Opening Passages: From "The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge", the first tale in His Last Bow:
I find it recorded in my notebook that it was a bleak and windy day towards the end of March in the year 1892. Holmes had received a telegram while we sat at our lunch, and he had scribbled a reply. He made no remark, but the matter remained in his thoughts, for he stood in front of the fire afterwards with a thoughtful face, smoking his pipe, and casting an occasional glance at the message. Suddenly he turned upon me with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
“I suppose, Watson, we must look upon you as a man of letters,” said he. “How do you define the word ‘grotesque’?”
From "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client", the first story in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes:
"It can't hurt now," was Mr. Sherlock Holmes's comment when, for the tenth time in as many years, I asked his leave to reveal the following narrative. So it was that at last I obtained permission to put on record what was, in some ways, the supreme moment of my friend's career.
Summary: In his list of twelve favorite toward the end of his life, Doyle lists only one story from His Last Bow, "The Devil's Foot" (at #9); he does, however, also mention "The Bruce-Partington Plans" as a possible candidate, and that story is probably the one most widely enjoyed by readers. So let's look briefly at both.
In "The Devil's Foot", Holmes and Watson are in Cornwall for a health-vacation, when a case happens to find them. Mortimer Tregennis and the vicar, Mr. Roundhay, come to ask their help with the sudden and mysterious death of Mr. Tregennis's sister and the madness of his two brothers. Tregennis had visited them for a game of whist and then left, but when he returned, he found them sitting exactly where they had been, his sister dead and his brothers singing and laughing, both clearly out of their minds. Things get more complicated when an African explorer and hunter, Leon Sterndale, shows up, demanding answers. This being Cornwall, the locals suspect the Devil; Holmes sets that hypothesis aside and traces the problem to a root called Radix pedis diaboli, the Devil's-Foot Root.
For an adaptation, I looked at the old 1921 Stoll production silent adaptation of it, which is interestingly very wordy, almost an illustrated text adventure:
This adaptation is really well done, and Eille Norwood, who plays Sherlock Holmes, is very much to be credited for it; he approached the role with die-hard seriousness, and in so doing captured the textual Holmes very well. They simplify the beginning of the story considerably, but despite the fact that the silent adaptation requires a fair amount of further simplification, they manage to keep it quite faithful otherwise.
In "The Bruce-Partington Plans", Holmes is suddenly visited by his brother Mycroft, who, as we all know, never deviates from his routine except for matters of gravest consequence. A man working for the government, Arthur Cadogan West, has been found dead, with seven out of ten pages of a highly confidential document giving the top-secret designs for a new submarine. The other three pages -- the most important pages -- are still missing. Holmes is able, with Mycroft's help, to identify someone who is likely involved, Hugo Oberstein. Holmes and Watson do a bit of burglary (something they do with remarkable frequency in the later stories); this will give Holmes what he needs to set a trap to catch the thieves and murderers and retrieve the missing pages.
When Doyle gave his list of favorite Holmes tales, The Case-Book was still quite new and not everywhere available, so he did not include any stories from it on the list. He did, however, mention two in particular as candidates: "The Lion's Mane" ("the actual plot is among the very best of the whole series") and "The Illustrious Client". Stories from this anthology rarely make it very high on lists of fan favorites ("Thor Bridge" seems to be the one that most consistently does best, and it never does better than middling well). I have elsewhere discussed the infinitely baffling "Lion's Mane", so I will say nothing more about it here, except to point out that Christopher Lee's reading of it is very, very good:
In "The Illustrious Client", Sir James Demery comes to Holmes with a case from an 'illustrious client', who is never named. A young woman, Violent, has fallen in love with the dangerous seducer and possible murderer, Adelbert Gruner. Holmes and Watson work out a plan to prove his wrongdoing to Violet, a plan that nearly goes wrong.
