MICHAEL DIBDIN. The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978).

31 May

The word “last” in the title is no mere marketing flourish; it’s an omen of genuine terminality. Something truly ends in this first novel by Dibdin, who later made a mark with his series about Italian police commissioner Aurelio Zen. At the least, what ends here is the aura of boyish innocence that lay draped like a warm, woolly Inverness cape across the imagined world of the original Holmes tales. LastSherlock.png The cozy structures of Victorian life, which had long kept evil within boundaries that the great detective could negotiate with masterly flair, are now crumbling underfoot. Inciting this affront to order are the exploits of Jack the Ripper: In the fall of 1888, an assailant slices a half-dozen prostitutes to death on the dank, narrow streets of Whitechapel, in east London. For Holmes, whose career was on the ascent at that very moment, the Ripper killings present the ultimate crime-fighting challenge. Add in the involvement of Professor Moriarty (this book’s title also plays on “The Final Problem,” the title of the adventure in which Holmes confronts that fabled nemesis), along with the motif of Holmes’s cocaine addiction, and Dibdin has the makings of a tour de force. Sherlockian purists might deem the novel to be a tour de farce, a pastiche that begins competently but then veers perversely from homage to horror. They would not be wrong. But others will appreciate Dibdin’s clever plotting, which recalls Ruth Rendell at her most ingenious and most psychologically acute. Non-purists might also see that this work is finally about Dr. Watson, who of course acts as narrator, and about the good doctor’s abiding affection for Holmes—the Holmes whom posterity knows, and whom Watson knew and loved.


Posted by on May 31, 2013 in British, Historical, Novel, Puzzle


4 responses to “MICHAEL DIBDIN. The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978).

  1. Skywatcher

    June 3, 2013 at 4:27 AM

    It’s competently enough written, although I still think that it’s a quite silly novel. I’m not entirely certain about the idea that it spells the end of the boyish innocence spreading over the cozy imagined world of the original tales. For a start, the world of the tales may have been romanticised, but it was the world that the original readers saw about them. The Ripper atrocities happened a year after the first appearance of Holmes, so it’s hardly as if they challenged the reality of the stories. There’s also the question of how cozy the originals actually are. Something like THE CARDBOARD BOX from MEMOIRS has someone clubbing a young woman and her beau to death, carving their ears off, and sending said ears through the post. Equally, the final collection THE CASEBOOK OF SHERLOCK HOLMES is one of the grimmest, with disease, acid attacks, mutilation and madness as a constant backdrop.

  2. Mike

    June 4, 2013 at 9:03 AM

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Skywatcher. The point that you raise about the dark (indeed, noirish) quality that marks many of the original tales is a good one, and probably I could have used a more apt term than “boyish innocence.” But I’d make a clear distinction between the world outside 221B Baker Street and the world within that (yes) cozy sanctum. It’s the boundaries around the latter world that are breached in Dibdin’s novel, and I suppose that I was a little coy on that point—mainly in order to keep my review spoiler-free.

  3. Skywatcher

    June 7, 2013 at 5:51 PM

    Yeah, I see what you mean. It’s rather like the way that in hardboiled, you might see Philip Marlowe’s office as rather cozy, whilst Sam Spade’s isn’t. They’re not that different in content, but Spade is touched with darkness in the way that Marlowe isn’t. Equally, 221b is a safe haven to us. God, it’s difficult writing reviews that don’t contain spoilers, isn’t it?

  4. Mike

    June 8, 2013 at 9:46 AM

    Indeed. And ever there were a book that begs to have its plot spoiled, it’s this one!


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