There remain, however, a few cases from among those published after the Hiatus in which Watson provides us with no clear dates. Included among these are cases that have posed some of the greatest difficulties to students of the Canon, and provoked the greatest debates among them. The texts are not entirely devoid of evidence, and in that regard we continue to trust Watson’s testimony, but they require close examination. It is to these that we now turn our attention.
In order of publication, they are:
- “The Six Napoleons” (SIXN) [5/1904]—The only date mentioned in this case is that the criminal Beppo, prior to his arrest, “was paid last on May 20th” of the previous year by his erstwhile employer, a date which is “more than a year ago now”—around which same time Holmes was “consulted upon the case” of the missing Black Pearl of the Borgias. William Baring-Gould did a fine bit of analysis on this case, arguing thus: given that the standard Victorian workweek ended with a Saturday payday, the previous year in which that fell on May 20 must have been either ’83, ’93, or ’99. 1883 would be too early, given Lestrade’s attitude as expressed here: it is in this case that he says “We’re not jealous of you at Scotland Yard. No, sir, we are very proud of you, and if you come down to-morrow, there’s not a man, from the oldest inspector to the youngest constable, who wouldn’t be glad to shake you by the hand,” a compliment by which Holmes is visibly moved. 1893 would be plainly impossible, as Holmes was missing that year. Thus the incident occurred in May of 1899, and Holmes’s recovery of the pearl here, a year later, is in June of 1900.
- “The Red Circle” (REDC) [3/1911]—Watson tells us only that it is “a London winter evening,” and there is nothing approaching consensus on this case, as it could seemingly be any winter after the Return when Watson is residing in Baker Street. However, the inspector handling the case mentions that the evidence includes “some mark, some thumb-print”—and as Scotland Yard only introduced the use of fingerprinting in July 1901, that narrows our possibilities dramatically. This case therefore falls in early 1902.
- “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax” (LADY) [12/1911]—Watson is residing in Baker Street, but provides no date at all here. He merely tells Holmes (and thus us) that “for the last few days I have been feeling rheumatic and old,” suggesting a relatively late case. It must precede 1902’s ILLU, since in the same conversation Holmes reacts with derision to Watson’s remedy of a relaxing Turkish bath, whereas in ILLU he has evidently been converted, as Watson reports “Both Holmes and I had a weakness for the Turkish bath”—but we already know Watson was living in Queen Anne Street at that point, anyway, so this is mere corroboration. Again there is no real consensus among chronologists. However, as the alternative to the bath that Holmes proposes here is a vacation in Lausanne, “first-class tickets and all expenses paid” (albeit with the ulterior motive of looking into the fate of Lady Frances), it seems likely that this occurs after the handsome payday in PRIO, at a time when Holmes is feeling especially flush. It is resort season is Switzerland, so I propose summer, 1901. (There is some speculation that Lady Frances, whose life is so narrowly saved in this case, may later have become the second Mrs. Watson, but there is no way to settle the matter.)
- “The Mazarin Stone” (MAZA) [10/1921]—This is the one other case (besides LAST) related in the third person, and if Sherlockians all accept that one as presented, many of them try to dismiss this one entirely. (I reject such presumptions, as noted earlier.) No year is provided, but it opens by telling us that “It was pleasant to Dr. Watson to find himself once more in the untidy room of the first floor in Baker Street which had been the starting-point of so many remarkable adventures,” so he is clearly not living there. Some chronologists attempt to place it pre-Hiatus during his first marriage, but the case features the use of a Gramophone, a product not marketed in the U.K. until 1897. Thus this must postdate Watson’s departure in 1902, and as it’s “a lovely summer’s day,” it is 1903.
- “The Problem of Thor Bridge” (THOR) [2/1922]—Watson is living in Baker Street on “a wild morning in October,” but beyond a letter dated “October 3rd,” no other date is forthcoming. In addition to several contextual elements suggesting a mature and widely famed Holmes, there is also the presence of Billy the pageboy, whose only other appearance in print is when Watson reminisces with him in MAZA… so all indications point to this being a relatively late case. (There is also a Billy mentioned in VALL, but that’s firmly set in ’88, so it cannot possibly be the same boy.) Beyond that there is really no hard evidence, although Holmes’s mention of the “fixed scale” of his fees does imply (as famed Sherlockian Gavin Brend pointed out) a date before PRIO. It is impossible to know for sure, and the consensus seems to be 1900, but I propose 1899, a year otherwise conspicuously devoid of chronicled cases. (If the gold magnate and former American Senator Neil Gibson bought his estate in Hampshire “some five years ago,” that would also be consistent—purely hypothetically—with him deciding to relocate upon being unseated in the 1894 election.)
