Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Complete Sherlock Holmes: an impressionistic review

Back in 1991, freshly graduated from Georgetown, I and several GU buddies in DC went to Union Station's multiplex cinemas to watch the swan song of the "classic" Star Trek crew: "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country." There's a moment in that film in which Spock, who's in the midst of a whodunit (the pacifistic Klingon Chancellor Gorkon has been assassinated under mysterious circumstances), declares, "An ancestor of mine maintained that if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." One of my friends burst out laughing in the theater, but I had no idea why. Obviously, Spock's line was a reference to something I didn't know. Only later did I find out that the "ancestor" to which Spock was referring was none other than that great Terran logician and detective, Sherlock Holmes. Spock, a child of two worlds, claims Holmes as part of his line, thus ineluctably connecting the fictional universe of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek with the fictional universe of Arthur Conan Doyle.*

I had largely ignored Doyle, and his Holmes, over the years. In my childhood, I may have seen short snippets of Holmes's old-movie adventures on TV, but if I did, I no longer recall them very clearly. It was only lately, while avidly reading of Holmes's exploits on my Kindle app (I have no actual Kindle), that I began watching those old movie adaptations—or clips of those movies, anyway—on YouTube with some interest.

In February of this year, I saw an announcement on Instapundit that The Complete Sherlock Holmes, with an introduction by Robert Ryan, had become temporarily available for a free Kindle download. Seizing the opportunity, I downloaded the collection and began reading it on my smartphone. The collection was engrossing despite the verbose nature of fin de siècle British prose. Like other e-books I had read, it contained an annoying number of typos (is there no such thing as a cleanly edited e-book?), but the content of the stories was gripping enough for me to overlook these superficial flaws. I was eventually able to adopt a pace of about one story per night; the collection contained all four of the detective novels plus all fifty-seven of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes short stories. I read most of the stories fairly quickly, sometimes with a week's hiatus between them. A few of the stories dragged for me; I wasn't hooked outright, which made reading something of a slog.

As you may know, Doyle's stories about his famous detective are mostly** narrated by his friend and assistant, Dr. John Watson—general practitioner and tough ex-soldier, whose revolver is always at hand in case there might be any excitement. Watson's tone is generally hagiographic: he upholds Holmes as a saint, often describing Holmes's deductive, intuitive, and athletic abilities as if they were nearly superhuman. Holmes himself is often dismissive of Watson's chronicling: he routinely accuses Watson of missing the crucial details of any given case, of clumsily narrating the story from back to front, and of not seeing the greater picture. At such times, Watson notes his own resentment and bitterness, but it's obvious that he's eternally forgiving of Holmes, because the next story always begins in that same breathlessly reverent tone. Watson's respect and admiration for Holmes aren't entirely blind, though: he also faithfully sets down Holmes's défauts de caractère—his slovenliness, his violin-playing at odd hours, the awful smells he generates with his in-home chemistry experiments, his sullen silences, his cold and abrupt manner, his general unresponsiveness toward the female sex, and his cocaine addiction—the latter of which Watson cures in a later short story (not the only time Watson saves Holmes's life: see also "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot," in which Watson rescues Holmes from the effects of a dangerous hallucinogen).

I often wasn't sure how much I liked Watson. He certainly didn't see himself as an equal partner in this friendship: he knew he was intellectually outmatched, and Holmes obviously did, too, for Holmes would often chide Watson's blindness. I should note, however, that the infamous misquote, "Elementary, my dear Watson," never once appears in the entirety of Doyle's collection, although the word "elementary" does appear several times.*** Holmes is smug, confident, and all-seeing; Watson is naive and perpetually astonished. Together, they are complementary opposites. Holmes will occasionally throw Watson a bone, describing him as "a man of action" or as being good with the ladies (Holmes himself is often described as being able to turn on the charm when needed, but his fundamental mistrust of the female sex prevents him from establishing any meaningful romantic relationships). Watson often struck me as far too grateful for these rare moments of faint praise.

I had to admire Doyle's ear for dialogue and his knack for developing character. Many of the stories contain intense, rapidfire exchanges during which Holmes catechizes a suspect or a potential client. Doyle was also able to capture, to some extent, the rhythm and tone of American English, Scottish English, Continental English, and Indian English. He was less successful, I thought, in capturing African English, but to his credit, he tried his hand at this accent only once. As for character, Doyle's method of characterization became obvious after just a few stories: the external defines the internal, as is often true in Hollywood movies today: ugly bad guy, handsome good guy. Watson, himself using a little Holmesian deduction, would often describe a person's character after observing his or her posture, physique, and physiognomy. Next would be a description of the person's voice, and within only a page or two a character would have been fleshed out. One might chide Doyle for using such a technique over and over again, but one should also recognize the economy that such a technique offers: we immediately know who's who, with very little wasted verbiage. In later years, novelist Michael Crichton, a medical doctor like AC Doyle, would use much the same strategy in fleshing out his own novels' characters.

Doyle also kept his readers enthralled through a deft variation in tone: his stories could be comic, tragic, or even horrific. Some of the descriptions of dead bodies are positively grisly, arousing the prurient imagination in much the same naughty way that a TV show like "NCIS" or "Bones" does when dealing with its cadavers. Occasionally, the horror would involve the living, as in "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger," the main focus of which is a veil-sporting woman whose face has been chewed off by a lion.

