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Reading Sherlock Holmes

January 13, 2016
illustration of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson sitting in a train compartment

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, illustrated by Sidney Paget

I’ve finished reading The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I’ve been somewhere in the middle of it since approximately 2012, shortly after I got my Kindle. And now I’ve read every single story in the collection. I read most of them in a determined binge from this past December until just now. It’s a lot of pages of stories, which doesn’t really hit home when you’re reading them on a Kindle. 1796 pages, which makes me impressed with myself. I finished within a few weeks of having seen The Abominable Bride. The timing pleases me. I’m still assembling my thoughts about the episode itself, so this is not a review of it.

One downside of reading the stories sporadically, and then in a month-long binge of several is that many of the tales have blurred together by now. Which is a mixed blessing: on the one hand, I’ve lost some details, but on the other, I’ve gotten very interested in overviews, overarching themes, and analysis of Holmes and adaptations.

Scattered thoughts, behind the cut.

Surprising number of unexpected-Western interludes. I was sure the first one in The Sign of the Four (with bonus prairie Mormons) was a digitization error. Nope, it was a legitimately constructed flashback. See also: The Valley of Fear, where the Western flashback is a whole other novel-within a novel. Okay, then.

Recurring theme of using outward appearance as an acceptable and unquestioned method of character judgment. Wealthy women look delicate and refined. Intelligent men have keen eyes, proud foreheads, aristocratic manners, etc. Villainous characters are varying degrees of “swarthy,” with dark, bushy hair, flashing eyes, set jaws. Are you getting the picture? Holmes and Watson certainly are. Guilty by reason of physiognomy. And footprints.

Also, possibly related to the above: Racism! Such racism! “Chinamen,” a “pygmy” from Africa, and “savages” from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds of not-White-not-English.  There’s a distinct sense of profiling of non-Europeans. It’s cringe-inducing to read this in the 21st century. Both, in terms of how far discourse as come, and, well, how far it hasn’t. (And/or how much better we’ve gotten as a society at burying racist attitudes and assumptions under our social mores, but I digress.)

In the later stories, it’s pretty clear that Arthur Conan Doyle has ceased to care even a little bit, but is churning out Holmes stories to pay the bills. So, we get to things like the Peruvian vampire wife, quite a lurid tale. (Spoiler: not actually a vampire.) My friend Nate, my go-to for Sherlock Holmes knowledge of any kind, tells me that Doyle kept writing Sherlock Holmes stories in later years to finance his passion for spiritualism and attempts to contact his dead wife. (Might explain the one with the vampire.)

Also: the one with the professor’s drug habit and the mad-science were-monkey. This is, I promise you, a synopsis of the plot of “The Adventure of the Creeping Man.” No, I’m sorry, not a were-monkey, a were-langur, in pursuit of eternal youth. Yes, this is  a story that got published in the Victorian era, and read by Sherlock Holmes fans. There’s one with a were-monkey. I would dearly love to know more about how this story was received when it was published.

As I read, I was most interested in how Sherlock and Watson reacted to one another, and how the power dynamic, and the emotional dynamic played out between them. Whew! It’s a pretty determined love-fest. Watson worships Holmes. His intellect, the speed of deductions… lots of ink devoted to his handsome serious face staring off into the distance and thinking about the case. Throughout, Watson seems to subsist on worshiping Holmes, who mostly insults him and throws a very few crumbs of affection his way. I’m definitely planning to tackle a reread that examines their relationship dynamic.

Adaptations of Holmes are a whole other, imperfect beast. My introduction to Holmes was through various adaptations, most notably the Basil Rathbone movies. Now having read the stories, I can see some references to the stories and divergences from them, in the BBC Sherlock. I’m curious about an overview that traces how the adaptations adhered to, or departed from the original stories.

Reading the Sherlock Holmes stories has made me very curious about reading some of the history and scholarship surrounding it. Of which, I am informed, there is a lot. Nate tells me that there’s an annotated edition specifically constructed as if all of Holmes’ cases occurred in real time. I would dearly love a data visualization of this, and said as much, on Twitter. Professor Emily came to my aid with a magnificent set of infographics from The Guardian to detail just about everything I’m left pondering: the chronological sequence of the cases, the racial profiling, types of crime. It’s wonderful, go look! My friend Stephen chimed in with a timeline constructed by, as far as I can tell, an armchair Sherlockian in Peoria, Illinois. I’d love to know the story behind it.

My thoughts about Sherlock Holmes are still evolving. I’m sure I’ll go back and reread several of the stories, maybe even the later/weird ones. Now, though, I think I’m off to read something set in the 21st century.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 13, 2016 9:00 pm

    Ages ago I read all of Sherlock. I enjoy all, or most, of the film adaptations, yet shy away from modern author attempts to carry on the intrepid sleuth’s adventures. The only one of satisfaction is Mr Holmes which became the film with Ian McKellan.

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