43. The Adventure of the Empty House (1903)

This episode, we return to Baker Street at the same time as Sherlock Holmes. It’s ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ from September 1903.

You can read the story here: https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/The_Adventure_of_the_Empty_House

An audiobook version read by Greg Wagland can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-Hj_bi9Qto 

Listen to the episode here:

Or at our Youtube channel, www.youtube.com/@doingsofdoyle. Closed captions will be available two days after the video is uploaded.


Three years after Sherlock Holmes’ fatal encounter with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenback Falls, Dr John Watson still retains an interest in criminal affairs and, like most of the London public, is gripped by The Park Lane Mystery, the inexplicable locked room murder of the Honourable Ronald Adair. On a visit to the site of the crime, Watson has a tempered encounter with a decrepit old bookseller who later calls upon him to apologise. This unpromising meeting proves to be a turning point in Watson’s life and, once more, the game is afoot…

Writing and publication history

As discussed in Episode 34, Sherlock Holmes was presumed dead at the end of ‘The Adventure of the Final Problem’ (Dec 1903) but no body was found. Holmes then briefly reappeared in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), although that story was explicitly a reminiscence of Sherlock Holmes set before the events in Switzerland.

After the phenomenal publishing success of Hound, Conan Doyle was approached by Norman Hapgood, the new editor of the US magazine Colliers, to write a new series of short stories. After much negotiation, he settled on $30,000 for the US rights to eight new stories. Conan Doyle was able to obtain a further fee from The Strand for UK serialisation. Conan Doyle’s mother was somewhat trepidatious about the character’s return, although his brother, Innes, was delighted to see the detective return.

Conan Doyle finished the first story, ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’, at the end of March 1903, two weeks after signing with Collier’s. It was first published in Collier’s in the USA in September 1903, and very shortly thereafter in The Strand Magazine in the UK. It was first collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1904).

There was perhaps an undercurrent of concern about cultural appropriation of the character with the new series being financed from the US. P. G. Wodehouse expressed this in ‘The Prodigal’, a short pastiche printed in Punch (23 September 1903), in which Holmes is now “Sherlock P Holmes of Neh Yark City, USA.”

The story is one of the most hotly debated. For some of the best scholarship, see Solberg, Rothman, and Katz (eds), Out of the Abyss (2014) https://bakerstreetirregulars.com/2014/12/31/out-of-the-abyss/ and the Reichenbach Irregulars’ volume which we reviewed on the site https://www.doingsofdoyle.com/2021/05/give-me-morning-in-switzerland.html.

The return of Sherlock Holmes

Burgin's article in The Idler
In 1927, looking back over his time writing the Sherlock Holmes stories, Conan Doyle noted “I did the deed, but, fortunately, no coroner had pronounced upon the remains, and so, after a long interval, it was not difficult for me to respond to the flattering demand and to explain my rash act away.” (“Mr Sherlock Holmes to his readers”, Strand, March 1927).

The mechanics of the return may owe something to E. W. Hornung who had resurrected Raffles two years earlier in the story ‘No Sinecure’ (Scribners, January 1901). At the end of the first collection of Raffles stories, in the tale ‘The Gift of the Emperor’, Raffles dived into the Mediterranean, although this was perhaps more of a conventional cliffhanger than the depiction of his death.

Another possible influence was F. W. Hill’s real-life escape from a climbing accident in Zermatt, where Conan Doyle came up with the idea of killing Holmes in 1893. Richard Lancelyn Green and Marcus Geisser have pointed to the publication of an account entitled “The End of a Great Mountain Climber” in The Strand in January 1903.

The resurrection of Sherlock Holmes may also owe something to that of John Harmon in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend (1864) or The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), or even the Resurrection of Christ, if one accepts Samuel Rosenberg’s Freudian fever-dream, Naked Is the Best Disguise (1974).

Of the bookseller, Bliss Austin spotted that Grant Allen had written a book on Catullus: The Attis of Catullus, translated into English Verse with Dissertations on the Myth of Attis, on the Origin of Tree-worship, and on the Galliambic Metre (London, 1892). Allen held Attis to have been a tree-spirit. The bookseller may be a call back to Henry Wood in ‘The Crooked Man’.

Bartitsu was popularised by E W. Barton-Wright in articles in The Strand in March and April 1899. In October 1892, The Idler ran an article entitled ‘Japanese Fighting: Self-Defence By Sleight of Body’ by George Brown Burgin, who was part of the Idler set a correspondent of Conan Doyle’s in the early 1900s.

The Great Hiatus

Agvan Dorzhiev
Any contemporary reading EMPT would have read into Holmes’ description of his travels a distinctly Imperial theme and the locations strongly suggest that Holmes was working for the British government.

The British invasion of Tibet began in December 1903 but an earlier attempt, by Younghusband, promulgated by Lord Curzon, had been attempted in the Spring around the time that the story was written. Over the previous decade, the British were concerned about Russian influence, especially the actions of Russian national Agvan Dorzhiev who had the ear of the thirteenth Dalai Lama.