Critics have noted with some frustration that most of Doyle's stories leave out the sort of evidence that an astute reader might use to make deductions for himself. Sherlock Holmes's amazing insights often seem to come from out of the blue, and just as often as the result of "off-camera" research that the detective has done, and to which we are not privy. We see the magician, we see the magic, but the trick is left unexplained. A marked contrast with Doyle's storytelling style can be found in Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, a mystery in which every suspect turns out to be guilty—a fact that becomes obvious to the reader in retrospect, upon review of the story's details. There was one Holmes story, though, toward the end of Doyle's collection, that I managed to solve well before I had reached the final pages: "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane." More than most, this was a medical mystery, and since I had spent years living on a TV diet of "House," I was accustomed to deducing the core problem long before the denouement. (In this case, the jellyfish did it.) In fact, now that I think of it, another medical mystery, "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot," was soluble in much the same way. These two stories stand, in my mind, as exceptions to the general rule that Doyle doesn't provide enough evidence for the reader to make his own deductions.

I have yet to watch any of the recent, modern interpretations of Sherlock Holmes. I haven't seen the Guy Ritchie films starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law; I haven't seen—although I've heard many raves for—the BBC series "Sherlock" starring Mr. Cheekbones himself, Benedict Cumberbatch, with Martin Freeman (lately Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit") as Watson. I thus have no idea how faithful or unfaithful these filmic versions of Holmes are to AC Doyle's original vision. I do know, however, that for the past several years we've been in the midst of an ongoing Holmes revival of sorts; on "House," the character of Dr. Gregory House was very famously based upon Sherlock Holmes (with Wilson as an on-again, off-again Watson), and a show called "Elementary" stars Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson. Other characters in pop culture share the Holmes/Watson dynamic: Batman and Robin come immediately to mind, as do the 1970s Dr. Quincy (of "Quincy, M.E.") and his assistant Sam Fujiyama.

I've titled this essay "an impressionistic review" because, unfortunately, after having read sixty-one Sherlock Holmes stories, I've got them all jumbled together in my mind. Some of the stories stand out, such as the much-beloved "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual," another exception to the rule that Doyle is stingy with the evidence he allows the readers to see. In "Musgrave," we see Holmes almost in Dan Brown mode, traveling hither and thither, using trigonometry to make deductions, and hungrily observing every little detail to catch his man—who, in the end, has inadvertently done himself in. That's another theme one finds in Doyle's stories: karma, or cosmic justice. Only rarely do the criminals ever get away, and although Watson tells us on several occasions that he has, in his records, many accounts of Holmes's failures, he rarely if ever actually relates those failures to us.

Ah, yes, one more thing: I meant to discuss Professor Moriarty, often described as Holmes's nemesis. I found Moriarty a bit frustrating: his conflict with Holmes, resulting in Holmes's apparent death, occupies only one story; Moriarty is mentioned tangentially in perhaps one or two other stories. Although we learn that Moriarty has a mind that is easily the equal of Holmes's, we never actually get to see specific examples of his cleverness, just as we never learn the details of how Holmes ultimately undermines Moriarty's vast criminal network. The Holmes/Moriarty conflict is drawn in only the broadest of strokes, leaving me hungry for specifics. Alas, none are forthcoming.

In all, I found AC Doyle to be compelling reading. He was a late-1890s/early 1900s version of Michael Crichton, scrupulous in his research of the medical facts, great with the pacing and dialogue, and expert in his fleshing-out of character.**** If you've never read any Sherlock Holmes stories before, I highly recommend this particular collection, The Complete Sherlock Holmes (with an introduction by Robert Ryan), to you.

*In his novelization of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," Roddenberry also binds his Trek universe to that of AC Clarke when he connects his plot to Clarke's short story, "The Sentinel," itself a precursor to Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

**At least two stories are narrated by Holmes himself, and at least one story is narrated in the third-person omniscient style. One or two other stories, including "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual," are told by Holmes to Watson, who serves as the "frame" narrator.

***I should further note that "elementary," which appears only a few times, is quite overshadowed by the word "singular," which would often surface several times within a single story. Doyle evidently loved that word.

****True, Crichton was often ridiculed for his clumsy portrayal of female characters in his earlier novels, up to and including Jurassic Park, but by the time he had written Airframe, a techno-mystery novel with a strong female protagonist, and Prey, a nanotech horror-thriller with a frightening female antagonist, he had much improved. And if Crichton stands accused of stereotyping or sexism in his depiction of women, then Doyle—a product of his time—stands right by him.



TheBigHenry said...

Thanks for this infomative essay, Kevin.

I just bought the Kindle edition, though I have recently been reading my Kindle books mostly on my android.

I used to carry my Kindle with me whereever I went, but my smartphone, which is always with me, is much more convenient.

Kevin Kim said...


Thanks for the comment. Like you, I read Holmes on my Droid X: I've got a Kindle app on there, and despite the relatively small screen (small compared to a laptop or a desktop computer), I used to read Doyle's stories avidly before bed.