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"The Adventure of the Memento Mori" is a Sherlock Holmes short story by Lyndsay Faye. It was first published in The Strand Magazine, and later included in her collection The Whole Art of Detection: Lost Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes. Occuring just after Holmes' return from the dead, Holmes and Watson must find and rescue an anonymous client while grappling with the future of their partnership.

Plot[]

Watson, having neglected his practice during his wife's final illness, now finds himself in dire financial straights. The reappearance of Sherlock Holmes has not helped, as the detective is constantly appearing to drag him away on his cases. Today is no different, and Holmes enters displaying a strange package he received in the mail. Inside the box is a small silver locket containing a lock of black hair - a memento mori, intended to commemorate a deceased person. Though Watson attempts to brush him off, insisting he must save his practice, Holmes is undeterred and shows Watson the strange note that accompanied the box, in a woman's writing.

The writer says she has read much about Holmes, and desperately begs him to save her, as she fears she cannot survive much longer. However, she cannot give him a specific location, mentioning only a rising tower, the sound of a train, a lighting-struck elm, and the smell of death. Watson, against his better judgement, is curious. Holmes determines that the woman has been confined in a small space, and does not know herself where she is. Furthermore, she must have been imprisoned for five months or more, as she as not heard of Holmes' death in "The Adventure of the Final Problem", which briefly makes Watson emotional. Holmes reluctantly admits that his familiarity with London has diminished because of his absence, and he cannot place the two most important clues - the rising, red-and-white tower and the smell of death, likely indicating a tannery outside the city. Holmes theorizes that the tower could be a municipal clock tower under construction, and Watson realizes that it must mean the new town hall in Croydon, begun a year after Holmes' "death" (a turn-of-phrase which rattles Holmes). With a sign, Watson grabs his revolver and follows Holmes outside to a waiting cab.

On the train to Croydon, Watson notices that Holmes is unusually agitated. Holmes tells him an anecdote about a pub-owner he once consulted for, who accused her son of embezzlement. She was proved correct, but Holmes felt that the pub itself was causing her more trouble than it was worth, and that she was much happier after selling it and moving in with her sister. Watson claims ignorance of the meaning of the anecdote.

In Croydon, Watson points out the half-completed clock tower. Holmes asks a laborer if there are any tanneries nearby, and the man points out several in opposite directions. Holmes chooses the hillier of the two directions, hoping to find the lighting-struck tree. Some ways outside of town they are hit with the stench of a tannery. A walled estate off the road strikes Holmes as unusual, and Watson spots the lightning-scarred tree in its garden. Holmes points out that this isolated location near the tanneries is strange for a grand new house. Furthermore, the spikes on the fence are facing inward, as if to keep the residents inside. A plaque by the gate reads "Dr. Henry Staunton's Private Rest Home for Ladies", and Watson realizes it is an asylum.

Holmes and Watson climb over the wall, and rush into the building through an unlocked back door. A cook tries to stop them, but Holmes and Watson dash through, with Holmes directing them to the second floor. Holmes breaks open a locked door and inside they find an emaciated woman with hair matching the locket. Watson goes to check on the woman, who begs him to stop the treatment, and realizes she is suffering from severe mercury poisoning. They are interrupted by Dr Staunton, who demands that they leave the house immediately and threatens to call the police. Watson and Holmes both pull out revolvers, and lock the doctor and his staff in the cellars. Holmes then summons the police while Watson tends to the lady and some of the other patients.

An investigation of the house reveals the patients had been subjected to barbaric treatments. The show of human barbarism triggers some kind of traumatic despair in Holmes, but Watson manages to bring him back, and Holmes thanks Watson for accompanying him. Watson suggests they question his client, whose name he has learned is Emilia Rorden, before the police take her away. They find her somewhat recovered after Watson's care, though he notes that the long-term effects of the mercury may never go away.

Miss Rorden explains that she suffers from epilepsy, which was a burden and embarrassment to her family. They had placed her under Dr Staunton's charge as he was the only specialist she could afford; unfortunately, she had forgotten his name as a result of the "treatment". His various procedures had an abnormally high mortality rate. She reveals that whenever one of his patients was close to death, Staunton would ask them for the name of a loved one to whom he would send a memento mori. Staunton seemed to take cruel pleasure in extinguishing his patients' hope, and reminding them that they would soon die. Miss Rorden had taken advantage of this. Having read about Holmes' exploits in The Strand, she had convinced one of the nurses that her package had been misaddressed and redirected it to Baker Street, along with her note. Holmes congratulates Miss Rorden on her courage and resourcefulness, and they leave her to rest.

On the train back to London, Holmes tells Watson that he should sell his practice and move back to Baker Street. He insists Watson's true profession is as a writer, and that he owes Watson more than he knows. Watson reminds Holmes that he had told him that he would have written several times during his absence, and asks what he intended to write. Holmes admits that he genuinely missed Watson, his only friend, and that it is as much for his sake as Watson's that he has asked him to return to Baker Street. Watson agrees to think about it, and within the month has rejoined Holmes in his former rooms.

Trivia[]

  • This story was in inspired by a reference to an unpublished case mentioned in "The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter", where Holmes, asked if he has ever heard of Godfrey Staunton, replies that he is only familiar with "'Henry Staunton, whom I helped to hang'". In this story, Watson states that Holmes would only take partial credit since Watson himself had found the clocktower.
  • Memento mori jewelry, Latin for "remember you will die", exhibits symbols associated with death and is intended as a reminder of the fleeting nature of life. The memento mori theme was common in Europe from the Middle Ages to the end of the Victorian period. Victorian-era mourning jewelry, intended to be worn after the death of a loved one, often included hair as a reminder of the individual, and Watson mentions having one of his wife in the story. The phrase "Omnes vulnerant, postuma necat" ("All hours wound, the last one kills") is a Latin proverb typically found on clocks and sundials.
  • Watson mentions that this case would not be the first time they were summoned to Croydon by a ghastly package, referring to the ears sent to Susan Cushing in "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box".
  • Holmes' disdain for the countryside is summed up in "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches", where Holmes claims "'the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.'"
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