The Return of Sherlock Holmes almost quite literally begins with Dr. John Watson practically being assaulted by an “elderly, deformed man…with sharp, wizened face peering out from a frame of white hair.” In any other story, his constant companion, mentor and fodder for his literary ambitions would give the old man a five second glance and proceed to spell out almost his entire life history. By the time this strange encounter between Watson and the crooked old bibliophile takes place—as described in the collection’s opening tale “The Empty House”—three have passed since Sherlock Holmes had fallen to his death from high above Reichenbach Fall, locked in a lethal embrace with his nemesis Professor Moriarty all the way down to their doom.
The actual literal opening of “The Empty House” has John Watson revealing that he is still actively involved in the world criminology as revealed by his profound distress with evidence related to the murder of the Honourable Ronald Adair; a murder which has gripped the attention of London somewhere to the level at which America was engrossed in the O.J. Simpson trial. Watson’s Sherlock-like independent investigation into the seemingly impossible circumstances of a murder by shooting in which nobody who should have been able to hear the gunfire reported doing so and in which the weapon which should have been discovered was not directly leads to Watson crossing path with the bothersome old crone. Watson—a military physician with experience in battlefront surgery—faints for what he insists was the first and last time in his life when the simple act of turning his back on the old man for a few moments allows the old man to reveal himself at last as Watson’s long-lost and presumed roomie at 221B Baker Street. And thus does “The Empty House” kick off a series of stories which quite literally tell the story of The Return of Sherlock Holmes…from the grave. (Well, that last part is maybe not so much literal.)
The resurrection of Sherlock Holmes in his masquerade as a hunchbacked senior citizen in “The Empty House” connects directly to his disguised character as part of his scheme to trap “Charles Augustus Milverton” in one of the collections’ later standout entries. The love of Holmes to insert a little theatricality to his normally coolly calculating person in the actually rather cruel manner in which he reveals his status as being among the living will be memorably resurrected in the famous scene in which he tricks the killer into exposing himself in “The Norwood Builder.”
As for the Professor and Mary Ann of The Return of Sherlock Holmes, ("and the rest"...get it?) the collection is widely viewed as featuring some of the best stories in the entire Holmes’ canon. A piece intriguingly titled A Statistical Analysis of the Sherlock Holmes Stories awards its top five star rating to 3 stories and four stars to 5 stories although, alas, it must also be admitted that three of the tales in The Return of Sherlock Holmes are deemed deserving of just a single star. (Which seems needlessly rough on “The Golden Pince-Nez” which may suffer more as mystery, but is far superior in terms of sustaining interest than the 4-star “Adventure of the Priory School.” Even Arthur Conan Doyle’s own selection of twelve favorite stories about his most famous literary creation reflects the quality of this collection as four stories from the volume managed to make it into his beloved dozen.
While The Return of Sherlock Holmes marks the definitive point at which the influence of Sherlock Holmes upon the reading public had clearly surpassed his creator’s ability to control him, Doyle nevertheless attempts once more to accomplish in “The Second Stain” what the publication of “The Empty House” proved he could not do with “The Final Problem.” Namely, get Sherlock off his back so he could have the time to explore other avenues of his creativity. “The Second Stain” quite literally begins (there is no almost about it!) with Dr. Watson informing the reader that this will last case that Sherlock solved that he will ever publish because Holmes is now retired to Sussex Downs where he spends his study bees rather than studying the habits of humans. Considering that two more collections of short stories once again originally published in The Strand magazine followed, it seems clear enough that Sherlock Holmes would continue returning despite every effort the author made to keep him down on the farm.