Thursday, May 2, 2019

Conan Doyle's Season Four

A recent mention of the benefits of "dead Canon" yesterday had me considering how the Conan Doyle Canon of Sherlock Holmes, while complete, is not without its problematic side.

The difference between reading the original sixty stories and watching BBC Sherlock as it came out reminds me a lot of my experience with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its season six. To friends who binged the whole series on DVD or streaming, season six was not a big deal. But to many of us who lived through one-episode-one-week-at-a-time from October 2, 2001 through May 21, 2002, that season was a nightmare. A whole week to stew on Buffy's self-hating hook-ups with Spike. A whole week to ponder whether the whole series was just delusions of a girl in a mental hospital. A whole week to meditate upon our hero's job at a terrible fast-food burger joint. It was torture waiting for Joss Whedon to get done with Firefly and come back to the show, whatever your current feelings on the man are.

Which brings me to The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle's "season four."

My personal headcanon has always been that the Casebook stories were the ones Doyle released after John Watson died, and was no longer there to do quality control or hold back for Victorianly modest reasons, like keeping the adulterous "Cardboard Box" out of collections for decades. His Last Bow had a preface by Watson, Casebook had a preface by Doyle, so there's even a bit of evidence for my little headcanon. But headcanon or no, I doubt anyone can objectively state that Casebook is the best of Sherlock Holmes.

Twelve stories stretched out over seven years time had to plague fans of the 1920s, with the first undoubtedly being the worst. After waiting a full four years from 1917's "His Last Bow" for more words from our friend Watson, they got "The Mazarin Stone," the tale by an anonymous third person that makes most Sherlockians' "worst of" list.

And, hey, 1920s Johnlockers! Love that moment at the end of 1924's "Three Garridebs" where wounded John sees Sherlock's true feelings coming through? Well, come 1926 and "Blanched Soldier" and we get "The good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association. I was alone." Jeezus jumpin' Jay Finley Christ! (Recently heard one theory that "wife" wasn't even Watson's wife. Yikes!)

And the new last story you will ever see of Holmes and Watson, if you were reading them as they came out? "Shoscombe Old Place."  Guy hides his dead sister to win a horse race. Our last vision of Holmes and Watson is Holmes tossing a newspaper at Watson and going, "File it in our archives, Watson. Some day the true story may be told."

Is that any way to wind up a sixty-story epic tale of two friends helping people get through their lives free of mystery or delusion?

The Sherlockians of the 1920s were probably not too happy with ol' Conan Doyle and his ghosts and fairies . . . and his "season four." Maybe, as now, future Sherlockians will look more kindly on Moffat and Gatiss's final work as we tend to do Doyle's now. But for those present when it happened . . . .


  1. 'File it in our archives' is the ending to 'Retired Colourman.' Shoscombe Old Place' finds Holmes and Watson, near midnight, making their way back to 'our' humble abode. A fitting farewell?