The Adventure Of The Solitary Cyclist by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1903
The magic trick:
Mixing in a little self-referential humor, bordering on self-mockery
As Sherlock fans likely know, Arthur Conan Doyle took about eight years off from writing about the world’s most famous detective. Evidently tired of writing nothing but Sherlock fiction all the time, he threw him off the waterfalls of Reichenbach and didn’t look back for the rest of the 19th century.
Well, of course, Sherlock returned in 1902’s classic novel, The Hound Of The Baskervilles, and later in many more stories. But early on in the new story cycle, it was clear that Doyle was already growing impatient with the old Sherlock formula. “Solitary Cyclist” was the fourth story in Sherlock’s return, and it bears signs of Doyle pushing against the format.
This is not a bad thing, though. Actually, I think it creates a wonderful mood about the story. There is a sense of humor here – almost self-referential – that adds to what is a solid mystery scenario.
It should be noted that this is another of the Sherlock mysteries in which Sherlock does little to to no actual detective work. He alters the conclusion by providing what amounts to a brute-force police presence, but whatever. It’s a curious and memorable setup with a suitably exciting finale. Good enough for me.
The sense of humor is what makes the story shine. We see it first when Violet Smith arrives at Baker Street to consult Sherlock. He begins to perform his usual dazzling observations. But whereas this song and dance stuns previous visitors and can last as many as two pages in the text, here, Miss Smith seems singularly unimpressed.
Sherlock tells her oh, I can tell you are a bicyclist. She cuts him off: “Yes, I bicycle a good deal, Mr. Holmes, and that has something to do with my visit to you to-day.”
Sherlock tells her oh, I can tell you are a musician. – “Yes, Mr. Holmes, I teach music.”
Sherlock tells her oh, I can tell you live in the country. – “Yes, sir, near Farnham, on the borders of Surrey.”
It’s pretty great. One can almost imagine Doyle laughing at his typewriter.
Even better is Watson’s solo investigation into the case. He returns home hoping to impress Sherlock with his strategy, methods and results. Needless to say, Watson is disappointed with his reception. The scene and the conversation between the two friends is hilarious and one of my favorite interactions in the Sherlock oeuvre.
The whole story walks a perfect balance between genuinely exciting and gentle self-mockery. And that’s quite a trick on Doyle’s part.
Mr. Sherlock Holmes listened with attention to the long report which I was able to present to him that evening, but it did not elicit that word of curt praise which I had hoped for and should have valued. On the contrary, his austere face was even more severe than usual as he commented upon the things that I had done and the things that I had not.
“Your hiding-place, my dear Watson, was very faulty. You should have been behind the hedge, then you would have had a close view of this interesting person. As it is, you were some hundreds of yards away and can tell me even less than Miss Smith. She thinks she does not know the man; I am convinced she does. Why, otherwise, should he be so desperately anxious that she should not get so near him as to see his features? You describe him as bending over the handle-bar. Concealment again, you see. You really have done remarkably badly. He returns to the house, and you want to find out who he is. You come to a London house agent!”
“What should I have done?” I cried, with some heat.
“Gone to the nearest public-house. That is the centre of country gossip. They would have told you every name, from the master to the scullery-maid. Williamson? It conveys nothing to my mind. If he is an elderly man he is not this active cyclist who sprints away from that young lady’s athletic pursuit. What have we gained by your expedition? The knowledge that the girl’s story is true. I never doubted it. That there is a connection between the cyclist and the Hall. I never doubted that either. That the Hall is tenanted by Williamson. Who’s the better for that? Well, well, my dear sir, don’t look so depressed. We can do little more until next Saturday, and in the meantime I may make one or two inquiries myself.”