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Conan Doyle’s Sherlock

by Bruce Fleming


(For Part I, ‘Sherlock Holmes, Romantic’, click here)


Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in the Granada TV series (Source: Wikimedia Commons, fair use)

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in the Granada TV series (Source: Wikimedia Commons, fair use)

Sherlock Holmes’s world is one of melancholy and ennui. Yet we remember the stories largely for their escape from the ordinary, rather than for the ordinary that actually predominates. For insiders, the stories form a world of their own, their details pored over and fetishized, a source of memory quizzes, Web sites, and trivia questions. Everyone in the Holmes fan world knows about the tobacco in the Persian slipper, the cocaine addiction (the basis for a play and movie in the 1970s that got in not only Holmes and Watson but Sigmund Freud as well, called The Seven-Percent Solution), the violin (Holmes got a great deal from a pawnbroker on a Stradivarius), the Jezail bullet in Watson’s leg (or is it shoulder?) that makes him so authoritative about the weather—not to mention the deliciously period-piece fogs so thick the building opposite isn’t visible, or the howling storms that leave untouched the two men sitting around the cozy fire within. (Now we know the fogs were the result of the haze of burning coal from which the modern age liberated London.)

More fundamental to the appeal of the stories are the eccentricities of Holmes—the fact that you don’t meet someone like him every day. Yet the point of the eccentricities, namely that they are his way of coping with Romantic ennui, tends to be overlooked. Among these are his ability to compartmentalize by putting a case out of his mind and going to the Albert Hall to hear a concert, his borderline-Asperger’s qualities of not seeming to care about people (except perhaps to a degree Watson), his success at the parlor game of telling people things about themselves that they think no one can divine—not to mention the running verbal jokes associated with these traits (“you know my methods”), and the shadowy side characters who flit in and out, such as Mrs. Hudson or the page Billy, about whom we’d like to know more.

Holmes is fun, in short, because he’s downright strange. He himself offers a departure from the everyday. As Watson tells us in The Musgrave Ritual, Holmes was “in his personal habits one of the most untidy men who ever drove a fellow-lodger to distraction.” The tobacco in the Persian slipper is alluded to again, plus keeping cigars in the coal scuttle (doesn’t that cover them with coal dust?) and keeping his unanswered correspondence “transfixed by a jack-knife into the very center of his wooden mantelpiece” which seems destructive of other people’s property (the men rent the rooms). But Watson’s complaint crescendos to what seems to be the real issue, Holmes’s habit of sitting “in an armchair with his hair-trigger [pistol] and a hundred Boxer cartridges and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V. R. (Vivat Regina, Long Live the Queen) done in bullet-pocks”—(hardly believable, given the damage and difficulty in repairing the wall over and over). Plus the place was littered with piles of papers—all of which, of course, could serve as sources for Watson’s duty as amanuensis and chronicler.

The surprises Holmes offers those in his world—and us—presuppose the dullness of the everyday, as Holmes himself protests when Watson wants him to explain his astonishing deductions. When he explains himself, Holmes points out, the conclusion won’t be surprising any more. And he’s right: it’ll re-enter the everyday, as stage magic explained is no longer magic but merely a trick. Watson admits as much in A Scandal in Bohemia: “‘When I hear you give your reasons’, I remarked, ‘the thing always appears to me so ridiculously simple I could do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process.”

Yet Watson constantly puts the reader in his own position of being surprised by Holmes’s (invariably correct) chains of reasoning explained backwards from the result. These last could go wrong at so many places; indeed to us some seem silly, such as Holmes’s conclusion that the man who lost the hat in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle was “highly intellectual” from the fact that, when Holmes puts the lost hat on his own head to demonstrate, it comes “right over the forehead and settles on the bridge of his nose”—phrenological silliness. (And what is Holmes if not intellectual?).

