Want to read this along with me? This essay is part of His Last Bow, published in 1917. I used the epub version found on Feedbooks.com.
“The Devil’s Foot” is one of Doyle’s favorite stories, and I actually quite like it myself, so it’s a little hard to decide where to start with this one. Like Hound of the Baskervilles and the upcoming “Sussex Vampire,” this is one of several cases in which a supernatural explanation is presented, but Holmes ends up explaining the case in a very mundane fashion. More than that, it has a great example of the depth of Holmes’ and Watson’s friendship, one of the best quotes from Holmes, and a peek into Holmes’ love life (or, more accurately, the lack of one).
In fact, let’s dive into that. Holmes says, quite plainly, “I have never loved, Watson,” and not too far after Holmes had (perhaps needlessly) endangered his friend’s life. This is one of those scenes that have encouraged many, many fans to believe that there is something more than friendship between Holmes and Watson. I do agree at least that his comment is likely hyperbolic – whether you point to Watson’s friendship as love or his more plausible (if still unusual) love for Irene Adler, Holmes has in all likelihood felt love – but I think extrapolating that they had a gay relationship is a bit much. It’s certainly an intriguing pastiche idea, and there have even been anthologies around the topic (such as A Study in Lavender), but I don’t think there’s any significant evidence that it’s canonical. On the other hand, Watson alludes to something sinister when he says of Holmes’ condition that it was “aggravated, perhaps, by occasional indiscretions of his own.” We don’t learn any more, but most Sherlockians (as well as myself) consider this to be a reference to his drug habit rather than any kind of sexual indiscretions, especially since this is the second case (after “Reigate Squires”) in which Holmes has worked himself into a state of illness. Holmes is the original workaholic.
Naturally, Holmes is not going to just sit still and recover, and Watson is upset at the intrusion into Holmes’ recovery. He specifically mentioned that Holmes “sat up in his chair like an old hound who hears the view-halloa,” which is a fox-hunting reference to the sound a dog makes when it spots the fox – a singularly appropriate metaphor for Holmes. And later in the story, Watson again compares Holmes to a hunter on the heels of his quarry. Certainly there have been a number of analogies of Holmes’ methods being like a hunt (such as his most famous “The game is afoot”), but in this story the analogy is quite distinct.
Watson mentions Holmes’ aversion to publicity. This is certainly borne out in aspects such as his willingness to give credit to the official forces in the newspapers, and this explanation is what’s given for Doyle’s slowdown of producing more stories. And again, Doyle pretends that the events of the case are actually related to (fictional) sensation news years back, this time to the “Cornish Horror.” This is different from what modern writers do, inserting Holmes into actual historical events such as pursuing Jack the Ripper. Instead, Doyle invents a story and then claims that everyone has heard about it and knows about it. However, the end result is the same – it gives the story the feeling of authenticity, and it certainly helped convince a number of readers that Sherlock Holmes was real.
We find out that Watson is learning Holmes’ methods quite well, as he is amused when others are surprised by Holmes’ “simple deduction.” We also learn that Holmes “has never been known to write when a telegram would serve.” I expect Holmes would love email or text messages in the modern age. We find out (or perhaps more accurately, Watson spells out what we already know) that Holmes has a “half-humorous, half-cynical vein which was his habitual attitude to those about him.” And we have another case in which Holmes enacts his own justice, deciding to let a murderer go free. But there are two big elements in this story: the conflict between the supernatural and the logical, and probably one of the most memorable scenes of friendship between the two principal characters.
On the supernatural vs. the logical, it is telling that while Victorian characters such as the vicar immediately leap to supernatural conclusions, they come to someone who is logical in approach. There’s an interesting balance at play in the Victorian psyche between the exultation of science and reason, and the lingering superstition of the age. Of course, around this time there was the rise of a variety of imitators to Sherlock Holmes, including the so-called “psychic detectives” that attempted to bridge such a divide, providing a logical, deductive reasoning to supernatural occurrences. One of the more famous examples is Thomas Carnacki (created by William Hope Hodgson), but there are also characters such as Flaxman Low, Jules de Grandin, Dr. John Silence, and others. Indeed, there’s a whole subgenre of late Victorian to early Edwardian occult detectives, and if you’re interested, a few strategic searches around some public domain ebook sites will give you a few gems.
Before I get into this iconic scene, though, I have to rant for a bit. In the scene, Holmes, after carefully explaining that the poison is activated by combustion, proceeds to light it. He does ask if Watson is actually sensible and wants to have no part in it, but it appears that Watson declines. Why in the hell would they do this? Scholars have pointed to the scene way back in A Study in Scarlet where it’s mentioned that Holmes would be just as likely to experiment on his friends, but there has to be plenty of other, safer methods to test this poison. Further, why is Holmes surprised that it was so sudden. He himself mentioned that the sister and two brothers were taken very soon after Mortimer Tregennis left. At least Holmes is suitable abashed, and Watson is (as ever) tolerant and loyal.
But the images that Watson sees under the influence of the poison certain resonate with the previous Poe and the later Lovecraft. (This connection isn’t lost on pastiche writers, as there have been a number of stories connection Lovecraft and Holmes, including the sometimes-amazing anthology Shadows Over Baker Street.) The connection to Poe is probably intentional, however – the element of a combustible poison likely comes from Poe’s story “The Imp of the Perverse,” written in 1845.
Regardless, it all leads to this brief, but very touching moment:
“Upon my word, Watson!” said Holmes at last with an unsteady voice, “I owe you both my thanks and an apology. It was an unjustifiable experiment even for one’s self, and doubly so for a friend. I am really very sorry.”
“You know,” I answered with some emotion, for I have never seen so much of Holmes’s heart before, “that it is my greatest joy and privilege to help you.”
Finally, we have another fantastic case of Holmes’ wit – one often quoted by fans, but not often heard outside of Sherlockians, sadly:
“How do you know that?”
“I followed you.”
“I saw no one.”
“That is what you may expect to see when I follow you.”