The Empty House (1903), pt. 2

The Empty House
The Empty House

Want to read this along with me? This essay is part of The Return of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1905. I used the epub version found on

We learn that Mycroft has been acting as Holmes’ agent in London while he was away, even to the point of keeping his rooms preserved, despite the fact that his rooms were set on fire during “The Final Problem.” And yet, though Holmes was conducting business in London, he intentionally kept Watson unaware of his existence for three years. Once again, Holmes lies to Watson (albeit a lie of omission) because he is afraid Watson will talk, but he doesn’t have the same concern about his brother. I sometimes debate if Holmes’ mistrust of Watson’s ability to stay quiet is more telling of Holmes’ inability to trust anyone or of Watson’s inability to keep a secret. I’m more inclined toward the former, since we’ve seen multiple instances of where Watson is able to lie to others and keep secrets, but we have seen Holmes trust Watson in many other ways, even with his life. Some have theorized that it stems from Holmes’ passive-aggressive hatred of Watson’s published accounts, which is as good a theory as any.

The time between 1891 and 1894 (referred to by Sherlockians as “The Great Hiatus”) is the subject of a wide variety of speculation and interest. Some have debated whether Holmes could have even been in the placed he claimed to be, while others have attributed all manner of fictional and real world events to Holmes during that time. Even more outlandish theories flourish, including Holmes actually dying and being replaced with a long-lost cousin, a sister, and even a part of Holmes’ own soul that was split off from him in Russia! The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Vol. II devotes seven whole pages to the topic, and the editor admits that it’s just a small sample of discussion on The Great Hiatus. (One scholar, A. Carson Simpson, wrote four volumes on the topic!)

While Moriarty is mentioned in this story, we actually don’t learn a whole lot more about him directly, aside from the manner of his demise (which is more definitive than Holmes’). We do, however, meet his right-hand man, Colonel Sebastian Moran (who will come up at later points in the canon as well). While not quite on the same level of cultural notoriety as Moriarty himself, Moran certainly enjoys a lot of popularity with pastiche writers, and the idea of the criminal subordinate has influenced a lot of fiction over the past century. One thing I particularly like is that what was a throw-away line in “The Final Problem” (where Holmes cryptically mentions air guns and never elaborates on it) becomes the core of this story. Sure, Doyle has done a lot of cross-references between the stories before, but this is the first time in which an unexplained piece of previous story was actually followed up in a later one.

Other interesting canonical bits:

  • Another case showcasing Lestrade. He really does come to dominate the middle of the canon a lot more than I remembered previously.
  • There are two more references in the story pointing to the theory of genetic criminal disposition: “…without reading Nature’s plainest danger-signals” and “…such a sudden turn to good or evil stands for some strong influence which came into the line of his pedigree.” Ah, Victorian science.
  • Mrs. Hudson is mentioned twice. It’s around this time in the canon where she gets more prominence, I think, much like Lestrade.
  • Holmes dons his mouse-colored dressing gown. He’s done this a few times before, but this is probably its most iconic appearance. In my mind, this brown gown is far more “Holmes” than the deerstalker and coat.
  • We learn that Holmes is actually missing his left canine from a situation in a previous case. “…and Mathews, who knocked out my left canine in the waiting-room at Charing Cross….” The fact that Watson has never mentioned it implies that Holmes got a replacement at some point.

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