Indeed, many other possibilities suggest themselves to the reader as equally plausible explanations of what Holmes sees. What for instance if the creases in the sleeves of Miss Mary Southerland in A Case of Identity do not come from typewriting but from leaning on a table to do, say, miniature or fan painting, both favourite female pastimes of the Victorian era? They almost seem like a conscious joke of Conan Doyle, and we’re not sure whether or not to take them seriously or dismiss them as authorial hooey—as Robert L. Fish in his “Schlock Homes” (sic) parodies suggests by having his hapless detective’s attempts at the same bravura performances (usually from his home in Bagel Street) always go horribly awry.

Sherlock Holmes, as depicted by Sidney Paget, for The Adventure of the Abbey Grange (Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Sherlock Holmes, as depicted by Sidney Paget, for The Adventure of the Abbey Grange (Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The throw-away inside jokes involving the adventures that Watson (who narrates all but a few of the later stories) alludes to but never develops are, as readers well know, irresistible as well. My personal favourite – because it involves art and Roman intrigue when, post-Garibaldi, the Pope (who had not recognized the Italian state) was “the prisoner of the Vatican” – is “the little affair of the Vatican cameos” that is mentioned in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Equally evocative of Imperial decadence, here the Ottoman Empire that still had claims on virtually independent Egypt, is certainly the “case of the two Coptic patriarchs” mentioned in The Adventure of the Retired Colourman. Many readers’ favourite, however, is the case of the “giant rat of Sumatra” evoked at the beginning of The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire and since then, with its grotesque suggestiveness, taken up by many followers as the basis for parodies or follow-ons. But equally amusing is the case of “Idadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duelist [already a winning combination], who was found stark raving mad with a match box in front of him which contained a remarkable worm said to be unknown to science” (The Problem of Thor Bridge).

All these things provide the ornament on what is ostensibly the main attraction, viz, the mysteries to be solved. Indeed for many readers, the decoration overwhelms the mystery, which in a number of cases can actually be quite weak. Who really cares which of the three students cheated by taking the text of the classics exam the day before (The Adventure of the Three Students)? Or why the star rugby player has run away just before the big match (The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter)?

And some of the later stories seem simply to be running out of gas. The Adventure of the Creeping Man and The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane both depend on natural phenomena that are strange simply because they are locally unknown: in the first case, experimental injection of monkey serum from Prague (an attempt by an aging professor courting a younger woman to recover his virility) and in the second, a sort of killer jellyfish usually not at home in English waters, though apparently known to the victim. Even the diverting Adventure of the Devil’s Foot, which turns on a similarly unknown poison, relies on its double murder by two different people to keep afloat. The lethal chemical is strange to the locals but not to people in the know: the solution to the mystery is like having a specialist, Holmes, diagnose an illness known to him but not to the general practitioner. There’s a right answer and lots of wrong ones and the plot can only move in one direction.

Thank goodness for non-English, foreign, climes—which, in Conan Doyle’s world, usually means exotic and criminal. The stories’ reliance on exotic departures from the everyday underlines the dullness of that everyday existence, just as Romantic poems about more intense worlds, for instance Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or Keats’s Medieval romances, are the flip side of the ennui with which we face real life. Thank goodness, we say, for the less civilized corners of Empire than merely boring Britannia.

Poisons from strange places crop up regularly even in the early stories, where more is made of their exoticism. In The Sign of Four (the sign of the four in the novella itself), the murder is committed by a poison-tipped thorn expelled from the blowgun of the small man from the Andaman Islands, off of India. The snake that Dr. Roylott uses to kill one stepdaughter and attempt to kill the other in The Adventure of the Speckled Band is a “swamp adder, the deadliest snake in India”—which the murderer has brought back. So too the poison in The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire, a lethal bird-killing instrument on display as part of a cache of trophy weapons from Peru, homeland of the mother suspected of vampirism.

Here it’s the exotic world outside that’s the point rather than merely the fact that nobody has seen the poison before. There is a scary world outside England, the stories make clear, one that is occasionally brought back by returning travelers where it upsets the peaceable domestic apple cart back home. Of course, when the Out There comes home, the result is trouble. But at least it’s interesting, an alternative to the boredom and the cocaine.

