The Last Sherlock Holmes Story,…well, one would like to think so. In the last five years we have had Holmes as a man of the theater and time traveler (Robert Lee Hall’s Exit Sherlock Holmes), the revival of Moriarty in a trilogy by John Gardner, and of course Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Add to this fiction the revival of William Gillette’s play, with John Wood as a marvelously convincing Sherlock, a Sherlock Holmes scrapbook, a new illustrated edition of the stories, and a bigger than usual batch of books dealing with Holmes scholarship, among them D. Martin Dakin’s A Sherlock Holmes Commentary, which discusses every story in detail, and Ian Mc-Queen’s Sherlock Holmes Detected, and you have enough to fill a small shelf. The last Sherlock Holmes story? It does not seem likely.
Michael Dibdin’s book is a fair example, in kind and quality, of the current Sherlock Holmes fiction. It is set in the form of a memoir by Watson, who is said to have died in 1926, and it is explained that Watson knew Conan Doyle, and that the novels and stories were written by Doyle with Holmes’s agreement. This, however, is Watson’s own narrative. It is concerned with Holmes’s investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888. (Some years ago Ellery Queen wrote Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper, as a free adaptation of a film called A Study in Terror.) The murders are described in accurate detail, with some emphasis on the most gruesome disemboweling details, and I suppose there can be no harm in saying—since it is revealed little more than halfway through the book—that Sherlock Holmes is Jack the Ripper and that Watson, after seeing Holmes cutting up a dead prostitute, has to decide what to do about his friend. Mr. Baring-Gould, in his “biography” of Holmes published in 1962, has a chapter in which the detective catches Jack the Ripper, who proves to be a policeman. Mr. Dibdin, however, may have thought the chapter inauthentic, noting perhaps that in it Melville Macnaghten is associated with the Jack the Ripper case as a “high official” of Scotland Yard in the year before he joined the Metropolitan Police, and is also called “Sir Melville” some twenty years before he was knighted.
Almost all of this recent Holmes fiction is essentially boring. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is an exception because it contains two brilliant jokes—the idea that the drug-addicted Holmes should become Freud’s patient, and a joke concerning Moriarty that perhaps shouldn’t be given away. Solecisms in such a work are excusable, because the whole thing is a lark. But the average piece of Holmes fiction is boring because it attempts faithfulness to the letter of the Holmes canon while never getting close to the spirit. The virtues of the Holmes stories rest in Doyle’s weighty but sensitive use of contemporary language, in his strong narrative sense, in the two-dimensional but extremely vivid creation of Holmes and Watson, and in the real deductive powers displayed by Holmes. The deductions made from Mr. Henry Baker’s old black hat in “The Blue Carbuncle” may not be impeccable, but they are marvelously ingenious.
None of these virtues is present in The Last Sherlock Holmes Story. The language is pastiche, not bad of its kind but still “an alloy of literary pretense,” and the story drags distinctly after a lively opening. And like other modern imitators, Mr. Dibdin finds it necessary to wrench Holmes and Watson out of their Doyle context for the sake of the story, and makes no attempt to show Holmes’s deductive genius, allowing him only one deduction in the whole book and that one inaccurate.
It is true that attempts to write Holmes stories adhering to the Doyle canon have been unsuccessful, even in the skilled hands of John Dickson Carr, but one might have thought that would warn other writers off the subject and the characters. There is no copyright on Holmes and Watson, but they deserve respect. Recent uses of them arouse the indignation one felt when Angela Thirkell calmly appropriated Trollope’s Barsetshire as the background for her snobbish comedies of English country life.
All this may seem rather hard on Mr. Dibdin, who is simply an example of Holmes pastiche to hand, no worse than most and better than some. His book is likely to be popular, as almost all Holmesiana is popular now. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was a best seller, and any big American or British bookstore is likely to have a display not just of the Holmes stories but of related material. The reasons for this are partly literary, but chiefly social.
The literary appeal of the stories should not be underestimated. It rests upon that direct storytelling ability of Doyle’s, together with a boyishness in approach that pleases the young of succeeding generations. My own children discovered the stories with delight at about the age of ten, and it seems likely that both their pleasure and the waning of it after a few years was typical. The success of the play has no doubt had some effect in popularizing the stories, and so has the adroitness with which publishers have pushed sales, through new paperbacks and special editions of one sort and another, before the expiration of the Doyle copyright in 1980.
Baker Street Irregulars, Silver Blazers, and dozens of other Sherlock Holmes societies throughout the world have played their part in maintaining the enthusiasm and interest of readers. The Sherlock Holmes pub in London has its relics of cases around the walls, and you may look at the Baker Street sitting room while you dine. You can stay at the Sherlock Holmes Hotel, of course in Baker Street, and there buy books examining in detail the topography of Sherlock Holmes’s London. A nearby cinema bears his name. In the London Library there is an index card, unique of its kind, reading “Sherlock Holmes: fictitious character, see A.C. Doyle.” Sherlock Holmes is not so much a fictitious character as an enduring myth.