Persia again concerns the Great Game, with British concerns about Russian influence in Tehran. The region was unstable, with the Shah assassinated in 1896. Lord Curzon, who travelled central Asia extensively in the 1880s and early 1890s, spent much of 1889-90 in Persia and wrote Persia and the Persian Question (1892). According to Moran’s biography, his father, Augustus Moran, had once been British Minister to Persia. The actual Minister of the 1850s was Charles Augustus Murray…

Sherlock Holmes’ “short but interesting visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum” would have been impossible since the Khalifa was based at the Dervish capital at Omdurman. Khartoum had been the site of the death of General Gordon, one of Watson’s heroes, and the events of the 1880s inspired Conan Doyle’s The Tragedy of the Korosko (1897) and ‘The Three Correspondents’ (1896). The Sudan was the focus of renewed British interest in the early 1890s. Lord Kitchener led the Anglo-Egyptian reconquest of Khartoum, which came to a head with the Battle of Omdurman in 1898.

The reference to Mecca is most likely a nod to one of Conan Doyle’s boyhood heroes, Sir Richard Burton, who visited Mecca in disguise in 1853 and subsequently wrote an account of his adventure entitled A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to al-Madinah and Meccah.

Sven Hedin
As June Thompson and Catherine Cooke have observed, Sigerson is almost certainly based on Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin, whose accounts were published in The Times and later collected in a two-volume work, Central Asia and Tibet (1903).

The significance of these missions might lead us to question whether Watson was duped by Holmes at Reichenbach and the entire adventure was a set up with Mycroft’s support…

The two most significant novels of the Great Game are also contemporaneous with ‘The Empty House’: Buchan’s The Half-Hearted (1900) and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901). In many ways ‘The Empty House’ is a prototype thriller, foreshadowing the worldbuilding and espionage elements in Buchan’s Hannay and Leithen novels. Similarly, Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels also killed off its hero only to resurrect him (twice).

The Park Lane Mystery

Gordon-Cumming (centre) and Edward, Prince of Wales
In a letter of March 1903, Conan Doyle told his mother that the plot of ‘The Empty House’ had been provided by Jean Leckie, who would become his second wife in 1907. The plot is most likely the Ronald Adair storyline, which itself borrows from the Royal Baccarat Scandal (or the Tranby Croft Affair) of 1890. The story is an example of an early Locked Room mystery.

In September 1890, the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) was present at the home of the Wilsons in Tranby Croft, near Hull, when Sir William Gordon-Cumming, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Scots Guards, was caught cheating at cards. The guest promised not to reveal this fact so long as the soldier committed never to play cards again. However, the story came out, and Gordon-Cumming sued the Wilson family. The court case became a society scandal. Gordon-Cumming lost his case and was kicked out the British Army the next day.

Other notable card scandals in Conan Doyle’s works include that of Major Prenderghast of the Tankerville Club (where Moran was also a member) in ‘The Five Orange Pips’ and Colonel Upwood of the Nonpareil Club in Hound. Shortly after the Royal Baccarat Scandal, Conan Doyle wrote ‘A Regimental Scandal’ (US syndication, Indianapolis News, May 1892) which has a pleasing twist. One of Conan Doyle’s last stories was ‘The End of Devil Hawker’ (1930) which features a Regency version of Moran.

Moran and Camden House

Heavy Game of the Western Himalayas
As Watson observes, Moran’s biography marks him out as an Imperial hero. It also shows that he served in the Second Afghan War and could potentially have fought alongside Watson.

Moran’s Heavy Game of the Western Himalayas shows he was familiar with the region. Might he had been working for the Russians while Holmes was working for the British?

Moran’s use of expanding bullets sets him out as a bounder. Conan Doyle was incensed at the suggestion that the British had used dum-dums in the Anglo-Boer War and wrote a spirited defence in The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct (1902) only a year before writing ‘The Empty House’.

George Macdonald Fraser’s excellent novel Flashman and the Tiger (1997) borrows heavily from ‘The Empty House’ and sees a young Moran fighting at Rourke’s Drift. It culminates with Flashman being present in Camden House when Holmes and Watson capture Moran…

Conan Doyle’s description of Camden House has all the hall marks of a ghost story, and even has internal resonances with Bulwer-Lytton’s The Haunted and the Haunters (1859). The title too appears to be more in keeping with that genre, while also having a double meaning (the Empty House being both Camden House and 221B Baker Street).

Next time on Doings of Doyle…

We are joined by Andrew Lycett, author of the excellent biography Conan Doyle – The Man who Created Sherlock Holmes (2007), to discuss his latest book The Worlds of Sherlock Holmes (2023), which is available from all good bookshops now.


Thanks to our sponsor, Belanger Books (www.belangerbooks.com), and our supporters on Patreon and Paypal.

Image credits: Thanks to Alexis Barquin at The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopaedia for permission to reproduce these images. Please support the encyclopaedia at www.arthur-conan-doyle.com.

Music credit: Sneaky Snitch Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/


  1. Comment received from listener Andrew S Malac:

    At Mark's suggestion I am immodest enough to mention my article, "Early Wodehouse Doyleana and Sherlockiana, in Baker Street Miscellanea No. 27 (Autumn 1981) wherein I explain that a story appeared in some American newspapers from Montauk, Long Island saying a "letter received from London from Dr. A. Conan Doyle states that the creator of Sherlock Holmes ... will spend the summer at this place," this because "in some of the new stories Holmes's skill is to be employed in solving mysteries of American origin." This may help explain Wodehouse's "The Prodigal" as mentioned in this episode and in the show notes above.


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