From Kyle Freeman’s Introduction to The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Volume II
When in 1891 Sherlock Holmes tumbled to his apparent death over the falls at Reichenbach in Switzerland, locked in the embrace of the sinister Professor Moriarty, readers all over the world were stunned and saddened. Letters poured in to Arthur Conan Doyle and to his publisher, the Strand Magazine, urging the revival of the beloved detective. Conan Doyle was adamant that he wouldn’t do it. “I couldn’t revive him if I would, at least not for years,” he wrote to a friend, “for I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do towards pâté-de-foie-gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day” (Baring-Gould, The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, vol. 1, p. 16; see “For Further Reading”). Then seven years later, after a young friend told him a legend from Dartmoor about a supernatural hound, Conan Doyle relented by writing The Hound of the Baskervilles. He was careful, however, to make it a reminiscence, not a resurrection, of his famous consulting detective. The story was set in 1889, two years before the Swiss misadventure. The resumption of writing about his most famous creation must have set into motion something in Conan Doyle’s soul, for in an interview quoted in the Harper’s Weekly issue of August 31, 1901, the month The Hound was first serialized, one can see his resolve starting to weaken. “I know that my friend Dr. Watson is a most trustworthy man, and I gave the utmost credit to his story of the dreadful affair in Switzerland. He may have been mistaken, of course. It may not have been Mr. Holmes who fell from the ledge at all, or the whole affair might be the result of hallucination.” It wasn’t long before Conan Doyle decided—perhaps after a wistful look at his bank balance—that the enforced absence of his sleuth had gone on for too long. In 1903 he called on his friend Dr. Watson once more for another series of stories about his colleague, and in October 1903 the Strand published “The Adventure of the Empty House.” There it was revealed, almost plausibly, that only Moriarty had gone over the falls at Reichenbach. Thus readers learned to their delight that they would be treated to many more adventures of the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes.
A series of twelve more stories followed, ending with “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” the last published in the December 1904 issue of the Strand Magazine. In quick order the series was published as a book by George Newnes of London in 1905, under the title The Return of Sherlock Holmes, with sixteen illustrations by Sidney Paget, the great illustrator whose drawings for the first Strand stories had done so much to establish the popular image of Holmes. The new stories appeared to take up just where the old ones left off. Holmes and Watson resumed their cozy relationship; Holmes continued to solve mysteries that baffled Watson, Scotland Yard, and the reader; and the world of 221B Baker Street seemed as solid and unchanging as ever.
It seems that way only until one examines the stories more carefully. A closer reading reveals subtle but significant changes in Holmes. The first one we might notice is Holmes’s willingness to take the law into his own hands. In one of the early Sherlock Holmes stories, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” we recall that Holmes did not divulge the name of John Turner as the man responsible for the death of his neighbor, Mr. McCarthy, when Holmes learned that McCarthy was a blackmailer and that Turner didn’t have long to live. Technically it’s a crime to conceal such evidence, but in view of the circumstances few would quarrel with Holmes’s decision. But before his resurrection, such behavior by Holmes was unique to that story, and we might note that he merely withheld information he had deduced himself—passive misbehavior at worst. In his defense we might also recall that in the case of “The Greek Interpreter” in the second series of stories, Holmes insisted on getting a warrant to search the premises of kidnappers.
In The Return such niceties are almost scornfully dismissed. Holmes aggressively pursues his own justice, actively breaking the law on several occasions and coming close to morally censurable conduct on several others. We first see this change in “The Adventure of the Priory School,” where we learn that the murder of a German teacher named Heidegger and the kidnapping of the son of the Duke of Holdernesse were part of a plot by the duke’s illegitimate son. It’s clear that the son, acting as the duke’s secretary, and the duke himself were complicit in aiding the killer’s escape. Holmes, claiming he is a poor man, agrees to keep silent about the whole nasty business in exchange for a huge check from his lordship. This is rather shocking. Unlike the previous case in Boscombe Valley, where we feel some sympathy for the wronged man, who will die soon anyway, we have no extenuating circumstances here. In fact, we have a prime example of the high-handedness of aristocracy in covering up its dirty family business at the cost of other people’s lives. Holmes’s acceptance of an enormous check could be seen as a bribe. When we compare this with his acid-toned retort in “The Problem of Thor Bridge,”—“‘My professional charges are upon a fixed scale,’ said Holmes coldly. ‘I do not vary them, save when I remit them altogether’”—it looks as if Holmes has sold out here.