I’m not sure how I first stumbled across Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and began to eagerly devour the exploits of the famous private detective. Unlike the other books I have covered this year in my Year of Important Books series, this one was not a relic left behind from my older siblings’ childhood.
I must have got my first Sherlock Holmes tale from the library, whose hallowed spaces I visited once a week with my parents (the Edmonton downtown library) as well as numerous visits each week to our school library.
Needless to say, I quickly fell in love with these stories, and remain an avid consumer of all things Sherlock. I can’t tell you how many Sherlock books I have read – aside from the originals, I have read very many books based on the characters, some true to the characterizations as given to us by Conan Doyle and some way out in left field. I’ve read books about Sherlock as a child, and others about what happens after he retired. I’ve read books about Sherlock and Jack the Ripper, Sherlock AS Jack the Ripper, Sherlock and vampires, werewolves or other monsters, regular Sherlock stories set in the time and place the originals were set, Sherlock in America, modern-day takes on Sherlock…..etc etc etc.* A small hint as to my obsession with all things Sherlock is evidenced during the planning of the trip my husband and I took to Europe way back when. When he asked me what was the one place I had to see on the Continent, I answered, “Reichenbach Falls!”**
But it has been quite some time since I revisited the original stories, and so I was very happy indeed to open the first story, A Study in Scarlet, and begin to read again how Sherlock and Watson met and their first partnership in crime solving.
A Study in Scarlet was not Doyle’s first published work. A doctor by profession, he began writing stories as he waited for patients to arrive at his first independent practice which opened in Portsmouth in 1882. He struggled to find a publisher for his story at first, but eventually A Study in Scarlet was published by Ward Lock and Co. and appeared in the Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1886. The sequel, The Sign of the Four, was published in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890 under an arrangement with Ward Lock and Co, but Doyle grew disenchanted with this publisher and the remaining Sherlock stories were published in The Strand Magazine, in serial form. A Study in Scarlet was only one of four novels in the original Holmes canon, the other three being The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear. The rest were short stories or novellas.
Doyle was a prolific author. Besides the Sherlock stories, of which he grew tired (he famously killed off his famous detective, only to have to resurrect him later because of public demand), he wrote many other short stories, other mystery novels,historical novels, and stage plays. He even collaborated with J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, to write the libretto of a comic opera called Jane Annie.
But it is Sherlock who endures out of all of Doyle’s works. What is it about this character and these stories which fascinates so many people? I know there are reams of words written about this, and so I won’t go into too much depth here.
But I will tell you, generally, what the appeal is to me. First off, The Study in Scarlet begins with Watson, not Holmes, and I think this is a clue to one of the reason why these stories are so popular. This friendship between the two men is the heart of the stories, and it is ultimately what makes them work. This friendship is begun in this story, and it is a rudimentary one to begin with. Here Watson is more or less a foil to Holmes – a mirror in which to showcase Holmes’ intellect and skill. But Watson still has substance, even so. We learn of his back story, that he was wounded in the war, that he was a medical doctor, and that he enjoys a good mystery himself. After he is introduced to Holmes and they make arrangements to begin living together at 221B Baker Street, Watson and Stamford (the one who introduced the two) are walking back to Watson’s hotel, and are discussing Holmes and his “peculiarities”as Stamford calls them. In response to Watson’s question of how Holmes knew Watson had been in Afghanistan, Stamford replies,
“…A good many people have wanted to know how he finds things out.”
“Oh! A mystery is it?” I cried, rubbing my hands. “This is very piquant. I am much obliged to you for bringing us together. ‘The proper study of mankind is man,’ you know.”
Throughout the stories we see Watson observing Holmes, trying to figure out what makes him tick. Watson, of course, stands in for all of us, and half of the enjoyment of the stories is getting a chance to do this observing along with Watson.
