The Mystery of Sherlock Holmes Part 1


Holmes and Watson

There are a handful of characters who never, ever go away no matter how hard you sometimes pray they will – Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Batman, Ebenezer Scrooge, Tarzan and the Phantom of the Opera (all males, isn’t that strange?) On first thought it seems we hate change; on TV we recently had a vast wall of nostalgia; ‘Call The Midwife’, ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’. But I think it’s less to do with familiarity than that memorable characters are fundamental archetypes, which makes it hard to produce anything but variants of them. Hercule Poirot is probably the least interesting detective of all time, but as an archetype he’s almost impossible to follow without evoking earlier memories.

We certainly remember Conan Doyle over R. Austin Freeman’s charming detective mysteries, set in the Edwardian era. His sleuth Dr Thorndyke was a barrister and man of medicine who, armed with his little green case of detection aids, set out to solve puzzles that wouldn’t interest today’s police; a collapsed man who later vanishes, an ingeniously forged fingerprint, a crime scene more interesting than the act that occurred there. Freeman was a doctor who understood the tangled workings of the courts and advances in science such as the forensic power of X-rays, and incorporated them.

In The Eye Of Osiris, an Egyptologist vanishes from a watched room and must be presumed dead in order for his will to reach probate – but the will in question has a bizarre clause which makes it impossible to honour. Like WS Gilbert before him, Freeman takes great delight in outlining the peculiar properties of paradox. ‘A man cannot deposit his own remains,’ cries Thorndyke in exasperation, as he deals with recalcitrant jurors, bovine policemen and potty witnesses. Freeman also invented the opposite of the Whodunnit, the ‘inverted mystery’, the How-Will-He-Be-Caught? puzzle.

If Dr. Thorndyke lacks Holmes’ sense of mystery he’s more thorough when it comes to technical detail – The Man With The Nailed Shoes hinges entirely on a study of footprints and The Eye Of Osiris has a lengthy examination of embalming processes. His dialogue exchanges are also more freewheeling and sarcastic. ‘I am a confounded fool!’ says a character, as the reason for a corpse’s finger being severed dawns on him. ‘Oh, don’t say that,’ says Jervis. ‘Give your friends a chance.’

There were more watered-down adventurers like Sexton Blake and Raffles, of course, but they were so chinless you had to wonder how they managed to put a pillow-case on by themselves. The early French masters were fun because they were more dashing than Holmes, and I’m still fond of Arsene Lupin, Vidocq and Fantomas.  However, Sherlock remained the archetype, just as Harry Potter will always be king of the wizards (forgetting the fact that Susannah Clark’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell blow Potter out of the water in every possible way). There are other detectives better than Holmes. The stories of Chesterton’s Father Brown and Dickson Carr’s Gideon Fell are more fantastical and ingenious, but the consulting detective remains centre-stage.

Conan Doyle gave Holmes simple but clever plots and just enough character to allow others to reposition him in endless variation. And he was the first attention-deficit hero – none of the four novels is really watertight, whereas the canonical short stories are often close to paradise – fast, easy reads that collectively reveal something about Edwardian England we may never have fully appreciated before. Still, the question remains – why did Sherlock end up in so many homes?

(To be continued)

16 comments on “The Mystery of Sherlock Holmes Part 1”

  1. snowy says:

    Conan Doyle like Dickins wrote originally in serial format, so each ‘chapter’ of a story had to stand up on its own, and end with a ‘hook’ to bring the reader back next week. With very little room for any ‘fat’ or bluster.

    Stick them end to end into a book, and it either provides a compelling narrative that is hard to put down, or becomes a story that slows down, stops and restarts every 25 pages.

    The short stories are complete and entire within themselves, which might be why they work better?

  2. Ken Murray says:

    I found that the almost clinical style which Conan Doyle has, is what first drew me to his Holmes stories. Although I must confess I’ve never yet read any of his other work such as his historical novels or Prof. Challenger series?

    However I have absolutely no interest in the ‘reverse whodunit’, it just fails to hold my attention every time. A perfect example would be Colombo. A great character wasted because of a redundant plot with no intellectual challenge. I know, it’s a personal thing.

    Though for suspense you can’t beat living in Wellington at the moment. A 6.5 quake (bigger than the one that flattened Christchurch) a week ago that scared everyone into the street. And those lovely aftershocks since, just to keep everyone on their toes. Another “severe” 5.5 tremor last night and the most common phrase around the coffee cart this morning is “We’re waiting for the big one?”. Like I said suspense…

  3. Mike Cane says:

    I came to the Conan Doyle stories late in life. Was shocked at how different they were from what I’d experienced on TV and in movies. They had a charm that only words can deliver. And I think that’s what attracts people to them — but all of the adaptations leave out that bit.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    I read The Eye of Osiris in high school but since it was while my mother and I were on an Egyptology kick I imagine the mummifying details were what drew us. (Since we had to order books by mail from the library in Victoria it’s the title that would have caught us.
    Raffles is just silly, especially as he describes himself as an *amateur* cracksman. He often steals because funds are getting low and the only mystery is whether he’ll get caught or not. Like some of the others you learn a fair bit about Edwardian London, which involves a certain amount of value, I suppose.
    I think Merlin aces Harry, and even Harry says that the things he did were possible only because he had two perfect friends. As for Mr. Norris I’m afraid that like another book I shall not mention I didn’t get very far into it. I have never read any less inspiring fiction than that.
    I’ve read all the Holmes stories, most of them more than twice, but as I got older I found myself shouting at the page more and more often. I’ve read several modern Holmes versions but they rarely got him. This month I read again the (currently) 13 volumes of Laurie King’s Holmes series. Somehow I can take her version, including his growing love for his young wife. Mary Russell is the real lead character, no Dr. Watson she, and Holmes’ anger at what Doyle was writing is quite amusing.
    I have read the Father Brown stories over and over again. They are so sensible and quite calming and reassuring. I think I’ve read one or two Gideon Fells and would have read more had they been available. Hah! I should try that wonderful new & used shop where I found my Guns of Navarone.

