—“The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”
The familiarity of the situations of “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” and its follow-up tale, “Lion’s Mane,” is so close as to be formulaic. If the Watson-less, Holmes-narrated “Blanched Soldier” stands out as something of a strange curiosity in the later canon, the narrative structure of “Lion’s Mane” greatly affirms this oddity, as well as adding, much like “The Illustrious Client,” the absence of even a crime to solve. Indeed, as Leslie Klinger noted in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, the “principal question for the student of “The Lion’s Mane” must be why Holmes wrote it” at all.
Considering this, “Lion’s Mane” may exist solely as a sort of character study, a vision of Holmes in retirement that stands in sharp contrast to Watson’s stated (and oft-repeated) view of Holmes from A Study in Scarlet. Here we see a Holmes who, unlike Watson’s earlier assessment that he “would acquire no knowledge which did not bear upon his object,” is less mechanistic in temperament, is an avid reader, and, through sheer happenstance, is able to apply his still keen faculties to solving a mysterious death. The knowledge that Holmes applies here emerges from zoology, a field missing from Watson’s tally in Scarlet, though it would likely hold that Holmes’s knowledge of fauna would not exceed that of flora which Watson notes as “variable” and impractical, unless deployed with murderous intent.
And, in fact, the story bears as much out, with Holmes as baffled as anyone throughout much of the action, even as more victims of mysterious attacks emerge, including a dog belonging to the first victim, Fitzroy McPherson, and finally, the only potential suspect, mathematics teacher Ian Murdoch, who, while not succumbing completely, shows wounds matching the two previous victims. Holmes is able to uncover a working plot for the attacks, regarding the courtship of a local woman, Maud Bellamy, leading to bad blood between McPherson and Murdoch. But this scenario, and Murdoch’s presumed guilt, neither jibes with the facts nor completely satisfies Holmes.
The ultimate answer, much like that of “Blanched Soldier,” is one which emerges not from close inspection, but, rather, Holmes’s development and testing of a theory proven right by some measure of luck and an erudition that a reader might more associate with Watson than Holmes, at least the Holmes of A Study in Scarlet. This older, wiser Holmes seems to indicate that, even absent from the scene; it is Watson that has exerted an influence upon Holmes that comes to his aid when facing the potentially fatal mysteries of the natural world.