October 26, 2004


CSI: Baker Street: a review of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories By Arthur Conan Doyle Edited by Leslie S. Klinger (Richard A. Posner, 10.11.04, New Republic)

Sherlock Holmes is not the first fictional character to give rise to a cult. But the others, such as Falstaff and Leopold Bloom, have tended to be likable, or at least lifelike, figures. Not icy, didactic, condescending, inhumanly self-sufficient, and therefore (the speculations concerning Irene Adler notwithstanding) sexless Sherlock--a social isolate, monologuist, and know-it-all, whose principal pleasure in life besides solving crimes is making a fool of his stooge, Dr. Watson. He treats Watson with no consideration, summoning him from his medical practice or his wife with a snap of the fingers to do drudge work, such as carrying a pistol. (Watson is Holmes's "muscle.") What is worse, Holmes assiduously endeavors to keep the poor man utterly clueless, so that, unable to close the intellectual chasm that yawns between them by even a hair's breadth, he shall remain ever abjectly worshipful of Holmes's genius. Rather than share insights with Watson as an investigation proceeds, so that Watson can play more than a flunky's role, Holmes keeps him in the dark until the very end of each story, when he reveals the solution to his awed companion. Holmes is God, Watson his congregation.

There is method in this from the author's standpoint: if Watson knew where an investigation was leading, this would not only dim Holmes's star but also help the reader to guess the solution to the crime puzzle. Doyle may also have misunderstood the nature of genius, specifically scientific genius; I will come back to that in a moment. My present point is only to register surprise, given Holmes's character, that there are so many Sherlock Holmes groupies and so many books, articles, and web pages dedicated to this absurd obsession.

There is a curious fracture in the Holmes stories. On the one hand, they are early and distinguished examples of the ingeniously plotted detective story--the genre perfected by Agatha Christie--where the point is to baffle the reader by scattering false clues and endowing the villain with fiendish cleverness. On the other hand, they are part of a recognizable Victorian-Edwardian genre of grown-up boys' books, the sort of thing one finds done to perfection in the best novels of H. Rider Haggard and John Buchan. Such books are written for men as well as older boys, but for men who have remained in touch, as it were, with their boyish selves. The heroes are physically strong, fearless and imperturbable, chivalrous, well-born, pure in heart (the young are idealistic), pitted against unmitigated evil (young people tend to see things in black-and-white terms), adept at disguises (which kids love), and homosocial (never homosexual--it's just that, like boys, the heroes of such books bond only with other males). All these are Sherlock Holmes's characteristics as well. His world-class antagonist, Moriarty, is a figure straight out of the boys' books: "He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them."

Unlike the Holmes stories, the boys' books tend to be set in exotic locales; but the exotic enters the Holmes stories in the form of the victims and the perpetrators of crime who come from abroad or are involved in the affairs of the British Empire, a distinct presence in the stories. The ratio of detection to action is of course higher, but still there is a deep affinity. (One critic has noted perceptively that the relationship between Holmes and Watson is modeled on that between the older and younger boys in English public schools.) This helps to explain the Holmes cult. Holmes is for the immature.

There goes the last chance of his ever making the Court.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 26, 2004 11:14 PM
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