Book Notes: Sherlock Holmes

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

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“There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”

Everyone knows the character, but have you ever read any of the Sherlock Holmes stories? Until recently, I hadn’t, but a friend runs a book club and this month’s selection is The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle’s first collection of stories, so I finally took a look. Here are a few random observations:

1. Holmes is one of the most influential and popular characters in English literature, right? First, there are the straight adaptations of Conan Doyle’s work like the movies starring Robert Downey Jr, the recent BBC series, and the new American adaptation (with Holmes living in New York and Watson played by Lucy Liu). But then there are all the other eccentric detective shows like The MentalistPsych, and House. Seems like whenever you have a private investigator solving crimes by unorthodox means, you can trace the character back to Holmes. Batman is another obvious successor. Finally, procedurals like CSI and Law & Order are descendants too. Dick Wolf has even explicitly said in interviews that the Sherlock Holmes stories were a key influence on the various Law & Order series. Pretty impressive for stories that are a century and a quarter old.

2. I think one of the reasons the stories remain popular is because they feel pretty modern. When you think of the traditional English murder mystery, like Agatha Christie, you picture the closed world of the great manor house or luxury train car and the cast of a dozen suspects. Holmes, on the other hand, exists in the bustling, global city of London. Indeed, there’s an international connection in almost every story. In the eight I read, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Cleveland, France, Bohemia, Germany, Afghanistan, Florida, and Switzerland are visited or referenced in some way.

As for the Holmes character himself, he’s an arrogant, pushy, hyperintellectual, sexless, dark loner with an unwavering faith in science who’s an amateur musician and drug addict. That pretty much describes half the users on reddit.

3. That said, I found the stories themselves to be disappointing for the most part. It’s like Conan Doyle constructed this wonderful instrument but didn’t know how to play it. The structure of the short stories is fairly rigid:

  1. Short prologue with Watson
  2. Watson gets a message from Holmes, “I need your help, there’s been a crime.”
  3. Holmes delivers a long monologue during which the mystery is explained.
  4. Holmes and Watson go to the scene of the crime. Incredulity from police that Holmes can be of any help. Holmes demonstrates his superior powers. “Why, I can tell from that footprint that the thief walks with a limp, he has recently come back 5-year tour of the Congo, he has 3 brothers and 2 sisters — however his mother died giving birth to his youngest sibling — he had roast beef for lunch, and his favorite play is Macbeth.”
  5. Holmes solves the mystery, but it’s withheld from the audience.
  6. Holmes confronts and unmasks the wrongdoer. Wrongdoer delivers a monologue about how and why he or she committed the crime.

The main problem is that Holmes is almost never wrong, so there aren’t enough story turns. In Story, Robert McKee talks about “the gap,” i.e. when there’s a disconnect between a character’s expectation of the world and actual reality. When the gap opens up, the character is tested. We, the audience, lean forward at those moments to observe how the character will act. It’s one of the tricks storytellers have to keep us engaged. If a character is always correct, then the gap never opens and stories start to feel flat and lifeless.

There’s one notable exception, though, the story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” in which Holmes is outwitted by the American actress, Irene Adler. (Speaking of Adler, she’s a far better and more interesting nemesis for Holmes than Prof. Moriarty. Moriarty makes one appearance in the Holmes canon and it’s a complete let-down.)

4. One last quick note about A Study in Scarlet, the novella that introduced Holmes to the world. Half the story is a murder investigation in London and the other half is a flashback of what motivated the murders. The flashback takes place in Utah and the villain is no less than Joseph Smith and the Mormons. When the BBC adapted this story for their living-in-modern-London Sherlock series they excised the Utah/Mormon half. Talk about a missed opportunity! They should’ve kept that part intact and made the villain Tom Cruise and Scientologists.

So what do you guys and gals think? And has anyone read Conan Doyle’s Lost World or Brigadier Gerard stories?

About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
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6 Responses to Book Notes: Sherlock Holmes

  1. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Smart observations. I had some similar feelings when I read a bunch of the stories a while back. Holmes is basically a walking deus ex machina, a glorified story device. But whenever I found myself thinking those things, I tried to pull back and remind myself that I was reading dime-store fiction by a guy who was basically an amateur. As a character, Holmes is a great collection of details, no? And some of the schemes, clues and characters featured in the stories are very cleverly conceived. And isn’t it great how Conan Doyle was able to spin that simple formula into a little literary empire? (Am I making a good argument here? I’m not sure I’ve managed to convince myself.) Sometimes it seems to me that a lot of the worth of pop culture lies in the details. In long shot a given work may seem rote and undercooked, but then the close-up reveals all this richness of detail — and it’s usually that detail that people remember, that ends up having an impact, etc.

