Thursday, January 26, 2023

Sherlock Holmes: The Shadow in the Window

As thin shadows swayed across my window blind, my fingers clutched the book to my chest. My throat muscles convulsed, and the blood trapped in my veins by the shock suddenly thundered on, rushing heat through my body.

It was him… the creeping man.

This was my first identifiable memory as a Sherlock Holmes fan.

Of course, the creeping man wasn’t actually outside my window; it was a crazy shadow cast by a tree devoid of its leaves in the winter. But that moment of utter terror experienced in my early twenties decided my favorite Sherlock Holmes short story for me.

The Creeping Man startles the imagination with its ghastly and Gothic possibilities, making it one of the most iconic of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories.


It is the year 1903, near the end of Sherlock Holmes’ professional career, and is the eerie tale of a middle-aged professor whose habits have taken on an unprofessional twist. He is short-tempered and violent, but also virile and more youthful than to be expected. The loyal family wolfhound despises his master who he used to love and letters. He whisks away packages from prying eyes as if they contain something shameful. Now his daughter, a lovely woman engaged to the professor’s male secretary, swears she saw her father’s face peering in at her from her window in the night, on the second floor of their home.

Such delectable shivers abound in just penning an all-too brief synopsis, and now to dive into the details of the specific whys that make The Creeping Man my favorite.

It contains that delightfully over-used Holmes quotation, “Come at once if convenient—if inconvenient come all the same.” What most people don’t realize if they’ve never read Doyle’s stories is that he only used that line once to summon Watson… in The Creeping Man

Let’s linger on the friendship of Holmes and Watson for a moment, on the reality these two men have been doing life together for twenty-two years. That length of close friendship is impressive.


Holmes needs Watson as his sounding board, his companion, and his confidante. Could Holmes solve his cases alone? Surely, and he most assuredly does since Watson could not possibly have been involved in all of them once they no longer shared living quarters. But when he knows the need is greatest, or perhaps simply because he feels a sense of loneliness of which readers are unaware, Holmes reaches out to his old friend, Watson.

And Watson comes, despite all of his commitments and responsibilities as a doctor with a thriving practice. It is possible Watson may resent Holmes’ demands upon his time, since he mentions that their travel in the story is “an easy effort on the part of Holmes, who had no roots to pull up, but one which involved frantic planning and hurrying on my part.” And yet a part of me thinks perhaps Holmes sends up a flare to his old friend just when it’s on the cusp of their being apart for too long. It sounds like Watson allows weeks and even months to pass without remembering to reach out to his friend. There is a good chance this is Holmes’ way of keeping their friendship chugging along. In that regard, perhaps it is Holmes who is the better friend than Watson, a thought most Watson fans might dislike, but it’s there all the same.


One cannot ignore the Gothic majesty of such a spectral tale. You might think when the professor’s face peered into his daughter’s window on the second story is the moment in my reading that I saw shadows on my wall. But no, it is earlier in the tale, a recollection by the secretary of a dark hallway and the image of his employer coming down it on his hands and feet. I still shudder all these years later to recollect the vivid wildness of my imagination that night when those shadows wreaked havoc with my bedroom window blinds.

And we arrive, finally, at the last, and most profound reason why The Creeping Man is my favorite of the Sherlock Holmes stories. In recent years there is an unfortunate misrepresentation of Holmes; that, as a scientist and a deductive reasoner, he is also an atheist.

Nothing could be further from the truth and the final paragraph of The Creeping Man proves it.


After he has solved the uncanny mystery, Holmes pauses for a moment to muse on the events of this case, a habit in which he occasionally indulges. During this moment, he says, “Consider, Watson, that the material, the sensual, the worldly would all prolong their worthless lives. The spiritual would not avoid the call to something higher. It would be the survival of the least fit. What sort of cesspool might not our poor world become?”

Sherlock Holmes was no atheist. We know little of his true spiritual beliefs, but, much like Doyle himself, there is enough of the spiritual in him to eradicate any misconception that Holmes did not believe in a Higher Power. The identity of that Higher Power remains an ill-defined mystery, but I can always hope.


  1. I agree that the modern view of Sherlock Holmes as atheist, unkind, and antisocial is really not supported at all by the canon. I guess because he's such a multifaceted and fascinating character, but doesn't fit easily into most molds, people like to define him by trying to figure out what he's not, rather than what he is? Oh well, we have the canon on our side :-)

    1. We do have the canon on our side! He was very complex, not just one thing or one set of ideals. My favorite moments with him are when he shows mercy where it might surprise people. I actually have the quote "I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies" from The Blue Carbuncle hanging in my cubicle at work, and it's from exactly one of those scenarios. He really is such a delightful literary character.


Thank you for your kind comments, which I adore!