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Sherlockology

Sherlock Holmes Collected Edition

by Arthur Conan Doyle
Jonathan Cape and John Murray, 9 volume set pp., £21.20

A Study in Scarlet

by Arthur Conan Doyle, with an introduction by Hugh Greene
Jonathan Cape and John Murray, (£1.95)

The Sign of Four

by Arthur Conan Doyle, with an introduction by Graham Greene
Jonathan Cape and John Murray, (£1.95)

The Hound of the Baskervilles

by Arthur Conan Doyle, with an introduction by John Fowles
Jonathan Cape and John Murray, (£1.95)

The Valley of Fear

by Arthur Conan Doyle, with an introduction by Len Deighton
Jonathan Cape and John Murray, (£1.95)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

by Arthur Conan Doyle, with an introduction by Eric Ambler
Jonathan Cape and John Murray, (£2.95)

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

by Arthur Conan Doyle, with an introduction by Kingsley Amis
Jonathan Cape and John Murray, (£2.95)

The Return of Sherlock Holmes

by Arthur Conan Doyle, with an introduction by Angus Wilson
Jonathan Cape and John Murray, (£2.95)

His Last Bow

by Arthur Conan Doyle, with an introduction by Julian Symons
Jonathan Cape and John Murray, (£2.50)

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

by Arthur Conan Doyle, with an introduction by C. P. Snow
Jonathan Cape and John Murray, (£2.50)

Sherlock Holmes Detected

by Ian McQueen
Drake, 226 pp., $8.95

The London of Sherlock Holmes

by Michael Harrison
Drake, 232 pp., $6.95

In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes

by Michael Harrison
Drake, 292 pp., $6.95

The Return of Moriarty

by John Gardner
Putnam’s, 366 pp., $8.95

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution: Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, MD

as edited by Nicholas Meyer
Dutton, 253 pp., $6.95

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote little about Sherlock Holmes compared with what has been written by other people since. Sherlock has always been popular, on a scale never less than worldwide, but the subsidiary literature which has steadily heaped up around him can’t be accounted for merely by referring to his universal appeal. Sherlockology—the adepts call it that, with typical whimsy—is a sort of cult, which has lately become a craze. The temptation to speculate about why this should be is one I don’t propose to resist, but first there is the task of sorting the weighty from the witless in the cairn of Sherlockiana—they say that, too—currently available. What follows is a preliminary classification, done with no claims to vocational, or even avocational, expertise. Most decidedly not: this is a field in which all credentials, and especially impeccable ones, are suspect. To give your life, or any significant part of it, to the study of Sherlock Holmes is to defy reason.

It is also to disparage Doyle, as John Fowles pointed out in his introduction to The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of the four Sherlock Holmes novels handsomely reissued in Britain early last year, each as a single volume. This is an expensive way of doing things, but the books are so good-looking it is hard to quarrel, although the childhood memory of reading all the Sherlock Holmes “long stories” in one volume (and all the short stories in another volume), well printed on thin but opaque paper, dies hard. Still, the new books look splendid all lined up, and the introductions are very interesting. Apart from Fowles, the men on the case are Hugh Greene (A Study in Scarlet), his brother Graham Greene (The Sign of Four), and Len Deighton (The Valley of Fear). What each man has to say is well worth hearing, even if not always strictly relevant to the novel it introduces. When you add to this four-volume set of the novels the five-volume reissue of the short story collections, it certainly provides a dazzling display.

To follow the order in which Doyle gave them to the world, the short story collections are The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (introduced by Eric Ambler), The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (Kingsley Amis), The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Angus Wilson), His Last Bow (Julian Symons), and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (C. P. Snow). The dust-wrappers of all nine volumes are carried out in black and gold, a color combination which in Britain is supposed to put you in mind of John Player Specials, a ritzy line in cigarettes. Doing it this way, it will set you back £21.20 in English money to read the saga through.

A less crippling alternative would be to purchase the Doubleday omnibus introduced by the old-time (in fact, late) Sherlockian Christopher Morley, which reproduces the whole corpus—four novels and fifty-six short stories—on goodish paper for slightly under nine bucks, the contents being as good as in the nine-volume version. The question of just how good that is is one that begs to be shirked, but honor demands I should stretch my neck across the block and confess that Holmes doesn’t seem quite so fascinating to me now as he once did. Perhaps only an adolescent can get the full thrill, and the price of wanting to go on getting it is to remain an adolescent always. This would explain a lot about the Sherlockologists.

The best single book on Doyle is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, l’homme et l’oeuvre, a thoroughgoing monograph by Pierre Nordon which came out in its original language in 1964 and was translated into English as Conan Doyle a couple of years later.* By no coincidence, it is also the best thing on Sherlock. In his chapter on “Sherlock |Holmes and the Reading Public” Nordon says most of what requires to be said about the bases of Sherlock’s contemporary appeal. On the sociological side our nine introducers can’t do much more than amplify Nordon’s points, but since all of them are working writers of fiction (with the exception of Hugh Greene, who has, however, a profound knowledge of the period’s genre literature) they usually have something of technical moment to add—and disinterested technical analysis is exactly what the Sherlock saga has for so long lacked. The Sherlockologists can’t supply it, partly because most of them are nuts, but mainly because the deficiencies of Doyle’s stories are what they thrive on: lacunae are what they are in business to fill, and they see Doyle’s every awkwardness as a fruitful ambiguity, an irrevocable license for speculation. The professional scribes, even when they think highly of Doyle, aren’t like that. They haven’t the time.

