Holmes is in his 90s, with a failing memory, living a retired life. Mrs.Hudson and Dr.Watson are long dead and Mrs.Munro is his housekeeper now. She follows his instructions diligently, but is a bit of a rebel. She has a young son, Roger, who is always eager to impress Holmes and wishes to follow in his footsteps. Roger has lost his father in the Great War and hence looks up to Holmes as a father figure and Holmes looks to him as a potential successor to his apiary and royal jelly (which is made from prickly ash and is believed to improve health) business.
The story takes place in two eras. In the past, the services of Holmes have been sought by Mr. Keller as he is concerned that after two miscarriages, his wife has been behaving rather oddly. He suspects that Madame Schirmer, her armonica music teacher, is teaching her to communicate with the dead. Holmes takes up the case only because he has never seen an armonica before and that he finds the photograph of Mrs. Keller, intriguing. Holmes was not satisfied with John’s account of this particular case and hence decides to present an honest account of it himself. He never got down to writing the whole story, just two chapters and now, thirty five years later, his memory of the case fails him and that is a cause of great concern to him.
In the present, Holmes returns from a journey to Japan. He has been invited there by an admirer of his works called Tamiki Umezaki, who has promised to show him some cuisines made from prickly ash. Upon reaching Japan, Holmes realises that the true intention of Tamiki to bring Holmes to Japan was to know about his father, Matsuda, who had gone to England for some work and in his last letter had mentioned meeting Holmes and had never been heard from since. Holmes, because of his failing memory, cannot recall Matsuda. Later, he recalls that Matsuda was in fact employed by the Commonwealth and was an honorable man.
The death of Roger soon after his return to England shakes him. He realises that after the death of Dr.Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Mycroft, Roger was the one person to whom he had grown close.Roger’s death acts as a catalyst and Holmes recalls the details of the affair thirty five years ago and finally completes the story. He recalls that Mrs.Keller was in fact not taking music lessons, but instead, used to sit in the garden made by the proprietor of the building and read books.
This novel is unique in that we get to see a completely different Holmes.He notices the malnourished children on the street.He stops to comment on them, and you could almost say that he was feeling remorse for them, something one never expects from Holmes.We also see him sitting beside a mother who is holding her dead child in her arms and offering her solace, even calling her ‘dear’.Had John been there, he would surely have exclaimed, ‘My dear Holmes!’.
But sometimes during the narrative, it feels as if Holmes’ story is left better told from Watson’s perspective as it then portrays Holmes as an enigma,as a reticent fellow, which viewers have been brought up to believe.
Read this book if you want to get to know the personal side of Holmes and not if you are looking for a case which will test Holmes to his limit.