I did accidentaly post this the other morning, so I have no idea whether this means you’ve already read it or not, but here goes…¹
Undoubtedly one of the most anticipated and most scrutinised short stories of all time, Arthur Conan Doyle’s gracious bowing to public pressure following a ten-year hiatus of Sherlock Holmes is a bumper fun edition of impossible crimes (well, considering its brevity and the other factors it must include). Not only do you get the return of a man from the dead – “But the tracks!…I saw, with my own eyes, that two went down the path and none returned.” – you also get the murder of Ronald Adair, who is found dead in his bolted study with his head “horribly mutilated by an expanding revolver bullet, but no weapon of any sort was to be found in the room.”
Taking them in order of the solutions presented in the story itself, Holmes’ explanation and reversal of his certain death is actually very neat. There is no reason why Watson should have been accurate in his observations given his emotional state at his friend’s death in ‘The Final Problem’, and although continuity errors abound regarding Holmes’ absence (only three years in story time, significantly shorter than in real time), and while some may consider this a bit of a cheat I actually enjoy it as one of the more human examples of the canon. No-one ever claimed Watson was an infallible narrator – Holmes himself has chastised Watson over this exact foible, in fact – and, while you wouldn’t accept it at the end of a 300 page novel, this kind of oversight is a more than adequate explanation to justify the reappearance of the great detective.
The real meat, though, is reserved for Ronald Adair’s murder. A more classical example of a locked room you could not hope for: door fastened on the inside, with an open window outside of which “the drop was at least twenty feet…and a bed of crocuses in full bloom lay beneath.” There are no marks in the flower bed, no marks on the grass outside the house, and the window is “entirely inaccessible, since there was no water pipe or anything which could help the most active man to climb to it.” And, to top it all off, no shot was heard from the busy street outside, nor anywhere inside, the house and any marksman wishing to undertake such an execution would anyway “indeed be a remarkable shot who could with a revolver inflict so deadly a wound.”
The lovely thing about this is that Conan Doyle casually throws in a very key piece of misdirection without striking a jarring note and quietly works away at building further misdirection on top of it without you realising what he’s doing – truly an invisible event if ever I’ve seen one, and arguably an under-appreciated facet of his writing (which, to be fair, he didn’t necessarily indulge in all that frequently). Modern audiences will, of course, start to twig to the nature of how the murder was worked, and it doesn’t really qualify as fair play unless you…well, no, it doesn’t qualify as fair play, and indeed the very first time I read this – as a callow youth, need I remind you – I was somewhat irritated at the simplicity of the answer. But, then, that’s arguably the idea. A lovely flourish has this particular crime and this particular solution as deciding factors in Holmes’ return, and in fact the whole enterprise is concoted and executed with more skill than was necessary given its guaranteed rapturous reception.
Away from the impossible crime, a certain amount of fun is to be had imagining what Watson had in mind as explanations for this crime, especially when he tells of joining a crowd around a man in the street forwarding his own theories which “seemed to me to be absurd, so I withdrew again in some disgust” – steady on, John! It might possibly be from here that Robert Ryan took his motivation for his novel Dead Man’s Land, which sees Watson putting Holmes’ methods to use in solving a murder in the trenches of the First World War, but I veer off topic. It’s also interesting to reflect how this story echoes down the years: both problems recall John Dickson Carr novels (She Died a Lady has footprints disappearing over an abyss, and…well, something else – let’s say one of his more successful minor books – has a very similar solution to Adair’s murder) and have returned again and again in various, and variously successful, forms. All told, a minor triumph, and a very influential one to boot.
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As a complete aside, was anyone else as disappointed as I was with the version of this story filmed under thew wonderful title of ‘The Empty Hearse’ for the BBC’s Sherlock? I couldn’t give a hoot about fidelity to the source story, more that the two impossibilities they had – Holmes’ survival and, especially, the man disappearing from a London tube between stations – were so phenomenally daft (in the first instance) and lazy (in the second). The tube disappearance surely sets a new low for miraculous explanations – a mystery for all of eight seconds, and then happily resolved with a minimum of thought or effort hardly requiring Sherlockian intellect and insight. It was like something out of the most recent series of Jonathan Creek, for pity’s sake. Still, at least we didn’t have to wait 10 years for it.