Holmes wouldn’t be too excited about staying in a Strand-Magazine-filled London for any longer than he had to, I’m going to set it on the first Sunday of the month it occurred: November 8, 1903.

(An interesting corroboration of sorts: while no new Holmes cases were published in 1912 or 1914-1916, "Dying Detective" appeared in November 1913 — on the tenth anniversary of the actual case.)

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