If tropical poisons are trouble when brought to England, so too are tropical women. The mother who turns out not to be a vampire in Sussex (The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire) is temperamentally high-maintenance because she comes from South America: she is “jealous with all the strength of her fiery tropical love.” And so when the husband sees her coming off the baby’s neck with blood on her lips, he accuses her of being a vampire: such things are possible outside of England, but hardly within. (He himself has lived in Peru, where he wooed her: he knows about such things, despite his reassuringly un-Latin name of Ferguson.) As Holmes notes in his summing up: “The idea of a vampire was absurd. Such things do not happen in criminal practice in England.”

This Latin wife, it turns out, is innocent, but the equally tropical (Brazilian) wife in The Problem of Thor Bridge is not: she is, it turns out, a suicide who tried to frame the English governess as her murderess. In the words of the American husband who has made himself English by living for years on “a considerable estate in Hampshire”, her nature was “passionate, ill-balanced, very different from the American women I had known.” The governess who has been framed echoes this, telling Holmes that she is “hated” by the wife, “hated with all the fervor of her tropical nature.”

The governess isn’t tropical, she’s English. The author tells us that the governess possessed “an innate nobility of character which would make her influence always for the good.” And Holmes is convinced by her that her relations with the gold millionaire were not, despite what the “passionate, ill-balanced” wife was convinced of, physical: “I am prepared”, he reassures the governess “to accept the innocence of your relations with him.” Here, we are in the world of Henry James, whose Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors finally realizes with horror approaching revulsion that the relations of the American man whom he has come to convince to come home, Chad Newsome, with Mme de Vionnet, are not in fact asexual. No sex, please, we’re Anglo-American. For the racy stuff, never more than alluded to in Conan Doyle, it’s the tropics all the way.

Being American is usually not exotic in Conan Doyle’s world. Holmes makes clear that Anglo-Saxons, despite the potential for strangeness in the American West and South shown by the novellas A Study in Scarlet—Mormons—and The Valley of Fear (the Ku Klux Klan), are the same sort whichever side of the Atlantic they are to be found upon. Detectives from New York after the same man as Holmes figure in more than one story and are described as colleagues. Of course Americans talk funny—they reckon rather than think, and have a “pa” rather than a father—but this is a bit of local colour, nothing more. Besides, Conan Doyle’s sympathies are clearly on the side of the American fiancée rather than the English Lord St. Simon, the “noble bachelor”, who is fortune-hunting and who has a dancer as a mistress. Holmes announces that he is “one of those who believe that the folly of a monarch and the blundering of a minister in far-gone years will not prevent [their] children from being some day citizens of the same world-wide country under a flag which shall be a quartering of the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes.”

Of course, the exoticism that takes us out of the boring ordinary isn’t always from non-English shores. Sometimes it’s the domestic variety, defined by money and position, then as now. Precious stones are stolen (blue carbuncle, Mazarin stone, beryl coronet). Vastly important state treaties or secrets whose disappearance could lead to war are compromised (naval treaty, plans for a submarine). But usually the exoticism is geographically defined. If it’s not poisons or wives who are exotic, it’s the adventures of once-young men who have made or stolen their fortunes in in far-flung corners of the Empire (India, South Africa, Australia) or America. They’ve returned to England and pass for respectable burgers, but their misdeeds catch up with them: the peace of the countryside is shattered by a sudden series of events that casual onlookers find merely strange, albeit worrysome or threatening. One day a seemingly placid country squire or his relatives receive a puzzling message, or is killed, and Holmes and Watson are off.

Thank goodness for the less civilized parts of the world that allow the boring denizens of Britain to have so many seedy connections! Otherwise Holmes would never get off the seven-percent solution, and the fogs would never lift. For The Sign of Four, the outside world is India. For A Study in Scarlet it’s Utah—more exotic than coastal America. For The Boscombe Valley Mystery it’s Australia. For The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips it’s the American South. For The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge, it’s an unnamed Latin American country. The Blanched Soldier has brought his illness back from India, and the Yellow Face turns out to be black American daughter (wearing a mask to disguise her skin colour) born to the white English mother of a black father, the woman’s first husband.

