5 Sherlock Holmes Stories That Have a Hint of Magic, but Miss the Mark

Welcome to today’s edition of The Definitive Ranking of Every Single Sherlock Holmes Story, covering #42-#46 in the rankings. Note that unless otherwise called out in advance, a story’s summary will not give away the ending; I am not a monster.

The best Holmes stories have a bit of the weird, bizarre, or grotesque. In my opinion (welcome to my blog), Conan Doyle is at his best when he is combining mystery/adventure with bizarre/horror. 

Which makes this week’s stories all the more disappointing. There’s potential – they touch on the weird or unusual. There are vampires! How can the Sherlock Holmes/vampire crossover event be so low on my list? And yet these stories disappoint. They’re not much better than last week’s group, with a similar dullness of either plot or character, but there’s an undercurrent of oddity that makes them a little more Holmesian and therefore bumped them up in the rankings.

46. The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane

First published 1926. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Holmes is retired on the coast, raising bees, and responsible for telling his own tale. He is out for a walk with a neighbor when another neighbor, the science teacher McPherson, flings himself up from the beach gasping out his dying words: “The lion’s mane.” McPherson’s body looks like it has been flogged, and nobody can make heads or tails of the strange death – surely a murder? But who could have done such a thing? The man’s fiancée? The enemy-turned-friend-who-may-still-be-an-enemy? Holmes must find the answer before another death occurs. 

Of Note: One of only two stories narrated by Holmes himself.

Reader’s Notes

Strangely, Conan Doyle considered this one of his better stories, and would have included it in his own Top Ten list if that list had not been made prior to the story’s publication. In this judgement Conan Doyle was incorrect, as many writers are about their own work. It’s a nice little pastiche, and even a semi-clever little story if you like answers that make no sense and have nothing really to do with the clues, but overall it’s disappointing and you end it feeling like “I read all of these words for this?”

Read This Story If… Your sympathies have always been with the Sea Witch Ursula.

Drink Pairing: A Lion’s Tail.

45. The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger

First published 1927. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Content Warning: Suicidal ideation, and Holmes uses what is probably unhelpful language in addressing the topic.

Summary

Mrs. Merrilow has a strange lodger, a veiled woman who cries out about murder in the night. This lodger, a Mrs. Ronder, agrees to see the great Sherlock Holmes so that her story can be heard before she dies. She is the widow of the circus master Mr. Ronder, who was mauled to death by a lion some years ago, an incident that left her face horribly disfigured. It is to tell this tale that she summons Holmes. 

This Aged Poorly: Fat-shaming language; this is less a thing that aged poorly, because I still see similar language in modern writing, and more just a note that it was gross then and it’s gross now and everyone should just cut it out. 

Reader’s Notes

This story definitely isn’t a mystery; it’s the confessional of a woman who is planning to die. Calling it an adventure is too strong – maybe a grotesque little pastiche? It’s fine, as far as it goes, but it’s not very interesting.

Read This Story If… Your favorite part of the Batman legend is when The Flying Graysons abruptly stop flying. 

Drink Pairing: A cotton candy margarita.

44. The Adventure of the Creeping Man

First published 1923. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Spoiler alert for the story’s ending in the “this aged poorly” section, but no details are included on how Holmes gets there.

Summary

Why has Professor Presbury’s faithful dog suddenly tried to bite him? Why has Professor Presbury become sly and secretive and downright cranky? Why was he in Prague without telling his family? And what on earth is he doing crawling around the hallway at night, snarling at people? These are the questions that Presbury’s assistant (and soon-to-be son-in-law) brings to Sherlock Holmes, and the questions that bring Sherlock Holmes out to the college town of Camford. 

Notable Quote: “Come at once if convenient – if inconvenient come all the same,” Holmes says delightfully in a note to Watson.

This Aged Poorly: In a “this aged poorly” note that has a slightly different flavor than usual, the problem here is scientific rather than racist. The explanation for the professor’s strange behavior comes from an “elixir of life” that seems very questionable from what little I know of how science works. 

Reader’s Notes

This one holds a dear place in my heart because the Jeremy Brett version is the first Holmes story I ever remember seeing on screen – something about the grown man swinging through tree-tops with creepy lighting just stuck with me. That said, even the clouds of nostalgia force me to admit it’s not great. The setup is fine, but the explanation is eye-rolling, especially to a modern audience, and any mystery is only as good as its ending.

