What’s your favorite Sherlock Holmes story?
Every Holmes fan has a different answer to that question. My own has always been “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane.” Published in 1926, “Lion’s Mane” is the final installment in the collection entitled The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. Because the Case-Book was the last Holmes anthology Conan Doyle published, “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” was the last story Sherlock Holmes (in his original incarnation, at any rate) would ever appear in.
As you might guess, it’s a bittersweet one.
An elderly Holmes dwells in retirement, far from his beloved 221B Baker Street; playing solitary bee-keeper in a tiny coastal hamlet. Watson is nowhere in sight. They meet for an occasional weekend, we are told, but that’s it. The dynamic duo is no more. How could Conan Doyle possibly make up this gaping loss to Holmes? To Watson? To us?
Simple . . . with a theme more profound than any of his other stories.
Holmes’ neighbors call him in to investigate the case of a local young man, Fitzroy McPherson, found dead on the beach, apparently victim to a severe beating. Holmes follows the clues through a tangled web of rustic scandal and jealousy and suspicion, until they lead him to the one solution no Sherlockian would expect: no human being is to blame. It was an animal. Specifically, a massive jellyfish-like creature; Cyanea capillata, the Lion’s Mane.
Sure, we’ve seen bloodthirsty animals in Conan Doyle stories before—Hound of the Baskervilles comes to mind—but those animals are always servant to the whims of some diabolical man or woman. “The Lion’s Mane” is the only Holmes case on record where a violent death comes about through zero human agency. Sherlock sets out, as always, to avenge the innocent and bring the wicked to justice. By the end, though, he is forced to admit there’s no ‘wickedness’ here. There is no criminal. Fitzroy McPherson wasn’t a victim of human evil. He was a victim of the forces of nature.
And I love that. I love Holmes’ realization, however implicit and subtle, that he’s not in control here. He can kill the Lion’s Mane, but he can’t punish it. And in no possible universe could he have prevented it from attacking young Fitzroy. In so many of the other stories, there’s a lingering regret on Sherlock’s part, a feeling of guilt, perhaps: if only he had caught such-and-such an evildoer sooner . . . if only he could sniff out their motives just a little faster . . . if only he were a perfect crime-fighting machine, rather than an imperfect man . . .
But not here. Here, I think, he finally ‘gets it.’ This life will always be full of tragedy. He can’t stop every criminal; and he most definitely can’t stop every mustard-colored, poison-spewing jellyfish. That’s not the job description. World’s greatest detective? Yes. World’s omniscient, omnipotent protector? No.
That’s why I love “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane.” The man whom we always saw addicted to the game of crime and justice learns—at long last—to walk away. To lay down that outsized mantle of responsibility.
To rest, I hope, in peace.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Prescott is a former homeschool student and current graduate student, pursuing a master’s degree in American history with a focus on immigration studies. In her (sadly limited) free time, she can usually be found listening to “Hamilton” or Celine Dion or Twenty One Pilots and dreaming up new ideas for historical fiction novels. Which, she hopes, will someday make her famous. Someday. She also blogs.