- “The Sussex Vampire” (SUSS) [12/1924]—It is “a dull, foggy November day” when the case commences, after receiving a note dated “Nov. 19th.” This much is clear, but no year is in evidence. That Holmes’s index of notes and clippings includes so many entries under “V” suggests a rather late case, however, and the fact that it includes significant information on vampirism in particular suggests a date after 1897, when the publication of the novel Dracula brought the subject much public attention. As we learn that client Robert Ferguson “married some five years ago a Peruvian lady, the daughter of a Peruvian merchant, whom he had met in connection with the importation of nitrates,” and as Peru had suffered considerable political instability (making trade difficult) until the “Revolution of 1895,” we might also be warranted to suppose a date not before 1900. I propose 1901.
- “The Three Gables” (3GAB) [10/1926]—No date is provided. But Watson says he “had not seen Holmes for some days” and appears not to be living in Baker Street; and it cannot be pre-Hiatus, as a police inspector looking into the case remarks that “there is always the chance of finger-marks or something,” placing it no earlier than 1901 (for the same reason discussed regarding REDC, above). It is thus after Watson’s 1902 departure. Further evidence is oblique indeed: it is not winter, and as society dame Isadora Klein has not yet left Grosvenor Square for a country house it would appear not to be summer, so let us assume spring, 1903.
- “Shoscombe Old Place” (SHOS) [3/1927]—Chronologists are absolutely all over the map with this case, the last Holmes adventure published, placing it variously from the very beginning to the very end of the Partnership. I’m inclined toward the latter extreme. When the locale of the title is mentioned Watson recalls that “my summer quarters were down there once,” suggesting a certain degree of prosperity and probably a recollection of his married life; and he exhibits knowledge of horse-racing that he lacked in SILV back in ’87. Indeed it is “three weeks” before the Derby (Britain’s most prestigious race, run annually in early June), and Watson corroborates this with a reference to “a bright May evening.” Watson appears to be living in Baker Street, so I concur with the plurality of chronologists in placing that May in 1902.
We may now return to our concise timeline of Holmes’s later career and fill in these final cases. As before, the new additions are highlighted in blue, and uncertain dates are flagged with a question mark.
— [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
THOR • Oct, 1899?
SIXN • Jun, 1900
PRIO • May, 1901 (Holmes finds the son of the enormously wealthy Lord Holdernesse)
LADY • Summer, 1901?
SUSS • Nov, 1901?
REDC • Winter, 1902
SHOS • May, 1902?
3GAR • Jun, 1902 (Watson is injured)
— [Watson leaves Baker Street, marries again]
ILLU • Sep, 1902
BLAN • Jan, 1903
3GAB • Spring, 1903
MAZA • Summer, 1903
CREE • Sep, 1903
— [Holmes retires, leaves London for beekeeping in Sussex]
LION • Jul, 1907
LAST • Aug, 1914
We immediately notice that most of these cases fit well into what was otherwise a conspicuous gap (with only one clearly dated case) between mid-1898 and mid-1902. (We know, after all, from Watson’s introduction to SOLI, that “From the years 1894 to 1901 inclusive, Mr. Sherlock Holmes was a very busy man.”) In terms of actual chronicled cases, the busiest years turn out to be 1895 (with six) and 1902 (with four). All told, we have fifteen chronicled cases between Holmes’s Return and the turn of the century; seven from 1900 through Watson’s second departure and marriage in late 1902 (during which span Holmes collects his most lucrative fee and Watson is injured on a case); five between that point and Holmes’s own retirement in September, 1903; and two post-retirement cases.
Our exercise is not yet entirely complete, however. The task remains to stitch the parts together to show the whole of Holmes’s career, with notes on other relevant details (e.g., cases mentioned but unchronicled, historical background) to provide context. That will be the next and final installment.