On “the night of March 30, 1894,” young Ronald Adair was mysteriously murdered in cold blood in his own home on Park Lane. Only days later, Sherlock Holmes returned to London, after three years traveling the world under an assumed name. He reintroduced himself to Dr. Watson and explained his deception at the Reichenbach Falls, where he had faked his death in order to elude the remnants of Prof. Moriarty’s criminal organization. He promptly enlisted Watson’s aid in capturing Col. Sebastian Moran, the last member of that organization, proving in the process that Moran had killed Adair. Watson was overjoyed to see his old friend, who, he noted, “in some manner… had learned of my own sad bereavement”: for although Watson never shared the details with his readers (thereby stimulating much later speculation), Mary Morstan Watson had apparently suffered an untimely death.
All this we learn from the adventure of “The Empty House” (EMPT), which appeared in print in October, 1903; Watson reports that he would have shared it with the public earlier, “had I not been barred by a positive prohibition from [Holmes’s] own lips, which was only withdrawn upon the third of last month.” About all of this, there is almost no debate or controversy.
About the details of the following decade, of course, there’s more than a little.
The partnership was soon reinstated. Within a matter of months, at Holmes’s request, Watson “had sold my practice and returned to share the old quarters in Baker Street,” as he reports in “The Norwood Builder” (NORW), the next case to see print (although not the next in which the pair were engaged). We shall take the same approach here as with the pre-Hiatus years, and deal first with the (relatively) easily dated cases, those in which Watson offers clear chronological details. They are as follows, in order of occurrence rather than publication:
- “The Golden Pince-Nez” (GOLD)—set in “the year ’94… towards the close of November”; this is the only other case detailed for this year, despite Watson’s brief and tantalizing mention of “Three massive manuscript volumes which contain our work for the year 1894.”
- “Wisteria Lodge” (WIST)—”it was a bleak and windy day towards the end of March in the year 1892.” Alone among Watson’s dates, this one is flatly impossible, since Holmes was missing and presumed dead in 1892. This cannot be pre-Hiatus, as Holmes also refers to “that little affair of the red-headed men” (REDH, an 1890 case), and Watson did not see Holmes in early ’91. Neither can this occur later in the ’90s, as WIST is referred to in NORW, a case set mere “months” after the partnership was re-established. The simplest solution is to conclude that the date was a misprint for “1895,” the earliest March available.
- “The Solitary Cyclist” (SOLI)—”for the year 1895, I find that it was upon Saturday, the 23d of April…” This is somewhat problematic, as the 23rd was actually a Tuesday in that year, but this may well be a misprint from a handwritten manuscript that read not “23” but “13,” which would be accurate.
- “The Three Students” (3STU)—”It was in the year ’95 that a combination of events, into which I need not enter, caused Mr. Sherlock Holmes and myself to spend some weeks in one of our great university towns…” (The identity of the institution is deliberately concealed.) At the end the perpetrator voluntarily exiles himself to Africa, where he “has been offered a commission in the Rhodesian Police”; Rhodesia was officially chartered under that name by the British South Africa Company on May 3, 1895, suggesting a date later that same month, toward the end of the academic term.
- “Black Peter” (BLAC)—”In this memorable year ’95… During the first week of July, my friend had been absent so often and so long from our lodgings…”
- “The Norwood Builder” (NORW)—Watson reports “an August sun on my back,” and also mentions among the cases of the recently renewed partnership that of the vicious “ex-President Murillo,” a reference to the events of WIST. The dating of this case thus depends on that one, although the latter was not published until some five years later, in 1908. The August in question therefore cannot be that of 1894, and must be ’95.
- “The Bruce-Partington Plans” (BRUC)—”In the third week of November, in the year 1895…” This is the second (and last) case to feature an appearance by reclusive brother Mycroft.