The quality of a mythical figure in fiction is that he has a symbolic meaning, independent of the actual works in which he appears. Robin Hood and Davy Crockett are simple myths, Hamlet and Leopold Bloom subtler ones. As a myth Holmes is unusual, because he has meant different things to his original Victorian and Edwardian audience and to ourselves. Pierre Nordon, author of the best book on Doyle, mentions Holmes’s Nietzschean qualities, and these are no less marked because Doyle detested Nietzsche and thought his philosophy founded in lunacy. Yet he conceived Holmes as a Nietzschean superior man, outside passion, unconcerned with money, uninterested in the ordinary details of bourgeois life; attributes all the more impressive because he was evidently attractive to women, had no financial worries since at times he accepted large sums for his services, and was in an eccentric way an image of bourgeois life himself, setting up house with Watson and Mrs. Hudson rather than with a wife.
Such a character, an outsider if ever one existed, was made acceptable to readers by the reassuring nature of his creator. Doyle was a fine cricketer and a man of action who wished nothing more than to work for his country. His volumes of poems were called Songs of Action, Songs of the Road, The Guards Came Through. He had no truck with nonsense about modern art. One poem, “The Post Impressionist,” is about a neglected academic painter who drops one of his works on to a dustbin so that it is marked with dirt and damp. He makes his fortune when it is praised as a postimpressionist masterpiece, and concludes happily that “English climate’s best for art.”
Doyle was in many ways a perfect Victorian Philistine, and it was important to the success of the stories that such a trustworthy man had conceived them. For the original audience Holmes was a wish-fulfillment figure. If they had been able to break out from their actual selves who traveled to and from suburbia by train (buying the Strand Magazine at the station), worked in offices, valued the protection given by the police against burglars and footpads, and were shocked by any abrogation of the social or moral code, they might have wished to be like Sherlock Holmes. Law-abiding themselves, they envied and admired the casualness with which this superman at times broke the law on their behalf, and acted as a court of appeal to see that justice was finally done, letting a murderer go free here and there (“The Abbey Grange” and “Charles Augustus Milverton”), and giving his blessing to the bright Rhodesian future of the young student found cheating in “The Three Students.”
E.W. Hornung’s Raffles made a similar appeal to a similar public. Raffles, however, although a gentleman was also a thief, and so could not match the attraction of Holmes, who broke the law only for the sake of a higher law. For the first and second generation of Holmes readers he was a superman in the service of society.
This approach inevitably changed. A Study in Scarlet appeared in 1887, the first short story in 1892. The world in which the novels and most of the stories were set was familiar to the people who read them. The London Doyle described, seen not with photographic exactness but through a foggy romantic glow, was known to them, they saw and sometimes took four-wheelers and many of them lived in the suburbs or the nearby countryside where many stories were placed. The tales offered, in fact, the pleasures of familiarity made strange, but as the years passed the look of England changed and this particular pleasure faded. Doyle realized this, and understood too that Holmes belonged to a time before World War I. He set the later stories in the same period as the early ones, but His Last Bow (1917) and the Case Book (1927) show him desperately casting back to a world which no longer existed and which, either through age or distaste for the task, Doyle was unable to re-create successfully. If one tried to find a year after which readers no longer regarded the stories as “contemporary” but as “period,” it might be 1918. Holmes had a certain acquaintance with the motor car (see the story “His Last Bow”), but he really had nothing to do with a world in which it had replaced the railway train.
The stories, then, are now period pieces. As such they have acquired a patina of charm quite outside Doyle’s intention. Holmes is not to us an intellectual superman, a figure of whom we have learned to be distrustful, and we feel none of the Victorian admiration for lawless actions carried out on our behalf by a character who has our best interests at heart. Holmes for us is rather a figure of pleasing quaintness. What odd clothes he wears, what a delightful world it was in which one journeyed to a village where a crime took place by railway, and then took a cab up from the station; in which there was no double and triple crossing, but simply the theft of a naval treaty between England and Italy, or of the plans for the new Bruce-Partington submarine. We are charmed by the simplicity of motive in the stories. Von Bork, the German spy captured by Holmes, is expected to take it as a final compliment when the detective tells him that “you are a sportsman, and you will bear me no ill-will when you realize that you, who have outwitted so many other people, have at last been outwitted yourself.” There is none of that damned Le Carréian or Deightonian complication about motives, no question but that Our side, the side of law and order, represented in Doyle’s mind by the British Empire, is the right one.
Along with the period charm there is a social innocence about the stories that pleases us, and that makes the world of Sherlock Holmes, including inferior modern versions of it, more popular in the Seventies than it has been for a long while. He comes as a kind of tonic (or it can be called a soothing syrup) after Vietnam and Watergate, Rhodesia and Northern Ireland. The moral certainties of this great outsider are an alternative to our police bribery and corruption that at times seem almost universal, to the CIA and the Mafia and a calm acceptance of torture when it is inflicted by the state. Doyle was strongly moved by personal horrors, and there are a good many of them in the Holmes stories, but his Victorian optimism rejected the idea of anything more than individual wickedness. The idea that any civilized state could have sanctioned evil measures to achieve its ends would have been to him as unthinkable as the idea of general destruction.
In his piece of science fiction, The Poison Belt, what looks like a vision of total extinction, when all living things seem to have died, turns out to have been merely a temporary state of catalepsy. August 2, 1914, was, Doyle thought, “the most terrible August in the history of the world,” but still, as Holmes assures Watson, better things are ahead. The future will always be in the hands of decent people behaving in a civilized way. Nothing in Doyle’s beliefs or experience enabled him to envisage the mushroom cloud of Hiroshima.
August 17, 1978