  5. Terenzio says:

    Sherlock Holmes has always been in the public eye starting with the written stories themselves by Conan Doyle that probably have never been out of print. In the early 1900s there was a popular play with Sherlock Holmes by William Gillette’s. Next the 1920s produced several silent films with Sherlock Holmes, followed by the Rathbone films of the 1930s/1940s and later on the radio plays with Rathbone and Bruce. In the 1950’s Ronald Howard played Holmes on television, along with a series of radio plays with John Gielgud as Holmes. Moving to the 1960s there was yet another television series, this time with Peter Cushing as Holmes. In the 1970s there were several films with Sherlock Holmes including Billy Wilder’s excellent The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. In the 1980s and through the early 1990s Jeremy Brett played Holmes in the excellent and popular television series produced by Granada. In the 2000s there were a couple of okay made-for-television films with Sherlock Holmes. Today we are blessed with Elementary (US television series), Sherlock (UK television series) and the films with Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes. I read somewhere due to the two television series and films there has been a resurgence in sales of the collection of short stores and full length novels, which is not surprising given Holmes is truly everywhere it seems. Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed on a fairly regular basis for the past 100 years on the stage, on radio, in film and in movies. Not too mention board games and video games that feature Sherlock Holmes. The fact Holmes has never been allowed to fade away might explain, at least partially, why Holmes remains popular to this day.

    Agatha Christie’s book sales also has benefited from television and film adaptations. Towards the late 1990s sales of her books were dropping, but with a new batch of Poirots and Miss. Maple starting in 2001 and continuing to today, there was a renewed interest in the works by Agatha Christie. The television adaptations help keep the name of Agatha Christie in the public’s mind. Book sales for Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh were also helped when television adaptations were made in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s of their respective works. My collection of Ngaio Marsh mysteries in paperback date from around from the 1990s. The series with Patrick Malahide as Inspector Roderick Alleyn originally aired from 1990-1994 and later released on DVD. HarperCollins republished all of her books in paperback around the time of the series. Currently this series of paperbacks is out of print. In some cases smaller publishing houses have decided to take a risk and republish some of these books. For example, starting around 2011 Felony & Mayhem started to repubish Marsh’s books. They also publish the mysteries by Allingham. Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh were all at the top of their profession, however, without the publicity from television adaptations I’m not sure how many new readers that weren’t even born when the books were originally published would even know about the books.

    À bientôt….the one in the gorgeous purple dressing gown and lovely velvet slippers. I shall retire to bed now.

  6. Dan Terrell says:

    The problem in a pipe bowl is a second rate Holmes story by Conan Doyle is far better than a first rate imitator’s work. Writer’s continuing Holmes’ career are all working with pasteboard cutouts, whereas Doyle was the real thing; his creator who was working with the original materials of his devising. (The same is true with stories from the Lovecraft school of followers.)
    All the new “Holmes” tales either slavishly follow the Doyle matrix or spray Holmes onto a modern story that only poses as a S. Holmes piece. The best follow-on stories to my mind were those written by Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr. I read them as they were published weekly in the old Saturday Evening Post magazine and liked them enough to buy the book when it came out. It was very well reviewed.

  7. pheeny says:

    What strikes me as interesting about the popularity of the Holmes stories is that although you could put down much of it to period charm at the time they were written they were contemporaneous.

  8. pheeny says:

    Never got on with Professor Challenger – there is part at the beginning where, to shut his diminutive wife up, he sticks her on he top of a tall pillar in the hall – too tall for her to get down from without his assistance and leaves her there.
    No doubt intended to be played for laughs but it came across as bullying and misogynist

  9. Dan Terrell says:

    Really liked the first two professor novels, but the last was propaganda-heavy and lost all the Challenger flavor. Doyle was really into the life-after-death mode during his latter years. His fairies-at-the-bottom-of-the-garden books were really painful; naughty little girls with their paper dolls and camera. (Kind of nice thinking that even fairies would dress a la mode.)

  10. Helen Martin says:

    King’s Holmes is not a cardboard cutout.

  11. Jo W says:

    The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes started of my love of the Baker Street ‘tec when I got the book as a school prize way back in ’64. Still got that book!

  12. snowy says:

    The, whats the word? not ‘dispatching’? The ‘shelving’ of sidekicks was very common, and not limited to women.

    Many boy assistants were locked in cupboards, pushed into trunks and sent on bogus errands to clear the stage for the final showdown.

    Even John Watson was not immune from being removed from the field of battle.

    The character of Prof. Challenger is described as being massive, (imagine if Brian Blessed had a bigger louder brother), I can’t remember but I wouldn’t be surprised if the stranding on a column is both to establish his bulk and to set up a reversal later, where he needs saving by his wife. (Like in Aesop’s the Lion and the Mouse, where the mighty are humbled.)

    As an aside when was the rise of the female sidekick? Paul Temple has ‘Steve’, Wimsey becomes enmeshed with Harriet Vane.

  13. Mim says:

    I quite like Raffles. Then again, I really enjoy Dick Barton, much to my husband’s sorrow… Holmes I can take or leave, but I think that’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt.

  14. Sam Tomaino says:

    No females? How about Alice?

  15. jan says:

    Is the Private life of Sherlock Holmes the Billy Wilder movie the one with the really terrific melodic score?

  16. snowy says:

    Psst! jan if you nip up to part 2, and follow the Guardian link in the comments, it mentions the score.

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