The Adventure Of The Empty House by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1903
The magic trick:
Bringing back Sherlock Holmes in dramatic, thrilling fashion
It’s a new year and Sherlock is back. Yesterday, we closed 2016 with “The Final Problem.” Spoilers abound in the following sentences, so stop reading this and start reading the Sherlock stories if you are so inclined.
Anyway, we left Sherlock going over the Reichenbach Falls back in 1893. Ten years later, Doyle published “The Empty House,” and it’s a wonderful reboot.
The magic trick comes with a kind of asterisk today, though. There is no denying the pure literary magic that is the reappearance of Sherlock in Watson’s rooms. It’s wonderfully dramatic and couldn’t be more appropriate as Holmes always the master of disguise anyway and so had several similarly surprising reveals.
The asterisk then is that this story’s success is very dependent on the previous Sherlock stories. We thrill at the return of a much-loved character. We are happy for Watson because we like Watson. However, it’s still a worthy compliment to credit one’s building of a larger character arc.
Sherlock did not return into dullness and mediocrity. He reappears in thrilling fashion into a riveting mystery story that continues the previous story’s arc and only grows the character’s legend. The contemporary readers must have been beside themselves with excitement. And that’s quite a trick on Doyle’s part.
“You make too much of a trifle,” said I. “May I ask how you knew who I was?”
“Well, sir, if it isn’t too great a liberty, I am a neighbour of yours, for you’ll find my little bookshop at the corner of Church Street, and very happy to see you, I am sure. Maybe you collect yourself, sir. Here’s BRITISH BIRDS, and CATULLUS, and THE HOLY WAR — a bargain, every one of them. With five volumes you could just fill that gap on that second shelf. It looks untidy, does it not, sir?”
I moved my head to look at the cabinet behind me. When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted for the first and the last time in my life. Certainly a gray mist swirled before my eyes, and when it cleared I found my collar-ends undone and the tingling after-taste of brandy upon my lips. Holmes was bending over my chair, his flask in his hand.
“My dear Watson,” said the well-remembered voice, “I owe you a thousand apologies. I had no idea that you would be so affected.”
I gripped him by the arms.
“Holmes!” I cried. “Is it really you? Can it indeed be that you are alive? Is it possible that you succeeded in climbing out of that awful abyss?”