This is the fourth and final full-length novel featuring Sherlock Holmes, although the ending is open enough for there to have been more SH stories in the future. (There were not, in this case.) It was published and serialized in the magazine The Strand.
This is a curious novel with two parallel story lines (although the narrative structure is sharply divided into two individual pieces one after the other which then weave together), and one of the locations is in a small coal-mining community somewhere in the SE of US. (Its location is not specified, but the reader can tell it’s South of Chicago and of NYC from clues in the text.) I also don’t know of the US connection for Doyle – he doesn’t seem to have lived in the US at any time, although he was quite well travelled to other countries.
The murder in question involves a large country house, changing identities, money problems – the usual suspects in a good mystery story, but it is not boring. There are some non-predictable twists in the tale, and the second half of the book jumps to the US. (Conan Doyle has put the US into one or two of his other stories as well.) It’s quite puzzling to try to work out the connection between the coal mining community and the country house, but by the denouement, all is clear. It’s very cleverly done, I think, on the part of Conan Doyle and did keep me wondering until the end.
There is an ongoing link with the arch-villain Professor Moriarty and Sherlock is not half as grumpy as he had been in the previous stories. It seems to me that Conan Doyle was more after a mystery in general as opposed to focusing the story on the dynamics between Holmes and his partner in crime.
The story is thought to be based on the true-life story of the secret society of the Molly Maguires (a mafia-like group of mainly coal miners in the US who controlled towns and politics in 19th century). The Pinkerton agent James McParland was also the basis for the agent who plays in this story and who had a similar bust on a group of anti-union workers. (The Pinkerton National Detective Agency was a large private security agency in the US established in 1850 who did private law enforcement work and became extremely large and powerful especially in controlling the unions of the time. There were few official police agencies at this time and so everything was a bit free for all for a while. )
As in previous stories, there are links with the evil Professor Moriarty and his minions, but again (as in previous stories), he is this shadowy far-off character who seems to control his employees like puppets.
I also noted that SH is not as grumpy in this story as in previous stories (although it still emerges every now and then) and there was no mention of his ongoing cocaine habit.
Here’s a grumpy bit for you from SH to Watson:
“I wonder!” said he, leaning back and staring at the ceiling. “Perhaps there are points which have escaped your Machiavellian intellect. Let us consider the problem in the light of pure reason.”
I decided to research further into the biography of old Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and to be honest, he’s really interesting in his own right. ACD was one of ten children (seven of whom survived to maturity) and was born in Scotland. He was cut off from his very religious parents (mainly his father) when ACD rejected their Catholicism, and when ACD’s father died in 1893 was also when it coincided with ACD trying to kill off Sherlock in his book. (Coincidence? I think not.)
Around this time, he also signed up with a private company to provide medical services in South African during the Boer Wars, and sometime during this, he wrote a “propaganda” pamphlet for the troops which probably was the reason for his receiving a knighthood in 1902.
Doyle was a scientist – he was a qualified physician in 1885 and specialized in eyes. He started his own practice, but apparently it was awful as he had no patients and thus used the time to write his fiction and other works. However, despite his rational scientific side, ACD also believed in spiritualism, fairies and the Occult. He wrote a book called “The Coming of the Fairies” after one of his sons died in WWI of pneumonia and was a proponent of the infamous Cottingley Fairy photographs incidents.
The fairy connection is also not that fair fetched when you learn that ACD’s uncle was a fairly famous book illustrator of fairy tales and other similar characters. (ACD had tried to be a professional illustrator, but it didn’t really take off for him.)
He was pretty well traveled for the time, having been on a three-month ship journey to West Africa and then also signing up as a ship’s doctor on a Greenland whaling boat to the Arctic. Additionally, I found this little nugget too: that ACD was one of the first in his town to own and drive a car and was fined for speeding one day. What a rebel. 🙂
ACD also hung out with other literary stars, including J. M. Barrie (he of Peter Pan weirdness) and Oscar Wilde. In fact, he and Wilde once went to dinner with a new publisher, and at the same meal, both ACD and Wilde were both offered commissions to write their books (ACD for The Sign of Four and Wilde for The Picture of Dorian Grey).
He died in 1930 from heart disease. I enjoyed this one, and will cross it off as part of my Sherlock Holmes project. See below for details.
Sherlock Holmes Novels:
- A Study in Scarlet (1997)
- The Sign of Four (1890)
- The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902)
- The Valley of Fear (1914-1915)
Collections of Sherlock Holmes short stories:
- Adventures of SH (1881-1892)
- Memoirs of SH (1892-1893)
- Return of SH (1903-1904)
- Reminiscences of SH (including His Last Bow) (1908-1913 and 1917)
- Case Book of SH (1921-1927)