The Dissecting Room . . . April 1990
Shy, Retiring Sherlock
To the world at large, Sherlock Holmes has been dead for twelve years
He wasn't really, of course. His brother Mycroft knew he was alive all along. His closest friend, Dr. Watson, found out when Holmes returned to London in 1894, as did Scotland Yard. From 1894 on, word of Holmes's presence in London spread to the point in 1902 when a London newspaper considered a deadly attack on Holmes to be front page news. Never mind that there were still people out there who thought Holmes was dead.
Sherlock Holmes travels to Camford to unravel the secrets behind the mysterious behaviour of Professor Presbury. "The Adventure of the Creeping Man" is the last recorded case of the great detective's career prior to his presumed retirement. Holmes even confirms this himself during the windup of the Presbury business:
"It's surely time that I disappeared into that little farm of my dreams," he says amidst bemoaning his own foolishness.
And with the end of September 1903, it's all over.
October of 1903 sees the publication of "The Adventure of the Empty House" in the Strand Magazine. The whole world now knows that Sherlock Holmes did not die at Reichenbach Falls. Fat lot of good that will do the whole world, as Sherlock Holmes is no longer at 221B Baker Street -- he's retired.
"We heard of you as living the life of a hermit among your bees and you books in a small farm upon the South Downs," Watson says to Holmes in "His Last Bow" in August 1914. Two implications can be drawn from Watson's statement -- that he is currently married, hence the "we," and that he has never been to visit Holmes on the South Downs. The latter is confirmed by the fact that Watson doesn't seem to have wondered where Holmes was during the two years the detective spent in America. The two men have simply been long out of touch. I would also venture a guess that Watson had children to distract him from his old life as Holmes's partner by this time.
We do know that Holmes did retire and keep bees -- he has his magnum opus on beekeeping to show for it. But did that retirement really occur in 1903? Or was he just retiring from 221B, Watson, and the readers of the Strand Magazine? Was he retiring from detective work, or just retiring from being Sherlock Holmes?
Various commentators have remarked upon the relatively young age (approximately 50) at which Holmes retired. The fact is especially odd when you consider how thoroughly Sherlock Holmes enjoyed his work. He lived for the detective business, and when one considers how sullen and moody he became during those periods when business was slow, a person has to doubt that he could have given it up quite so easily. Retiring to a quiet little farm just does not seem like our Holmes.
But Holmes himself doesn't say "retire," does he? In that emotional moment in CREE he says, "It's surely time that I disappeared into that little farm of my dreams." Holmes doesn't want to retire; he just wants to get the heck out of the limelight. With the impending publication of the series of stories entitled The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes probably envisioned himself slogging through an endless series of silly cases like CREE, all brought on by the publicity.
Sherlock Holmes had to want to end his career on a better note than that, if only for his own peace of mind. In 1903, I don't think Holmes retired at all-he just went underground. Lestrade and a few of the others down at the Yard probably still knew how to get hold of him. After all, they never came to him unless they had a good, meaty criminal case on their hands. The early 1900s had to be filled with some of the best cases of the detective's life as he moved through the underworld, unencumbered by the trappings of "Sherlock Holmes." When it finally did come time to settle down on his bee farm and write that great bee book, Holmes would be able to do it satisfied, knowing he was taking a rest from an active, productive career, and not merely walking away from a bunch of silly cases involving ape-men and lusty barons.
It was just a short hiatus, anyway, as his country's spywork would soon be calling him. Eventually, he would really retire, and his friend Dr. Watson would pay him weekend visits, as related in "The Lion's Mane," as would happen in any real retirement . . .
Unlike the one in September 1903.
(Printed in Plugs & Dottles, April 1990 )