- “The Veiled Lodger” (VEIL)—”One forenoon — it was late in 1896 — I received a hurried note from Holmes asking for my attendance…” The case’s client comes to Holmes about a lodger she’s had for “seven years,” who we learn came to her not less than six months after the Abbas Parva tragedy at a traveling circus (“It was six months before she was fit to give evidence, but the inquest was duly held”), which was also “seven years ago.” The circus season conventionally runs from roughly March through October, so nothing obstructs this case from falling in autumn. Holmes was consulted at the time of the original inquest, and much has been made of his remark to Watson—who doesn’t recall the incident—”And yet you were with me then. But certainly my own impression was very superficial. For there was nothing to go by, and none of the parties had engaged my services,” since Watson was not actually “with” Holmes in Baker Street during 1889. However, the remark is hardly dispositive: certainly Watson spent much time with Holmes that year regardless of his residence. (It’s also odd that the introductory passage implies Watson is living away from Baker Street at this point… but the case was published in 1927, and it’s not implausible that Watson’s recollection may have been marred by the mentioned “attempts… to get at and to destroy” his papers during the intervening 30 years.) One might avert the awkwardness of both references by shifting this case to late ’94, before Watson had moved back to Baker Street and seven years after ’87, when he lived there… but the date as given remains plausible enough, so I prefer (as ever) to trust Watson.
- “The Missing Three-Quarter” (MISS)—The case begins on “a gloomy February morning, some seven or eight years ago,” at the time of publication in August, 1904. Splitting the difference at 7-1/2 years puts us squarely in February of 1897. (Some scholars point to the Oxford-Cambridge rugby match mentioned in the case and argue that it would have been held in December, not February. But there is no way to prove the non-existence of the match as described, so again my rule of thumb remains: Trust Watson.)
- “The Abbey Grange” (ABBE)—”A bitterly cold night and frosty morning, towards the end of the winter of ’97.” The case begins with a note from Inspector Stanley Hopkins, whom Holmes says “has called me in seven times, and on each occasion his summons has been entirely justified”; we know of three of those occasions (GOLD, BLAC, and MISS). The woman at the center of the case, Lady Brackenstall, has “been married about a year” at the time of her husband’s death, and was “married in January of last year,” suggesting perhaps a setting earlier in the winter… but it’s ambiguous rather than precise, so we can stick with Watson and place the case in a later month, probably February.
- “The Devil’s Foot” (DEVI)—”It was, then, in the spring of the year 1897 that Holmes’s iron constitution showed some symptoms of giving way in the face of constant hard work…”; the case begins precisely on “Tuesday, March the 16th, shortly after our breakfast hour.” That’s technically a few days short of spring, but Watson can be forgiven for the colloquial usage of the term.
- “The Retired Colourman” (RETI)—It is “on a summer afternoon” that Holmes says to Watson of a client that “Early in 1897 he married a woman twenty years younger than himself… And yet within two years he is, as you have seen, as broken and miserable a creature as crawls beneath the sun.” Thus, it is summer 1898.
- “The Dancing Men” (DANC)—The client describes how “Last year I came up to London for the Jubilee,” where he met his wife-to-be, and then relates problems that began “about a month ago, at the end of June.” Queen Victoria celebrated a Golden Jubilee in June of 1887 and a Diamond Jubilee in June of 1897—and it’s almost certainly the latter that’s intended here, as a year after the former Watson was married and not residing in Baker Street, as he is in this case. Thus: late July, 1898.
- “The Priory School” (PRIO)—The Duke of Holdernesse is listed in Holmes’s reference book as (among other things) “Lord Lieutenant of Hallamshire since 1900,” so the year must be later than that. Moreover, the Duke’s kidnapped son “was last seen on the night of May 13th — that is, the night of last Monday”—which, upon checking a perpetual calendar for the only possible years (1901, ’02, or ’03), gives us 1901. Note that this appears to be by far the most lucrative case Holmes ever handled: he is presented a cheque for £12,000 at the end, which in current purchasing power is worth (very roughly) over $1.5 million. (This is twelve times the amount the not-ungenerous King of Bohemia paid Holmes for his services in SCAN, back in 1888.) Whether Watson shared in the remuneration for the cases he worked alongside Holmes goes discreetly unmentioned.
