The Adventure of the Empty House

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"The Adventure of the Empty House"
Author Arthur Conan Doyle
Series The Return of Sherlock Holmes
Publication date 1903
Client(s) None (Lestrade benefits though)
Set in 1894
Villain(s)

"The Adventure of the Empty House", one of the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is one of 13 stories in the cycle collected as The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Public pressure forced Conan Doyle to bring the sleuth back to life, and explain his apparently miraculous survival of a deadly struggle with Professor Moriarty. Doyle ranked "The Adventure of the Empty House" sixth in his list of his twelve favorite Holmes stories.

Synopsis[edit]

In April 1894, Watson (now a widower) checks 427 Park Lane where a young gambler, the Honorable Ronald Adair, was shot in a closed room on the 30th of March. He bumps into a wizened old book collector, who follows him home to his Kensington practice study then drops his disguise – it is Holmes. Holmes apologizes for the deception needed to outwit his enemies, and describes his three years' exploits. He needed funds, so he confided in his brother Mycroft, who had preserved Sherlock Holmes's rooms.

Holmes is convinced that Adair was killed by Colonel Sebastian Moran, a surviving lieutenant of Moriarty. Holmes has set a trap: the empty house across from his Baker Street flat has a clear view of a wax bust of Holmes, which is moved regularly from below by Mrs. Hudson to simulate life. After a roundabout route, Watson and Holmes wait two hours until around midnight in the abandoned Camden House. Moran, who has taken the bait, fires a specialized air-gun to assassinate his foe. Watson knocks down the villain, while Holmes whistles for Inspector Lestrade and the police.

Back at Baker Street, Holmes explains. Adair planned to expose card-partner Moran whom he found cheating, and had locked himself in to count out the spoils he needed to return. Moran would have been ruined by the exposure and kills Adair instead.

Plot analysis[edit]

Context[edit]

Watson receiving a surprise.

This is the first Holmes story set after his supposed death at the Reichenbach Falls, as recounted in "The Final Problem". The Hound of the Baskervilles had seen the return of a pre-Reichenbach Falls Sherlock Holmes, which only served to whet readers' appetite.

Murder of Ronald Adair in Park Lane[edit]

The story itself begins, typically enough, with a murder—the Park Lane Mystery, the seemingly motiveless killing of the Honourable Ronald Adair, son of the Earl of Maynooth, a colonial governor in Australia. The authorities, not to mention the man's family, are perplexed by the case; it seems that Adair had not an enemy in the world. He was in his sitting room, with a window open, working on accounts of some kind, as indicated by the papers and money found by police. Adair liked playing whist and regularly did so at several clubs, but never for great sums of money. It does, however, come out that he won as much as £420 in partnership with a Colonel Moran.

Motive: The motive does not appear to be robbery as nothing has been stolen.

Crime Scene: It seems odd that Ronald's door was locked from the inside. The only other way out was the open window, and there was a 20-foot (about 6 m) drop below it onto a flower bed, which now shows no sign of being disturbed.

Weapon: Adair was killed with a soft-nosed revolver bullet to the head. No one in the area at the time heard a shot.

Return of Holmes[edit]

The narrator, Doctor Watson, having retained an interest in crime from his previous association with Holmes, visits the crime scene. He sees a plainclothes detective there with police, and also runs into an elderly deformed book collector, knocking several of his books to the ground. The encounter ends with the man snarling in anger and going away. However, that is not the last that Watson sees of him, for a short time later, the man comes to Watson's study to apologize for his earlier behaviour. Once he manages to distract Watson's attention for a few seconds (making Watson turn to his bookshelf to see if there is enough room to fit some books), he transforms himself into Sherlock Holmes, much to Watson's great astonishment when he turns back round.

Holmes's account of his supposed death[edit]

Holmes and Moriarty fighting over the Reichenbach Falls. Art by Sidney Paget.

Reichenbach Falls incident[edit]

The next part of the story involves Holmes's explanation of how he got out of the bind at Reichenbach Falls. Contrary to what Watson believed, Holmes won against Professor Moriarty, flinging him down the waterfall with the help of baritsu, and then he climbed up the cliff beside the path to make it appear as though he, too, had fallen to his death. This was a plan that Holmes had just conceived to defend against Moriarty's confederates. However, at least one of them knew that he was still alive and tried to kill him by dropping rocks down on the ledge where he had taken refuge. Hurriedly climbing back down the cliff — and falling the last short distance to the path — Holmes ran for his life.

Time spent travelling[edit]

He spent the next few years travelling to various parts of the world. Holmes says that initially, he travelled to Florence. From there, Holmes travelled to Tibet and wandered for two years, even attaining entry to Lhassa and met the "head lama". Afterward, Holmes travelled incognito as a Norwegian explorer named Sigerson. Then, he went to Persia, with Holmes entering Mecca and then to a brief stopover with the Khalifa in Khartoum. Finally, before returning, Holmes spent time doing chemical research on coal tar derivatives in Montpellier, France. However, Holmes was finally brought back to London by news of this Adair murder.

Mycroft's involvement[edit]

During all this time, the only people who knew that Holmes was alive were Moriarty's henchmen and Holmes's brother Mycroft. The only reason for this was that Sherlock needed some money to enable him to travel and to keep his rooms just as he had left them.