Even outside of London, things can get very strange—hence the constant train trips out of town by Holmes and Watson to investigate. Who knows what the placid surface of English country life might not contain? The villains who need the services of “The Greek Interpreter” are camouflaged in a “large, dark house” called The Myrtles. The “Tiger of San Pedro”, who does in the good-looking Garcia, is a deposed tyrant who keeps house in “the famous old Jacobean grange of High Gable”, apparently the very picture of respectability. People like this, who are masquerading as boring as normal Englishmen, ensure that the countryside sometimes isn’t boring, but also not English.

Indeed any town is better than the countryside. One such trip takes Holmes and Watson to the Copper Beeches. The house is near Winchester, but not in it. The distinction seems to be crucial. Watson, “fresh from the fogs of Baker Street”, finds the countryside “fresh and beautiful.” Holmes, by contrast, is waiting for the crime to be committed: “You look at these scattered houses”, he retorts to Watson, “and are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.” And he elaborates: “Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on in such places, year in and year out, and none the wiser.” In cities, there is the “pressure of public opinion” to do “what the law cannot accomplish.” And he concludes: “Had this lady who appeals to us for help gone to live in Winchester, I should never have had a fear for her. It is the five miles of country which make the danger.”

The cities are polluted and the countryside violent, the rich are venal and the poor pathetic, and the tradesmen and squires obtuse. But thank goodness for the colonies, and thank goodness for foreigners. They provide an alternative to the ennui and the cocaine. The glue that holds this fictional world together is the onerousness of the everyday, not the temporary exceptions to it of people with fiery pasts in strange places, unpredictable Latin wives, and strong-willed men and clever women who are the few people alive who work their will on all the rest. They have to be punished, of course, or brought within the bounds of the law. But Holmes lets enough of them go to make it clear that his sympathies are with them in the end, not with the average boring law-abiding ones who drive him to the needle in the morocco case, the seven-per-cent solution.

Holmes seems eerily self-contained—at least seems so to Watson most of the time. But in fact he’s completely “other-directed”, in the famous phrase of the twentieth-century sociologist David Riesman: it seems he has immense inner resources, and so should be (Riesman again) “inner-directed”, with his own active resources for amusement. The lack of an exterior problem leaves him bereft, unlike Baudelaire, looking out the closed window at dusk in “Le Spleen de Paris” and being invaded by boredom, who can dream and write of leaving to some tropical paradise.

Holmes is both a Romantic, Baudelaire’s brother, and something different. Both are invaded by ennui. Baudelaire celebrates it, and embraces it, wallows in it. Holmes, by contrast, gives in to it, and is powerless to fight against it until the world, or his creator, takes pity on him and pulls him out: he’s a curiously passive rebel against the forces of lethargy. His victories against melancholy are not of his making, and they are temporary. He can’t light a candle himself, and he curses the dark (or inserts the needle).

But Holmes at least does not embrace the dark, as did so many Romantic poets. And this may ultimately be the secret of his enduring popularity: he lacks the power to get himself going, rather like most of us. But unlike most of us, when the world gives him a goal, he pursues it with all his heart. He’s both weak and strong. Perhaps after all he’s just human.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Knickerbocker Classics), by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Race Point Publishing, 2013

Sherlock Holmes – Sämtliche Werke in drei Bänden, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Anaconda Verlag, 2014.

Schlock Homes: The Complete Bagel Street Saga, by Robert L. Fish
Gaslight, 1990.

The Sherlock Files: The Official Companion to the Hit Television Series, by Guy Adams
It Books, 2013.

Sherlock: Die Fallsammlung, by Guy Adams
Riva Verlag, 2013.

The Sherlock Holmes Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained), with a foreword by Leslie S. Klinger
Dorling Kindersley, 2015

Bruce Fleming is is Professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, having previously held teaching positions at Vanderbilt University, the University of Freiburg, and the National University of Rwanda. His books include Running is Life: Transcending the Crisis of Modernity (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America 2010) and Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide (Fairfax, Virginia: Potomac Books). In addition to being a frequent BRB contributors, he has written opinion pieces for the New York Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.



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