My mystery book group read two Arthur Conan Doyle novellas for its last meeting: A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. I think I read some Sherlock Holmes when I was a kid because I remember the volume my father owned, and I remember pulling it down off the shelves and reading at least some of it. But I have no memory of the actual stories, so this is essentially a first reading.
It’s interesting to read the books now that I know at least a little something about the Victorian era, because they seem so much of their time. They are obsessed with rationality and order, with list-making and codification and analysis, which suits a culture undergoing industrialization and running an empire. But they are also obsessed with all that they feared could undermine these things, most especially with the dangerous, uncertain colonial periphery — a good chunk of A Study in Scarlet is about the Mormons out in the wild west of America (not colonial, obviously, but a threatening boundary area) and The Sign of Four uses the 1857 Indian mutiny as a backdrop. I was interested in the fact that so much of A Study in Scarlet is given over to the Mormon story; in an abrupt, disorienting shift, you all the sudden find yourself whisked away from London out to the hot desert and suddenly you are reading a romance or what could be the plot of a western movie. It’s as though the book didn’t quite know what it wanted to be, as though it’s trying to bring in as much material as it possibly can and tame it all and make it all make sense, and it only partially succeeds.
The books also seem very much of their time in terms of their narrative structure — the focus of the books seems to be Sherlock Holmes, but he isn’t the narrator and we don’t have an anonymous third person narrator who focuses closely on him. Instead we have Watson, who, with the exception of the American section, tells us about Holmes from his own first-person perspective. There is a distancing effect from what seems to be the main show, so instead of getting Holmes directly, we get him filtered through another character. This reminds me of the structure of The Great Gatsby, but all the other models for this type of narrative that come to mind are 19th century — Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Jekyll and Hyde. This structure puts more emphasis on the relationships among the characters, so what is interesting about the Holmes books becomes the relationship between Watson and Holmes, rather than just Holmes himself.
And without Watson, Holmes would seem even odder and more bizarre than he already does. He’s a manic-depressive drug addict, after all, and although his drug use was perfectly legal at the time, it still is a striking feature of his character. He makes it clear that he solves mysteries in order to keep from falling into boredom and depression, and when he doesn’t have a case to keep his mind active, his drugs keep him from despair. When Watson asks him if he is currently working on a case, this is his answer:
None. Hence the cocaine. I cannot live without brainwork. What else is there to live for? Stand at the window here. Was ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world? See how the yellow fog swirls down the street and drifts across the dun-colored houses. What could be more hopelessly prosaic and material? What is the use of having powers, Doctor, when one has no field on which to exert them? Crime is commonplace, existence is commonplace, and no qualities save those which are commonplace have any function upon earth.
Fortunately, right at that moment, the doorbell rings, and a young woman (a young woman Watson finds most interesting) enters with a new case.
Not only is Holmes someone who today would be on medication and in therapy (or at least someone would strongly encourage it), he has some very peculiar quirks, such as the fact that he is so focused on his work that he blocks out everything else that could possibly distract him from it. So he knows next to nothing about literature and philosophy, because those won’t help him solve cases, but he knows everything there is to know about chemistry and law and footprints and the various types of cigar ash.
But Watson, who perhaps has his own peculiarities but is someone we can actually imagine knowing, instantly takes a liking to Holmes. The two of them room happily together and work on cases together, and it’s this relationship that makes Holmes seem a little more approachable.
The more I think about this book, the odder it seems, and now as I’m writing this, I’m realizing that this quality of oddness-that-creeps-up-on-you is one I prize highly. I turn to Sherlock Holmes expecting to find something that matches the cultural image many of us carry around in our heads, but instead I find something a lot stranger. Fun.