When The Empty House was first published in The Collier's Weekly and the Strand Magazine in 1903, it was one of the most eagerly anticipated stories ever.
After all, it was the story in which Sherlock Holmes came back after being assumed dead for 10 years!
Even now, when it comes to The Empty House, the main vibe that is spread across the story is: the joy of Sherlock Holmes' return.
So what I am basically saying this: If you haven't read any Sherlock Holmes story so far, don't start with The Empty House. Start here instead.
But, if you have read The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes - at the end of which Holmes (almost) dies, you must read The Empty House!
That's Holmes and Watson bumping into each other right at the beginning! (Sidney Paget)
And...apart from from Holmes' return what else does The Empty House have?
Does it have a great mystery that bowls you over?
The mystery in the story is quite intriguing. There's a lot of
fascinating drama as well. But honestly: I was still more awed with
Holmes' return - the other details aren't that awesome in this story.
In fact, here are my complete ratings for the story...
The reason I've rated the introduction as 10/10 is the mind blowing way in which Holmes returns and stuns Watson. :-)
There was a man called Ronald Adair. He was rich and he loved playing cards.
The problem is that he has been murdered - for absolutely no reason that anyone can think of!
This man had no debts to repay. He had not lost much money in his card games either. He had no enemies. He didn't do much in his life anyway, apart from playing cards.
To top it, this man had locked his door. No one entered the room from the window - the window is too high. No one has heard any gunshot even though there were people reasonably near his house.
A few stacks of coins have, however, been found on his table.
This big question is: Why was he murdered? Also, how did the murderer come up and leave? The murderer must have come up because a revolver bullet has been found - and no shots were heard. And what's with those stacks of coins?
The mystery is pretty baffling.
Yes, Holmes is required to solve this mystifying problem, and yes...this is the case that drags Holmes back to London.
One of the finest moments for me in the story is when Sherlock Holmes meets Watson for the first time and stuns him.
Watson is sitting in his study doing more or less nothing when in walks a book collector he had collided with earlier that day. This book collector apologizes for his rudeness in the morning...and makes Watson's head turn for a few seconds by pointing to the nearby cabinet.
When Watson looks back, there - it's Holmes in front of him. Of course - Watson faints, really faints. He had thought Holmes was dead!
When I read this portion of the story, I thought, "That's Holmes for you. Even though he's meeting Watson after so long, he's still as excited about making as dramatic an entry as ever."
I smiled when Watson fainted. :-) This has to be a magical moment for me!
Holmes takes Watson along to a place called Camden House - that's right in front of 221b, Baker Street - Holmes' address. Then, he asks Watson to look at his apartment on Baker Street through a Camden House window. He also says:
"We will see if my three years of absence have entirely taken away my power to surprise you."
Watson gasps as he sees Holmes sitting in his typical Holmesian posture right there - in one of his Baker Street rooms! It later turns out that this second Holmes version is actually a wax bust.
But - the way Watson is stunned - and the way I was too - makes this a magical moment for me.
A fine illustration by Sidney Paget. Of course I've edited it a bit or Watson wouldn't be saying 'that'!
Now in the story, Holmes and Watson wait for the villain - Sebastian Moran's men to try to kill Holmes.
Holmes has got a wax bust that looks just like Holmes ready in his apartment. These guys are waiting in Camden House, opposite the apartment.
Holmes' is thinking something like this: "The moment Sebastian Moran's guys try to kill me, I am going to call the policemen whom I've kept waiting. Of course Watson and I are safe because we are in Camden House, opposite my actual apartment."
The twist comes when Sebastian Moran - the dude who wants to kill Holmes, himself comes to kill Holmes...And - he comes to Camdon house to aim his air-gun at Holmes' bust in Baker Street - from the very freaking place where Holmes and Watson are hiding!
That's quite a twist that surprises even Holmes himself. :-)
Holmes does still call the police and pounce on Moran. But - the fact that Sebastian Moran comes to the same place where Holmes and Watson are waiting to watch him - that is interesting.
One of the most important scenes in The Empty House is when Holmes describes how exactly he survived. After all, both he and his rival Moriarty seemed to have fallen from a steep cliff...
Here's what Holmes says about his survival:
"We tottered together upon the brink of the fall. I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling... I slipped through his grip, and he with a horrible scream kicked madly...But for all his efforts he could not get his balance..."
So Holmes basically escaped from Moriarty's grip using Baritsu, a form of Japanese wrestling while Moriarty fell.
Now, when I read this, my doubt was: What does Baritsu mean? Is it a real form of Japanese wrestling? Or was it made up by Conan Doyle?
Well, my research shows that the word Baritsu is fictional - there is nothing called Baritsu.
BUT - there is something called Bartitsu (the spelling's different)! This is a mixture of Japanese and English martial art forms that was invented by a guy called Edward William Barton-Wright. He basically combined good points from tons of other martial art forms to create Bartitsu.
Now, both - this Edward dude and Arthur Conan Doyle, worked for the same magazine at some point in life - Pearson's magazine to be precise. So maybe Conan Doyle heard about Bartitsu then?
Some people say that Conan Doyle misspelled Bartitsu as Baritsu.
Some others say, he did it on purpose - he didn't want any copyright issues! Some others say he had to change it - because Bartitsu cannot be a Japanese word according to Japanese syllable rules, but Baritsu can be one.
Hmm...Lots of speculation there, but you get the point. Baritsu seems to have been based on a real martial art form but...only based. It doesn't exist.
Just in case you're interested however, here's an interesting depiction of - Baritsu, sorry - I meant...Bartitsu. :-)
Now, Sherlock Holmes apparently died on May 4, 1891 - when he was fighting Moriarty.
He made Watson swoon with his reappearance in The Empty House in April, 1894.
Anyone's obvious question would be: What the heck was Holmes during this time period of 3 years?
Here's an interesting picture that shows the places Holmes travelled to, during these years.
Atleast, that's what he tells Watson...
A lot of places within London are mentioned in The Empty House.
There's Camden House for starters, then there is Park Lane - where the murder takes place, Kensington where Watson lives...
Here's a nice little depiction of where the important places are.
This pic was possible because of Wikipedia Commons, Mariordo, R Sones and Ewan Munro!
The air-gun of Von-Herder is a compelling weapon mentioned in The Empty House. It was used by the villain Sebastian Moran to kill Ronald Adair. It is in fact, about to be used on a wax dummy of Holmes himself - when the real Holmes suddenly pounces on Holmes.
The gun has some cool qualities as well. As Holmes puts it:
"An admirable and unique weapon, noiseless and of tremendous power."
Then there's the fact that it uses a soft revolver bullet that expands on impact. This makes people think that a person has shot the victim with a revolver, from a short distance. That's what happened in Ronald Adair's case too.
My question: Did this airgun really exist? Or was it just fiction?
Well...the simplest possible answer is: it is completely fictional. There was no Von-Herder air-gun. In fact, in 1894, air-guns were definitely not the weapons used for crimes at all. Revolvers and rifles without any "air mechanism" were being used more than air guns.
So, yup - Sebastian Moran's airgun is an exotic invention - it doesn't exist in reality.
I am quite glad about that. I mean, I don't really believe in 'arms development' anyway, so, I'm quite happy with an exotic fictional airgun. :-)
Well, there we are...done picking the story apart.
You're saying you really haven't read The Empty House yet? Give it a try right here: