“Once again Mr. Sherlock Holmes is free to devote his life to examining those interesting little problems which the complex life of London so plentifully presents.”
—“The Adventure of the Empty House”
With “The Adventure of the Empty House,” the great detective returned, but not with a bang. Rather, Conan Doyle returns with one of the more densely layered stories of the canon, capturing both the mood and the larger scope that so reinvigorated the author in The Hound of the Baskervilles whilst returning to the brevity of the earliest Holmes stories. Conan Doyle wisely sets the layers in an overlapping motion, making connections to the early canon, the incident at Reichenbach Falls, its immediate aftermath, and subsequent Hiatus, and offering up a narrative that shows important shifts in perspective. “empty House” begins with Watson, once again a widower, still drawn to the amateur sleuthing of his days on Baker Street, when a seemingly chance encounter leads to the shocking revelation of Holmes’s survival. But even more tantalizing is the revealing of the motive for Holmes’s sudden return, after, true to Conan Doyle’s own love of the exotic, some narrative asides that take Holmes to India, Tibet, and the south of France. It would seem that the great detective’s resurrection was inspired by the need to investigate the attempted murder of—Sherlock Holmes!
Adding even more to the tale than the return of Holmes is his placement as driving narrative force, as with stories like “The Five Orange Pips,” which is indirectly referenced in “The Empty House,” and “The Speckled Band,” with which the story shares a plot device that would soon come to dominate detective fiction—the locked room mystery. Though the device itself—in which an act (usually a murder) occurring in a locked room seemingly without any natural cause, gives the detective the unenviable task of proving the impossible possible—actually has origins in both the writings of Herodotus in the 5th Century BCE and apocryphal elements of the Book of Daniel (i.e., the story of Bel and the Dragon), Conan Doyle again reaches to both belles lettres, namely Balzac’s Maitre Cornelius (1846) and Les Mohicans de Paris (1854) by Dumas, and his early forebears within the detective genre, including Poe (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, from 1841), Le Fanu (Uncle Silas, from 1864), and Collins, (The Moonstone, from 1868). It was, by the time Conan Doyle was writing “The Empty House,” a comfortable device, already having appeared most prominently in The Sign of Four, “The Speckled Band,” and “The Resident Patient.” With “The Empty House,” Conan Doyle sets out to—and succeeds in his attempt to—perfect the form that later became a keystone in the works of such writers as Dorothy Sayers, G. K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen. As Kenneth Calhoon noted in a 1995 issue of the journal Comparative Literature, Conan Doyle once again turns plot style on its head, using the locked room in the empty Camden House to allow “Holmes…[to be] the outsider looking in on the interior that by definition excludes the agon of self-preservation about to unfold. That ‘empty’ interior, to which the story's title might equally well apply, is exposed as a realm of mere appearance.”
The locked room plot does much to collate the layers of plot into a cohesive whole, allowing Watson to gaze into his own dark mirror of sorts in the apprehension of the elusive (yet familiar) assassin, Holmes to muse on the nature of good and evil as only he could after murdering his nemesis in self-defense, and the reader to gain some insight into what might have happened to our beloved characters during their absence from our pages and imaginations. Fittingly, Holmes ends the story with the line above, in which the detective curiously (and rather uncharacteristically) refers to himself in the third person. It is a line that may just as well come to us from the author himself, entreating us to come at once, as the game is, once again, afoot.