#3 - Twelve thoughts upon finishing Sherlock Holmes Vol. 1
- Though Doyle writes descriptive prose well and it's a change of pace to see him do it for long stretches, I don't think Holmes wears well at novel length, at least in the two novels here. Holmes stories are at their best with a clear, in-the-moment narrative focus and tight pace; the huge chunk of backstory inserted into A Study in Scarlet kills the flow of the tale, and the exploration of the The Sign of Four's conspiracy went back and forth so many times that I completely lost track of who'd come from where and was playing what role in the story. We'll see about The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear. (That said: the bit at the start of A Study in Scarlet with the old man and the young girl facing death alone in the desert was one of the strongest passages I've read from Doyle.)
- I think the first batch of short stories was the strongest, with puzzles that were original, mysterious, and weird. By the time of The Return of Sherlock Holmes, many of the plots and conspiracies are somewhat routine, though Doyle tries to patch this over by making those involved Important and Of High Rank and giving the cases Grave Consequences for National Security. (I appreciate that Doyle tries to compensate for the downturn in bizarreness with world- and character-building - the existence of Mycroft, the effects of the spread of Holmes' reputation, Holmes' very slight softening toward Watson and faint adoption of something approaching humanity, kind of.)
- The "why, my good Lady Norrington, how did you enjoy your dinner at Chuck E. Cheese last night?" "LIES AND SORCERY" "I only remark upon the circular indentation upon your left sleeve from the Arkanoid paddle; the establishment boasts the only working cabinet in London" "Why, you're the genius of the century, Mr. Holmes, you are!" introductions get exceedingly wearisome, though.
- It's interesting how in these stories you can see the roots of both today's character-driven mystery serials (the House school of "asocial douchebag solves crimes") and its plot-driven mystery serials (the Law & Order school of strict adherence to formula, where the drama between those involved in the crime and not the investigators is the focus).
- It's odd to be occasionally reminded that the Late Victorian and the Wild West are going on at the same time, given the jarring dichotomy when elements from the latter pop up in Holmes' London.
- At the same time, it's intriguing how often and overtly institutional misogyny is at the root of Holmes's cases; so many cases underline how a woman's lack of complete autonomy leaves her prey to those who seek to usurp her assets. Racial prejudices are touched upon as well, though the series is more problematic here, considering its views of the Indian occupation/pygmies/etc.; perhaps it's best to note that it's on marked occasion progressive for its era.
- Publishers really need to rethink inserting introduction essays into anthologies. The one in my edition, "On the Significance of Boswells" by Loren Estleman, purports to redeem the much-maligned role of Watson in the stories but actually serves little purpose but to spoil almost half of Holmes' casebook, including tales that aren't even in this volume. Also, Mr. Estleman, how would you respond to the difficult use of Mormons as stock villains in A Study in Scarlet, based on actual historical incidents that are nonetheless debated in their details, still uncomfortable to read today given unrelated modern prejudices against the church and the dearth of wagon train massacres among its present congregation? I mean, it's a pretty complex quandary, I'm not sure how one could sort things o--
"Today the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is one of the world's richest churches, and this view is disparaged...just as at the height of the Ku Klux Klan's power in the 1920s it was fashionable to indict Holmes's opposition to the secret organization in 'The Five Orange Pips.'"
Oh, so it's just that Mormons are all evil. Thanks for clearing that up!
- Moriarty sucks. He's built up by both Doyle and by pop culture as Holmes' intellectual equal, this towering mastermind, and he turns out to be Just Zis Guy You Know. Milverton was a worthier adversary, and he fell like a chump. Irene Adler over both of them.
- Mary Morstan dying also sucks. She deserved better than to fall victim to a transparent plot device to restore the status quo. Watson was so happy with her (and Watson is given so little in the series; he exists mostly to make Holmes look good and give him someone to whom to explain his theories, like Kirk's captain's log).
-"My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.
'You appear to be astonished,' he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. 'Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.'...
'But the Solar System!' I protested.
'What the deuce is it to me?' he interrupted impatiently; 'you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.'"
Tell that to your teacher the next time you're asked for your astronomy homework, kids. You don't need to do it; Sherlock Holmes said so! (I'm surprised this isn't a Peanuts classroom comic, frankly.)
- Honors: "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb" wasn't really a mystery but was a dang good thriller, atmospheric, horrific, and well-paced. The climax of "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," meanwhile, is unbearably tense and features some strikingly gothic imagery. "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" nabs the play-at-home award: I cracked the cryptogram, yay! The Big Nothing: "The Final Problem." What final problem; there wasn't even a mystery, as I recall.
- So, who'd take the Condescending Genius Jerk award between Holmes & Poirot? I'd say Holmes, if we're judging on the condescending jerkiness factor; Poirot at least allows himself a modicum of fellow-feeling now and then.