My mystery book group read two Arthur Conan Doyle novellas for its last meeting: A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. I think I read some Sherlock Holmes when I was a kid because I remember the volume my father owned, and I remember pulling it down off the shelves and reading at least some of it. But I have no memory of the actual stories, so this is essentially a first reading.
It’s interesting to read the books now that I know at least a little something about the Victorian era, because they seem so much of their time. They are obsessed with rationality and order, with list-making and codification and analysis, which suits a culture undergoing industrialization and running an empire. But they are also obsessed with all that they feared could undermine these things, most especially with the dangerous, uncertain colonial periphery — a good chunk of A Study in Scarlet is about the Mormons out in the wild west of America (not colonial, obviously, but a threatening boundary area) and The Sign of Four uses the 1857 Indian mutiny as a backdrop. I was interested in the fact that so much of A Study in Scarlet is given over to the Mormon story; in an abrupt, disorienting shift, you all the sudden find yourself whisked away from London out to the hot desert and suddenly you are reading a romance or what could be the plot of a western movie. It’s as though the book didn’t quite know what it wanted to be, as though it’s trying to bring in as much material as it possibly can and tame it all and make it all make sense, and it only partially succeeds.
The books also seem very much of their time in terms of their narrative structure — the focus of the books seems to be Sherlock Holmes, but he isn’t the narrator and we don’t have an anonymous third person narrator who focuses closely on him. Instead we have Watson, who, with the exception of the American section, tells us about Holmes from his own first-person perspective. There is a distancing effect from what seems to be the main show, so instead of getting Holmes directly, we get him filtered through another character. This reminds me of the structure of The Great Gatsby, but all the other models for this type of narrative that come to mind are 19th century — Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Jekyll and Hyde. This structure puts more emphasis on the relationships among the characters, so what is interesting about the Holmes books becomes the relationship between Watson and Holmes, rather than just Holmes himself.
And without Watson, Holmes would seem even odder and more bizarre than he already does. He’s a manic-depressive drug addict, after all, and although his drug use was perfectly legal at the time, it still is a striking feature of his character. He makes it clear that he solves mysteries in order to keep from falling into boredom and depression, and when he doesn’t have a case to keep his mind active, his drugs keep him from despair. When Watson asks him if he is currently working on a case, this is his answer:
None. Hence the cocaine. I cannot live without brainwork. What else is there to live for? Stand at the window here. Was ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world? See how the yellow fog swirls down the street and drifts across the dun-colored houses. What could be more hopelessly prosaic and material? What is the use of having powers, Doctor, when one has no field on which to exert them? Crime is commonplace, existence is commonplace, and no qualities save those which are commonplace have any function upon earth.
Fortunately, right at that moment, the doorbell rings, and a young woman (a young woman Watson finds most interesting) enters with a new case.
Not only is Holmes someone who today would be on medication and in therapy (or at least someone would strongly encourage it), he has some very peculiar quirks, such as the fact that he is so focused on his work that he blocks out everything else that could possibly distract him from it. So he knows next to nothing about literature and philosophy, because those won’t help him solve cases, but he knows everything there is to know about chemistry and law and footprints and the various types of cigar ash.
But Watson, who perhaps has his own peculiarities but is someone we can actually imagine knowing, instantly takes a liking to Holmes. The two of them room happily together and work on cases together, and it’s this relationship that makes Holmes seem a little more approachable.
The more I think about this book, the odder it seems, and now as I’m writing this, I’m realizing that this quality of oddness-that-creeps-up-on-you is one I prize highly. I turn to Sherlock Holmes expecting to find something that matches the cultural image many of us carry around in our heads, but instead I find something a lot stranger. Fun.
10 responses to “Sherlock Holmes”
I really should seek out more Holmes. I haven’t read many of Conan Doyle’s books or stories, and the little Holmes reading I’ve done was a long time ago. (I am, however, a devoted fan of Laurie King’s Russell/Holmes series.) I love your thoughts on the oddness that sneaks up on you.