- “The Three Garridebs” (3GAR)—”I remember the date very well, for it was in the same month that Holmes refused a knighthood for services which may perhaps some day be described… the latter end of June, 1902, shortly after the conclusion of the South African War.” When Watson is shot in the leg at the climax of this case, Holmes’s alarmed reaction belies his usual cool demeanor, and Watson recalls “It was worth a wound–it was worth many wounds–to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask.”
- “The Illustrious Client” (ILLU)—”September 3, 1902, the day when my narrative begins.” Watson adds that “I was living in my own rooms in Queen Anne Street at the time…”—he has once again moved out of Baker Street (to what is, by the by, a highly prestigious address for a London doctor of the period). We learn the reason in the next case (although, for the original readers, that illumination came after a two-year wait).
- “The Blanched Soldier” (BLAN)—unusually (like only one other entry in the Canon), this account was not written by Watson but by Holmes himself. He tells us, with customary precision, “I find from my notebook that it was in January, 1903, just after the conclusion of the Boer War…” that this case begins. He then adds that “The good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association. I was alone.” The exact circumstances of Watson’s second marriage have never been disclosed, nor even the identity of his wife (thus sparking much scholarly speculation, of course), but clearly Holmes was disappointed at the change.
- “The Creeping Man” (CREE)—”It was one Sunday evening early in September of the year 1903 that I received one of Holmes’s laconic messages…” (The university inelegantly disguised as “Camford” in the text is most likely Oxford, which unlike Cambridge possessed the requisite Chair of Comparative Anatomy.)
It is very shortly after this that Holmes retires, as Watson alludes in the opening of EMPT and describes in some greater detail in SECO (“he has definitely retired from London and betaken himself to study and bee-farming on the Sussex Downs”). He is only 49 years old at this point, but clearly well situated financially, and he has apparently lost his enthusiasm for The Game without the steadfast Watson at his side. However, there remain two subsequent datable cases:
- “The Lion’s Mane” (LION)—This is the other case written by Holmes himself, and it begins “Towards the end of July, 1907,” when a Sussex neighbor dies unexpectedly and Holmes takes action to clear an innocent suspect of murder.
- “His Last Bow” (LAST)—It is “the second of August–the most terrible August in the history of the world.” That is to say, August of 1914, the eve of the First World War—and Holmes has been called into service by his country to acquire papers from a German agent. This is one of the only two entries in the Canon written in the third person. Perhaps uniquely, not a single chronologist disputes its date.
That’s twenty-one cases, giving us a very reliable basis for our timeline:
— [Watson’s wife dies]
EMPT • Apr, 1894 (Holmes returns from his Hiatus)
GOLD • Nov, 1894 (Watson has returned to Baker Street)
WIST • Mar, 1895
SOLI • Apr, 1895
3STU • May, 1895
BLAC • Jul, 1895
NORW • Aug, 1895
BRUC • Nov, 1895
VEIL • Autumn, 1896
MISS • Feb, 1897
ABBE • Feb, 1897
DEVI • Mar, 1897
RETI • Jul, 1898
DANC • late Jul, 1898
PRIO • May, 1901 (Holmes finds the son of the enormously wealthy Lord Holdernesse)
3GAR • Jun, 1902 (Watson is injured)
— [Watson leaves Baker Street, marries again]
ILLU • Sep, 1902
BLAN • Jan, 1903
CREE • Sep, 1903
— [Holmes retires, leaves London for beekeeping in Sussex]
LION • Jul, 1907
LAST • Aug, 1914
(There are commentators who argue that various of these cases, especially later ones reprinted in the Case-Book and/or those not related in Watson’s own voice, are not “genuine,” that they portray Holmes “out of character” or are otherwise somehow deficient. I do not hold with that. The Canon is the Canon, and if we start picking and choosing then we’re just a short step away from dismissing the whole thing as apocryphal.)
There remain some conspicuous gaps in this timeline, however… and there likewise remain eight more ambiguously dated cases to be placed in amongst these. I’ll turn to those in the next installment.