“The Adventure of the Dying Detective” is different from other Sherlock Holmes mysteries written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Usually Sherlock is confronted with a strange set of circumstances, so that he has to use his analytic powers to solve a mystery. In this story, there was no mystery to solve. He already knew who the criminal was, but he could not prove it.
At the beginning of the story, Sherlock apparently had a fatal sickness. Sherlock’s deplorable appearance aroused the maternal instincts of Mrs. Hudson, his landlady. Usually she was a patient woman who never interfered in Sherlock’s activities, but now she insisted on calling a doctor, whether he liked it or not. In reply, Sherlock agreed to see Dr. Watson.
When Dr. Watson arrived, Sherlock was absolutely impossible. He would not let the good doctor approach him. He claimed that he had contracted a contagious tropical disease. Dr. Watson would get sick and die if he touched Sherlock.
Dr. Watson said that he would risk his life even while treating a stranger, so he would certainly risk his life for a friend.
Sherlock then insulted Dr. Watson. He called him a general practitioner with limited experience. He wanted to see a doctor in whom he had more confidence.
Dr. Watson felt hurt, but he proposed to fetch Dr. Aintree, who was an expert in tropical diseases.
As Dr. Watson started to leave, Sherlock sprang out of bed and locked the door. He told Dr. Watson that he would let him go for help at six o’clock, but Sherlock reserved the right to name the person who would treat him.
While waiting for six o’clock to arrive, Dr. Watson tried unsuccessfully to do some reading. Then he walked about the room and examined some items on the mantelpiece. He saw a black and white ivory box with a sliding lid.. As he stretched out his hand to pick it up, Sherlock uttered a horrible scream. He told Dr. Watson not to monkey with his things.
Dr. Watson thought that Sherlock’s sickness was causing his erratic behavior. When six o’clock arrived, Sherlock began to talk nonsense, so that Dr. Watson was convinced that his mind was wondering.
Before allowing Dr. Watson to leave, Sherlock asked him to put some letters and papers on a table near his bed. He also told his friend to pick up the black and white ivory box with tongs and deposit it on the same table.
Sherlock wanted Dr, Watson to fetch Mr. Culverton Smith. He was not a medical doctor, but he had made a thorough study of the coolie disease of Sumatra, which Sherlock had contracted. Culverton used to be a resident of Sumatra, and there had been an outbreak of this disease on a plantation that he owned.
Sherlock warned Dr. Watson that Culverton Smith might not want to come. The former planter had a grudge against Sherlock, since the detective suspected that Culverton had murdered his nephew. So Sherlock asked Dr. Watson to tell Culverton what he was suffering and plead with him to come and help.
He also told Dr. Watson not to accompany Culverton as he came. Rather, he should return to Sherlock’s apartment before Culverton arrived.
As Dr. Watson left Sherlock’s residence, he happened to see Inspector Morton of Scotland Yard. Strangely, when Dr. Watson described Sherlock’s deplorable condition, he thought he saw a gleam of exultation in the inspector’s eye.
When Dr. Watson arrived at his destination, Culverton told his servant to send him away. However, Dr. Watson pushed past the servant and entered Culverton’s study uninvited.
Since Culverton was hard at work, the intrusion made him angry. However, when Dr. Watson mentioned the sickness of Sherlock Holmes, he immediately became interested. He asked many questions and received the following information. Sherlock Holmes had contracted a tropical disease while working with Chinese sailors at the dock. He had been sick for three days and was occasionally delirious. Sherlock wanted Culverton to come and help him because of his expert knowledge of tropical diseases.
Culverton agreed to visit Sherlock. As Sherlock had requested, Dr. Watson returned to Sherlock’s residence before Culverton got there.
Sherlock told Dr. Watson to hide behind the bed. He said that Culverton would express his opinion more frankly if he thought that he was alone with Sherlock Holmes.
When Culverton came, Sherlock thanked him for coming, Sherlock told him that he had contracted the same disease that Culverton’s nephew had contracted when he died.
Sherlock knew that Culverton had killed his nephew by exposing him to the tropical disease, but he had not been able to prove it. In the ensuing conversation, Sherlock induced Culverton to implicate himself in the murder. Then he promised to forget what Culverton had said if the former planter would help him recover.
Culverton said it did not matter whether or not Sherlock remembered because the detective would never be in a witness box. He would soon be in a different kind of box. (He meant that Sherlock would soon be in a coffin.)
Culverton then suggested that Sherlock did not get sick from his contact with Chinese sailors but from some other source. He challenged Sherlock to use his analytic power to figure out some other way that he might have contracted the disease.
Sherlock said that he was too sick to think clearly, so Culverton told him. Sherlock had received an ivory box in the mail. When Sherlock opened it, a contaminated spring wounded Sherlock. Culverton had sent the box. He wanted to kill Sherlock because he knew too much about the death of his nephew.
Culverton had not come to help Sherlock. Rather, he wanted to be sure that Sherlock knew who killed him. To remove the last piece of evidence against himself, Culverton put the ivory box in his pocket. Then he sat down to watch the detective die.
Sherlock complained that darkness was overwhelming him and asked Culverton to turn up the gas light. Culverton complied.
Sherlock then stopped pretending. Turning up the light was a signal to Inspector Norton. The inspector entered the room and arrested Culverton for the murder of his nephew and the attempted murder of Sherlock Holmes.
Culverton thought that Sherlock could not prove anything. He said that his word was as good as Sherlock’s. However, Sherlock then produced his witness: Dr. Watson, whom he had stationed behind his bed for this very purpose.
Sherlock had not eaten or drunk anything for a long time so that he could appear sick. He apologized to Dr. Watson for deceiving him. Since Dr. Watson was not a good actor, he would not have been able to convince Culverton that Sherlock was sick unless he believed it himself.
This also explained Sherlock’s rudeness when Dr. Watson attempted to examine him. If Dr. Watson had subjected Sherlock to a regular examination, he would immediately know that Sherlock was only pretending to be sick.
“Sherlock Holmes” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Bantam Classic