A Study in Scarlet is, of course, a murder mystery. Which is another reason why I and so many others enjoy these stories. People love puzzles, and these stories are full of bizarre details that make the murders impossible to figure out until Holmes throws the light on what happened. For example, in this story you have a man dead in a deserted building by mysterious means, a look of horror frozen upon his face; the word “RACHE” written in blood upon the wall; and few clues as to how this could have happened. It’s a great deal of fun to puzzle along with Watson as Holmes exposes both the incompetent nature of the Scotland Yard police force and the eventual identity of the murderer.
The story is split into two parts, both seven chapters each. The first part is the initial meeting of Holmes and Watson, the discovery of the dead man, and the eventual unmasking of the murderer. The second contains five chapters of back story, and it is an abrupt break both in time and place, as it mainly takes place in America several decades before. This is the “why” it happened, and it is inserted into the story without explanation, which makes it a bit odd until you realize what is going on. I remember reading this the first time and being very confused as to why all of a sudden the story jumped to the tale of the exodus of the Mormons to Utah and the man and girl they rescued along the way, but Doyle’s writing is compelling enough that you soon forget all about London and Holmes and get absorbed in the story. Eventually, of course, you realize that this is all a set-up to the murder, and then in the last two chapters the novel catches up to where Holmes and Watson have captured the murderer, and it finishes up from there.
I believe, if I remember correctly, that this is the only story in which Doyle handles this telling of the “why” of the crime this way. In subsequent stories either Holmes or some other character gives the details or they are discovered naturally along the course of the investigation – Doyle relies heavily on Watson’s asking questions of Holmes in order to do this. I think he probably discovered this was an easier way to give the readers these important details, and therefore did not have to use this type of awkward story break again.
Sherlock Holmes was not the first detective in literature, that honour goes to Edgar Allen Poe’s C. August Dupin ( whose adventures began in The Murders in the Rue Morgue), and Doyle himself acknowledged his debt to Poe’s character. But Doyle certainly struck a chord of unique genius when he created Holmes. Arrogant yet approachable, analytical yet passionate, intelligent yet flawed, Holmes himself is, of course, one of the main reasons why these stories are so popular. The great detective was modelled after someone Doyle knew, Joseph Bell, a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, whom Doyle worked under as a clerk. Bell was noted as a master at the observation of minute details which led to broad conclusions not immediately apparent to anyone else.
Finally, the last great appeal to me of the Holmes stories is the setting. Victorian England, and in particular, London, with its gas-lit streets, pea-soup fog, opium dens, hansom cabs, squalor, and opulence, is a marvellous place to set crimes. Doyle’s details of London (as Watson describes it, “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”) bring you right into this fascinating time and place. It is a wonderful marriage of character and setting.
I loved Sherlock as a child, and I love him still! It was so much fun to rub shoulders with him again, and it’s got me itching to read the other stories again.
*We discovered that to get to Reichenbach Falls, you had to go to the Swiss town of Interlaken, which is a lovely ski-resort town. There is a funicular that takes you up to the falls, which are spectacular. The best part was the spot marked on the trail leading up to the falls which marks the spot where Holmes and Moriarty fell to their deaths (…or did they…) in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Ok, it was the spot where Jeremy Brett filmed that scene in the great 1984-1994 BBC Holmes series, but still….
**I can’t give you an exhaustive list of all the Sherlock and related books I have read (I couldn’t even if I tried, there’s been too many), but I have to recommend two which I think are the best of the lot. First up is the series by Laurie King, the first book is called The Bee Keepers Apprentice. This book introduces the intrepid Mary Russell, a teenaged girl who meets Holmes in his retirement years and pairs up with him to solve crimes. Which makes it sound much more YA-ish than it really is. Great writing, great characterizations – King gives us Holmes as we know him in the Doyle stories but with the added wisdom of some years behind him. The best non-Doyle Sherlock books ever, in my opinion. Secondly I highly recommend Arthur & George, by Julian Barnes. This is the fictionalized telling of a real-life murder case in which Arthur Conan Doyle became involved, and it not only gives you a marvellous portrait of Doyle himself, it also portrays Doyle using the same methodology as Sherlock himself to solve a crime. Loved it!