Classic Book Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Origin of an Icon

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Wordsworth Editions, RRP £6.99, 1408pp)

Guinness World Records list Sherlock Holmes as being the most portrayed film character, being played by 75 actors in 211 films. This does not take into account the many plays, TV shows, radio serials and computer games he has also appeared in. And that list continues to grow with next year seeing another Guy Ritchie film and a second BBC series.

The trouble is that all these myriad manifestations tend to blur the original incarnation, adding little touches here and there, masking Conan Doyle’s creation. Holmes is such an iconic character that everyone thinks they know him. The trouble is that they really don’t; the public perception has crept significantly away from the ascetic, misogynistic, calculating machine that Conan Doyle created. For instance, the iconic deerstalker is never mentioned in the text, but shown in Sidney Padget’s Strand Magazine illustrations; and the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” is first said at the end of the 1929 film The Return of Sherlock Holmes. And yet, ask anyone to describe Holmes and these are the items they will describe, suggesting a separation of the character from the authorial canon. This is a Disneyfication, a reduction of a complex character down to what amounts to just a silhouette, complete with ridiculous ear-flaps.

Arthur Conan Doyle was a physician by training and a writer through boredom, hence his god-awful writing style. He always preferred writing historical romances, many of which are now utterly forgotten and it is probably best left that way. This inclination shows in some of the early Holmes stories, especially the first novel, A Study in Scarlet (1887), which is really only a detective story framing a romantic narrative (the term ‘romance’, in this context, has nothing to do with flowers and kissing girls; it is a highly idealised form of literature full of melodrama, cliché and ludicrous coincidences). This manner of literature is utterly at odds with the puzzle-solving, logical analysis of detective fiction and grates horribly against the reason for the reader’s interest.

But the lack of literary ability doesn’t always end badly. The occasional difficulty with the narratorial John Watson often feels like the first stirrings of literary examination. It’s as though Conan Doyle has inadvertently hit upon a meta-textual analysis, or deconstructionism from within his own fictional construct. Holmes even asserts at several points that Watson’s accounts are incorrect and misleading, indicating an existential disagreement between subject and narrator. This ongoing debate over the veracity of account encourages the reader to examine the text again, to question the point of view of the narrator. All unintended by Conan Doyle, of course.

Watson’s character displays occasional flashes of dry wit and humour, but this is tragically under-developed. If you only ever read one paragraph of Conan Doyle’s, please read the opening of ‘The Musgrave Ritual’, which contains the most elegantly pithy example of Victorian primness and dry humour as Watson describes some of Holmes’s more unusual habits: “I have always held, too, that pistol practice should be distinctly an open-air pastime”.

Holmes is described as being aloof and incommunicative, of being steely and cold. Many more learned commentators have deduced that he is autistic, or suffers from sociopathic tendencies, has manic depression or is suffering from childhood trauma. The narratorial description strays into contradictions at times: in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901) Holmes has ‘cat-like personal cleanliness’, and yet in the first description of him he has chemical stains all over his hands. He keeps tobacco in the toe of a Persian slipper and only once appears to show any emotion towards Watson – at the climax of ‘The Three Garradebs’. All this can either lend credibility to Holmes as a complex human, or be taken as ridiculous, cartoonish, over-embellishment, depending on the sympathy of the reader..

Now, let me introduce you to a thing called Hermeneutics. Broadly speaking this is the science of interpreting texts, of working out what the author really meant. All good works of literature should leave you thinking and wondering, still pondering what, if anything, it all really meant. If Shakespeare had cut the sub-text and made everything REALLY OBVIOUS then people would have lost interest very quickly. But because he didn’t we still debate his work today. The stories about Sherlock Holmes cut to the heart of why we read; they present puzzles with which we are encouraged to engage and interpret to find an solution. It is, however, eventually answered within the narration, thus closing the hermeneutic code, allowing you to smugly assign the text to your mental in-tray marked ‘solved’.

The enjoyment for a crime fiction aficionado is in this aspect of being challenged by a puzzle and matching wits with a world-renowned expert. The stories of Holmes were the first to do this in a form which we still recognise today and it is still, despite their fame and multiple media retellings, the main draw for their readers.

Conan Doyle certainly recognised these commercial and aesthetic necessities of the detective story and included odd little explanations from Holmes himself as to why he refuses to give away details until the very end of the story: it is just ‘his method’ apparently. This, of course, is merely because Conan Doyle recognised that the reader is essentially addicted by the need to answer the riddle and once the answer is given there is little necessity in continuing to read. I suspect the reader would happily accept the need for postponement of the answer till the end without the occasional preposterous – and uncharacteristic – reasoning from Holmes.

The problem for the modern reader is that the Holmesian world  is distinctly and vividly Victorian. It is a rather clichéd world, it has to be said, but this merely adds to the growing mountain of guilty pleasures surrounding Holmes. In particular is the Victorian love of the Gothic. There is no fog that cannot be a pea-souper, rolling oily down the street; no night which isn’t pitch-black and lurking; no moor or mountain without a howling dog and an eerie wind.

The Victorian also manifests itself in casual, if clearly defined, misogyny, racism, and class snobbery. Holmes does not like women, which we can accept as being a character trait much in keeping with his other foibles. However, most female characters are dealt with derisively as either great beauties or harridans. Watson gets married after the second novel The Sign of the Four (1890) and his wife is mentioned only in passing as Watson escapes her again and again to be with Holmes. Even her death warrants little if any mention. Non-Caucasian characters litter the text as objects of suspicion, fear, or even shame. ‘The Yellow Face’ is an interesting story for the depiction of race, since the ultimate reveal overturns Victorian ideas of race as well as our perception of those same ideas. It can also be safely asserted that Holmes’s clients are middle to upper class, the lower classes only fit to be his hired helpers in gathering information from the shadowy criminal world, the lower classes being all slightly shady.

Contemporary technology is exploited to the fullest extent: telegrams are sent and received in nearly every story; train timetables are of vital importance, as is many of the imports from various parts of the empire. In the later stories, especially the ones which were written after the first world war, telephones, cars and electricity are casually thrown in, not as plot points per se, but evocative of an era of technological advancement.

Conan Doyle does take a worryingly keen interest in employing such ‘sciences’ as phrenology though. Phrenology may have been popular speculation at the time but it was surely always a bit unlikely as a verifiable science, the lack of empirical data being just a minor point in its indefensibleness. It could be that Conan Doyle is using it as literary shorthand, dispensing physical and psychological description in the same breath; but it seems somewhat shallow for such a forensic analysis as Holmes’s to rely on.

Conan Doyle became fed up of writing Holmes stories; he tried to kill him off twice, once by dropping him off the Reichenbach Falls, the second through retirement to bee-keeping in Sussex, of all things. But public demand and a hefty wad of cash from publishers brought Holmes back both times, something which Conan Doyle may have been prepared for all along especially in the first ‘retirement’; why contrive such a manner of death for Holmes? Why have the principle narrator miss the vital point of death? Surely only to be able to resurrect your most popular character many years later, for plenty of money.

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