These stories are more experimental than previous tales, and I think it's a very safe opinion to say that the experiments by and large do not work. This is not to say that the tales don't have their moments -- there are some very good passages, and some of the stories are quite interesting on their own. But the best tales in these collections are usually either very similar to much better tales in previous collections ("The Bruce-Partington Plans" is good, and would fit perfectly well into the earlier collections, but "The Naval Treaty" is far better; "The Three Garridebs" has its charms, but the previous tale that it is most like is "The Red-Headed League", which is absolutely and in every way superior), or else they are gimmick-tales ("The Dying Detective", "The Lion's Mane", "The Devil's Root", "The Sussex Vampire", "Thor Bridge") that do well as interesting side-lanes but don't really capture what people have tended to like about Holmes. One of the stories in The Case-Book is just bad: In "The Three Gables", every character seems a caricature and Holmes continually acts in ways that are entirely out of character. Other stories, like "The Creeping Man" or "The Mazarin Stone" aren't so much bad as weird. I think the only experiment that works well as an experiment is "His Last Bow", and that's less because it can stand on its own than because it can serve pretty well as a kind of epilogue to the entire Holmes canon.
The fundamental thing I think missing is fun. None of these stories are really fun in the way earlier ones were, except for "His Last Bow", or even apparently trying to be, except for "The Three Garridebs" and "The Lion's Mane". When Doyle recommended "The Devil's Root", he said it was "grim and new", and that sums up most of the works. I think this is why "The Bruce-Partington Plans" always ends up doing fairly well on fan lists -- the grimness, the relative lack of fun, doesn't hurt it because it's a saving-the-Empire kind of story. The same grimness on a smaller scale makes for tales that are dark and sometimes unpleasant. The crimes are often nastier, the dangers are more sensationalistic, Holmes and Watson break the law more frequently, the solutions less often depend on deduction rather than on other things (perhaps the most egregious example is "The Veiled Lodger", which has an interesting gimmick and starts out with an interesting set-up, and then Holmes and Watson go to visit the lady involved and she tells them the solution). They have their humorous passages, their interesting moments, their points of cleverness, but they don't have them in layers the way the earlier stories often did. It's a curiosity of the Holmes canon that we have its Golden Age, its Silver Age, and its Iron Age all in a series from one single author, and these are very much the Iron Age tales. They are readable, they are interesting, there are often great in parts, and I would even say they still for the most part do very well in comparison to most detective stories ever written. They are not, with the exception of "The Three Gables", usually bad, but they are for the most part a decline. We have gone from great works that exhilarate to minor diversions that provide some interest.
Perhaps the last word should be Doyle himself, in a preface from the first edition of The Case-Book:
I fear that Mr. Sherlock Holmes may become like one of those popular tenors who, having outlived their time, are still tempted to make repeated farewell bows to their indulgent audiences. This must cease and he must go the way of all flesh, material or imaginary....
And so, reader, farewell to Sherlock Holmes! I thank you for your past constancy, and can but hope that some return has been made in the shape of that distraction from the worries of life and stimulating change of thought which can only be found in the fairy kingdom of romance.
Favorite Passages: From "His Last Bow", which takes place as the First World War is in the process of beginning:
“There’s an east wind coming, Watson.”
“I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.”
“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared. Start her up, Watson, for it’s time that we were on our way. I have a check for five hundred pounds which should be cashed early, for the drawer is quite capable of stopping it if he can.”
From "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs" in The Case-Book, a passage that, whatever criticisms the later Holmes stories may justly receive, nonetheless almost justifies their existence on its own:
"You're not hurt, Watson? For God's sake, say that you are not hurt!"
It was worth a wound—it was worth many wounds—to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.
"It's nothing, Holmes. It's a mere scratch."
He had ripped up my trousers with his pocket-knife.
"You are right," he cried, with an immense sigh of relief. "It is quite superficial." His face set like flint as he glared at our prisoner, who was sitting up with a dazed face. "By the Lord, it is as well for you. If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive. Now, sir, what have you to say for yourself?"
Recommendation: Recommended. Despite the reasonable criticisms leveled against them, these collections are still well worth reading.