Great post (so much more thorough than mine). I, too, am always noticing what I’ve come to think of as “that 19th-century” technique of having another character in the book tell the story. Ghost story writers do this an awful lot. It’s almost as if the idea of a 1st-person narrative wasn’t quite accepted — that no one could believe the person if he or she told the story him or herself.
Great post. I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying the books. I read them a while ago, too, and should probably re-read them.
Another interesting thing with the Sherlock Holmes stories is how much it has influenced popular culture. Take a look at the Fox show “House” and you’ll see an almost direct “borrowing” of the Sherlock Holmes character (even to the point of being addicted to a drug) and the story formula.
This is a really interesting account of the Sherlock Holmes. You are quite right that he would be simply peculiar without Watson, who domesticates him to some extent and insists on his loveability. But I wonder how much he sets the model for the detective as depressive lone wolf, troubled and damaged and therefore in synch with the criminal mind. Of course detectives are fascinating also for being master readers, and Holmes is exemplary in this respect. His readings are against the grain yet spot on – there’s something inhuman about that too.
I haven’t read any Holmes in a long time, but loved the stories when I was young. Holmes was so arrogant, so sure of himself, and so unconcerned with the impression he made on anyone. Watson’s presence is the humanizing factor. You’ve made me want to re-read!
It’s really interesting thinking about how a story is constructed–who narrates it and what effects it has on how you think about the characters–I don’t always do this when I read, but I’d like to try and think about it more often. This is an espcially interesting post to read as I’m reading about Victorian detective Jack Whicher and you’re right about rationality coming into play and using the intellect to unravel a mystery. I’ve only read one Sherlock Holmes novel, but I’d like to read another now with these ideas in mind. Great post, Dorothy–I always learn something new here.
I really enjoyed reading this – I had no idea really. I know, for being such a mystery fan it’s amazing I’ve never read any Holmes! I do have a nice B&N edition of the collected stories so I should break into those one of these days.
Teresa — I should read more Holmes too; I’m particularly interested in seeing how the short stories are different from the novellas. I’ll have to check out the Laurie King series; it sounds interesting.
Emily — interesting that ghost story writers do this. Perhaps this is because some distancing is necessary to keep a ghost story under control? Or perhaps it makes the story more believable and realistic?
Michael — I’ve never seen House and don’t have TV to watch it, but I’m curious. People in my book group brought up the series and made the same point you did — I wonder how many people actually pick up on the literary background of the show?
Litlove — I think you’re right about Holmes being the model for many future detectives, right down to the substance abuse. It seems like many later detectives aren’t quite as odd as Holmes and so maybe don’t need the distancing effect of a Watson? I love the point about detectives being master readers — no wonder readers like to read about them!
Jenclair — people in my book group disagreed a bit about the arrogance — some found it very off-putting and others didn’t mind so much. I was one of the ones who didn’t mind so much — I found it amusing.
Danielle — thank you! I too am fascinated by how a novel is put together, and I just love it when an author does something interesting with narrative structure. How cool that my post fits with your reading about Whicher — doing a little study of the Victorian detective would be fun, wouldn’t it?
Iliana — it’s cool that Holmes is out there, waiting for you to discover! I’ll admit I wouldn’t have read him if my book club hadn’t chosen him, but I’m glad they did!
Very interesting. I have not read any of the Holmes books but I have read a few Conan Doyle stories. Holmes is one of those cultural figures that everyone seems to know everything about and I have never felt compelled to read him. But you have gotten my curiosity up because now I am certain he is more than his cultural image.
Coming very late to your fascinating post (trying to catch up on all those interesting books you read!) As a teenager I read every Sherlock Holmes story, and I took him for granted, but put in a Victorian perspective and in a contemporary one, it seems well worth a second read! Holmes is peculiar, but the funny part is that we don’t why and how he became so… a contemporary writer would have explained it all, but the Victorian writer doesn’t need to.