The Adventure of the Dying Detective

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"The Adventure of the Dying Detective"
Author Arthur Conan Doyle
Series His Last Bow
Publication date 1913
Client(s) None
Set in 1890
Villain(s)

"The Adventure of the Dying Detective", in some editions simply titled "The Dying Detective", is one of the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Together with seven other stories, it is collected as His Last Bow.

Plot summary[edit]

Dr. Watson is called to 221B Baker Street to tend Holmes, who is apparently dying of a rare Asian disease contracted while he was on a case at Rotherhithe. Watson is shocked, having heard nothing about his friend’s illness. Mrs. Hudson says that he has neither eaten nor drunk anything in three days.

Upon arriving, Watson finds Holmes in his bed looking very ill and gaunt indeed, and Holmes proceeds to make several odd demands of Watson. He is not to come near Holmes, for the illness is highly contagious. He will seek no help save from the man whom Holmes names. He will wait until six o’clock before Holmes names him. When Watson objects and tries to leave for help, Holmes musters enough strength to leap out of bed, and lock the door, taking the key. So, Watson is forced to wait. Holmes seems delirious at times.

Holmes in his bed

Watson examines several objects in Holmes’s room while he waits. Holmes has a fit when Watson touches one item, a little black and white ivory box with a sliding lid. Holmes orders him to put it down, explaining that he does not like his things touched.

At six o’clock, Holmes tells Watson to turn the gaslight on, but only half-full. He then tells him to fetch Mr. Culverton Smith of 13 Lower Burke Street. Oddly, he also tells Watson to be sure that he and Smith return to Baker Street separately. Smith is not a doctor, but is supposedly an expert on the illness that ails Holmes. Also, Holmes explains that Smith does not particularly like him, for Holmes once cast the suspicion for Smith's nephew’s murder on him.

Outside Holmes’s door, Watson meets Inspector Morton. Upon hearing of Holmes’s illness, the inspector’s expression somewhat suggests exultation to Watson.

Watson goes to the address, and at first Smith refuses to see him. Watson forces his way in and once he makes it clear to an angry Culverton Smith that Sherlock Holmes is dying and wants to see him, his attitude changes drastically. He seems quite concerned, although for a moment, it seems to Watson that he is pleased. Smith agrees to come, and so Watson excuses himself by saying that he has another appointment. He arrives back at Baker Street before Smith gets there.

Holmes is pleased to hear that Smith is coming, and orders Watson to hide behind a decorative screen next to the bed. He does so, and presently, Culverton Smith arrives. His bedside manner seems more taunting than soothing.

Believing that they are alone, Smith is quite frank, and it soon emerges, to the hiding Watson’s horror, that Holmes has been sickened by the same illness that killed Smith’s nephew Victor. Believing that Holmes is at death’s door and will never get to repeat what he hears, Smith is also frank enough to admit that he murdered his nephew with this disease, which he had been studying. He sees the little ivory box, which Smith sent by post, and which contains a sharp spring infected with the illness. He pockets it, removing the evidence of his crime. He then resolves to stay there and watch Holmes die.

Holmes asks him to turn the gas up full, which he does. He also asks for a match and a cigarette. No sooner have these requests been fulfilled than Inspector Morton comes in — the gaslight was the signal to move in, it turns out. Holmes tells him to arrest Culverton Smith for his nephew’s murder. Smith, still as arrogant as ever, points out that his word is as good as Holmes’s in court, but then, of course, Watson emerges from behind the screen to present himself as a witness to the conversation.

Holmes is not really dying, of course. This has all been a ruse to get Culverton Smith to confess to his nephew’s murder. Holmes was not infected by the little box; he has enough enemies to know that he must always examine his mail carefully before he opens it. Starving himself for three days, and a little vaseline, belladonna, rouge, and beeswax made him a convincing malingerer and the claim of the "disease's" infectious nature was to keep Watson from examining him and discovering the ruse.

Commentary[edit]

The setting date may be inferred from Watson's mention of it being "the second year of my marriage", the first having been 1889. Inspector Morton is referred to in a familiar fashion but this is his only appearance in canon. Canonical scholar Leslie S. Klinger wondered if Morton was the companion to Inspector Brown in The Sign of the Four.[1]

Tropical disease specialist William A. Sodeman, Jr., identified "Tapanuli fever" as melioidosis,[2] a conclusion supported by physician Setu K. Vora.[3]

Adaptations[edit]

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