Read This Story If… You like to start your day with a smidge of pseudoscience.

Drink Pairing: Six gin and tonics, in honor of Mabel Jackson.

43. The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot

First published 1910. Collected in His Last Bow.

Summary

Holmes and Watson are in Cornwall (which Watson describes in excruciating detail) so that Holmes’s health can recuperate – and what is more restorative than a nice murder? Brenda Tregennis is dead and her two brothers raving and laughing at the table with her. Against Watson’s wishes, Holmes investigates this intriguing situation but there is an unfortunate lack of clues. When they return from brooding upon the moor about the unfortunate lack of clues, Holmes and Watson find in their rooms the local celebrity Dr. Leon Sterndale, one of the Great White Men known for killing lions in Africa. But even the great lion-killer cannot produce more clues, and it is not until a tragic second death that Holmes begins to see the light – but only after he poisons himself and Watson.

Notable Quote: A delicious exchange in this one: 

“How do you know that?” a suspect asks.

“I followed you,” says Holmes.

“I saw no one.”

“That is what you may expect to see when I follow you.”

Delightful!

This Aged Poorly: You will, I am sure, be shocked to find that the Great White Lion-Killer refers to Africans as “savages.” This story also contains one of those mysterious African poisons that writers of this era are so fond of – untraceable and producing horrifying effects. 

Reader’s Notes

Holmes calls this the “strangest case I ever handled” – he is wrong (that is a different series of rankings) but it certainly is grotesque. Like many of the latter-day Holmes stories, this one is a decent mystery with a tinge of the bizarre, but it lacks the spirit that marks the best ones from the early Canon.

There are a few items of note here, though: First, Watson definitively saves Holmes’s life (and his own) and for once Holmes shows proper humbleness towards his friend. You love to see it.

Second, in response to an outburst from a character, Holmes says “If the matter is beyond humanity, it is beyond me.” Conan Doyle was a noted spiritualist, very into seances and fairies and that sort of thing. I always find it interesting when Holmes dismisses the supernatural – yes, authors are not their characters, but I love how completely Conan Doyle prevented any hint of spiritualism from intruding on the Holmes Canon. It would be cheating the reader, and we can’t have that.

Read This Story If… You like moors and nightmares. 

Drink Pairing: Honestly it doesn’t matter as long as it involves a smoke machine. Smoke a Sprite if that’s your preference.

42. The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire

First published 1924. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Some reputable lawyers send one of their clients to Holmes, considering vampires to be more in his line than theirs. Robert “Big Bob” Ferguson tells Holmes of a “friend” of his who married a Peruvian lady (Watson is too innocent to realize there is no friend, it’s just Ferguson, but Holmes is a sharper lad). This lady has inexplicably assaulted the man’s teenage son (by his first marriage) as well as their shared baby boy. Also she may be a vampire, and can Holmes possibly help? Holmes heads to Sussex, sure that there is nothing paranormal about the case, and his suspicions are quickly confirmed.

Notable Quotes: As a lover of vampire nonsense, this story has some delicious quotes that are probably not notable to scholars but which I greatly enjoy. Near the beginning: “The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.” And near the end: “The idea of a vampire was to me absurd. Such things do not happen in criminal practice in England.”

This Aged Poorly: The elder son is a “cripple.” The Peruvian wife is obviously described as “fiery,” because what other phrase would you use? (This is sarcasm. Fiery Latin Americans were a problematic fave of writers of this era.) The accent given to the Peruvian servant is questionable at best.

Reader’s Notes

Vampires come to 221B Baker Street! The crossover I didn’t know I needed, though of course there is a practical solution. It’s a perfectly fine little tale, though one of the many that would not have made it to Holmes if husbands and wives would just fucking communicate with each other. Honestly, the entire family should go to therapy.

Read This Story If… You suspect Holmes is a descendent of Van Helsing.

Drink Pairing: A Bloody Mary. 

A striking family resemblance, no?

~

And that’s it for this week!

Agree? Disagree? I am always game to talk about Sherlock Holmes, so please feel free to leave a comment below!

~

Join us next week for 11 Perfectly Fine Sherlock Holmes Stories! The entire series can be found here.

2 thoughts on “5 Sherlock Holmes Stories That Have a Hint of Magic, but Miss the Mark

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