Greetings, kind readers. No, I haven’t given up on Dame Agatha. Just for a change, though, I thought I’d examine the lesser novels in the Sherlock Holmes canon. (Your regular programming will be back tomorrow.)
Until last year, I had only read one or two Conan Doyle short stories. You perhaps can’t appreciate how utterly bizarre that is, but since I spent a good deal of my senior highschool time studying crime fiction, I’m gobsmacked. Finally – as I settled in for the long wait before A Dance with Dragons is released in July – I stumbled across a copy of A Study in Scarlet, and decided it was time to give Holmes and Dr. Watson a try. Over several months, I read the complete “canon” – four novels and five collections of short stories – and experienced the ups-and-downs of Holmes’ forty-year career. Now, relax and bathe in my wisdom! (I kid; my opinions are pretty half-baked most of the time, let’s be honest…)
Today I’ll be covering the two bigger disappointments in the set, and in future posts I’ll showcase the average novels and then (hopefully) the gems. There won’t be any explicit spoilers (i.e., if I absolutely feel the need to tell you who the killer was, I’ll give you fair warning), but I will be covering some stories in good detail, so I’ll be letting you know if the denouement is ridiculous, clever, well-earned, shocking, etc.
On with the show:
In which Holmes and Watson investigate a seemingly impossible murder, and its links to buried treasure; buried, that is, beneath a web of deceit…
I was underwhelmed by A Study in Scarlet, but there was enough promise – not to mention a century of praise – for me to move on to the second novel; I was certain things would improve. Sadly, they didn’t.
The general attitude amongst Holmes fans – even those who will argue the merits of the early novels – is that Arthur Conan Doyle‘s writing style evolved considerably over time. This is to be expected (see, after all, this blog’s eponymous Queen of Crime), and it’s true. Unfortunately, Watson as narrator is – to say the least – uninteresting here. The good doctor is lacking the strong narrative voice he’ll gain in the ensuing short story collections, and he comes across as just as much of a dolt as Hastings in the lesser Christie short stories. His growing friendship with Mary Morstan at least imbues him with a thin film of characterisation, but it’s not much. The only real strength to Watson so far is that which Hastings couldn’t manage – outside of Christie’s dire Holmesian debacle The Big Four: his ability to take a weapon, and be obedient, resourceful and threatening (which we should expect, given his military service.)
The supporting characters are equally forgettable – including Mary – with the odd exception of the police characters. This is where Conan Doyle trumps many others, in my opinion: his police rarely match up to Holmes, true; but without exception, they’re well characterised, they rarely play the ‘angry authority figure’ card of removing Holmes from the investigation, and they’re usually pleasant chaps, if of average intelligence. The only shining moments of the first novels are when Holmes, Watson and one or more detectives plot together – it feels like an easy, comfortable ensemble piece.
At some point, I guess I should mention Sherlock Holmes himself. The creation of Holmes was, of course, a masterstroke that would send ripples through the crime fiction genre; ripples that would still be felt over a century later. His methods of deduction are always clever, but his arrogance – like that of Hercule Poirot – hasn’t quite risen to the fore yet, meaning that his constant, ponderous explanations of how he noticed a clue seem to be either the ramblings of someone with a social disorder, or the constant trick of an author who hopes you haven’t forgotten his gimmick from the previous chapter. (Neither of these are inherently “bad”, but they get tiring!) Holmes was nothing more than a cipher in A Study in Scarlet, and that issue is resolved here: his drug habit and his ability to grasp Watson’s feelings at least create the sense of a true character. He remains unlikeable, however, which will – thankfully – be fixed in the next book. We’re supposed to be confounded – like Watson – by his aloof personality, but Holmes’ treatment of other members of the human race is just off-putting. I adore characters who are hard to like, I really do, but there comes a point when Holmes seems downright ignorant and dismissive. Like his equivalent in the 2000s – Dr. House, for example (see A Study in Scarlet) – this affect is supposedly tempered by his desire to help the innocent and the fearful. However, the fact that he only seems to have a heart for small children just leads me to assume he is a sociopath.
(Incidentally, the Baker Street Irregulars – that group of rambunctious street urchins who discreetly assist Holmes in his cases – are delightful in every aspect.)
