PATHOLOGICAL POSSIBILITIES: CONTAGION AND EMPIRE IN DOYLE'S SHERLOCK HOLMES STORIES
BY THE TIME “THE ADVENTURE OF THE DYING DETECTIVE” appeared in the Strand magazine in 1913, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's readers were already familiar with the dynamics of the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and his “friend and colleague” Dr. Watson. They would thus not have been surprised to see Holmes, lying apparently delirious and deathly ill, pointing out with his last breath the intellectual limitations of the friend who has come to cure him: “Shall I demonstrate to you your own ignorance? What do you know, pray, of Tapanuli fever? What do you know of the black Formosa corruption?”“I have never heard of either.”“There are many problems of disease, many strange pathological possibilities, in the East, Watson.” He paused after each sentence to collect his failing strength. “I have learned so much during some recent researches which have a medico-criminal aspect. It was in the course of them that I contracted this complaint. You can do nothing.” (DYIN 2: 388) 1 But this dissertation on the good doctor's “ignorance” is more than a commentary on Watson's personal shortcomings; it is the voice of the specialist declaring that the “general practitioner” is not competent to treat this kind of complaint. Disease has slipped out of the realm of medicine and into the province of the “medico-criminal” expert. Britain's expansion into “the East” has introduced it to “pathological possibilities” that cannot be shut down through the operations of ordinary medical science and which must instead be contained by Holmes's own special “powers” (388).
1 I cite from the two-volume Bantam Classic edition, Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories. Like other Holmes scholars, I have also followed the convention of using the standard four-letter abbreviations set out by Jack Tracy's The Encyclopedia Sherlockiana.