Capturing Colonel Moran[edit]

Setting the scene[edit]

Holmes tells Watson that they are going to do some dangerous work that evening, and after a roundabout trip through the city, Holmes and Watson enter an empty house, and make their way to a front room overlooking — to Watson's great surprise — Baker Street. Holmes's room can be seen across the street, and more surprisingly still, Holmes can be seen silhouetted against the blind. It is a lifelike waxwork bust.

Moran's appearance[edit]

Holmes is expecting an attempt on his life that very night, well aware as he is that Moriarty's men know that he is back in London. The police, unknown to Watson at this time, are nearby, having been told that they will be needed. As usual, Holmes has deduced everything correctly, but with one almost disastrous exception: he fails to anticipate that the would-be murderer might actually use the same empty house for his nefarious deed that he and Watson are now using as their vantage point. In he comes, with his specially designed airgun, utterly unaware that his intended victim is right in the same room because it is dark.

Arrest[edit]

Once the ruffian shoots his air gun, scoring a direct hit on Holmes's dummy across the street, Holmes and Watson are on him, and he is soon disarmed and restrained. Holmes summons the police by blowing a whistle. They are led by Inspector Lestrade, who arrests the gunman. It is none other than Colonel Moran, Ronald Adair's whist partner, and the same man who threw rocks down on the ledge at Holmes at Reichenbach Falls. Holmes does not wish the police to press charges of attempted murder in connection with what Moran has just done. Instead, he tells Lestrade to charge him with actual murder, for Moran is the man who murdered Ronald Adair. The airgun, it turns out, has been specially designed to shoot revolver bullets, and a quick forensics check of the one that "killed" his dummy shows, as Holmes expected, that it matches the bullet used to kill Adair.

Sebastian Moran is arrested.

Moran's motive in killing Adair is a matter of speculation even for Holmes. Nonetheless, his theory is that Adair had caught Moran cheating at cards, and threatened to expose his dishonourable behaviour. Moran, thug that he is, therefore got rid of the one man who could rob him of his livelihood, for he earned a living playing cards crookedly, and could ill afford to be barred from all his clubs.

Change in Holmes' character[edit]

Three years of travelling have not changed Holmes very much. For instance, he still does not hold Scotland Yard detectives in general, or Lestrade in particular, in very high esteem. Upon meeting Lestrade at the "takedown", Holmes offers him a backhanded compliment:

"Three undetected murders in one year won't do, Lestrade. But you handled the Molesey Mystery with less than your usual — that's to say, you handled it fairly well."

Adaptations[edit]

This story was filmed in 1921 as part of a series of silent films starring Eille Norwood as Holmes.[1]

The 1931 film The Sleeping Cardinal (also known as Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour) is loosely based on "The Adventure of the Empty House" and "The Final Problem".

Elements of "The Adventure of the Empty House" were used in the 1939–1946 Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. In Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943), Holmes appears as a phony German secret agent disguised as a bookseller in Switzerland. The Woman in Green (1945) uses the scene in which a sniper attempts to shoot Holmes from across the street and shoots a wax bust instead, and he is apprehended by Holmes and Watson who lie in wait. Colonel Sebastian Moran appears as the villain in Terror by Night (1946) as the last of Moriarty's gang.

The story was adapted for a 1951 TV episode of Sherlock Holmes starring Alan Wheatley as Holmes.[2]

The story was adapted in 1980 as an episode of the Soviet TV series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson starring Vasily Livanov. The episode is very close to the source, as was typical of the entire series, with some minor departures: Adair is still alive at the start of the episode, Watson unsuccessfully tries to protect him as instructed by Holmes, Watson briefly becomes a prime suspect in Adair's murder, Watson and Mrs. Hudson faint when the presumed deceased Holmes appears at Baker Street, and both Holmes and Moriarty are made masters of the martial art baritsu, with a dramatic battle between the two.

The story was later adapted in 1986 as an episode of The Return of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett. The episode is rather faithful to Doyle's story, except that Moran tries to shoot Holmes in Switzerland instead of dropping boulders on him, and Watson – not Holmes – deduces the reason that Moran had for killing Ronald Adair.

The 2009 radio play The Return of Sherlock Holmes, dramatised by M.J. Elliott combines "The Empty House" and "The Final Problem".

In the final scene in the 2011 film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, it is revealed that Holmes survives his encounter with Professor Moriarty (the film is influenced by "The Final Problem"). Colonel Moran appears as Moriarty's main henchman in the film and is portrayed as a skilled marksman who uses a number of different ranged weapons to kill his master's targets.

The 2014 television episode "The Empty Hearse" of the third season of the BBC television series Sherlock references the short story in its title as well as its content, featuring the return of Sherlock Holmes two years after his apparent death in the previous series. The episode contains many allusions to the short story, including the reasoning for the faked death (the dismantling of Moriarty's empire), the featuring of a "Lord Moran", the old man, who John assumes is Sherlock in disguise, selling DVDs (Holmes in disguise sells books in the short story) with identical titles to the books in the short story (e.g. "Tree Worshippers", "British Birds", "Holy War"), among others. However in the episode it turns out that the old man is actually not Holmes in disguise

Other media[edit]

In 1975, DC Comics published Sherlock Holmes #1, a comic which adapted "The Adventure of the Empty House" and "The Final Problem".[3] It was intended to be an ongoing series, but future issues were cancelled due to low sales.

In Nicholas Meyer's novel The Canary Trainer, Holmes again goes incognito as Sigerson.

Miscellania[edit]

References[edit]