that mysterious force, sensed in childhood and scrutinized in maturity


I was nine years old when I first encountered the Creeping Man. Having wolfed down nearly all Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in approximate order of publication, I had reached, with a feeling of regret, the final volume, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. Composed of a dozen short tales, the Case-Book dates from the 1920s, a decade when Conan Doyle’s interest in his most famous creation had dwindled to a kind of mercenary contempt and the bulk of his time and attention were spent evangelizing for the spiritualist cause. Unaware of any of this, I noted no downturn in quality and found the eighth item in the collection, “The Adventure of the Creeping Man”, to be one of the richest and most singular investigations of Holmes’s long career – an opinion which I have had no reason to change. The story begins as Dr Watson is summoned to Baker Street, “one Sunday evening early in September of the year 1903”, by means of a splendidly terse telegram (“Come at once if convenient – if inconvenient come all the same”) in order to hear an account of the mystery of Professor Presbury, “the famous Camford physiologist”. The Professor, a “staid, elderly” widower, has recently become engaged to a much younger woman and “the current of his life” has been disrupted. Formerly “the frankest of men”, his behaviour has turned “furtive and sly”. He “lives as in a strange dream”, ventures out on unexplained expeditions and receives envelopes in the post, “marked by a cross under the stamp”.

more from Jonathan Barnes at the TLS here.