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    • Blowhard, Esq. says:

      >>Holmes is basically a walking deus ex machina, a glorified story device.

      Yeah, the real subjects of the stories are the criminals. Holmes is almost a framing device to allow the criminal to tell his or her story — which we get when Holmes delivers a monologue about the crime and later when the criminal delivers his/her own monologue about their MO.

      >>As a character, Holmes is a great collection of details, no?

      I agree. Like I said, it’s no wonder he’s been hugely influential.

      >>In long shot a given work may seem rote and undercooked, but then the close-up reveals all this richness of detail — and it’s usually that detail that people remember, that ends up having an impact, etc.

      Again, I agree. The great thing about structure is that it allows for endless variation, elaboration, subversion, etc. Law & Order has a rigid structure too (Prologue with NY local color, crime is discovered, detectives arrive, elder detective makes darkly-comic quip, commercial), one that kept it on air for 20+ years.

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  2. Fenster says:

    I read them all at about age 12 or 13 and loved them. I distinctly recall being most attracted to the language, to the somewhat archaic sentence constructions and the satisfying long-windedness. I like that when Brits tell a story that getting there can be half the fun. I never warmed to Hemingway or what he wrought.

    That said all your observations on story structure and “the gap” seem right to me. I have returned a few times to reread as an adult and things didn’t click the way my memories suggested they should, and I think the formulaic quality is a big reason why.

    I used to love to read to the kids when they were little but I hated reading Scooby-Doo. Creative types may have missed him but for us civilians he was/is unavoidable. Each Scooby story is exactly like the next: a monster or ghoul terrorizes, Scooby and the gang investigate, they have their share of scares along the way and they finally unmask the baddie. Each ghoul or monster is not real but is a character from the specific plot in the story that has faked the monster thing for nefarious ends. In each and every story the unmasked bad guy says “and I would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for that darned dog!”

    The kids loved it, couldn’t get enough. How I regretted ever buying that big story book of Scooby stories–I knew that when I started it, it would be curtains for me, stuck reading one after another until the nth predictable conclusion.

    Kids like that predictability. It is not just the simple satisfaction of the good guy winning that they lIke. It is also learning and rehearsing the pleasures of structure and genre. That may be why I loved Holmes stories more at 13.

    My 13 year old daughter was recently smitten. In fact I just got The Adventures of from the library and she is hard into it. It would be interesting to see whether current Holmes readership tilts to the young more than it did in the Victorian era. Could well be that while Holmes has been massively influential his actual stories have been played out for those who have completed their genre learning.

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  3. Like Fenster I read the Holmes books when I was 12 or 13 — a perfect age for them. Loved them, and I’m pretty sure I read them all. Part of it for Americans of our era was the English thing, I suspect. Looking back it was an amazing era: in music and style, the British invasion, in movies the early James Bond years, in cars the era of Jags and MGs … Carnaby Street, David Bailey, Suzy Kendall, Richard Lester, all that. For me the Holmes stories were part of general England-besottedness, although in their own way — not pop and up to date, obviously, but all foggy moors, fireplaces, and chill and dampness. At the time, at least as a kid, you just took it for granted that England and Englishness were magical.

    FWIW, I remember being very moved at the end of the Holmes story-cycle. So it isn’t like the stories failed to work up any emotions on my part. Hey: 13 year old boys, eh? It’s funny what moves them.

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    • Blowhard, Esq. says:

      >>For me the Holmes stories were part of general England-besottedness, although in their own way — not pop and up to date, obviously, but all foggy moors, fireplaces, and chill and dampness. At the time, at least as a kid, you just took it for granted that England and Englishness were magical.

      Even if the Holmes stories are a little wanting on the story level, as FdW points out, there’s so much cool detail and atmosphere to carry you through. Another thing the stories got me thinking about is the appeal of steampunk. The cobblestone and brick, horses trudging through the streets, gas lamps, tobacco smoke hanging in the air, dark book-lined rooms, objects that were mass-produced but still felt hand-made, men in tails and top hats, women in corsets — great stuff. I have reprints of the Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogs from the late 1890s and it’s a lot of fun to browse through them. Oh, yeah, and the graphic design of the period is charming too. Check this out: http://boingboing.net/2012/08/08/advertising-supplement-from-18.html

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  4. Pingback: “Flashman” | Uncouth Reflections

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