Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Dibdin

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Edition, 1978. ISBN 0-679-76658-8. 190 pages.

One Sentence Summary: Holmes and Watson aid Scotland Yard in the hunt for Jack the Ripper.

A skilled reviewer might be able to review this book without giving anything away but not me so count on the rest of this post containing major spoilers. If you intend to read The Last Sherlock Holmes Story and know nothing about it other that Holmes and Watson hunt The Ripper, stop now and go buy a copy. Amazon and Abe Books have lots of copies available. It is worth reading.

Ready to proceed?


You've been warned.

The first twist Dibdin hits us with is that Arthur Conan Doyle was, in fact, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories as they appeared in print. Watson provided his case notes for ACD to dramatize. However, as we later learn, all the stories that followed The Final Problem were entirely the creation of Conan Doyle.

The major revelation of this story, is that Sherlock Holmes was Jack the Ripper. This is what author Dibdin puts forth in this dark and disturbing contribution to the library of Holmes pastiches.

Holmes states that The Ripper is actually his old nemesis, Prof. Moriatry who, having grown bored masterminding his criminal enterprises, has turned to the high-risk activity of murder. He craves to possibility of capture.

Holmes has been appointed Acting Deputy Investigator in charge of the hunt and is now Lestrade's superior. Watson's world comes crashing one night during the search when he observes Holmes in the process of mutilating Mary Kelly while humming La donna e mobile.

He staggers home in shock. Could Holmes be the Ripper? Holmes leaves for the continent without seeing Watson again and Watson chooses not to report his suspicions.

Upon his return, Holmes seems his old self and apparently no longer addicted to cocaine. He reports that Morarty died during a struggle at the Reichenbach Falls. He and Watson resume their partnership, solving cases. Watson, however keeps close watch on Holmes. A new murder done in the style of Jack gives Watson some anxiety but he finds enough evidence that Holmes is innocent to rest easy.

Later, though, Holmes comes to Watson, completely distraught, saying that Moriatry isn't dead after all but back and after Holmes' life. After Holmes falls asleep in exhaustion, Watson visits one of his safe houses and discovers evidence of Holmes' guilt. He comes to terms with what he always knew, the evil that Holmes' had become, had to be destroyed.

Not wanting to ruin Holmes' reputation and the public's confidence in Holmes, Watson flees to the continent with him and nudging him to the Reichenbach Falls where he plans to kill him. Watson fails to kill Holmes and Holmes, completely deluded, accuses Watson of being Moriatry in disguise. Just before he kills Watson, he has a moment of clarity and kills himself by stepping off the edge of the falls.

Watson supplied Conan Doyle with case notes up to The Final Solution which was pure invention on the part of Watson. In a rather melancholy comment, Watson tells us that, when Conan Doyle began writing his own stories, that: By then Holmes had ceased to be remembered as a real figure, except by a small circle of acquaintances. He had become a fictional character.

The Last Sherlock Holmes Story is very much Watson's story and a sad story it is. Through his eyes we see the horror of the dawning recognition that his friend had gone insane. He puts his medical practice and marriage to Mary Morstan at risk to check on Holmes. In the end, he realizes that he must be the instrument of Holmes' death if the memory of his friend is to be preserved. His pain is compounded by his feelings of guilt: if he hadn't married he would have been available to Holmes in his time of need. He betrayed Holmes in his time of greatest need.

As I said at the beginning, this is a dark and disturbing contribution to the non-canonical stories Holmes stories. But like Nicholas Myer with The Seven Percent Solution, Dibdin is true to his sources. As Watson works through his analysis you see that he is identifying the most troublesome aspects of Holmes' character that could indicate his susceptibility to psychosis.

It was interesting reading Dibdin's book immediately following Myer's The Seven-Percent Solution. Both are excellent examples of how a skilled writer can a well known character and re-imagine that character. They went in different directions but both started with the idea that Holmes walked a thin edge between sanity and instability.

What are some the things we know about Holmes' character? We know that Holmes:
is addicted to cocaine
is arrogant and enjoys a feeling of superiority
he enjoys baffling the police
he demonstrates extreme mood swings
he hates being bored/craves stimulation
he enjoys The Game (the hunt, the investigation) and is interested only in cases that stimulate him

Could his need for stimulation lead him to the dark side?

Sign of the Four -- "What is the use of having powers, doctor, when one has no field upon which to exert them?

The Adventure of the Speckled Band -- "he refused to associate himself with any investigation which did not tend toward the unusual, even the fantastic."

The Sign of the Four -- "...I could not but think what a terrible criminal he would have had had he turned his energy and sagacity against the law, instead of exerting them in its defense."

Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans -- "It is fortunate for this community that I am not a criminal."

Here are several articles that discuss Holmes' possible mental disorder:

Diagnosis - Hidden Clues
Sherlock Holmes and Borderline Personality Disorder
Sherlock Holmes as Necessary Madman