I had followed as the earlier stories took me through the many adventures Watson had experienced since meeting his eccentric friend in the lab at St Barts. I had come to learn through his words that Sherlock Holmes was not simply a thinking machine but also possessed a great heart. I truly believed that he cared deeply for Watson and trusted him above all others. But then along comes the Empty House and these beliefs are thrown into doubt.
I find it hard to like Holmes in the Empty House. At the centre of the story is a massive lie and we learn that rather than trust Watson with the most important secret of all, Holmes turns to Mycroft instead. Holmes leaves poor Watson believing that he is dead, not just for a few days but for three years. During that time Watson also suffers the loss of his wife – something which Holmes knows about but still doesn’t make contact.
And why does he do all this? Well, basically because he doesn’t think Watson can be trusted with the truth. He thinks that Watson’s strong feelings towards him would cause him to let slip the truth or not write of the ‘death’ so convincingly in his published accounts. Well if you knew he cared so much about you, how could you put him through three years of unnecessary mourning?
Holmes leaves all his affairs in the hands of his brother Mycroft who also colludes in hiding the truth from poor old Watson. Then, to make matters worse, instead of quietly reappearing and being contrite about his actions, Holmes turns up in Watson’s study wearing a disguise and tricks him into thinking he is an old bookseller.
When he eventually reveals the truth in a typically over-the-top fashion, Watson faints due to the heightened drama. Holmes then proceeds to prattle on about his travels and meeting the Dalai Lama. By that point I would have just slapped him. But no, good old Watson forgives all and happily trots off with him to share a new adventure.
So why did Holmes play dead for three years? It’s never been entirely clear to me to be honest. He claims that because they thought he was dead, he was able to round up the last of Moriarty’s gang and bring them to justice. But Moran knew he was still alive – wouldn’t he have told everyone else? Were these people really such a threat to society now that their master had gone? Sounds to me like he just enjoyed a bit of an adult gap-year (or three) travelling and experiencing new things whilst his only friend mourned his death and that of his own wife. Shocking behaviour.
So how will BBC Sherlock tackle this? There are a few key differences to consider. Sherlock’s death is a rather more noble action in their version of the Final Problem. Moriarty/Jim forces him to commit suicide because it is the only way to call off the snipers who are about to kill the people he most cares about. He fakes his death and goes into exile in order to save his friends. So far, so forgivable. But will the writers stick to the original and keep him away for three years? If so, how can he come back and justify that? He saw John’s heartbreaking sadness at the gravestone and seemed genuinely moved by it; surely he can’t leave him to mourn for three whole years? And if he does, forgiveness needs to be harder to achieve than in the original. He needs to really work for it.
In Barefoot on Baker Street I give Holmes some pretty big consequences for selling such a big lie to those he loved. He doesn’t get away with it quite so easily, even though the events of the Empty House run pretty much the same as they do in the original story. He has to face the reality of what he left behind and how life has moved on without him. Watson has come out from Holmes’ shadow to become a stronger, more confident person and the dynamic of their friendship has changed forever. Will it be the same for John? Will he flourish or crumble without Sherlock?
As the reader works their way through the Return of Sherlock Holmes, it is possible once again to see Holmes’ great heart and love for his friend – even paying above the odds for his medical practice via the mysterious Doctor Verner just to have Watson back at 221b. I do forgive him in the end – it just takes me a bit longer than it took Watson.