Hugh Greene reminds us that the Sherlock stories were head and shoulders above the yellow-back norm. This is still an essential point to put: Doyle was the man who made cheap fiction a field for creative work. Greene also says that A Study in Scarlet is broken-backed, which it is. Graham Greene calls one of Doyle’s (brief, as always) descriptive scenes “real writing from which we can all draw a lesson” but doesn’t forget to insist that the subplot of The Sign of Four is far too like The Moonstone for comfort. (He also calls the meeting of Holmes and Watson in A Study in Scarlet unmemorable, an accurate perception denied to the Sherlockians who gravely installed a plaque in St. Bartholomew’s hospital to commemorate it.)

Of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the only successful Sherlock novel, John Fowles gives an unsparing critical analysis, on the sound assumption that anything less would be patronizing. He sees that Doyle’s great technical feat was to resolve “the natural incompatibility of dialogue and narration” but isn’t afraid to call Doyle’s inaccuracy inaccuracy. (He is surely wrong, however, to say that if Doyle had really wanted to kill Holmes he would have thrown Watson off the Reichenbach Falls. It is true that Sherlock couldn’t exist without Watson, but there is no possible question that Doyle was keen to rub Holmes out.)

Len Deighton, a dedicated amateur of technology, assures us that Doyle really did forecast many of the police methods to come—the business with the typewriter in “A Case of Identity,” for example, was years ahead of its time. Since Nordon, eager as always to demystify Sherlock, rather downrates him on this point, it is useful to have the balance redressed. Unfortunately Deighton says almost nothing pertaining to The Valley of Fear, the novel which he is introducing. It seems likely that there was no editor to ask him to.

So it goes with the introductions to the short story collections. All of them are informative, but some of them tell you the same things, and only one or two illuminate the actual book. Kingsley Amis, as he did with Jane Austen and Thomas Love Peacock, gets down to fundamentals and admits that the Sherlock stories, for all their innovations in pace and compression, are seldom “classical” in the sense of playing fair with the reader. Eric Ambler talks charmingly about Doyle’s erudition; Angus Wilson pertinently about the plush Nineties (1895-1898, the years of The Return, were Sherlock’s times of triumph); Julian Symons penetratingly about how Doyle shared out his own personality between Holmes and Watson; and C. P. Snow—well, he, of all the nine, it seems to me, is the one who cracks the case.

His personality helps. Lord Snow not only sees but admits the attractions of the high position in society to which Sherlock’s qualities eventually brought him, with Watson striding alongside. It might have been Sherlock’s bohemianism that pulled in the crowds, but it was his conservatism that glued them to the bleachers. This was Pierre Nordon’s salient observation on the sleuth’s original appeal, but Lord Snow has outsoared Nordon by realizing that the same come-on is still operating with undiminished force. Sherlock was an eccentrically toothed but essential cog in a society which actually functioned.

The life led by Holmes and Watson in their rooms at 221B Baker Street is a dream of unconventionality, like Act 1 of La Bohème. (A Sherlockologist would step in here to point out that Henri Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, the book on which the opera was later based, is perused by Watson in A Study in Scarlet.) Although Len Deighton is quite right to say that the busy Sherlock is really running the kind of successful medical consultancy which Doyle never enjoyed, it is equally true to say that Holmes and Watson are living as a pair of Oxbridge undergraduates were popularly thought to—and indeed did—live. Holmes is a maverick scientist who treats science as an art, thereby conflating the glamor of both fields while avoiding the drudgery of either. He is free of all ties; he does what he wants; he is afraid of nothing. He is above the law and dispenses his own justice. As with Baudelaire, boredom is his only enemy. If he can’t escape it through an intellectual challenge, he takes refuge in drugs.

Sherlock in The Sign of Four was fixing cocaine three times a day for three months: if he’d tried to snort it in those quantities, his aquiline septum would have been in considerable danger of dropping off. Morphine gets a mention somewhere too—perhaps he was also shooting speedballs. Certainly he was a natural dope fiend: witness how he makes a cocktail of yesterday’s cigarette roaches in “The Speckled Band.” In The Valley of Fear he is “callous from overstimulation.” All the signs of an oil-burning habit. Did he quit cold turkey, or did Watson ease him down? Rich pickings for the ex-Woodstock Sherlockologists of the future. All of this must have been heady wine for the contemporary reader endowed by the Education Act of 1870 with just enough literacy to read the Strand Magazine, helped out by a Sidney Paget illustration on every page.

George Orwell thought Britain needed a boy’s weekly which questioned society, but Sherlock, for all his nonconformity, set no precedent. He fitted in far more than he dropped out. Sherlock was the house hippie. His latterday chummings-up with crowned heads (including the private sessions with Queen Victoria which drive card-carrying Sherlockologists to paroxysms of conjecture) were merely the confirmation of a love for royalty which was manifest as early as “A Scandal in Bohemia.” “Your Majesty had not spoken,” announces Holmes, “before I was aware that I was addressing Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein, and hereditary King of Bohemia.” The language, as so often in the Holmes stories, is part-way a put-on, but the relationship is genuine: Sherlock is as eager to serve as any of his cultural descendants. From Sanders of the River and Bulldog Drummond down to Pimpernel Smith and James Bond, all those gifted amateur soldiers can trace their ancestry to Sherlock’s bump of reverence. Physically a virgin, spiritually he spawned children numberless as the dust.

  1. *

    Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

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