I approached this story full of excitement because, though I haven’t read it for some years I remember really enjoying it first time around. I think it was the descriptions of the location which I particularly enjoyed – the little cottage on the South Downs with a view across the channel, the coastline of chalk cliffs, the little path down to the beach, and the beach itself with its hollows and curves making perfect swimming pools. Doesn’t it sound idyllic? Perfect, beautiful, coastal England sunlit and shimmering in your mind’s eye.
But the location is not enough to fill the gap left behind by Watson who is completely absent from this story. Holmes makes another attempt at being his own chronicler and tells us that, ‘At this period of my life the good Watson had passed almost beyond my ken. An occasional weekend visit was the most that I ever saw of him.’ This seems so sad really, though rather inevitable. Watson is, after all, a normal man who has friends, a job, possibly a family by now. Naturally he would not give all this up to spend his time pottering around the Downs alone bothering Holmes in his retirement and waiting to be summoned by the great man to help out with bee-keeping and the odd disappearing local. But somehow, things just aren’t the same without him and it does seem sad to think of Holmes all alone without any real friends except Mr Stackhurst who was, ‘The only man who was on such terms with me that we could drop in on each other in the evenings without an invitation.’ Hardly the same as the intimacy he shared with Watson for all those years.
I do still like this story and did enjoy re-reading it. I remember that it was the only Holmes story where I actually worked out whodunit before Holmes did when I read it for the first time. No wonder I enjoyed it so much. I didn’t get quite as far as knowing it was a jelly-fish who had caused the poor man his agonizing death but did work out that it must have been a sea creature of some-sort. Even reading it again today I still think that Holmes was very slow to come to his conclusions, which he does admit himself. Perhaps it’s old-age getting the better of him.
We learn that Holmes lives near to a coaching establishment where young men go to study and prepare for various professions. One of the professors, McPherson, enjoys taking a morning swim in the perfect natural pools, as does Holmes himself who often joins him. This does seem like a surprisingly social thing for him to do and perhaps he is not quite as friendless as he first makes out. However, poor McPherson goes out for a swim as usual but gets stung all over his back and shoulders by the tentacles of a deadly jelly-fish called the Lion’s Mane.
Holmes and Stackhurst find him on lying on the cliff path, obviously dying and covered in horrible bleeding lacerations. He manages to whisper the words “Lion’s mane,” before finally giving up his struggle. It looks to Holmes and his companion that the man has been flogged to death and murder is suspected. Various false avenues of investigation are then pursued until Holmes finally hits upon the truth.
The investigation doesn’t involve a huge amount of detective work really and the story doesn’t contain many examples of Holmes’ incredible powers of observation and analysis, even though he does ultimately solve the case.
The victim was wearing a Burberry overcoat when he died and I couldn’t help but smile at this. Burberry are one of my clients and I had one of their national trainers come in to train my temping team earlier this year all about the brand. I sat in on the session and learned that originally that’s what Burberry was famous for – it’s trench coat. It was lovely to be reminded of the brand’s heritage here in a Sherlock Holmes story.
Holmes tells us an interesting piece of information in this story about his attitude towards woman – ‘Women have seldom been an attraction to me, for my brain has always governed my heart.’’ Seldom is certainly not never, and I do take this to mean that Holmes has been attracted to women and has on rare occasions indulged in his feelings but that ultimately his brain has quashed the longings of his heart. This is a much more realistic interpretation in my opinion than to say Holmes has never had any experiences with women at all.
All in all, it’s a good story with a beautiful setting and a little food-for-thought about Holmes and Watson, their changing relationship in later years and this startling use of the word ‘seldom’ which I take to be a confession of occasional attraction to the opposite sex. It has to score 8 out of 10.