Finally, there is the mystery itself, and here, Conan Doyle reveals himself as being influenced mostly by pulp. As with A Study in Scarlet, the mystery is decidedly outlandish: cannibalistic midgets, wooden legs, etc, etc. It’s escapism, sure, but the problem is that these mysteries are almost tailor-made for Sherlock Holmes to solve. Perhaps this is why Conan Doyle treats the policemen so gently: no human being could possibly expected to figure this out. One of the toughest elements of writing dialogue is witty ripostes: they’re great when done well but, and I apologise for the blasphemy here, writers such as The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin often cheat. If you create a character whose sole point of existence is to speak in idiotic sentences, then it’s a cakewalk to have your sophisticated character respond with a wry bon mot. That was really just an excuse to diss Sorkin, but a similar situation develops here: when the size of a window, or a trace element of some unknown substance, can lead you to the most remote tribe or some archaic ritual, you’re neither providing clues for the audience to play along with, nor solving them at a rate we can understand. I get that there are no inherent “rules”, and I understand that Holmes’ appeal lies in his lateral thinking, but – strange though it may seem – a complex-yet-rational drawing-room mystery may have drawn me in more. Piecing together clues within my human scope of comprhension would be a plus.
In closing, I’m sure The Sign of the Four could be read by a newcomer, and possibly convince them to return, but it’s – in my opinion – pulp.
In which Dr. John Watson finds an odd flatmate, and the pair investigate a mysterious death.
Sherlock Holmes – as we learn from his new flatmate, Dr. Watson – has a vast knowledge of chemistry and biology, and a photographic memory for criminals, however he lacks even rudimentary awareness of politics, literature, and so on. This is a satisfactory-enough justification both for Holmes’ seemingly supernatural ability to link one minute stain to a rare tropical plant, for instance, but sadly it’s about all we learn of the great detective in A Study in Scarlet.
I confess that I have a bias against the “one really smart quirky man outdoes everyone else” style of story. Holmes is an early example, but it’s popped up from time to time on television, and was resoundingly prevalent through the 2000s (to wit: House, Monk, and all their lesser progeny). For me, this weakens the narrative. Even on the best shows, the rest of the ensemble can be reduced to sounding boards for our God of a leading man (or woman, if you’re one of the basic cable channels), and any examination of the protagonist shifts between “how do I deal with these puny humans while remaining so brilliant?” or “how do I deal with this one case that I got wrong in eight years?” Give me a conflicted bully like Tony Soprano, lacking in self-awareness and unable to accept that he may be screwed-up – until he realises he can blame everything bad about him on his mother – and I’m happy. But, I digress… Holmes’ paradoxes and fickle moods are documented, but their friendship is still embryonic. Watson can give us no insight into Holmes’ life, and Holmes offers none, so he remains a cipher.
Treating A Study in Scarlet as a “pilot episode”, however, yields more fruit. Most fascinating are the elements of contemporary life: the beggars who work for Holmes, the methods of policing we see in Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade, the equivalent disadvantages of investigating in this period, and other tiny snippets – I adore how, in a world before television or class miscegenation, an advertisement placed in the right newspaper will inevitably yield answers.
Historically, it’s the first half of the book which is important: the investigation by Holmes, Watson and their assorted colleagues. The clues mount up, fascinating in turn, and there’s a genuine sense of urgency as we race toward the climax. On the downside Conan Doyle doesn’t write natural dialogue yet. As a result, the discussions between Watson and Holmes come across more as a treatise on how detective work – in both the real world and the fictional one – is evolving and progressing. Whilst this is all interesting, particularly to someone like myself, it feels like an essay first and a story second, instead of the other way around.
It’s the second half of the book – which does not feature our protagonists – which is gripping, although still a mixed bag. Conan Doyle is an admirable prose writer, and his description of the events twenty years prior to the murder is captivating. It’s filled with archetypes, true, and a lamentably Hergé-ian portrayal of America, but I defy you to lose interest. On the other hand, it’s riddled with anti-Mormon sentiment. I’m no religious sympathiser myself – and Big Love and South Park wore away any respect I may have had for the Mormon faith – but I simply couldn’t take it seriously as [SPOILER!] the narrator assured usthat Mormons kill or destroy anyone who attempts to leave their faith.
Next time: We’ll examine two average sets of short story collections, which between them encompass most of the flaws and highlights of Conan Doyle’s style.