The series created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss [Sherlock] works so well because its adaptation of the exploits of Sherlock Holmes is, excepting the names, flagrantly faithless…
No conundrum solved by Holmes is as mysterious as the enduring popularity of these squibs. Remember A Case of Identity from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes? Thought not: a plot that hinges on the inability of a spinster to work out that her suitor is in reality her wicked stepfather in disguise invites not sympathy for the victim but derision for the author.
Each to their own, and I don’t object to others’ harmless reading pleasure, but the notion that Holmes epitomises rationality is ripe for debunking. Holmes’s method is not reason but wild speculation and remorseless serendipity. He advises Watson to approach cases with “an absolutely blank mind, which is always an advantage”. What? That isn’t even a parody of critical inquiry. Where would scientists be without laws and theories? Plot contrivances such as a venomous snake trained to slither down a bedpull and then up again (in The Adventure of the Speckled Band, as if you cared) are an insult to the reader’s intelligence.
In person, Doyle would believe almost anything. It’s not a literary failing that he was an enthusiast for the occult (so too was Yeats) but there’s neatness in the fact that spiritualists tried to summon his spirit at the Royal Albert Hall five days after his death in 1930. He failed to turn up, having perhaps realised in the meantime that his life’s work merited public oblivion.
Oliver Kamm, The Times (£)
It’s rare for something to be so thoroughly misunderstood. Certainly, the mysteries that confront Holmes can be rather silly. In one of my favourites, for example, a blue carbuncle is fed to a goose, which is instantly mistaken for another by the thief, while the goose with the gem in its crop immediately makes its way to an acquaintance of Sherlock Holmes. Worse than silliness, in some stories Holmes holds information the reader doesn’t have, a serious breach of detective story ethics. Yet nobody seems to mind.
Because, and this should be fairly obvious, the mysteries are beside the point. Indeed, we never learn anything at all about one of the most significant:
Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson, … It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.
“For which the world is not yet prepared” – we read these stories for the silliness of the hyperbole. It delighted P G Wodehouse, who made Bertie Wooster refer to Holmes repeatedly. It’s very funny to read Wooster saying something like “You know my methods” to Jeeves, but there’s far more going on than a simple joke at Bertie’s expense. The similarities between the two sets of stories are extraordinary.
Both focus on a couple, two men, one clever, one less so. Both are narrated in the first person by the less clever one – with, I think I’m right in saying, exactly one exception in both cases, there is one H&W story narrated by Holmes, and one J&W story narrated by Jeeves. Neither is more than a curiosity.
This structure allows a very effective comedic and dramatic trick, that of having the narrator unaware of things the reader and the cleverer partner are aware of. The narrator can even be used a pawn by the other character, not realise it, yet make sure the reader does.
It was invented by Conan Doyle, and copied and complimented by Wodehouse, perhaps the greatest writer in English of the twentieth century – don’t be misled by the fact he ‘only’ wrote comedy.
Don’t be misled by Conan Doyle’s apparent oafish stupidity, either. If he had wanted to write about scientific detective work, he could have done so. The period in which he set the stories, the decades before 1914, was one of enormous progress. Fingerprinting became a standard police procedure, forensic ballistics emerged; Holmes apparently knew nothing of either. When a fingerprint does appear, nobody takes any notice of the whorls, its importance is as a planted piece of evidence.
Telephones appear in a handful of stories, Watson drives a car in the latest in setting, in 1914, but technology remains rooted in the mid-nineteenth century, for the most part. That is, the stories’ own use of technology is anachronistic, and deliberately so. The setting is a fantasy version of Victorian London, one forever lit by gas lamps, whose taxis are for all time horse-drawn and whose streets are eternally cobbled.
It’s a fantasy. It isn’t real. It isn’t meant to be the real London. 221B Baker Street is an address chosen deliberately because it didn’t exist. It’s the prototype for Harry Potter’s railway station platform.
Holmes is a fantasy character and his scientific detection, of which we learn just what we have to for the narrative, and no more, is a fantasy too. It isn’t meant to be taken seriously. It’s a device that allows Watson to be both uncomprehending and admiring.
It’s a measure of Conan Doyle’s success in rendering this fantastical version of the world convincing, complete with its archetypal characters and a version of science closer to phrenology than forensics, that some people do believe it and criticise it as though it’s serious.
But it’s no more serious than the Jeeves and Wooster stories. Like them, the joy for the reader is the narrative itself. It’s Bertie Wooster’s vocabulary, and Watson’s hyperbole. It’s the magnification of trivial things into issues of huge significance, for few of Holmes’s cases are actually of any import at all. Holmes’s methods aren’t realistic, but nor are Jeeves’s. The joke comes from having a character who is, in Wodehouse’s word, omniscient, and in seeing them through the eyes of a narrator who is – let’s be gentle – not omniscient.
The stories are recitations, performances of which the plots are there simply to support the characters and the narrative. Wodehouse used the same plots over and over again, and it didn’t matter at all, what mattered was each particular performance. The Holmes and Watson stories are the same.
Which is why I haven’t got the slightest interest in watching Sherlock. The series makes the same mistake Kamm does, of thinking the ‘mysteries’ are the point. They’re not going to get anything else right, from that starting point. And I think it’s a shame that millenial viewers might come to associate this series with the characters, and in doing so lose one of the genuinely great achievements of imagination and literature.