(NOTE: The following is another in the series of posts inspired by my esteemed colleague Aquinas Wired, author of the Chicago Now blog “The Quark in the Road.” His recent post about the late Dr. Harry Solomon led us to exchange comments on one of Dr. Solomon’s enthusiasms, Sherlock Holmes stories, and I commented that “The Adventure of the Empty House” is my favorite. “Aquinas” then asked why. Here goes!)
Saying that “The Adventure of the Empty House” is my favorite Sherlock Holmes story makes it almost uncontested as my favorite story, period. Very little that I cared about reading for the first time in 1977 even sticks in my memory, and still fewer stories and books have come back for repeating readings at regular intervals, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great stories have.
One of the other stories I remember from that era, “The Lady, or the Tiger?” was shown to my English class in the form of a movie. We were to write the solution to the title question as a persuasive essay, and we would see the answer the next day. Luckily for my nerves when I saw no projector in class the next day — and no end to the story — my dad owned a copy of the original, and I was able to read it. (My paper was lost in one of my more regrettable cleaning fits.) I don’t care if I never read that again!
But I’m always drawn back to Baker Street, to landmarks and problems that never seem to wear out.
I turn to “The Sign of the Four” for logic. I’m even having my own fictional characters read it together.
I turn to “The Hound of the Baskervilles” for spine-tingling language (down to the punctuation!) and the victory of logic over horror.
Nothing beats the logical defense of religion in “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty,” but the case isn’t such a big problem.
Nothing beats the turn from suspense to grief in “The Final Problem,” and its language is brilliant. But despite its title, it’s incomplete.
I can’t read “The Final Problem” without feeling the pain I felt on first reading the great battle at the Reichenbach Falls and its aftermath. (No spoilers here. If you don’t know what I mean, get a copy of “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes” and “The Return of Sherlock Holmes” for “The Final Problem” and “The Empty House.”)
But when I first read “The Final Problem,” it was in an omnibus of all of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories and novels. If Holmes died in “The Final Problem,” I remember thinking, then who was the rest of the book about?
There was nothing to do but read on and find out, and that led to discovering “The Empty House.” (I’m dropping the constant mention of “The Adventure of” from the title to save some time and typing.)
Having grown up with a horror of missing the end of “continuing stories,” I was delighted to discover that “The Empty House” was a Part Two where I hadn’t dared realize there was a Part One. “The Empty House” tops my list for that — solving a problem most authors never even try.
But it has grown in my affections as I’ve started to learn more about London. The case concerns a murder in a house on Park Lane, which has houses on one side of the lane and (surprise) a park on the other. The killer was on a rooftop opposite his victim. The curious fact, as Sir Arthur himself might have put it, is that there are no rooftops opposite. But it is so well invented and asserted that in the end, I don’t care about the real geography. I’m convinced of the fiction. That is great storytelling.
It’s difficult to mention many other favorite moments in the story while adhering to my attempt not to spoil it. One does come to mind, however: When the familiar scene at 221B Baker Street first appears to the main characters, Dr. Watson describes “an unwonted tidiness.” That’s unwonted, as in not one’s wont, not the usual thing. I have a recording of it in which the reader, the great Edward Hardwicke (who played Dr. Watson opposite the equally great Jeremy Brett in many Granada TV episodes shown on PBS), pronounces “unwonted” very much like “unwanted,” a rarity in his crystal-clear diction. The idea of “unwanted tidiness” at Baker Street is just as valid as the unwonted sort, so that always makes me smile.
So the language itself is as much a reason for me to love “The Empty House” as its amazing problems and its position slightly later than other wonderful work.
For coming up with the only tale I can think of which solves two problems when it sets out to solve one, I wish Sir Arthur a blessing from a work he wrote much earlier, but which was published far later than the Holmes tales, “Dangerous Work” — “Peace be to his molecules.”
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Filed under: Sustaining Books