Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Sussex Vampire

Dates :

Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire in November of 1896. Watson does not give us a date, but Holmes has received a note dated the nineteenth of November, confirming Baring-Gould's month. While we cannot be certain of the year, Baring-Gould's calculation (based on dates and weather patterns) is quite convincing. The story was first published in January of 1924.


Sherlock Holmes, his feet planted firmly upon the ground, can only scoff when he receives word that he has been recommended on a case concerning vampires. Despite Holmes' conviction that no ghosts need apply, he does indeed take up the case, and soon discovers that the mystery transcends a supernatural explanation. A lame dog, a wall of South American curiosities, and a reflection in a window pane are all that Holmes needs to bring the case to a satisfactory, if not desirable, conclusion.

The Subtext:

Holmes had read carefully a note which the last post had brought him. Then, with the dry chuckle which was his nearest approach to a laugh, he tossed it over to me.

Although not directly of interest to the student of subtext, we wish to point out a slight error in Watson's narrative. Watson distinctly tells us that a dry chuckle is Holmes' nearest approach to a laugh, and yet, on numerous other occasions, Watson has written of Holmes laughing out loud. A prime example would be the occurrence in SIGN, in which Sherlock Holmes and I looked blankly at each other and then burst simultaneously into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. Other incidences can be found in STUD, MISS, and REDH (the latter in which Holmes lets out a roar of laughter), to name a few.

One must question, then, why it is that Watson saw fit to tell us that Holmes was, in essence, incapable of laughter. Could it be that this case succeeded an argument? Perhaps Holmes was in a sour mood, and had been from some time, hence Watson's inability to recall Holmes' laughter. While the pair do not appear to be arguing during this case, it is preposterous to assume that Holmes and Watson's relationship was without its problems. Holmes and Watson would not be human were they not prone to the occasional spat.

Oddly enough, we begin to see a possible reason for this tiff (and, indeed, we will identify an additional reason in our analyses of The Missing Three-Quarter), for Holmes, after Watson has read the note referencing a case involving Matilda Briggs, is very careful to note that:

"Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson," said Holmes in a reminiscent voice.

Is it unreasonable to suggest, then, that Holmes and Watson were subject to a falling out, and that this falling out centered around a young woman? One can easily imagine a young female client showing interest in Holmes, much to Watson's dismay. This would naturally lead to a fit of jealousy and possessiveness on Watson's behalf, which Holmes would undoubtedly dismiss; further angering Watson in the process. While this is mere speculation, what is undoubtedly clear is that, by this point, whatever row occurred between the two men has long since passed, and they are well on their way to making amends.

Holmes' statement leads him to reminisce over the case which he casually refers to as the Giant Rat of Sumatra, an intriguing introduction to the topic of vampires. Holmes then requests that Watson make a long arm and see what V has to say. Watson does so, and then tells us:

Holmes balanced it on his knee, and his eyes moved slowly and lovingly over the record of old cases, mixed with the accumulated information of a lifetime.

Odd, is it not, that Watson should refer to Holmes' manner as loving. For a man Watson once accused of being a machine, this is a clear indication that Holmes has changed. So, too, we suspect, has Watson's insight, for it is apparent now that Watson is far more intimately acquainted with Holmes than he once was.

Unsatisfied that the case before him has anything to do with the supernatural, Holmes then turns his attention to the second letter he has received. In it, the author, Robert Ferguson, claims affiliation with Watson. As it turns out, Ferguson and Watson are old Rugby pals, a confirmation which causes Holmes to state:

Holmes looked at me thoughtfully and shook his head.

"I never get your limits, Watson," said he. "There are unexplored possibilities about you."

While we cannot agree more (there are, indeed, unexplored possibilities about Watson) it is quite remarkable to hear Holmes confess this. In fact, it is quite easy to imagine that Watson was the one person Holmes was incapable of fully deducing. As such, Watson is constantly able to surprise and amaze Holmes; a trait which Holmes undoubtedly found quite refreshing. We begin to see, then, part of Watson's appeal, for Holmes must have found him an unending source of interest and intrigue.

Having read the second letter, Holmes agrees to take on the case, and so arranges that Ferguson should meet them at Baker Street the next morning. Their interview is short, for Holmes feels he may be of more use at Lamberley than in London. His remark comes as a great relief to Ferguson, who expressions some doubt at Holmes' sincerity. To this, Holmes replies:

"Of course we could come. There is a lull at present. I can give you my undivided energies. Watson, of course, comes with us."

Note that Holmes does not ask if Watson will come with them. Nor does he even consider the possibility that Watson might not come. It is taken for granted that Watson will come, and we cannot help but suspect that this is because Holmes was no longer able (or willing) to work without his Watson.

The pair soon head out to Lamberley, in Sussex, so that Holmes might begin his investigation. There, he is quickly able to put the pieces together and prove that Mr. Ferguson's wife is not, in fact, a vampire. Indeed, it was his eldest son, from a previous marriage, who was responsible for poisoning Mrs. Ferguson's infant, and Mrs. Ferguson was merely attempting to suck the poison out, lest it kill her child.

Mr. Ferguson does not take the news well, and this allows for a very uncharacteristic move on Holmes' behalf.

Holmes put his hand soothingly upon his arm.

We have noted before the subtle change in Holmes which occurred after his return, and we see here that Holmes continues to gain a sense of empathy. He is steadily becoming more human, and we can tie this shift directly to Holmes' relationship with Watson. Truly, Watson has changed Holmes for the better.

Indeed, in addition to this empathy, Holmes has also become increasingly considerate:

"This, I fancy, is the time for our exit, Watson," said Holmes in a whisper.

While Holmes has never been one to linger beyond the conclusion of a case, we cannot help but note that Holmes' desire to leave occurs simultaneously with Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson's reunion. Holmes seems to know exactly when to leave a couple to their own devices, a telling trait, suggestive of the fact that Holmes is not a stranger to love. As we have seen no other proof to substantiate an outside relationship for Holmes, we must therefore assume that Holmes is involved in an inside relationship. As the only person within his intimate circle is Watson, we can therefore conclude that Holmes and Watson were very much a couple.

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