Arthur Conan Doyle: The Return of Sherlock Holmes

Solitary_CyclistI’ve been revisiting the Sherlock Holmes short stories recently, working through book-by-book and selecting some under-celebrated gems for your delectation.

Now onto the Return, which sees Sherlock resurrected after his tragic fall from the Reichenbach Falls at the end of the Memoirs and getting back to London crime-fighting after a sojourn overseas.

I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa, and spending some days with the head lama. You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend. I then passed through Persia, looked in at Mecca, and paid a short but interesting visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum the results of which I have communicated to the Foreign Office. Returning to France, I spent some months in a research into the coal-tar derivatives..

I’ve covered the opening story, ‘The Adventure of the Empty House‘ previously. Apart from that, and maybe the story of blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton, the Return has fewer of the big Holmes stories. ‘The Adventure of the Dancing Men’ is much anthologised but not much cop (Poe’s ‘The Gold Bug‘ does it better, I think).

Safety_bicycle_1887So plenty of lesser-known stories to choose from. I’ve picked on two which highlight that Sherlock was moving with the times. The stories were published between 1903 and 1904 and collected as a book in 1905, but are set in the mid-1890s, which explains why bicycles turn up in these stories.

The bicycle craze in the UK and America was at its peak in the ’90s, fired by the availability of safety bicycles such as the Cogent Safety pictured here, and Conan Doyle was clearly influenced by this. Holmes is on top of the subject, of course:

“I am familiar with forty-two different impressions left by tyres. This, as you perceive, is a Dunlop, with a patch upon the outer cover. Heidegger’s tyres were Palmer’s, leaving longitudinal stripes.”

Cycling plays an important part in two of the stories, ‘The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist’ and ‘The Adventure of the Priory School’.

In the ‘Solitary Cyclist’, Miss Violet Smith is a live-in private music teacher employed by a Mr Carruthers, a South African friend of her deceased father. Another friend of her father, Mr Woodley, has been making unwelcome advances. But that is not why she visits Baker Street.

“At least it cannot be your health,” said he, as his keen eyes darted over her; “so ardent a bicyclist must be full of energy.”
She glanced down in surprise at her own feet, and I observed the slight roughening of the side of the sole caused by the friction of the edge of the pedal.
“Yes, I bicycle a good deal, Mr. Holmes, and that has something to do with my visit to you to-day.”

Cycling to and from Farnham Station, she has noticed that she is being followed by a bearded man. But who can he be, and how does all this lead to the pictured rustic scene with vicar, gag and horsewhip? Can you afford not to find out?

In the ‘Priory School’, Holmes and Watson are visited by:

Thorneycroft Huxtable, M.A., Ph.D., etc. His card, which seemed too small to carry the weight of his academic distinctions, preceded him by a few seconds, and then he entered himself — so large, so pompous, and so dignified that he was the very embodiment of self-possession and solidity.

Dr Huxtable offers Holmes a case. The young Lord Saltire, aged ten, has been kidnapped from his school. The boy’s father, the Duke of Holdernesse, has offered an immense reward – £5,000 – for finding him. In pursuit of the kidnapper, Holmes and Watson follow bicycle tracks all over the moors:

A good cyclist does not need a high road. The moor is intersected with paths and the moon was at the full.

Eventually they find the machine they are looking for:

The tracks of the tyre began to curve fantastically upon the wet and shining path. Suddenly, as I looked ahead, the gleam of metal caught my eye from amid the thick gorse bushes. Out of them we dragged a bicycle, Palmer-tyred, one pedal bent, and the whole front of it horribly smeared and slobbered with blood.

Later in the Return, we see Holmes taking to two wheels himself, in unsuccessful pursuit of a Cambridge doctor with a sinister secret.

There is, as you may have observed, a bicycle shop next to our inn. Into this I rushed, engaged a bicycle, and was able to get started before the carriage was quite out of sight. I rapidly overtook it, and then, keeping at a discreet distance of a hundred yards or so, I followed its lights until we were clear of the town. We had got well out on the country road when a somewhat mortifying incident occurred. The carriage stopped, the doctor alighted, walked swiftly back to where I had also halted, and told me in an excellent sardonic fashion that he feared the road was narrow, and that he hoped his carriage did not impede the passage of my bicycle.

Poor Holmes. Those saddles don’t look too comfortable, either.

So do you have any favourites from The Return of Sherlock Holmes?

The Empty House
The Norwood Builder
The Dancing Men
The Solitary Cyclist
The Priory School
The Adventure of Black Peter
Charles Augustus Milverton
The Six Napoleons
The Three Students
The Golden Pince-Nez
The Missing Three-Quarter
The Abbey Grange
The Second Stain

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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8 Responses to Arthur Conan Doyle: The Return of Sherlock Holmes

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Excellent discussion, as ever, Rich. I’ve always been a bit partial to …the Dancing Men, to be honest…


  2. Elgy Gillespie says:

    Am a constant reader of your postings, Richard — we have a crime fiction club over here in SF called Sisters In Crime. We have one coming up on The Blue Carbuncle — have you written on it anywhere? I probed but in vain! 🙂


  3. JJ says:

    This is such a great thread to run through a post, I love it! You’re spot on about the choice of stories being rather thin, there’s much less in thr way of invention or surprise (take The Six Napoleons, say, and compare it to The Red-Headed League); possibly a little sacrilegious, but it’s the one collection I could happily do without – later ones contain The Dying Detective, Thor Brdge, etc, but this is actually just a little dull throughout.


  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    My favourites are The Norwood Builder, The Dancing Men and The Solitary Cyclist.


  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I confess I *do* like The Solitary Cyclist a lot!


  6. Bradstreet says:

    I’ve always felt that this is rather strong collection, with only a couple of duffers. THE NORWOOD BUILDER, SIX NAPOLEONS, ABBEY GRANGE, SECOND STAIN and PRIORY SCHOOL are all good ‘uns. Doyle made the argument that if you read them in order then you become used to the tricks, and thus less impressed. I certainly feel that stories display Doyle at the height of his powers as a writer.


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