Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Arthur Conan Doyle - The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

This was my first concentrated dose of Sherlock Holmes.  That’s different from my first dose, mind you. Before this I had read A Study in Scarlet  and The Sign of Four, had even seen some of the movies. But those were solitary forays into the great detective’s world and forays, especially in the films’ case, that revealed less of Holmes than they did of flash and explosions. Reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a rather different experience. There are fewer explosions, though I expected that. There is also more of Holmes’ genius on display, or at least enough of it on display in a far wider variety of settings and with less background noise that it is far more radiant. There is also just, well, more. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes presents twelve examples of a formula honed to perfection, one more than capable of dazzling – and yet still very recognizably a formula, and, as such, one that grows grating long before the collection’s end.

Before we get to that, though, we have to discuss Holmes’ deductions. They are brilliant. Better than that, they are a joy to read about. These are not the kinds of mysteries where the reader is neck and neck with the detective in the race to put together the answer. There is no competition. Rather, the reader does their best and then watches Holmes zip ahead of them at impossible speeds. Strangely enough, the best instances of Holmes’ ability are not the most dramatic. Indeed, it’s when there’s nothing much at stake, when it’s not a matter of a crucial detail misinterpreted but one overlooked entirely, or when Holmes reads a life from clothes and details, that the detective is at his most awe inspiring.

The cases that we encounter are a fitting trial for the great detective. Of course, the crimes are preposterous, with just about every criminal expending energy completely disproportional to their goal in their quest to find the most bizarre ways to reach their objective. But that doesn’t matter when compared to the puzzles, which soon prove themselves ingenious to the point of elegance. Doyle slips in and out of different genres with the specifics of the criminals and their objectives, and, even if each is flattened into a lock with a tricky combination when Holmes enters the scene, it’s still fun to see the lovers in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the bald-faced absurdity that is just cocky enough to work of “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League,” and the pseudo-Gothic nature of “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb.”

But the sheer number of these cases and the deductions that follow – or, more accurately, the way the deductions always appear at the exact same spot in the exact same structure – is impossible to ignore. Kyle Freeman, the volume’s editor and quite the Holmes expert, agrees that it’s a key part of the stories but offers a positive interpretation. To avoid the risk of caricaturing it, I’ll provide it in full:

This plot repetition, which might seem a weakness, turns out to be a strength. It contributes to that sense of solidness we get from this world in which logic triumphs over superstition, and where justice in one form or another is meted out to violators of the social order. The sense of order that runs through this world is one of the great satisfactions of these stories (p. XXII).

It’s a fair point. There is a way in which the repetition of logic is the very stuff that makes up its triumph. Holmes’ victory is not a fluke. Clear thought, when applied, can always, Doyle tells us, best the darkness in man.

And yet, as repetition adds that thematic depth, it also serves to thematically flatten Holmes’ reason for all of this crime fighting and one of the story’s facets that was most interesting to me. Holmes is not simply a moralist. Though he passes moral judgments, he does not fight crime because it is the right thing to do. Rather, stopping evil is, for him, a way to escape boredom, to find purpose in life. He is as much a thrill seeker, if not more so, than any of the criminals that he contends with. It is a way to escape from the commonplaces of existence (p. 224), a love of all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life (p. 206). As Holmes puts it at the end of one case, The only way we have still to solve is how to while away these bleak autumnal evenings (p. 358).

My attraction to this side of Holmes is likely obvious to regular readers of this blog. In a way, Sherlock Holmes is like an inverted piece of Weird Fiction, with Holmes knowing that there has to be more to life and yet only being able to approach (and never reach) that more by ruthlessly cutting down any attempt to deviate from the mundane rules of everyday existence that he seeks to escape. What a paradox!

But, outside of fantastic sentences about autumnal evenings, there is no sense of any of this in the stories. The repetitive structures kill it. We come in as the case begins, and we end as it is solved. There is no sense of life outside of them, no contrast. Holmes speaks of normal life and drearily (existentially?) unfilled evenings, but we never see him when he’s not matching wits against a foe, and so it’s a bit hard to take that as anything more than talk.

The main problem with the repetition, though, is far simpler: it’s repetitive. Horrifically so. The excitement of the hunt bleeds out once the reader realizes that they are, if not exactly running on the same track each time, at least running at the same speed and passing the same landmarks at the same points.

This is compounded in the most infuriating of fashions by Doyle’s habit of not only telling the reader what to think with alarming regularity but also repeating sentences and ideas almost verbatim from story to story. In “The Five Orange Pips,” Holmes says: “I think, Watson,” he remarked at last, “that of all our cases we have had none more fantastic than this” (p. 266). In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”: Of all these varied cases, however, I cannot recall any which presented more singular features than that which was associated with the well-known Surrey family of the Roylotts of Stoke Moran (p. 307). In “The Red-Headed League”: In the present instance I am forced to admit that the facts are, to the best of my belief, unique (p. 207).

Those aren’t the only places a nearly exact variant of that appears, and that is not the only phrase that pops back up. Let’s try this one: The more featureless and commonplace a crime is, the more difficult it is to bring home (p. 240). How, exactly, does that differ in meaning from: It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling (p. 215)? Or: there is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace (p. 225)? And so on and on and on. Any chance the reader has of viewing the new tale as anything but a retread of the old one is dashed when the exact same superlatives are applied by the same people in the same way almost every damn time.

By the point I was halfway through The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I had a very simple way to tell if I would like a story before I had even turned the first page. I asked myself: how long has it been since I read a Sherlock Holmes story? For the tale’s opener, the answer was over a year, and I loved the thing. For the fourth in a row (it was a long train ride, and I hadn’t brought anything else to read), I was ready to chuck the book at Watson for saying how odd it all was for the umpteen-thousandth time.

I think that my final thoughts on the collection, and in the review, really come from that. Sherlock Holmes stories excel at what they do, but they only do one thing, and they do it over and over again. I highly recommend that any mystery fans read a story of his. I wouldn’t recommend at all that they follow that first story up with another without a very healthy pause between them. So, following, my own advice, I may return to Sherlock Holmes again – but I think I’ll wait at least a year before I do.

[Note: all page numbers are from the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1. Those interested in reading the tales, though, might be interested to know that they are freely available online at places like ProjectGutenberg.]


  1. Interesting review. There is a lot of repetition in what I'll call the window-dressing of the tales, but that never bothered me. The stories themselves were enough to keep me engaged.

    So I think this is 'your mileage may vary' situation - some people will be fine reading all the stories in a short timeframe, while others will prefer your approach of pausing between them. To each his/her own.

    One historical note - the stories were written originally for monthly publication in the Strand Magazine. So readers were forced to wait between stories - and this also accounts for some of the repetition, since the author assumed a fair number of readers were getting the story without having read the prior ones.

  2. I am obsessed with Sherlock! Yes completely completely obsessed! It is due to this obsession that I stumbled upon your page and oh boy i am glad i did